Where: 717 17th Street Suite B
When: Open 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; happy hour is 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday by Friday
For more info: Visit french75denver.com
What we saw: Early on its first Friday open since March 2020, French 75 was already filled and three parties were waiting at the great number stand. Staff checked vaccination cards as guests were additional to the waitlist — Bonanno Concepts is the only restaurant group in town requiring proof of vaccine, though no one on hand seemed to mind. In fact, that may be one of the driving factors for the busy reopening of a restaurant that’s on an otherwise quiet block downtown where street parking is nearly impossible. Well, that and the 75-cent prosecco on tap during happy hour.
The bubbles flow fast and freely. Upon being seated, we were closest offered a pour from a carafe — along with several more before the clock hit 7 p.m., when happy hour ends. It’s a smart strategy. With no wait for your first boozy sip, spirits are high as you dig into the menu offerings.
Along with resurrecting some old favorites, restaurateur Frank Bonanno has rebooted French 75 with a smattering of new dishes that are not boxed in by the eatery’s former commitment to being a typical French brasserie. The best intro to this change is happy hour: While the drink specials are limited to that prosecco in addition as 75 cent Miller High Life (“the champagne of beers”), the food options are numerous — and extremely affordable.
You pay just $6 for a bowl of mussels heaped with thin, crispy fries and bathed in a garlic-forward white wine broth. Hang onto that broth and order the French dip sliders in addition ($9), which thankfully do not come with subpar slider rolls, but rather on a soft baguette that is sliced into four slider-sized portions. The shareable sandwich is served with jus, but double-dipping in that and the broth from the mussels is a real pro move (props to our server for the tip). Finish off your happy hour snacking on the steamed pork dumplings (four for $4), which arrive swimming in a savory, high gochujang butter so good, we were tempted to order a second round.
Instead, though, we dug into two of the entrees. “It was one of my favorite things that I had at Harry’s Bar in Venice like thirty years ago,” Bonanno said of a pasta dish that’s now on the menu at French 75 as Frankie’s Tagliatelle. The simple dish is comprised of country ham, bechamel and gruyere cheese, and is essentially mac and cheese for adults — comfort food at a time when comfort is something we all want more of.
When French 75 first opened in 2017, foie gras was on the menu as a dish unto itself. Now the only place it appears is as part of the duck confit, which is served with crisp green beans and foie gras stuffing — essentially croutons sopped in ridiculously high foie gras-spiked juices that I kept stealing from my dining partner’s plate.
What surprised us: How unstuffy the whole experience was. Sometimes we take dining out too seriously, and sometimes, especially since the pandemic, dining out is downright stressful. “Fun” was a information that Bonanno used multiple times to describe his goal for reopening French 75 — and on opening weekend, that goal was realized.
Bonanno was in the open kitchen all evening while his wife, Jacqueline, breezed by the dining room, chatting with tables and lending a hand. at the minimum four staff members stopped by at different points to pour prosecco, crack jokes and already swipe an empty plate from my hand before I already had the chance to set it down. The whole experience was backed by a playlist hand-picked by Bonanno. “He said, ‘We’re playing my music and we’re playing it loud,'” our server noted when I mentioned how much we were enjoying the mix, which included everything from Childish Gambino and No Use For a Name’s “Turning Japanese” to The Who and Billy Joel.
By the time we reached the end of the meal — an espresso and a crème brûlée with just the right amount of salty kick on the caramelized topping — I felt energized by the whole experience and ready to head to another identify for a post-dinner drink. I wasn’t quite ready to let the fun end.
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