Comet Chicken in downtown Loveland is one of the restaurants that has opened since the COVID-19 pandemic caused restaurants to curtail service. BizWest file photo

Venturing out? Dining scene changed during COVID

When was the last time you tried a really good restaurant? 

You, like most of us, probably stuck with the tried and true during the pandemic: Maybe you needed some familiar comfort, some simple take-out or just wanted to know whether to bring a mask or not. Now that the pandemic appears to be subsiding, there are plenty of places flexing what they’ve learned in the past two years. Here are some suggestions, but there are many others out there as well. 

Philippe French Bistro and Bakery, 133 S. College Ave., Fort Collins — French is fine in Fort Collins, with Philippe leading the way among offerings that include La Creperie (home of the best macaroons in this part of Colorado). The restaurant opened last summer, taking over a space formerly owned by Jimmy John’s that was empty for two years. 

Philippe offers both classic and innovative French dishes (and pastries of course in the bakery) without a stuffy atmosphere. Owner and chef Philippe Boutinet grew up in Cognac, France, on a vineyard and decided to become a chef at 13. He offers brunch, lunch and dinner as well as a Sunday night Plat du Chef that replaces the dinner menu with a single, special French entree along with a starter, dessert and beverage. Dinner features bouillabaisse, ratatouille and “steak frites” (a New York strip with homemade fries). 

Gondolier Italian eatery, 4800 Baseline Road in Boulder and 1217 Main St. in Longmont — Gary Kugel opened the Gondolier in Boulder in 1960. Gary and his wife, Jan, moved to a place that tripled the size of the restaurant in 1980 in response to their booming business, but the economy crashed and they fell on hard times. They came up with an all-you-can-eat spaghetti special that sold for $1.99 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays that turned them into a Boulder institution. 

Their son, Nelson, bussed tables when he turned 12 and worked his way up to head chef after graduating from the Western Culinary Institute in Portland in 1992. He took over in 2001 and moved to Pearl Street in 2007 before moving to its current spot in 2013 and simplifying the menu. The Gondolier now offers traditional Italian meals including pasta and pizza and seasonal specials. It opened a second location in Longmont in the mid-2010s. 

The Annex at WeldWerks, 508 Eighth Ave. in Greeley — WeldWerks, Greeley’s famous brewery, just opened its own kitchen, but don’t expect bar food.

“The idea was to create a menu that is full of flavor but that can be fired up with a small crew and still get it out to people,” said Jake Goodman, director of experience at the downtown Greeley brewery. 

The chef, Tim Meador, ran one of the first food trucks to make regular appearances at WeldWerks with The Tramp About along with his usual spots at Odell and New Belgium. The entrees the Annex offers include fries with lemon aioli, lyonnaise brussel sprouts, Spanish calamari, pork belly steamed buns and a double cheeseburger that Goodman calls “one of the silliest” he’s ever had. WeldWerks offered Meador the chance to open the small kitchen after customers raved about his Cubano sandwiches. 

You won’t find the Cubano on the menu, however, at least not now. 

“That’s intentional,” Goodman said. “We don’t want it to be The Tramp About 2.0.”

The sandwich will probably come back, as the menu will change, although not quite as much as the beers at WeldWerks (two years ago the brewery offered more than 100 varieties throughout the year). 

“If for no other reason than from the urging of the public,” Goodman said, “including me.” 

River and Woods, 2328 Pearl St. in Boulder — If you want to pretend you’re living back in days before campfires were started with dryer lint, you could do worse than River and Woods, a cozy cabin in Boulder’s Whittier neighborhood. Then again, they probably didn’t have short ribs, apricot glazed chicken or bison double cheeseburgers back then either. 

The setting and the food resemble each other in that they take familiar comforts and add some bougie. The chicken, for instance, features toasted cashew Israeli couscous pilaf. The cheeseburger has a brioche bun and something called “magic” sauce. The cabin also isn’t your grandfather’s, the one with rusting cots, rats and coveting by a serial killer. 

Still, you can pretend you’re camping if you’d like: The menu also features a S’mores Campout For Two for dessert. 

Chimney Park, 406 Main St. in Windsor — Chimney Park was known for many years as Weld County’s nicest restaurant, and it might still hold that title, even as more places have come to the area in the past few years. There’s a summer sample menu with pheasant breast ragu, pan seared la belle foie gras and lobster bisque, and an a la carte menu with grilled octopus, chilean sea bass and bison New York strip steak. Special occasions, such as Easter Sunday, feature expansive dinners off the menu with limited seating. If this isn’t elegant enough for you, you should probably book a reservation with royalty. 

Comet Chicken, 129 E. Fifth St. in Loveland — The name may give you an idea of what this restaurant is about. 

“You have an idea of what it will be,” said Steve Taylor, the owner of Hot Corner Concepts, which owns a group of local restaurants opened in Northern Colorado. “Hot chicken was very well received right from the get go, and back when we did it, there was an opportunity in that space, and we saw the same opportunity in Loveland.” 

Taylor grasped that opportunity five years ago in Fort Collins and just opened the Loveland location by offering tenders, along with salads and sandwiches, bowls and baskets. The hot chicken craze resembles the rush to open burrito and barbecue stands, and while the restaurants aren’t fancy, they serve good, fun food. Taylor believes he stands out with the little touches: All the sauces are homemade, for instance. The most popular, of course, is the Nashville hot chicken. 

“It’s legit,” Taylor said. “It’s fantastic.” 

Austin’s American Grill, downtown Greeley (with two other locations in Fort Collins) — Austin’s may be one of the most upscale comfort food places in Northern Colorado. Taylor’s group, which plans to open a third Austin’s, this one in Greeley, by early fall, called it “traditional food created with flair.” 

That means roasts and chickens cooked on rotisseries in front of you, seasoned buffalo and cornbread baked in iron skillets and drizzled in honey and butter. Executive chefs run each location separately, too, so they are in charge of the menu, as long as they follow the concept. 

“They have some latitude with each place,” Taylor said. “They can take the concept and go from there.” 

If you want a preview of the Greeley place, there are already two locations in Fort Collins, one downtown at 100 W. Mountain Ave., and at 2815 E. Harmony Road. 

The Greeley location will be new construction and will fit next to the new Natural Grocer’s in downtown Greeley in an area that’s seeing fresh growth and cleaner concepts, including a new, nearby apartment complex. 

“We’ve liked Greeley for a long, long time,” Taylor said. “Greeley is a wonderful market, and it’s an underserved one.”

When was the last time you tried a really good restaurant? 

You, like most of us, probably stuck with the tried and true during the pandemic: Maybe you needed some familiar comfort, some simple take-out or just wanted to know whether to bring a mask or not. Now that the pandemic appears to be subsiding, there are plenty of places flexing what they’ve learned in the past two years. Here are some suggestions, but there are many others out there as well. 

Philippe French Bistro and Bakery, 133 S. College Ave., Fort Collins — French is fine in Fort Collins, with Philippe leading the way among offerings that include La Creperie (home of the best macaroons in this part of Colorado). The restaurant opened last summer, taking over a space formerly owned by Jimmy John’s that was empty for two years. 

Philippe offers both classic and innovative French dishes (and pastries of course in the bakery) without a stuffy atmosphere. Owner and chef Philippe Boutinet grew up in Cognac, France, on a vineyard and decided to become a chef at 13. He offers brunch, lunch and dinner as well as a Sunday night Plat du Chef that replaces the dinner menu with a single, special French entree along with a starter, dessert and beverage. Dinner features bouillabaisse, ratatouille and “steak frites” (a New York strip with homemade fries). 

Gondolier Italian eatery, 4800 Baseline Road in Boulder and 1217 Main St. in Longmont — Gary Kugel opened the Gondolier in Boulder…