November 1, 2012

Worth Its Salt

The packed bar and cozy interior belie this bistro's origins as a mortuary

  • By: Lauren Walser

The night I visited Salt Bistro in downtown Boulder, Colo., the cellar was packed. Groups of friends seated on plush couches were enjoying local brews and cheese platters, and the record player in the corner filled the small space with music.

But the clientele at 1047 Pearl St. wasn’t always so lively. When the 1883 building first opened, it was, in fact, a mortuary.

Today, the space feels far from grim, though, and from our perch at the bar, my dinner companion and I enjoyed watching the bartender make drink after drink, listening to the sounds of clanging pots and pans in the large open kitchen at the top of the cellar stairs, and wondering whether there were any 19th-century customers lingering.

Satisfied that the only spirits we would see were of the alcoholic variety, we made our way up the stairs to the main dining area. I would have preferred sitting at the chef’s bar, warming myself by the large open oven and watching freshly picked greens get turned into salads, but there wasn’t a seat to spare. Instead, we requested a place by the window, where we could watch the street performers entertain Boulderites enjoying the city’s crisp evening weather.

We dived into the complimentary bread, which came with a small dish of salt (Himalayan Pink Salt was on the menu that night), and studied our surroundings.

In between its first life as a mortuary and its current one as a trendy bistro, the historic building on a historic corner in historic downtown Boulder was Tom’s Tavern, a beloved Boulder establishment that operated for more than 40 years. When Salt opened in 2009, the owners left the original Tom’s Tavern sign painted on the east side of the building, one of many nods to the late Tom Eldridge, the tavern’s founder and a community fixture.

The vibe is decidedly contemporary: The lighting is moody; the high ceilings and exposed brick walls provide dramatic backdrops for the warm earth tones of the upholstery; and both the upstairs and the
downstairs bars are well stocked, with bartenders serving unusual concoctions such as a strawberry-basil Tom Collins or a spicy “Mountain Margarita” with chipotle and serrano peppers and hickory-smoked sea salt.

But look closely and you’ll realize most everything inside is actually quite old, with traces of the building’s previous lives and materials salvaged from local establishments.

Take, for instance, the tin ceiling in the upstairs dining area, an original feature in the building uncovered during renovation. Or the tables, made from old doors cast off from a local junior high. And then there are the booths, where Tom’s patrons once sat, which were reconstructed and reupholstered for a new batch of diners.

Other original features in the building found new uses, like 100-year-old floor joists that are now part of the restaurant’s grand, eight-foot front door, re-created to match the original. Even the artwork comes from repurposed materials: An installation piece by the stairwell is fashioned out of the building’s original copper pipes.

As we surveyed the menu, we noticed that the restaurant’s love of all things local extends well past the decor. Chef Bradford Heap has fully embraced the farm-to-table concept, creating dishes using meats and seasonal produce from local sources. The drinks menu is also heavy on local offerings, with plenty of regional beers and a number of wines from Colorado wineries.

Our waitress informed us that Tom’s Tavern Burger was one of the more popular dishes, but I opted for the vegetable-heavy Give Peas a Chance, a savory sweet pea ravioli topped with fava beans, asparagus, and shiitake mushrooms. My dining companion ordered the pan-roasted corvine with wild-caught white shrimp, a colorful dish cooked in a citrus, carrot, and ginger nage that tasted as good as it looked. Despite filling up on the crispy calamari and the wild mushroom appetizers, we cleaned our plates easily.

Don’t count on seeing the same menu twice, though. The dishes, after all, depend on what vegetables are in season. But from what I tasted, I’m dying to return.

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

From coast to coast, fascinating historic places are waiting for you to visit and explore.

Begin Your Journey