Surprisingly, it's possible to visit Southern Hospitality without hearing the names Justin Timberlake or Ryan Tedder. For that matter, while gnawing bones off Denver's 17th Street, you might never come to find out about the two original New York City locations that inspired this first of a separate 30-store franchise to open in late February.
That back story — basically, Memphis-style barbecue inspired by Timberlake's upbringing, add sauce (bourbon) — will be the core of Southern Hospitality's narrative as it marches next into Austin, San Diego and Chicago, then onward, thanks to Tedder's dad Gary and an A-league investment group headquartered in Colorado Springs. (For more, see "Feeling Timberlake," Side Dish, May, 23, 2012.)
But if our Saturday night visit is any indication, the senior Tedder is right in saying it doesn't give off a Planet Hollywood vibe. Civil War-era reclaimed barn wood comprises the floors, walls and ceiling downstairs to the extent that you feel as if you're dining inside either a humidor or below decks in a tiny pirate ship. The restaurant only nods to its star power and rock culture at-large with classic song lyrics transferred into wall art, plus the social media tease of the boys possibly stopping through for an impromptu acoustic set next time they're respectively in Denver on tour.
And whether that comes to be or not, it shouldn't stop you from hitting a couple of truly standout dishes next time you're in LoDo.
Three pulled pork sliders ($8) on airy white rolls with a side of "frazzled onion straws" offer a perfectly fine way to begin a meal. But they're not the literal perfection of the smoked prime rib egg rolls ($12), which are a powerhouse of saltiness, smokiness and rich meatiness inside of a crunch only slightly mitigated by an au jus or horseradish cream dip.
Passing on neat pours from the 106-strong bourbon list (no flights available yet), we try three bourbon cocktails and an excellent Anderson Valley Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout ($10) presently on tap. The Manhattan Project ($12) bests the bunch with its bitters and corn liquor, plus a trio of vermouth styles, finding a seamless maturity from barrel-aging. The Sazerac ($12) is unfortunately absinthe-heavy, while the Mint Julep ($11) is also unbalanced — surprising since local chef Victor Matthews of the Black Bear Restaurant and Bourbon Bar has played a consulting role for the venture, and his Mint Julep there inspires a spirited whistling of Dixie.
Southern Hospitality's brisket sandwich ($10) is also whistle-worthy, the meat rendered remarkably soft and flavorful by an Ole Hickory Pits smoker loaded with hickory and cherry chips. The Good Life Combo ($42) makes for a great shared item, bearing a fantastic half chicken (sauce seared into a crisp skin, meat moist and obscenely tender) and dry Memphis spare ribs and glistening baby backs. Again smoke and flavor are spot on, but the ribs' meat maintains a chewier edge.
While the chicken and waffles ($16) deliver four nice fried chicken pieces over the Belgian patty (honey butter and syrup on the side), they're the guilty-sweet sideshow they always are simply because of the odd contrast. The more mashed potato-like, lumpy cheddar grits and tame Andouille sausage detract from right-decent prawns on the shrimp and grits ($23). Though slightly burned on top, side green chili cornbread's enjoyable, as are semi-sweet collard greens fished from a ramekin.
Desserts are only $4 for respectable sizes. Delightful torched bananas top a jam jar loaded with a middling banana pudding. Despite arriving with its whipped cream already melted, the peach cobbler is otherwise amply cinnamon-y and pleasing. And Grandma's Bourbon pecan pie lacks the hooch signature and tastes a touch over-toasted, but its granular gooey inside succeeds.
As the training ground for the locations to come, this operation certainly must succeed. It's currently valued around $13.2 million, following it going public in November, and the Southern Hospitality Development Corp. just changed its name to Smokin Concepts Development Corp. in order to introduce other brands. Among them: Bourbon Brothers Smokehouse & Tavern, tentatively opening in early November outside the Bass Pro Shop coming to North Gate Boulevard.
Whereas Southern Hospitality's menu was given, Bourbon Brothers will build its own "twist on Southern," says Tedder, along with a distillery at each location. (View renderings of what looks like a wet-county Cracker Barrel at bourbonbrothers.com.)
Indeed ambition hangs in the air behind the scenes, interwoven with the smoke, which is what you'll really remember from a visit to Southern Hospitality. Celebrities come and go, but barbecue is forever.