Walking past El Moro last week, I couldn’t escape the buzz radiating from its still-closed doors. It was a day before its scheduled soft re-opening, and I’d been meaning to catch up with General Manager Dave Woodruff to see how the reconstruction had gone after the fire in early October. When I walked in, I was hit with something I didn’t expect: I had missed this place incredibly.
I’d always felt the void El Moro left since Oct. 5, missing most its modern, eclectic brunch choices and the draft and bottled beer selections, where you know you could always find varieties no one else in town had. But the thing that hit me in the gut when I opened the door for the first time in over three months, this visceral feeling of comfort, was something more than what I can stuff or pour into my face-hole.
What I settled on is this: El Moro embodies and exemplifies Durango’s character and charm, a town where past meets future. El Moro is unmistakably historic – and cool historic, too, with the original brick walls and floor-to-ceiling liquor showcase equipped with sliding ladder. And how many buildings come with not only pasts of gunfights and “soiled doves,” but ghosts who just can’t let the past be? It’s also unmistakably modern with its décor – the hip repurposing of cheese graters and mason jars as lamps and torches – as well as its progressive menu: trendy takes on the classics or new culinary concoctions altogether.
But it’s more than a building and its décor; it’s the El Moro staff, embodied best by bartender/manager Lucas Hess who looks straight from casting for the role of Old West Bartender, polishing clean glasses, wearing his slicked-sideways blond hair and offering warm, friendly, quiet charm. He’s the same old-new combo of El Moro’s décor: a master of classic cocktails with a flair for progressive mixology.
In fact, Woodruff said what sets El Moro apart the most is its staff.
“You’re excited to come in to work. It’s not like you’re dragging your tail between your legs, like ‘Aaagh, god, I gotta go into work today,’” he said. “I really feel that whenever you have a strong culture and people want to be here, it exudes into the customers.” And when an establishment has no TVs – how did this become so rare? – a bar staff is especially forced to be more social and interactive.
Keeping the staff engaged during the closure was one of the biggest challenges, Woodruff said. Retaining nearly all of the staff in that time, Woodruff would check in with everyone every two weeks at least. They set up times for training and conditioning. They encouraged employees to volunteer in the community. Woodruff himself guest-bartended in Grand Junction one day, with proceeds to benefit his colleagues.
On top of its community spirit, what I appreciate most about El Moro is its creative spirit. Its menus and selections are inspired and imaginative, an establishment created for the culinarily adventurous. What’s exciting is that the closure allowed Woodruff and his staff an opportunity to generate ideas and concoct some new menu additions.
“I’ve got 30 cocktail books, so we brought them in and they started bouncing ideas off of each other,” – with spirits and booze and beer and wine, doing blind tastings.”
With a touch of levity and humor, El Moro’s Facebook page advertised one of those, the “Burn Down the Island,” featuring Five Island rum, Venezuelan rum, Peruvian pisco, brown sugar and molasses syrup, and malic acid apple juice. “Then, we encase it with a burning stick of cinnamon to give it an enticing, spicy, smoked aroma,” the post said.
At least now, Woodruff, Hess and the rest of the El Moro staff won’t have to answer the question, “When are you reopening,” something Woodruff said he never tired of.
“That means they want us back open,” he said. “If nobody asked, then I’d be concerned.”
Welcome back, friends.