With playoff season just wrapped up, we’re going to tell you a comeback story. Once, Fish N Beer was swimming along, enjoying life as one of the only under-the-sea-focused restaurants in RiNo. Then, in October 2018, a kitchen fire forced it to close.
Like any team that’s been knocked out of contention, chef/owner Kevin Morrison — the man behind Tacos Tequila Whiskey — viewed the time off as a chance to reflect on the eatery’s first two years and make adjustments. So, he rethought the dinner spot’s menu, adding some Southern-inspired dishes to the sustainably sourced fish options as well as a few non-seafood items, all in an attempt to make the venue more casual and approachable.
In March, Fish N Beer resurfaced.
Fish N Beer 2.0 is fun. From the wood-fired grill in the open kitchen to the boisterous guests to the fabulous beer list, the eatery clearly knows how to have a good time.
The food, though, and the attentiveness of the service could use some finessing. Most dishes are good; few are great. In most cases, minor tweaks would have big impacts. If the food can rise to the festive occasion that the rest of Fish N Beer fosters, the restaurant will have a promising future in a neighborhood flooded with tasty eats.
The Perfect Storm includes 6 each of East Coast Madhouse Oysters on the left and West Coast Pickering Passage Oysters, on the right, half-pound peel and eat shrimp, half-pound king crab, quarter-pound house-smoked fish dip and crackers at Fish N Beer on May 23, 2019 in Denver. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)
Vibe: Fish N Beer calls RiNo home. Translation: It’s Small N Boisterous. An open, glass-fronted kitchen allows diners to watch their Colorado bass cook over oak-and-hickory-fired flames. Those counter seats are, unsurprisingly, the best in the house. (Though the proximity also means observant customers will notice inconsistencies in plating — like a white ramekin spilling over with cheesy pasta on one Lobster N Mac plate, and a barely full container on the next — that are all too common during the dinner rush.) The rest of the dusty blue room is taken up by white booths and freestanding metal community counters and accented by oyster-inspired art. There’s also an artificial-turfed patio out back with four white picnic tables.
Hits: Oysters are the only proper way to begin a meal in any fish-forward establishment. Here, you can choose between fresh and grilled ($3 to $4 each). Rather than bake the bivalve mollusks and hide them under a crust of breadcrumbs, Fish N Beer’s fire-grilled options are simply heated up via flame until the small pool of melted garlic or extra-spicy devil butter is perfectly melted.
For a larger appetizer, try the PEI mussels ($15), which arrive in a bowl of luscious white wine and garlic broth. Yes, there’s grilled bread (from City Bakery) for dipping.
If you’re looking for a between-the-bread option, check out the SNG Bologna ($11). A whole loaf of bologna is coated in yellow mustard and cracked black pepper and then smoked for about four hours. It’s then hand-sliced and finished to order, so the meat retains all of those flavors. The main ingredient is buoyed by the house slaw (more on that below) and melty American cheese. A less dense bread option than a brioche bun would be an improvement, though, so it could retain the heat of the grill while you eat. During happy hour, the Po Boy Slider ($4 each) features tender, nicely crisped shrimp, lettuce, tomato and a creamy Louie dressing.
Your best bet for the main courses is the whole grilled Colorado bass ($28), from Alamosa, with Israeli couscous and Brussels sprouts. The fish is charred but tender, smoky without being overpowering, and the couscous acquires a nutty flavor from being toasted on the stove.
(Note: At the time of this review, the dessert menu was being overhauled, but if there’s pie available, order it.)
Misses: The production errors at Fish N Beer are seemingly minor, but they almost always impact a main ingredient.
The clams in the clam chowder ($10) are tough and dry despite sitting in a bowl of broth. Peel N Eat shrimp ($11) are so over-seasoned that they become dry and lose all of the ingredient’s suppleness. Crab in a Jar ($10) is aptly named: Three or four bite-sized pieces of tender crab do, literally, arrive at your table in a jar. But that jar is filled to the brim with melted butter that, once the crab is gone (which it quickly will be), you’re expected to dip already buttered, grilled bread into or risk wasting more than half of the dish. It’s cloying and unappetizing.
A four-bone rack of ribs ($15) is cooked to luscious tenderness but is let down by bland barbecue sauce. (We would welcome a second cup of the crunchy, peppery slaw, though; a spicy version is available upon request.)
FNB, the restaurant’s take on fish and chips ($15) falls flat on flavor, too, as the entire fried coat slips off as you eat.
The wild sea bass jambalaya ($24) is a smorgasbord of proteins, featuring wonderfully charred, wood-grilled sea bass atop the jambalaya, a mix of shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage. The sauce is thick and tomato-y — so much so that it turned already overcooked rice to mush, giving the meat and fish nothing to cling to.
Drinks: Happy hour is prime time for a visit to Fish N Beer. Not only do all the food specials ring in under $7, but the “C.Y.O.A.” Mule — a blend of not-too-sugary, house-made ginger beer with your choice of seasonal, house-infused vodka, tequila or gin — is on special for $6. (Recent infusion options: grapefruit vodka, strawberry-mint gin, and mango tequila.) A Rose Spritz ($8, regular menu), which also incorporates the house ginger beer, is less enjoyable, tasting like watered-down rosé and pulling the sourness, not the citrus, from grilled grapefruit.
The beer list is steady at all hours, with 16 mostly Colorado pours to choose from. There are staples, including Black Shirt Brewing Co.’s Colorado Red Ale; trendy brews (hello, Hazy IPA from Great Divide Brewing Company); and surprises, like a Sour Rosé by Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project (all $8).
The wine-and-bubbles lineup ($10 to $12) is a dozen strong and skews European, with every varietal available in 6- or 9-ounce pours or by the bottle.
Service: Fish N Beer doesn’t take reservations and requires full parties to be present in order to be seated. So, the hostess has a lot to balance, but she’s easily the friendliest staffer in the joint — welcoming, lighthearted, and honest about wait times. It also means the bar area — really, the center of the restaurant, squished between the kitchen counter and a row of booths — is often jammed with diners sipping on drinks while waiting for their tables. Servers are generally attentive to this adrift group, as they are to the tables, but it’s also common to have to flag yours down for a refill, when you drop your fork on the floor or are finally ready to order.
Bottom Line: Fish N Beer is a merry place to be, and its under-the-sea menu accomplishes something big: It stands out in overheating RiNo. But if it really wants to hook diners, the restaurant needs a more consistent kitchen.
Price: Appetizers ($6 to $15); sandwiches and baskets ($11 to $19); seafood towers ($37 to $140); entrées ($20 to $30); desserts ($5 to $8); beer and wine ($7 to $12); cocktails ($8 to $14)
Fun Fact: Summer Sundays are all about community at Fish N Beer. On June 23, that means a Crayfish Boil N Oyster Roast. Keep an eye on the eatery’s social media pages for more details.
Restaurant Info: Fish N Beer, 3510 Larimer St., 303-248-3497; fishnbeerdenver.com. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Reservations: Not accepted. Parking: Street parking