The Denver Post's most-read food and dining stories of 2020

Heading into 2021, the Colorado hospitality industry is preparing for another 10 months of makeshift outdoor dining, another six months of takeout alcohol and delivery, and an interminable winter navigating closing, reopening and vying for more Paycheck Protection.

Yes, this winter in Denver will be telling as restaurant tenants reckon with deferred rent payments coming due, or else lease agreements coming to an end. Nearly 80% of restaurants across the state could close permanently by spring, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association. More than 60,000 workers in the industry have already lost their jobs.

But even as this latest round of stimulus starts, we are pretty confident in some other lingering questions on your minds, Denver news readers. Specifically, we know you’re wondering how all of this might affect alcohol and your ability to find it; alcohol and your means to buy it; and also alcohol and how you might consume it right now. That’s right, after combing through our food and drink stories over the past tumultuous 12 months, we know that this topic, overwhelmingly, dominated your brainwaves.

Without further ado, here are the alcohol (and some other) stories you read most this year.

1. After panicked crowds swarm Denver liquor stores and dispensaries, mayor reverses order to close both

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock changed course drastically the evening of March 23 after announcing earlier that day that liquor stores and recreational marijuana dispensaries would close across the city in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus. Big mistake.

Hancock’s shift came just hours after he had deemed liquor stores and recreational marijuana dispensaries non-essential businesses, as opposed to groceries, gas stations and healthcare operations.

“We do not have them listed as essential,” Hancock had said of liquor stores. “As much as I might think it’s essential for me, it’s not essential for everyone.” He suggested Denver residents buy their alcohol Monday night while they still could.

And Denverites did just that, swarming their neighborhood liquor stores Monday afternoon in response — and violating social distancing requirements while they were at it — with some stores reporting lines forming a block long just 15 minutes after the mayor’s press conference.

2. Gov. Jared Polis closes Colorado bars again after coronavirus cases increase

Colorado took a step back in its reopening in late June as Gov. Jared Polis ordered bars and nightclubs to close again amid rising coronavirus cases — just a week and a half after those businesses received the go-ahead to welcome customers back inside.

The decision came as COVID-19 infections increased for two straight weeks and were, in particular, growing among younger Coloradans. Public health officials attributed that increase, in part, to parties, protests and travel, while the governor also credited the uptick to bars and clubs — where it can be difficult to practice social distancing.

“Whether you personally go to bars or not, just understand that they are important for many people in our state… but there is not a way that we have found for them to be a reasonably safe part of people’s lives during the month of July in our state,” Polis said. Bars that don’t serve food have remained closed to patrons ever since.

3. On reopening day, one top Denver restaurant closes for good

As restaurants began to reopen for dine-in service after Memorial Day, one thing soon became apparent: which dining establishments weren’t coming back at all.

Congress Park’s 3-year-old [email protected] announced its closure immediately following Denver’s 10-week coronavirus shutdown. The 40-seat restaurant was too small to manage a reopening under the current guidelines, owner Jeff Osaka said.

Upon closing the small-plates restaurant that would be considered upscale to many diners, Osaka also wondered if “maybe the playing field should be a little more equal when it comes to food.”

“What may end up being left (after coronavirus) is your quick-service or fast food, or a lot of people with deep pockets, your multi-unit operations,” he said. “And unfortunately the landscape is going to be a little homogenous or a little bland, I fear.”

4. Last call for alcohol at Denver restaurants, liquor stores just changed again

By early December, just in time for the holidays and the last push of 2020, the city of Denver released revised last-call guidelines for restaurants, bars and liquor stores. Again.

The primary effect of the city’s latest rules was to extend alcohol sales from both restaurants and liquor stores past 10 p.m., but only for off-premise drinking. Restaurants and bars serving food could officially serve alcohol until 2 a.m. again, but only by offering late-night delivery.

Last call for outdoor alcohol service (placing orders, delivery drinks to tables) at restaurants remained 8 p.m., while liquor store sales and deliveries were extended until midnight. Still following?

5. Denver restaurants that have closed permanently during the coronavirus pandemic

Our fear came true: Some of Denver’s longest-running and most lauded restaurants closed for good in 2020, at least in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Market at Larimer Square was one of the first to go, after more than 42 years in business. Owner Mark Greenberg said the pandemic sealed his decision to retire. “Life is so uncertain now,” Greenberg said, “and I want to have a few more moments (with family) … I just wanted to be able to pay my employees what I owed them and not have to go bankrupt. I’m closing like a gentleman, and I feel good about some things and really desperate about other things.”

Other long-standing business closures included Racines in July after more than 35 years operating, Vesta and the Rialto Cafe after 23 years each, Zaidy’s Deli, Pasta Pasta Pasta, Pete’s Greek Town, Zolo Grill and The Zephyr Lounge, which lasted 73 years on East Colfax.

6. In-N-Out’s first two Colorado locations open

Just before Thanksgiving, the California burger brand In-N-Out announced that its first two Colorado locations — in Aurora and Colorado Springs — would open.

Along with those restaurants, In-N-Out has been building a Colorado Springs distribution center, with the ability to support around 50 stores in the region. The brand has planned more locations in Denver, Lakewood, Castle Rock and Fort Collins.

You couldn’t get enough of this burger news, it seemed, with some of you even waiting as long as 14 hours in In-N-Out’s drive-thru line on the Aurora store’s opening day. Which leads us to the next headline, which happened on Christmas Eve: In-N-Out reported a COVID-19 outbreak at its new Colorado stores, where 80 employees had tested positive for the virus.

7. How Colorado’s new COVID restrictions affect restaurants, last call

By late November, Coloradans were introduced to a more colorful COVID-19 dial. The new Level Red restrictions fell one step short of a full shutdown, which became … Level Purple.

According to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, one of the main reasons for creating the new level was to help preserve the state and local economies as much as possible in the absence of further federal aid.

Under Level Red, Denver and other qualifying counties’ restaurants were able to continue serving food for takeout and delivery, as well as on their outside patios. Diners who chose to eat on restaurant patios could do so only with members of their household.

Last call for on-site alcohol moved from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m., while to-go alcohol could still be offered until 10 p.m. Bars that don’t serve food continued to be forgotten.

8. What Denver’s new curfew means for dining out, buying alcohol

The word curfew really became triggering to you all by early November, when, in an effort to avoid another stay-at-home order, city officials announced a “Home by 10” order. This was an attempt to limit gatherings and late-night drinking by closing non-essential businesses at 10 p.m. nightly.

The new Denver restrictions came as COVID-19 hospitalizations across Colorado surpassed the previous, April peak, and one in every 100 Denverites became contagious with the disease, according to the state.

“Home by 10” followed an order enacted at the end of October that limited restaurant seating capacity in Denver County from 50 to 25% — with a maximum of 50 diners indoors — and moved last call from 11 to 10 p.m. (See above for everything else that preceded and followed.)

9. Some Denver restaurants curbing service amid talk of 14-day nationwide shutdown

Back in mid-March, the closure of restaurants and bars in Denver and across the country was still an imminent threat following comments made by the U.S. government’s top disease expert regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

In TV interviews, Dr. Anthony Fauci said he had brought up with the Trump administration the possibility of a 14-day national shutdown that could include dining and drinking spots.

“Right now, myself personally, I wouldn’t go to a restaurant,” Fauci said then. “I just wouldn’t because I don’t want to be in a crowded place.”

Prior to a national, state or city-wide order, some restaurants in Denver began to close preemptively, alongside more restaurants in cities across the country.

10. Colorado distilleries switch to making hand sanitizer, and they’re giving it away free

Just as restaurants were shutting down, distillers across the country were mobilizing, making hand sanitizer during an unprecedented time when stores were sold out and people were stockpiling, then reselling, the valuable product for huge markups. (Never forget that one guy in Tennessee, whose name is Matt Colvin.)

The legality of the situation then was still murky, since distillers must follow strict rules governing beverage alcohol products set by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an arm of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

But local operations could use their 191.8-proof, 100 percent ethyl alcohol grain-neutral spirits to make sanitizer and donate bottles to those in need — firefighters, healthcare workers and small businesses.

“There’s a need in the community and I’m uniquely positioned to fill it,” Seth Johnson, co-founder of Boulder’s J&L Distilling, said. “Who else is going to do it? You can’t get it at the grocery store and it’s something I can do to feel useful. It’s hard to feel useful when all this is going on.”

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