If you've lived here a while, you have your own association with the Ritz Grill, be it for business lunch, happy hour, late-night dancing, etc. Mine was post-wait-shift beers a dozen years ago.
And up until last month, not much had changed since.
The menu was supposedly being held hostage by regulars loyal to certain items. But "the general consensus was, it was tired," says Susan Ralston, Concept Restaurants director of research and development. "Only a couple items like the Voodoo Chicken had to stay. We needed to make it current."
Thus began an overhaul, with co-owners Luke Travins and Dave Lux lending oversight, MacKenzie's Chop House chef Pete Moreno providing creative input, and Ralston tinkering with dishes at home. She whittled 80 plates to 40 through a series of tastings that included the Ritz's general manager, Ben Jackson, and its chef, Joel Hirsch.
Then, prior to launching the all-day menu, $150,000 went into an interior renovation that includes a fresh bar, new upholstery and kitchen upgrades.
At this new Ritz, the phrase "improved quality" was tossed at me several times, begging the half-serious question, "What were you serving me before?" Ralston fields it well: "They used button mushrooms; we went to Shiitake. Broccoli became broccolini. It's elevating the ingredients."
Among a growing amount of locally sourced items, Denver's All American Seasonings provides a new 18-ingredient spice-herb blend for the burgers and steaks, which are now flat-top cooked instead of charbroiled. The Steak N' Frites ($16.95) is a kick-ass by-product, searing that seasoning into flatiron slices under a Béarnaise butter. Super-crisp fries tossed with olive oil, parsley, pepper and ample salt and raw garlic deliver stink-breathed bliss, not even needing the "bistro sauce" of fire-roasted tomatoes reduced with sugar and spices.
As it happens, a sugar infusion runs menu-wide, starting with the Man Candy app ($5.95) — bacon baked in brown sugar and black and crushed red pepper. Though the bacon trend feels a bit tired, everyone still loves eating it, and crumbles of the Man Candy mixed with pineapple salsa and Sriracha mayo do hit home on the Sweet Hot Bacon Burger ($9.95). Pay the $1.95 upcharge for tempura-battered asparagus fries with a fun, zesty orange aioli dip.
Jalapeño-ginger tuna tartar ($11.95) and butternut squash hummus ($7.95) with cayenne and pepitas are equally light and bright for healthy contrast, as is a Bangkok Bowl ($9.50; add protein for $1.95 to $3.95), which while still on the over-sweet side for Szechuan, does sport fresh kale and veggies with brown rice and red quinoa. An Udi's brown rice and tapioca gluten-free pizza crust ($2 upcharge; one of many GF offerings) succeeds on the lovely herb oil-amped rustic pizza ($9.95).
For sandwiches: The braised short rib ($10.95), which is actually sous-vide prepped by Chicago's 150-year-old Ruprecht beef company, sports good ciabatta, peppery arugula and sweet red onion jam. The It's the Bomb ($9.75) on rye delivers deviled egg salad and thin pastrami, needing a bit more mayo and Dijon to counteract dryness. Our side cole slaw was alarmingly room temp.
Of three desserts, we ended with salted caramel crispy treats ($4.95) topped with Hershey's (house ganache would be infinitely better) and corn-syrup-maple pecans. Again, a profusion of sweetness, but admittedly palate-pleasing. The sharp new Ritz in a nutshell.