Denver pop-up bars, restaurants, parties and events

By spring, the pop-ups had taken over Denver.

A Harry Potter brunch, a LEGO Bar, Magical brunch, ball pit bar, real-life Mario Kart, Miracle bar, a spring break bar and an Olympics bar.

But that’s not all:

A fried chicken pop-up, Pokémon pop-up, poutine pop-up, pop-up bar within a real bar, pop-up spawning another pop-up, a wine bar visiting a restaurant in a food hall pop-up (more on this later), and the nation of Iceland in Denver for one night, popping up (too late, you missed that).

What started as an occasional, decked-out holiday event had become a calendar full of immersive parties and one-time-only experiences. Not quite festivals, and not merely themed dinners, pop-ups warranted a genre all their own.

And while they aren’t unique to Denver — winter always brings “Game of Thrones” bars from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, and a “Saved By the Bell”-themed restaurant has popped up from Chicago to L.A. — Colorado is quickly becoming a test market for the scene.

The miracle that started it all

“The mentality of the Denver consumer, this is the epitome of what they want and who they are. A new experience every day,” said Chad Michael George, who in 2017 licensed the rights to bring the Miracle Christmas Bar to Denver for the first time. He had the perfect, built-in space in his now-shuttered Wayward restaurant on Little Raven Street.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said.

George and his team also own The Way Back in the Berkeley neighborhood. But that first year, they invested more than $10,000 (not including rent and legal fees) to open the doors to a concept that would last just over a month.

“You’re bringing in this infrastructure and putting a lot of labor and money into making (a pop-up) happen for a short period of time,” he explained. “So you have to do this knowing that you’re going to be busy.”

And busy they were: There were wait times of up to three hours, for two years running, George said. Last year, the event moved to the Avanti food hall in Lower Highland. This year, George is planning at least two “if not three” Miracle Bars to satisfy customer demand.

“I think Christmas is the ultimate pop-up,” he added, “because people are just so obsessed.”

Ultimate pop-up

But that holiday isn’t the only pop-up concept that sells. Starting this spring, one Australia-based company is betting on Colorado as a permanent stop along its U.S. pop-up expansion tour.

Pop-ups with Mario Kart, Pokémon, Disney and Harry Potter themes are just the start of Viral Ventures‘ Denver plans.

The event producer and promoter is also looking to bring its brewery tour 5K runs and Beyond Cinema experiences (think: watching “Titanic” reenacted while cruising on a ship at sea). The events combine nostalgia, pop culture, food and alcohol together in a way that resonates with audiences.

“We’re targeting ourselves in a sense,” James Farrell, Viral Ventures’ co-founder, said this week, “tapping into those well-known brands that we all kind of love.”

Farrell and his team brought their first pop-up event, Mushroom Rally (a play on Mario Kart), to Denver last month. While the response wasn’t huge, Farrell said, it was enough to keep Viral Ventures coming back to Denver. Now they’re gearing up for around five pop-up events here this summer.

“We know which concepts are going to work,” he said. “The stuff we do tends to get some noise.”

Eventually, Farrell hopes his “small business” will grow big enough to put on some bigger budget shows.

“If we had half a million dollars, we could build a ‘Back to the Future’ set,” he said. “I’d love to do that in Denver.”

Pop-ups as a bridge to the past

For just a few million dollars more, you could buy a popular Denver bar and modernize it with a little help from a pop-up.

That’s what MCSV Holdings I LLC, a group run by three millennial business partners, did when it purchased LoDo’s Bar and Grill, on Market Street, for $3.1 million in December.

After riding out their first winter as bar owners, Matt Runyon, Jason Marcotte and Kenneth Monfort (son of Colorado Rockies co-owner Charlie Monfort) decided to open a previously successful RiNo pop-up next door to their newly acquired bar, to give it new life.

Neon Baby, a spinoff of the Yeah Baby pop-up that closed in RiNo last month, just started serving up craft cocktails and dance music, with the goal of drawing new customers to the historic Mattie Silks “House of Mirrors” space.

The space next to LoDo’s now occupied by Neon Baby has plenty of character, once operating as a bordello in the late 1800s, before it became a Buddhist temple in the last century.

Since LoDo’s opened in 1994, it has largely sat vacant.

“We see this as an opportunity to change the perception of LoDo’s,” Runyon said. “I think that its (relevancy has) waned over time.”