Mile High Dine and Recline: The Ponti, Denver Art Museum
By Katie Rapone
Each month, Mile High CRE will highlight a new place to dine or recline in the Centennial State. Our latest feature is The Ponti, which opened in October 2022 on the first level of the Denver Art Museum’s new Sie Welcome Center.
The Ponti is an immersive dining environment where art and food collide. The restaurant is the brainchild of James Beard Award winner and celebrated Denver Chef Jennifer Jasinski, who owns other notable restaurants in Denver including Rioja, Bistro Vendome and Stoic & Genuine.
The Ponti was designed by Principals Chris Davis, Kevin Stephenson, and Brent Forget, as well as interior designer Jessica Doran, of Denver-based BOSS.architecture, a multi-disciplinary design firm with a focus on full-service architecture and interiors. The restaurant offers a sophisticated, elevated dining experience that takes the concept of a lunchtime museum eatery to new heights, yet is designed to feel equally approachable, moving away from a more austere white linen dining experience. “We wanted people to feel like they could come into the restaurant and enjoy it without feeling like they had dressed wrong,” says Stephenson.
No stranger to restaurant design — as the creative force behind Denver metro area eateries Linger and Sierra — this was the first museum restaurant project for BOSS.architecture. The firm sought to showcase a world-class vision that parallels avant-garde architecture in a way that is original and unique to the success that has already been realized at the DAM.
“In visiting a lot of museums around the world it often feels like the restaurant is more of an amenity that’s provided, rather than a destination,” says Chris Davis, principal. To overcome this The Ponti is intentionally designed to serve as a stand-alone restaurant, where people will come to eat even if they are not visiting the museum.
Named after the Italian architect Gio Ponti, who designed the North Building at the DAM in 1971, The Ponti was inspired by the new modern Brutalism of the DAM’s façade. Brutalist buildings are characterized by minimalist constructions that showcase bare building materials and structural elements over decorative design. BOSS.architecture made sure to honor Ponti’s architectural significance without trying to mimic him. “Brutalism is our favorite era of architecture and so it was really easy for us to get on board with the existing architecture that was being built,” says Davis. “Gio Ponti is also one of our favorite architects and so the project really resonated with us. His monolithic approach, his use of color, rhythm, and pattern.”
BOSS.architecture is no stranger to working with what Davis calls inherited space within an existing building, but The Ponti space didn’t come without its fair share of challenges. “Circulation broke the restaurant in half rather than in two-thirds/one-third and so we had to reorganize that within the envelope and re-envision how operationally it worked so that we could incorporate a beautiful bar and backdrop.”
The restaurant’s design embraces the building’s concrete structure which is echoed in the scalloped backdrop behind the bar that is also reminiscent of the scalloped glass forms of the Martin Building’s exterior. “Anytime we can take an exterior material and bring it inside, it helps to blur the distinction between inside and outside,” says Davis. The result is an elevated blank canvas that also supports the museum’s artwork which is an integral part of the space.
The uber-sophisticated bar serves as the centerpiece of the restaurant and was constructed using Italian-imported Leathered Silver Marinace granite. The restaurant’s custom-designed barstools, chairs and banquettes feature a textured velvet in the color begonia for some added feminity. Having designed four of Chef Jenn’s restaurants, Stephenson recalls how she likes to ask if the restaurant is a boy or a girl. “It was decided very early on that it was a girl, it was going to have a quality to it that wasn’t overtly feminine but that some of the colors and tones would bring out a softer more feminine feel.”
According to Stephenson, great pains also went into creating the type of space where people could comfortably enjoy a conversation without the interference of background noise. Although invisible to the eye, the ceiling incorporates special acoustic-absorbing materials that help create the right ambiance. The same can be said of the specialized lighting that places a spotlight on the plate for added warmth and appeal.
A far cry from your typical meat and potatoes restaurant, Chef Jenn, as she is affectionately known, prioritizes locally sourced, seasonal ingredients with a focus on vegetables, ancient grains, and heirloom legumes, which are complemented by handmade pasta, fish, and meat. Beef for the burger and lamb for the Cavatelli dish comes from Buckner Family Farms in Longmont, Colorado.
Popular dishes include unique takes on the all-American grilled cheese and traditional burger. The “Blended Burger,” which combines beef with crimini and porcini mushrooms, is served with aioli, gruyère, tomato, and arugula on a brioche bun and would rival any of Denver’s top burgers. “It’s half cooked-down pureed mushrooms, and half meat, so we’re using less beef which adds a whole lot of umami to the burger,” says Chef Corey. Other sandwiches include a tempeh Reuben that manages to mimic the flavor of corned beef while remaining vegetarian, and last but certainly not least, the Heirloom Beans & Brodo dish is also a crowd-pleaser.
The Ponti is currently open daily for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and has an abridged bar menu available from 3 to 5 p.m. Dinner is currently served from 5 to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays only. According to the DAM’s food and beverage director Michael McGeeney, the hope is that the restaurant will eventually open for business every weeknight. He expects that the restaurants rotating bar and weekend brunch option will ultimately lead to a more varied clientele. “In the beginning, it was mostly visitors of the museum in here, but now, particularly on Tuesday nights, people come just to see us and not the museum.”
For more information on The Ponti and other dining options at the Denver Art Museum please visit: https://www.denverartmuseum.org/en/dining