Chef Troy Guard isn’t someone who grows roots easily. The founder of Denver’s Tag Restaurant Group has had many homes over the years. He spent much of his childhood in Hawaii, though he lived in San Diego during his teenage years as well. As an adult, he worked as a chef in Singapore and Hong Kong before moving stateside to New York City and, ultimately, Denver. Guard has now lived in the Mile High City for 16 years and presided over his own company for nine years. In this time, he has become a permanent fixture in Denver’s eclectic dining scene and helped to broaden the city’s on-premise horizons.
Guard has a distinct style, both personally and professionally. He’s covered in tattoos and doesn’t like to be too polished, a trait that’s reflected in his restaurants. He’s also well known in Denver and heavily involved in the community through philanthropic efforts. “I’ve been to a lot of big cities and it was time to slow down a bit, but also find a place that had a lot of opportunity for growth,” Troy says of his start in Denver. “It’s flattering and humbling to be recognized for shaping the landscape of Denver’s dining scene. I just try to do what I love, and that’s cooking and making people happy.”
Tag beverage director Nikki Guard, Troy’s wife, echoes that sentiment. “We want to build restaurants where people like to stay and eat and have fun. That’s always our goal,” she says. “We want the venues to be stylish and a little edgy. Troy doesn’t like anything to be too pretty. He likes things to be gritty, with a rock ’n’ roll vibe. That’s who he is and he’s the face of the restaurants.”
Tag Restaurant Group encompasses 11 restaurants in Denver, with a 12th opening this spring. Its flagship Tag Restaurant showcases local, seasonal Colorado ingredients prepared with Asian, Hawaiian and Latin influences. The company’s other venues include Tag Burger Bar; the Mexican concept Los Chingones; the steak house Guard and Grace; the Hawaiian wood-fired seafood venue Mister Tuna; the health-conscious and fast-casual Bubu; and the breakfast eatery Hashtag. His newest venture, the upscale comfort food concept FNG, opened in December, and a fourth location of Los Chingones will debut in March.
Tag Restaurant Group’s annual revenues top $25 million, with beverage alcohol comprising roughly 40 percent of total company sales. Spirits and wine contribute equal shares, each making up about 15 percent of total revenues, and beer brings in the remaining 10 percent. Nikki says that drinks are a crucial part of the company’s overall success. “It’s important to us,” she adds. “We’re always striving to keep drinks at the forefront and to make awesome cocktails that are fresh.”
Though he grew up cooking and had extensive experience working in high-profile restaurants around the globe, Troy admits he was still nervous to open his own venue. His move to Denver came courtesy of chef Richard Sandoval, whom he met while working at a restaurant in Singapore. The two bonded over the idea of opening a Latin-Asian fusion concept in Denver and debuted Sandoval’s Zengo in 2004, with Troy helming the kitchen. Five years later, Troy realized the dream of opening his first solo project when he launched Tag Restaurant. “I was just happy I got the opportunity,” Troy says. “It was right after the crash of 2008 and to be honest, I didn’t know how to run a restaurant. I thought I did because I’d been working in them for 20 years, but nothing prepares you for being the actual owner and chef.”
Located in Denver’s Larimer Square, Tag Restaurant serves multicultural fare, emphasizing locally sourced ingredients that are prepared with influences from Troy’s travels through Asia, Hawaii and Latin America. The food is upscale, but fun and is joined by a lengthy list of wines and craft cocktails. Despite Troy’s nerves over venturing into restaurant ownership, Tag Restaurant has been successful from the start.
“Our company’s image and reputation start with Troy,” says Jason Borders, the company’s director of operations. “Troy’s worldly travels are represented in the cuisine of each restaurant and the standout for him is fresh food. We focus on what’s in season, and on what we can get that’s sustainable and abundantly sourced. Also, we try to deliver world-class service and an amazing guest experience.”
Tag Restaurant’s menu includes appetizers like taco sushi, seafood potstickers and Thai beef tartare ($8 to $16), as well as larger entrées like hanger steak, grilled swordfish and steamed sea bass ($23 to $30). The venue boasts a lengthy and informative wine list, with tasting notes and anecdotes included for each of its 100-plus offerings ($9 to $16 a glass; $36 to $250 a 750-ml.). It also offers several craft beers and ciders ($7 to $9 a bottle or can), including Denver-based options like River North Pils and Fate Laimas Kölsch. As with its food menu, Tag Restaurant’s cocktail list features seasonal creations ($10 to $25) and rotates frequently. Recent highlights ranged from the Expect The Unexpected, mixing Bulleit Bourbon, Tozai Snow Maiden Junmai Nigori sake, peach-thyme simple syrup and lemon juice, to the Off The Grid, made with Sailor Jerry Spiced rum, pineapple-infused Plantation Original Dark rum, Suze aperitif, Campari, Giffard Banane du Brésil liqueur and Fee Brothers Black Walnut bitters.
A casual offshoot of the flagship concept, Tag Burger Bar in Denver’s Congress Park is a beer-heavy concept with a relaxed neighborhood vibe. The venue offers customizable sandwiches, allowing guests to pick their buns and base meat—from traditional hamburger to bison to salmon—and then personalize it with a range of toppings and options (burgers start at $7; specialty sandwiches can get as high as $22). Tag Burger Bar pours a handful of wines by the glass ($7 to $10) and lists a few specialty cocktails ($7 to $11), like the Amante Picante, comprising Exotico Blanco Tequila and muddled cilantro, cucumber and jalapeño. But beer is the drinks focus here: The venue pours 20 brews on tap ($5 to $8) and offers 12 in bottles or cans ($3.40 to $11).
The company’s Hashtag venue falls on the opposite end of the dining spectrum. A breakfast and brunch spot in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood, the venue offers everything from cinnamon rolls and egg sandwiches to breakfast burritos and pancakes topped with toasted coconut ($5.50 to $17). As with other Tag venues, drinks are also an important component here. Hashtag serves Bloody Marys and spirits-enhanced coffees alongside signature cocktails ($7 to $10) like the Beer For Breakfast, mixing New Amsterdam gin, Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal liqueur, Odell Drumroll American Pale ale and fresh grapefruit juice.
“Beverage is a huge factor in what we do,” Troy explains. “We provide an experience and with that experience is always an ambiance, created by food and drinks. Nikki curates each beverage menu to balance out the vibe and complement the food.” Indeed, Nikki creates distinct drinks lists for each concept under the Tag umbrella. She notes that in Denver, people are excited to try new things and broaden their horizons. “People here want to find something new and less traveled,” Nikki says. “They’re educated and open to new experiences. In the beginning we offered a lot of products only from Colorado, but there’s so much more out there now. We’ve broadened our vision to include great breweries and distilleries from outside of our pocket in Colorado.”
Tag Restaurant Group’s portfolio shows that the company isn’t afraid to take risks and experiment beyond its comfort zone. Troy currently operates three locations of the Mexican eatery Los Chingones, with a fourth set to open in the first half of 2018. The venues serve his experimental take on traditional Mexican fare, offering tacos stuffed with octopus, pork belly and beef cheek alongside chicken enchiladas and pork tamales (tacos start at $3.50 each; larger plates are $8.50 to $17). Tequila and mezcal rule the drinks menu at Los Chingones, which offers Margaritas, Palomas and sangrias ($7 to $12).
The steakhouse Guard and Grace is Troy’s most polished venture, though it still features his relaxed and rugged aesthetic. The restaurant boasts exposed cooking grills, an oyster bar and a floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed wine cellar that houses 4,000 bottles. The venue’s steak dishes range from $18 to $79 and are joined by a variety of other meats, from lamb and pork to chicken and black cod ($24 to $42). Guard and Grace’s encyclopedic wine list includes specialty labels like the 2009 Opus One and the 2010 Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux (wines are $9 to $20 a glass; $36 to $600 a 750-ml.).
In a nod to his childhood, Troy’s Mister Tuna concept evokes Hawaii with a menu that highlights wood-fired seafood. The menu spans from oak-grilled salmon and pan-roasted barramundi to rotisserie lamb sliders and crispy Spanish octopus (entrées are $27 to $46). Along with a variety of beers ($4 to $12 a draft pour, can or bottle), Mister Tuna lists cocktails that incorporate fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables ($9 to $12). Standouts include the Baby It’s Warm Outside, made with Reyka vodka, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, Briottet Crème de Pêche liqueur and grapefruit juice, and the Full Monte, mixing Bulleit rye, Montenegro amaro, Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur, fresh lemon juice and honey.
The company’s only fast-casual concept, Bubu, is a make-your-own bowl eatery with two locations. The venue lets guests choose a base—rice or noodles—and add meats, vegetables and dressings ($8 to $14). Bubu is Tag Restaurant Group’s only concept that doesn’t offer beverage alcohol. The group’s newest project, the restaurant FNG, opened in December in Denver’s Highlands neighborhood. FNG serves elevated comfort food and has a full drinks program, with an emphasis on whiskies, craft beer and reinvented classic cocktails, including the Bang Your Head, a fresh take on a Harvey Wallbanger that blends New Amsterdam vodka, Galliano liqueur, orange juice, passion fruit juice, lemon and egg whites.
Tag Restaurant Group has grown quickly. The company has opened or reconceived 10 restaurants in the last four years and has further expansion planned. In addition, it went from just 50 employees at its start to more than 500 employees today. Borders says the company would like to reach 20 units overall and is considering expansion outside of Denver, and even beyond Colorado, though nothing has been decided yet.
“Denver is definitely a food and drink city,” Borders says. “Our venues fit into the city because we stay current with our offerings and we’re relevant to the neighborhoods in which we do business.” Nikki adds that while Denver has a lot of great on-premise options, Tag Restaurant Group venues have become destinations for their food, drinks and atmospheres. “There’s a lot of competition here and people are doing great things,” Nikki notes. “Our food and drinks are among the best, and people realize that. With so many restaurants opening it would be easy to fall by the wayside, but that keeps us alive and different.”