I was chatting with a friend at the main bar in Punch Bowl Social on a Tuesday around 8 p.m. and I couldn’t put my finger on what I was feeling. I had my first visit the previous Saturday night, but everything looked different in the golden hour light. Something about the mega-bar and “eatertainment” complex is off. The Abercrombie & Fitch-inspired decor of antler chandeliers and patterned wallpaper isn’t fantastic. Playing giant scrabble costs the same as renting a bowling lane ($10 per hour before 5 p.m.), which doesn’t seem fair. Maybe it’s how you can see the old Deep Ellum fading away through the panoramic windows.
On that particular day, though, my feeling of unease came when the whiskey-laden, salted caramel milkshake I ordered did not: Our bartender broke the news that the ice cream machine was broken. I got the Barbados Tonic, a tasty, tropical tequila cocktail, but it didn’t fill the void that the phantom milkshake left in my stomach. At least the chips and queso were hearty.
Punch Bowl Social is ginormous. The 24,000-square-foot bar and restaurant on Main Street at Good Latimer is the Denver-based chain’s 17th location in the country. It’s broken up into several areas, including a sit-down restaurant, an arcade, bowling alleys, and private karaoke rooms.
The whole spread was packed on the occasion of my first visit, which came after 11 p.m. on a Saturday night about a week after it opened. I was with a large group of fellow 20-somethings, most of whom were excited by the possibilities of the sprawling new space. We found an open table and played a game of Cows Grilling Hamburgers, which is like a much, much dumber version of Cards Against Humanity.
I drank a High Fashion–Aperol, grapefruit syrup, lemon juice, and sparkling wine–which was like a spritz concentrated into a coupe glass. I also ordered the Green Chorizo Fries, served with Monterey jack, pickled Fresno chiles, cilantro, and crema. The flavor was nice until I realized, moments after they were placed on the table, that the center of the pile of loaded fries was ice cold. I wanted to send them back, but the waiter disappeared for long enough for me to eat a considerable amount of not-entirely-defrosted potato slivers.
As I mourned the fact that I wasted $12 and unknown calories on bad fries, a more interesting incident began to unfold on the other side of the glass. At the rideshare drop off zone on Good Latimer, a Tahoe backed into (nudged) a parked car for a split second. The driver got out, inspected the vehicle, which was fine, and started to get back into his own car. But it was too late. A cop was approaching. Information was exchanged, a ticket was written. The Tahoe bro cruised away. And then a couple more cops came. They inspected the parked car and laughed at the first cop for giving out a ticket because there was no damage. Watching this from inside the fishbowl of a bar was the most entertaining part of the night.
That’s not to say that Punch Bowl Social isn’t fun. There’s good people watching and decent cocktails. I could see it being a great place for office happy hours or group dates or any other situation where you want some entertainment aids for the “social” aspect. It’s just a particular vibe. The website for the Deep Ellum location actually has a section called “Our Vibe,” which mentions “two floors of ‘dirty modern’ design inspired by Jazz roots, Punch Rock music, the Central Track and its namesake the Elm tree.” But it doesn’t feel dirty, nor does it really feel like Deep Ellum.
Mostly, it feels like a sign of the times in a neighborhood in flux.