Old Major isn’t the first or the oldest or the largest Denver restaurant to close permanently during the coronavirus shutdown. But for fans, this whole-animal butchering, charcuterie-making kitchen will surely be one of the saddest closures to date.
It also will likely serve as a bellwether — as much in its departure as it was upon its arrival — for changes to come in Denver’s restaurant scene.
“I’ll miss the hell out of Old Major, and I think it leaves a big hole in the scene,” Ruth Tobias, a longtime Denver-based food writer, told The Denver Post. “I can’t think of another place quite like it. But I can hardly blame (owner and chef Justin Brunson) for following his vision given that it seems to be unusually sharp.”
Brunson opened Old Major in 2013 after starting Masterpiece Deli and serving as head chef of the since-closed seafood restaurant Wild Catch.
Where Masterpiece had introduced the city’s lunch-goers to a 12-hour brisket sandwich, and Wild Catch had allowed Brunson to dive into his other passion of fresh fish, it was Old Major that really brought out the best in the Iowa-born chef.
“I opened up Old Major to teach myself how to make salami,” Brunson told us in an interview last week. “Now I’m sitting here looking back at it. Holy (expletive), we did a lot. … It was a playland of thought and passion and technique and just doing so much stuff for the first time.”
That “stuff” included scratch-baked bread from the restaurant’s own starter cultures, plus whole animals sourced directly from local farms and butchered in-house for dry-aged beef, curing, fermentation. Those were the processes that Brunson and his team wanted to learn about and then master, which they did.
“Man, it was just so much fun,” Brunson said.
All the experimentation paid off: In its first years, Old Major won accolades from local publications to national magazines.
“Justin saw the future before just about anybody in town,” Tobias said. When I think of the post-recession movement toward what we were then calling the ‘upscale-casual’ model, I think of Old Major first. Now the arguable majority of independent chef-driven restaurants in Denver, and across the country, are built on that model.”
A couple of years after opening, and before the term “pop-up” was so widespread, Brunson introduced his Royal Rooster weekday lunches at the restaurant. The sub-concept gained a cult following for serving one of the best fried-chicken sandwiches in town.
Then, shortly before the novel coronavirus hit, Brunson moved his deli operation underneath Old Major’s roof. Sarah Khosravani moved into the role of head chef, and Brunson started to consolidate just as his next venture, a small-scale meat production company called River Bear, began to take off.
“The fact that he’s been building a wholesale/retail business on those meat products for years certainly seems prescient now,” Tobias said.
When the coronavirus shut down restaurants in March, Brunson said he had already been considering what to do with Old Major, located at 33rd and Tejon Street.
“I think this might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to full-service, fine-dining restaurants,” he said. “We were trying to sell 60-day ribeye, and that’s not the new reality. Now you need to sell cheeseburgers and fried chicken. I mean, I love those things, but I’m not passionate about them.”
The chef-driven restaurant that’s based on passion and creativity, “that’s all gone for awhile, I have a feeling,” Brunson said.
River Bear’s meat business has soared during the pandemic, by contrast. Brunson sells his products — from whole chickens to steaks and deli slices — at Leevers Locavore and other specialty grocers in town. Now he’s working with Pierce rancher Mike Peterson to source only Colorado pasture-raised beef.
“I’ve never felt so good about feeding people as I have since (the coronavirus) started,” Brunson said. “Meat is definitely my future, and I’m so happy right now.”
As for Old Major, the restaurant’s space will soon be buzzing again. Chef Amos Watts (of Boulder’s Corrida) purchased the business from his former colleague and longtime friend. He plans to announce his new restaurant’s name and menu in the coming weeks.
And Brunson will keep his passion for cooking alive at the River Bear American Meats plant. He’s installing a test kitchen there with an eight-seat table for special charity dinners and events. A glass wall will separate the kitchen and event space from “30,000 pounds of salami hanging there,” Brunson laughed.
“I’ve got to cook; I have to cook. It’s in my soul; it’s in my DNA,” he said, getting emotional as he considered the end of the 7-year run. “I love Old Major; it was my dream restaurant.”
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