Restaurants these days are just as much about the food as they are about the cocktail list, which explains why the star power of top mixologists has never been higher. Bryan Dayton has turned his experience as one of the best bartenders in the country (he was named GQ Bombay Sapphire’s most inspired bartender in the country in 2011) into not one, but two highly acclaimed restaurants in Colorado—Oak At Fourteenth in Boulder, and the newly opened Acorn in Denver. We chatted with Dayton about the rise of mixology, why he’s always wanted to open a bar, and the drink order that makes him cringe.
The Vivant: So How did you become this master mixologist? Sure it didn’t happen overnight.
Bryan Dayton: I started bartending when I was 21, and now I am 40—and it was really just a general evolution. I was just normal bartender when I started—going through college. But then I decided if I wanted to pursue this I wanted to be the best I could be, and make a craft out of it. I started in Tennessee at a Mexican restaurant, went to California where I worked as bar manager and learned more about dining and being a sommelier and eventually landed in Boulder at Frasca Food & Wine overseeing the beverage program.
Then you opened your first restaurant Oak in Boulder, and now you’ve just opened your latest, Acorn, in Denver. What’s it been like going from bartender to restaurateur.
Even when I was 20 and I had my Fake ID, and I was sitting around talking with buddies, I wanted to open a bar, and 20 years later it wasn’t any different. But when I saw the space of Oak, I thought that a restaurant made a lot more sense. So I contacted my partner Steve [Redzikowski] who has worked at Jean Georges, Le Cirque, he is like stacked with Michelin stars, and told him about the project, and he said, “Yeah, let’s do this.” That was going on three years ago. You get to see the rawness of your personality come out in these places, and the beverage program is still one of my top priorities.
People say that opening a restaurant is one of the hardest things that you can ever do. Do you agree?
I’ve done it now twice—and I am doing what I love so I don’t think of it that way. A lot of it is figuring out how to have a great team. I do have a lot more grey hair now. Mixology is this hot new career path.
What do you think about the rise of the cocktail movement?
I look at what is happening with mixology and I think it is awesome. Everyone is benefitting and it is exciting to see a career that I have worked really hard at being validated. I will say that things are moving so fast and it is something that still takes a lot of learning—it is like being a good plumber—you have to hone your craft.
For us novices, what are your cocktail and food pairing tips?
I like to keep it simple. Margaritas and tacos always work. Negronis and a charcuterie plate. Southeast Asian food is great with refreshing coconut based cocktails. A grilled steak goes great with a whiskey based cocktail.
Any drink orders that make you cringe?
My whole philosophy is that I want to give you whatever you want. I used to think when I was a bar manager and someone would order a dirty martini, “Are you kidding me?” Now that I am a restaurant owner and someone orders that I think I am saving $3 or $4 because of all that extra juice. You want a dirty martini, you got it. I’m in the hospitality business.
What’s your favorite drink when you are off-duty?
My dessert island drink is a margarita. But I also drink beer, wine, and I like a good Negroni.
What’s your special sauce when it comes to being a great bartender?
I’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen during my career, and I’ve worked as sommelier—both of which have really helped my palette in terms of understanding acid and tannin balance, helping to understand sugar levels.
Acorn, 3350 Brighton Boulevard, denveracorn.com
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