It's nearly impossible to explain one-word Denton restaurant H2Oak in a word.
When it opens later in 2019, H2Oak is expected to be a barbecue joint with a build-your-own mac and cheese menu. There's a giant "playground" out back for adults and kids, where the owners hope to inspire rousing games of Wiffle Ball. Over on one side, they hope to open one of Denton's biggest indoor music venues, with dreams of hosting hundreds of people for country and rock concerts.
And it's all an easy walk to the Denton Square.
H2Oak comes from a group of restaurateurs who started LSA Burger Co. and Barley & Board in Denton, and Earl's 377 Pizza and Bumbershoot Barbecue in Argyle. In an interview on the site of the gutted building, Steve Watkins notes, casually, "We worked on getting this space for years."
More specifically, he and his partners at Radical Hospitality Group have had a lease on it since 2014. Over five years, they've planned a taproom in conjunction with Audacity Brew House, which never ended up happening; and a short-lived restaurant idea for a place called The Dozer, named for the rusty bulldozer out back. "Cafe," someone offers to the list of scrapped business ideas.
"Stuff on sticks?"
Watkins smiles but doesn't elaborate much. "It's been a long haul," he says.
H2Oak is expected to open just off of the Denton Square at 213 E. Hickory Street. [Update on July 12, 2019: The expected opening date is now September or October 2019.]
Here are five things to know about H2Oak before it opens.
What does H2Oak mean?
H2Oak is situated on a 1-acre piece of land that stretches between E. Hickory and E. Oak streets. That might have been enough to give it its name, pronounced "H to Oak."
But as Executive Chef Chad Kelley and the team came up with the menu, they decided to zero in on barbecue (and also build-your-own macaroni and cheese bowls; more on that in a sec). H2Oak's barbecue would be smoked with hickory and post-oak wood. Hickory. And oak.
There it was again.
More about the macaroni and cheese, please
H2Oak is a Southern restaurant with barbecue. Kelley plans to sell salt-and-pepper-rubbed brisket, St. Louis-style ribs, house-made sausage, coleslaw, charro beans and potato salad. It'll also have some Tex-Mex influences, he says, with elotes likely making the menu. And maybe chicken-fried steak, too.
One of the more alluring options — especially for parents with kids — is a build-your-own mac and cheese option, where bowls can come topped with chopped brisket or other meat.
"How do you make good mac and cheese? You make it to order," Kelley says. He's excited enough about H2Oak's macaroni menu that he says of the restaurant, "we're almost going to be a mac and cheese spot," Kelley says.
The backyard is huge
It takes some imagination to see what the playground behind H2Oak could look like, because right now it's a muddy scrap yard with stray pieces of art — some left over from when Erykah Badu played there in 2016 during a festival called Oaktopia. When H2Oak opens, the guys from Radical Hospitality picture a sprawling backyard with games for kids and adults.
And Wiffle Ball: Radical Hospitality's Eric Pulido says Wiffle Ball just might be the new kickball. Plastic Wiffle balls don't go far, and they probably won't hurt anybody, he says. He hopes the Wiffle Ball area is "going to have that backyard sandlot feel back there."
Playgrounders will also be able to gawk at the smokers that can hold up to 1,000 pounds of meat. "Fire, or cooking, is like nature's television," Pulido says. The smokers will be off to one side, visible from the backyard.
Concerts ... with cafeteria seating
The complex has a live-music venue, where operators hope to host big-name acts. Maybe Robert Earl Keen, they mused, or Beck. Or, maybe Midlake: Their own Pulido plays guitar in one of Denton's best-known bands.
The live-music venue won't always be open, and when it is, they expect to offer mostly ticketed concerts. The seating in there will be chairs, attached to tables: "Think grade-school cafeteria," Watkins says.
Watkins has lived in Denton since he was 10 years old. He points to the sign on the gutted restaurant windows, for family-owned business Storrie Parachute Works Inc. The employees at Storrie used to pack Watkins' pilot's parachute.
Part of the storefront on E. Hickory Street had been called the Travelstead, an engine repair shop operated by Ulric Clyde Travelstead. It also has a mural for Magnolia Shortening, a brand unknown to the current restaurateurs, but one they'll keep on display after finding it underneath a layer of plaster.
The oldest piece of history on the property, however, is a freestanding carriage house out back that Denton Historic Preservation Officer Roman McAllen estimates was built a little before 1900. Watkins says his team will move the old house behind the live-music venue and use it as a green room for musicians.
Correction on March 5, 2019: This story named Eric Pulido as the COO. Pulido is a partner in this project; Kjell Knutson is the COO.