When longtime patrons saw The Hungry Toad shut down for three weeks, with promises of a new menu and a refurbished interior, there were some knee jerk reactions: “You’ve ruined The Toad!”
Opened in 1991 by Terry Morton, the English-style pub has amassed a legion of regulars who have flocked to the place for decades. Folks have always come for the sense of community, a pillar of British drinking culture that hasn’t necessarily sprouted in most American watering holes.
The Toad is not, in fact, ruined. It assumed new ownership in November 2021 when husband and wife Hansen and Bonnie Rada, themselves longtime devotees, bought the place. After 30 good years in business, Morton was done.
“Essentially the Radas didn’t want to see The Toad die,” says general manager Johnny Rutter. “If Hansen didn’t step up to the plate, who knows what it could have been.”
Slight changes appeared at first. Hansen installed a few extra TVs, hoping to shift his restaurant in favor of being more of a soccer bar. The menu, a catalog-length hodgepodge of British, American and Mexican pub fare with no less than 10 burgers and 14 sandwiches, loomed large. Every night the place was still packed, buzzing with people who liked to sit down to enjoy two to three hours of leisurely sips and nibbles.
In late October 2022, the restaurant shut down. The kitchen was almost entirely redesigned. The sloping floors of the bar and dining area were torn up and leveled, and a new staff, both back and front-of-house, was brought on to facilitate the new opening.
“While we were closed, people were knocking on the door and peeking in the windows,” Rutter says with a grin.
So, on Nov. 9, when The Toad reopened, this time with a full cocktail list and a menu that fit on two sides of a single sheet of paper, some people were shocked. Were the new owners coming for the Old Speckled Hen, the Guiness, the Fuller’s and the Smithwick’s? Would families still be able to get solid meals and feel like they had gotten their money’s worth? Had the casual intimacy that made The Toad so special been stripped?
Now four months into the new era, The Toad is still bustling. A Hawaiian shirt or two dot the floor and loud bikers mingle with old heads who settle into the place like it was their own living room.
“We’ve gotten to the point where the community here is excited,” says bar manager Carrie Morrow.
Sweeping changes can be jarring. Yet somehow, despite all the seismic shifts, The Toad still feels familiar. It’s still cozy, though the food has gotten a lot better. It’s still casual, though the drink list now includes the kind of creative cocktails guests could expect at more chichi establishments downtown.
One of the key facilitators of the sweeping improvements is executive chef Carlos Ortiz. Born and raised in Mexico City, Ortiz began his culinary career on a whim after visiting his brother in Austin.
“I came to party with my brother. Then I ran out of money and started my career,” the chef says wryly. After working in a series of restaurants in the Texas capitol, Ortiz moved to Colorado where he continued what would become an illustrious devotion to the craft. A lifelong student who claims to have read over 300 cookbooks, Ortiz worked at such iconic institutions as the Denver ChopHouse, La Sandia, Lou’s Hot and Naked, and Los Chingones.
Ortiz has been rebuilding the menu from the ground up. Fresh ingredients are paramount, with the new menu paying homage to modern British pub classics.
“Cooking is not what makes the chef — it’s everything that goes behind it,” Ortiz says, noting that planning, finances, preparation and the visual and psychological organization of the menu are a big part of what he brings to the table. “Also, the only item I have canned is coconut milk.”
Nobody seems to mind that the menu is now down to less than 30 items. The beer battered fish and chips is made with a single piece of succulent fresh Atlantic cod and Kennebec potatoes, the burgers now draw their flavor from a precise blend of ground chuck and brisket. The Toad Nachos and the jumbo wings — staples of the original list — exist only in name, each one markedly refined.
“If you are going to do something you have to do it without any apologies,” Ortiz says. “And I haven’t had any requests from regulars to bring back anything from the old menu,” he says with a smile.
Morrow’s drinks are another reason to visit. The cocktails are remarkably innovative, even by big city standards, something Morrow attributes to her time at Seattle’s Purple Cafe, a wine bar that would routinely do 500-600 covers a night.
“At least once a shift a guest would ask me to make something random,” she says. Don’t leave without getting the A Healthy Bond, which combines white port, zucchini and lemon for a porch pounder that may just find its way onto the summer menu.
The restaurant has also introduced a fresh weekend brunch. A smaller list of breakfast sandwiches, coffee and beer is served even earlier for those who want to come in and watch English Premier League games. There are plans to introduce things like Scotch flights and punk tea time as the restaurant continues to get its sea legs.
Author’s note: I have many happy memories of coming to The Toad when I was a kid with my late father, George Johnson. Once upon a time, it was his favorite place to drink beer.