Turning Highland Tap & Burger into a wine bar (sorta)
This first thing you’ll notice about Highland Tap & Burger (2219 W. 32nd Ave., Denver) is that it is not, in fact, a wine bar. Perhaps it’s the name, the endless flatscreens showcasing the Broncos, Nuggets or Avs (and Red Sox) or the 20 beers on tap that gives this little factoid away.
That hasn’t stopped co-owner Katie O’Shea from becoming quite the wine aficionado. In fact, she’s an executive sommelier and has put together a small but thoughtful wine list (that usually includes a Bonacquisti selection) at the burger joint that’s become one of the most popular spots in the Highland neighborhood since opening in the fall of 2010.
“One of the things that was really important to me about this restaurant was we didn’t want to, No. 1., alienate women,” O’Shea says. “We didn’t want to be thought of as a sports bar, that freezer-to-fire connotation. We have really fresh food here, and to go along with that … we wanted to have a nice little wine list.”
An executive sommelier might seem like an odd partner in a business that pushes out heaping beef patties piled high with toppings (literally, the Tap Burger comes with a burger and pulled pork and a fried egg), but everything about O’Shea’s entry into the Denver restaurant business seems even more bizarre.
See, O’Shea started her career as far from food as possible. First, she was a certified financial analyst before realizing that wasn’t her desired career path. Think food was next? Not exactly. She went back to school, getting a graduate degree in mathematics and education from a little university called Harvard.
That led to a four-year stint teaching math to teenaged boys who had various run-ins with the law in the form of drugs, weapons and assault charges. The inevitable burnout came just about the time that some of her husband’s Colorado connections started talking to the couple about going into business with an upscale burger bar concept in Highlands.
They jumped at the chance to move from Boston (Highland Tap is a Boston sports gathering spot) to Denver.
“The kids [her students] drove me crazy,” O’Shea says. “I told them I was opening a bar because they drove me to drink."
Husband Juan Padro brought the restaurant experience to the table, she added her smarts and a love of wine. Instead of an obligatory red and white, Highland Tap’s boutique list features about 14 options ranging from our own [d] Red to 3 Degrees Pinot Noir, Pine Ridge Vineyards Chenin Blanc/Viognier, a summertime Riesling that goes killer with hot wings and a variety of other fun wines that pair to the menu flavors.
“We just wanted to have a nice little list to appeal to the ones who weren't necessarily the beer-guzzling type,” she says. “A nice little list that goes with the burgers and salads. That’s the fun part, picking the wine list.”
Even being an admitted cork dork hasn’t stop O’Shea from turning to the dark side. And by dark side, we mean becoming a beer geek. It comes with the territory of this restaurant. Ever the academic, she’s jumped into the world of suds with a pint glass in each hand, learning the ins and outs of the Colorado craft beer industry and passing along her new knowledge to women throughout the metro area.
She, at the urging of Juan, started a women’s beer club, dubbed Crafty Ladies. It’s become so popular that Highland Tap offers the same event twice each month to keep up with demand. “Crafty Ladies has been keeping me very, very busy,” she says.
O’Shea is even flirting with the idea of becoming a cicerone, the beer equivalent of a high-ranking sommelier. “I heard that test is really hard. I’m kind of torn right now between going further with the wine or going further with the beer.”
But wine is still her No. 1 drink, and we get behind any burger joint that has options such as CC Cabernet (a California label developed by Boulder-based Master Sommelier Richard Betts) and, of course, [d] Red or another offering from Bonacquisti.
“I have to say I have a huge appreciation for craft beer now, but my first love is still wine,” O’Shea says.
[d] Red wine pairing
($8 glass, $24 bottle at Highland Tap, 2219 W. 32nd Ave., Denver)
The Rocky Mountain lamb burger ($10) is served on a savory caramelized onion bun with goat cheese, tomato relish and arugula. The nutty, creaminess of these toppings with the rich lamb compliments its dried fruit and spice nicely.
Bonacquisti Wine around the 'hood:
- Linger's crazy wine list
- Mondo Vino stocking Highland with booze
- Pizza and wine, New York style at Garlic Knot