By Paul Albani-Burgio
Earlier this summer, Denver diners were dealt another dose of bad news in a year full of it when Justin Brunson announced he would not be reopening his meat lover’s fantasy land, Old Major.
While Brunson devotees will surely miss the devotion to whole animal butchering and focus on fine charcuterie that made Old Major one of the most pioneering — and beloved — restaurants in town, they can now take solace that it’s old home in Highland will be in the hands of someone who appreciates everything that made it special.
Old Major’s space at 3316 Tejon Street is now home to the Fifth String, a small-plates restaurant that opened on Wednesday and is the brainchild of Amos Watts, who previously spent two years as the head chef at Old Major.
Watts was most recently a chef and partner at the Boulder steakhouse Corrida and said the opportunity to take over the Old Major spot came as a result of a fortuitous confluence of circumstances as Brunson was making plans to close Old Major just as Watts’ partner began rethinking Corrida in the face of the challenges posed by COVID-19.
“It just worked out,” Watts said. “It’s weird opening a restaurant in the pandemic, but at the same time I don’t know what I would be doing if I didn’t and if I would be looking for a job or what. And then we got former Old Major general manager Gene Fereda on board and it really just kind of came together.”
The current pandemic circumstances mean that Old Major is starting small with a reduced staff and less menu items then Watts said he would’ve otherwise chosen to open with. However, he said diners can expect “a lot of small plates,” including several that are what he described as “vegetable-forward.”
Although the available dishes will “change constantly” depending on what is in-season and appealing to the team at a given time, the opening menu includes such offerings as an heirloom tomato salad containing smoked grapes, beets, orange, sesame seeds and goat cheese and a dish containing zucchini, eggplant, cream cheese and fried olives.
The latter, which includes both zucchini from Watts’ own garden and eggplant grown at a friend’s house five blocks away, exemplifies the restaurant’s focus on local ingredients.
But in an unusual step for a purveyor of small plates, the Fifth String will also offer family-style dinners that come served with a selection of sides that will change daily and serve two to four people. Options for those dinners, which were inspired in part by the need to adapt to COVID-19, include a roasted chicken with a glazed short rib and a lamb sausage. They run $82 to $124.
“Those will kind of protect us if we have to start doing take-out or just if people want to do take-out,” said Watts. “It’ll be like one thing where people just say, ‘we’ll have the chicken dinner with three sides,’ and it’s done and we don’t have to say, ‘what do you want and what do you want?’ And they will travel well.”
Although the menu is something of a departure from Old Major’s carnivorous focus, diners will immediately recognize the chic farmhouse feel of the space, which has gone mostly unchanged apart from a redo of the wood floors and a new paint job on some of the fixtures.
Watts said he was originally thinking of calling the restaurant Turnkey, in reference to the idea of a turnkey restaurant that is able to be operated as is when purchased by another buyer.
However, he instead opted to name it the Fifth String, which he said refers “to the fifth string on a banjo that you don’t fret” and was one of 10 names local art director Forrest Moul suggested while he was helping Watts brand the restaurant.
“I don’t necessarily think it has to mean anything,” Watts said. “It’s just something that we really liked and it’s kind of fun to say. I didn’t want it to be a music-themed restaurant, but it fit.”
The Fifth String also retains Old Major’s brightly-lit bar (which opens onto a spacious patio certain to appeal to COVID-conscious diners). Watts said he is hoping the new spot will be known for cocktails and a “really, really inexpensive happy hour.”
But Watts’ ultimate goal is for it to be known as a neighborhood restaurant.
“I want it to be a place where people can walk over once a week and get a small dinner and one drink by themselves and not spend a ton of money and it’s easier than cooking but then you can also come for a celebration,” he said.
The Fifth String is open for dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Happy hour is also offered Wednesday through Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m.