By Brittany Anas / NewsBreak Denver
(Lakewood, Colo.) Front Room Pizza was a Lakewood institution — the kind of strip mall pizzeria anchored by a salad bar with little league team photos hanging on the wall. After 35 years in business in the Green Mountain neighborhood in January, Front Room said farewell, citing a familiar script: labor shortages and skyrocketing food costs.
But it just so happened that the pizza shop was a favorite of one of Denver’s most notable chefs, James Beard award-winner Alex Seidel (Fruition, Mercantile, Chook), who lives in the neighborhood and had, for years, been a Front Room regular. And it also just so happens that Seidel got his culinary start in Italian restaurants. So, the top chef took over the restaurant and reopened it this week as Roca’s Pizza & Pasta (13795 W. Jewell Ave. in Lakewood), a still homey restaurant (albeit brighter) with black-and-white checkered tablecloths. Roca’s serves pastas, thin, crispy pizzas, and thicker crust pies made with Seidel’s signature sourdough starter.
However, one of the biggest hits at Roca’s is the classic salad bar. “There’s nostalgia in a salad bar,” says Seidel, who remembers hitting up Ponderosa buffets as a kid after soccer games.
As his team remodeled the restaurant, a shiny new salad bar replaced an old wooden one that was located in the center of the dining room. For $10 trip and $14 for unlimited trips, the salad bar beholds classics (the crispy Chow Mein noodles) and new items you’d expect from a chef dreaming up a salad bar (housemade fried onions) because Seidel says he likes salads to have a crunch. The bar is also loaded with mixed greens, crunchy cucumber slices, tomatoes, shaved carrots, mozzarella cheese and a housemade giardiniera that gets refilled frequently.
Like handheld menus, the salad bar was an early pandemic casualty. Colorado pizza chain Beau Jo’s shut their iconic salad bars down (there’s no plans of reopening it anytime soon), and restaurants like Sweet Tomatoes — where you’d glide a tray down a long cafeteria-style line stocked with every salad ingredient imaginable — closed for good.
Seidel is right: The salad bar is nostalgic (who remembers birthday parties at Pizza Hut?) But perhaps the comeback of the salad bar is also symbolic of a return to normal as we enter a third year of the pandemic and has us waxing nostalgic for the “before times,” too. Could he be convinced to add chocolate pudding to the salad bar? Time will tell.