The exterior at American Elm, Jan. 9, 2020 in Denver. The Highland restaurant specializes in craveable dishes, cocktails, late-night snacks and soon, weekend brunch. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)
There’s a conversation to be had that’s much bigger than a 3-by-6-inch slip of paper, but let’s start with that. I’m talking about the line on my check from American Elm that read “Living Wage.”
Having ordered four items at dinner, I was surprised to see five listed on my check. The fifth was Living Wage, and I was surprised because I’d never seen a charge like that added by a local restaurant. The amount is almost inconsequential — at 1.5%, it’s really just loose change. It’s the idea behind the charge, which goes to the kitchen staff, that got me thinking about the increasing costs of eating out.
One of my criterion when reviewing restaurants is value. I get it; things are expensive. Labor costs, especially with Denver’s new minimum wage jump, are high, rent is high, food costs are high. The prices of many, many things are high. It’s something that every industry faces, and not just industry but all of us at home, too. But where do we draw the line? When do we say that a self-described neighborhood restaurant shouldn’t charge $95 for a dessert-less, (mostly) drink-less meal for two?
My experiences at American Elm were really a tale of two restaurants, mainly driven by perceived value. The first time in, my companion and I ordered one drink between us, an appetizer and two entrees (one of which was a higher-priced plate). I’ll describe those dishes in greater detail below, but suffice it to say that everything tasted fine. Nothing memorable; nothing I yearned to eat again. And I was shocked when the check totaled almost $100.
My next time in, I treated American Elm like the neighborhood eatery it says it is. I ordered a burger and a sandwich and stuck to the $5 happy hour drinks. It was an entirely different experience. I ate more (and better) food, I drank more (and better) drinks, and the bill was much less. That time, I left happy, eager to return.
I’ve thought a lot about both of those experiences over the past few weeks. Was the food and drink really that much better the second time, or did I just perceive it to taste better because I was paying half as much? How much more am I willing to pay to ensure people are paid fairly? What does fairly even mean? How much more should a restaurant charge for thoughtfully created, grown and sourced food? (A feather in American Elm’s cap: The restaurant mercifully does not lecture us about where everything on the menu comes from.)
As for that Living Wage charge, I’m not against it being added to the check. I understand the discrepancy between what the untipped back-of-house workers (cooks and other people we don’t see) are paid compared to the higher wages earned by the tipped front-of-house staff (servers and bartenders). Most restaurant industry workers are not getting rich.
But again, it all comes back to the Benjamins. For me, and for many of you, value plays a major role in the enjoyability of our dining-out experience. Not all of us have $200 to drop on a dinner out; that caliber of a restaurant meal is a splurge.
Poor American Elm, taking the brunt of my general economic frustrations. The restaurant really does have so much going for it, mainly some great dishes and cocktails. But a restaurant’s merit goes beyond the food and drink. Value matters. A neighborhood restaurant should be of and for the people, accessible on a regular basis. If American Elm leaned into that identity, it would be stronger for it.
Food: Chef Brent Turnipseede was the executive chef at Guard & Grace before coming over to open Elm. Maybe that’s why some of the entrees look like they’d be more at home on a steakhouse menu than at a neighborhood spot — to showcase the experience and talent of the chef. The seared scallops is one of these dishes, and on the winter menu they show up atop cauliflower and a thick pool of cream-based puree, covered in an almond and brown butter crumble. Scallops, typically so decadent and bright with their perfect little tottering between sweet and briny, are overpowered by the hefty topping and puree. (And the three modest-sized scallops don’t warrant the $27 price tag.)
Two other dishes were less successful because of their heaviness. The spicy cavatelli, at $23, was a generous heap of pasta (and it was true to its spicy name), but between the crumbled sausage and heavy-handed dollop of stracciatella on top, it was too much to enjoy beyond a first few bites.
The country-fried mushrooms starter ($12) was good enough, but I couldn’t help but think back to the first dish I ate at Elm’s restaurant predecessor, The Way Back. (The Way Back decamped in August 2017 for the greener pastures of Tennyson Street a few blocks up.) It was also a rich mushroom starter, but even with the cured egg yolk and onion-y broth, it clutched a lighter, special flavor that I still remember, three years later. In comparison, Elm’s handful of hen of the woods mushrooms was over-battered and fighting against a puddle of viscous fontina fondue. I liked the crispy little guys, but appreciated the relief provided by the tangy mustard seeds and thin loops of radish.
A note to restaurants creating dedicated winter menus: Not everything needs to make us feel like we’re being smothered by a weighted blanket. We can feel warm and comforted without feeling bloated and uncomfortable.
When I judged American Elm like the neighborhood restaurant it says it is, the food was better. The inch-thick patty on the burger ($15) was juicy, although it could have used a little more melty white cheddar for my melty-cheese-loving taste. The fries were plentiful, crunchy and salty, which is kind of the trifecta for fries.
The French dip ($16) was even better, clocking in at nearly 2 inches of shaved, tender ribeye. The Grateful Bread baguette was crispy, and it was a downright joy to dunk the sandwich into the deep, savory jus, draining it almost dry until only little floating rafts of beef barely bobbed in the bowl.
The salted toffee cake dessert ($10) was even better than the even better French dip. Salty and sweet as advertised, it was so many things on one plate, all of them great. In no particular order of enjoyment, there was the warm, moist plateau of cake; a downpour of sticky caramel sauce; sliced strawberries; candied pecans; and a so-creamy sea salt caramel ice cream that exuded flavors of both.
Vibe: American Elm is dark, cozy and fairly vague. The décor is pretty simple, with the main focal point being the long backlit bar with a couple of TVs broadcasting a flickering fire. Oh, and there are the high tables. So many high tables in the bar area, if you like that sort of thing. I don’t. That’s where I got sat both times, though. I stared longingly at the lower tables in the back dining area, but I can’t tell you too much about that space, or how you score a less vertiginous seat there.
Drinks: Cocktails are a big allure here, and bar manager Jesse Torres leads a skilled staff of drink mixers. The original, seasonal cocktail menu is long but navigable thanks to the helpful headers that divide up the 19 drinks. (Are you feeling playful and refreshing? Fresh and lively? There’s a drink for that.)
Apparently I’m fresh and lively because I loved the Dusk in the Orchard ($12), a vodka or tequila (I got tequila) base shaken with pear, blueberry, lavender and egg white. It’s a beautiful, frothy, magenta martini bursting with, well, fresh liveliness.
American Elm’s happy hour is my new favorite, and it’s all because of the $5 daiquiris. They also offer $5 old fashioneds and wines (the house red is a total steal), but those daiquiris are just so — again! — fresh and lively, expertly served in a chilled coupe glass. It comes back to the price, and at just $5 until 6 p.m., I felt I got tremendous value with the drinks, which goes a long way in kindling my delight.
Yes, there is a bigger conversation to be had between diners and restaurants, one that is bigger than this 60-seat spot in west Highland. And maybe one day we’ll have it. For now, we’ll bury our uncertainty and ambition and concern under that 3-by-6-inch slip of a receipt. Somewhere under the Living Wage charge.
Bottom line: American Elm is better when you treat it like a neighborhood restaurant. That means youi should order the cheaper dishes and take advantage of the great $5 happy hour beverages.
Price: Small plates are $7-$15; entrees are $15-$27
Fun fact: The namesake American elm tree on the restaurant’s patio is one of the last remaining in north Denver.
Restaurant info: American Elm, 4132 W. 38th Ave., Denver, 720-749-3186; amelm.com. Hours: Monday through Thursday: 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday: 4-11 p.m. Sunday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
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