It’s December 1, 2022, and the staff at Green Russell have just finished their final cocktail menu. The end has been coming for the speakeasy-styled bar beneath Larimer Square. Owners Jacqueline and Frank Bonanno announced they were shutting it down for good in October, after their landlords told them they needed the space for a boiler room as they renovate one of the city’s oldest blocks.
Bartenders and servers usually clock in closer to opening hour, 5 p.m., but today’s call time came early. Many of them brought concoctions to propose for this last month of service. Then, they debated for hours as they narrowed drinks down to a single, glorious list.
“We wanted to showcase our best. But at the same time, knowing it’s the last is a difficult position,” bar manager Drew Stevens said as he shined glasses in the din. “To see it disappearing is disheartening. It paved the way and created the pace for a lot of bars to exist. So that last menu, it’s gotta be good. But damn it’s difficult.”
New Year’s Eve would be their last night in the restaurant, which survived 12 years and a pandemic. As much as this final month would be about giving customers a warm sendoff, it also became a moment to celebrate the tight bonds that grew between staffers, and to mourn the end of an era for each of them.
Craft cocktails are a way of life here.
They’re more than the short moments when they touch customers’ lips. They’re works of art, and they take months to perfect.
Bartender Addison Blyeth was working on one recipe that centered around a fermented garlic honey he’d whipped up; it didn’t have a name and wasn’t quite ready for decision day. Bartender and cocktail server Michael “Santi” Santiago had been working on his Early Bird Martini, a blend of espresso and Irish whiskey, which finally won approval from his coworkers after weeks tweaking the mixture. It was only his second drink to make the menu.
“With this one being the last, it feels like a lot of pride to have something on the menu, your mark there for the last hurrah,” Santiago told us as customers began to trickle in for the night. “Everyone wanted to make something really special for this last menu. You can tell, with all the work a lot of people were putting into it – others, you can tell, they didn’t want it to be over, so they kind of backed away from it.”
Anyone who worked in Green Russell, or the adjoining Russell’s Smokehouse, could submit a drink during these quarterly rites of passage. The bar was unusual in that way.
“It’s really cool to put something together that you’ve been working on for a while, see it take off, see your peers agree it’s great and then want to present it to the public,” bartender Jake Fuller said. “Green Russell is one of the most open environments I’ve ever encountered in that regard, and I love it for that. It’s part of why I wanted to work here.”
This was more than a job for Fuller and a lot of his colleagues.
For many, it was their first gig after moving to town. Some had known it by reputation, and were drawn across state lines to a place where they could steep themselves in its den of mixological geekery. Others found their way there by accident, but felt they’d discovered something special when they arrived.
“I moved out to Denver when I turned 18, freshly out of high school. COVID ruined my senior year,” lead server Emily Kelly told us. “I was still a baby, and I started working here three days after I moved to Denver. And I’ve grown up, literally, in this building into an adult, so it really feels like I’m losing a sense of myself.”
Dec. 5th was Repeal Day, an annual recognition of prohibition’s end and a big night at Green. “Alumni” bartenders traveled to Larimer Square to make one last appearance in the dark, warm rathskeller. Merlin Mitchell, who worked and managed the bar between 2014 and 2018, was glad to be back.
“I made a number of invaluable personal and professional connections here. It’s a weird thing about the restaurant industry, but I met my partner here. She was a host, I was a bartender. We’ve been together 5 years now, that’s rad. Yeah, it’s just a special place,” he said.
When Mitchell first heard the place would close, he was livid.
“My initial thoughts about it were, ‘Oh yeah, f*** our f****** landlords. And that’s still my thought,” he said, but his feelings grew more complex the more he ruminated on them. “What’s sweet is that the story has an end. It could be f****** way worse, it could be way worse. This bar could be closing because they f****** suck, but that’s not the case.”
Ashley McDonald, development lead for Asana Partners, Green Russell’s landlord, sent us a statement that the company is spending millions of dollars to revamp Larimer Square and has worked with some “temporarily” displaced businesses to ensure they can stay. The Bonannos, whose Osteria Marco will remain open on the block, said they couldn’t make Green Russell and Russell’s Smokehouse work with Asana.
Bonanno Concepts runs a half dozen establishments and has plans to open a new cocktail spot near their cluster of businesses at 7th Avenue and Grant Streets. Most, if not all, of their employees at Green Russell and Russell’s Smokehouse have someplace to land; still, they said they were losing something irreplaceable in that basement.
“It’s funny, because it’s like you don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” head chef Bryan Rosen said. “I never thought I would miss this place, really at all, you know? And it really happened kind of fast when I started looking around and realizing how much I started to care for the people around me, and how much effort I saw some of those people put in.”
It were those connections, really, that made closing night so meaningful.
By New Year’s Eve, Russell’s Smokehouse had been closed for a full 24 hours and chef Rosen’s team had already cleared out of the kitchen. Furniture had been moved out of Green Russell’s side of the basement to make way for crowds of customers. They’d stopped ordering new bottles; if an ingredient was 86ed, it wasn’t coming back. Wisps of excitement and mourning filled the air as staffers prepped for their last run.
“We’re going to still deliver that great hospitality and great love while we’re doing it,” manager Alice Young said as she wrote “here’s to the best family” on a paper lantern. “It’s not because we don’t want to be here anymore. It’s because they wont let us be here anymore – so it’s bittersweet, but it’s a high note, and we’ve had a blast this last month. What better way to send off the new year?”
Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno made an appearance before the doors opened. They led their employees upstairs and into the street for a toast and to light the lantern, sending handwritten notes like Young’s toward the horizon.
“There’s been a big anticipation for this, and there’s been a lot of excitement. A lot of sadness but everyone’s just really excited now, and I think we’re all getting excited to get to celebrate all together at the end of something special,” lead host Shannon Bindus said as the clock ticked closer to five. “Tonight’s really for us.”
Server Ally Ritterholz soaked up as much of her colleagues’ time as she could.
“I love eveybody here, and there’s never going to be another group like this. Very unique people, and I’m grateful to have worked with them. I’m sad its over,” she told us. “Everyone here chose to stay til the end. And I think we’re a little scared that we won’t see each other again, but I think we will. Everyone here loves each other a lot like a family.”
Customers filled the place, drank and grew loud as midnight approached. Andrew Jacobsohn, who flew in from Arizona for this last hurrah, sat at the bar’s corner and bent Drew Stevens’ ear when he wasn’t making cocktails. This had been a regular spot for Jacobsohn when he still lived in Denver. He’d become close with the staff, then brought his younger brother, Nick, into the fold. After Andrew left town, Nick kept the family tradition going.
“It sucks to lose the venue, but it really is the people that make it,” Nick told us as the night grew late, adding he’ll probably follow Stevens wherever he lands.
The bar erupted at midnight. Customers and staff alike raised glasses of champagne. But the real toasts happened a few hours later, after the lights came on and the bar stools had emptied for the last time.
“I’ve loved almost every moment of it and so much of that is due to everyone in this room right now, and this is a really f****** awesome sendoff and I’m glad we all are here,” Stevens said, tearing up as he spoke. “Green Russell has been an institution, but we’ve changed that and we’ve made it even better than it was.”
And then, together, they drank and chanted, “Best job I’ve ever had! Best job I’ve ever had! Best job I’ve ever had!”