Denver has never been a late-night town. Most restaurants stop serving by 9 or 10 p.m. at the latest, while breweries and their food trucks, especially those in residential neighborhoods, often call it quits even earlier.
For bars, the witching hour is typically 2 a.m., but by then — when the buzz starts to wear off and hunger sets in — the choices for food are limited primarily to a handful of fast-food spots, 24-hour chain diners, some delivery options and a scant few local restaurants.
That’s something Toan Le and co-owner Nhan Tran were well aware of in 2017, when they opened Now Pho, at 1195 S. Federal, in the former Pho Le restaurant, whose owner had retired.
Pho Le, along with two other Vietnamese restaurants along South Federal Boulevard, usually stayed open till midnight or later, but the crowds were often surly or — worse — scant.
So Le got to work. “I revamped everything. I remodeled, put in new booths. I repainted and cleaned really well. The customers from before, they came for the good food, but they didn’t mind that there was no atmosphere. And my demographics completely changed,” he said.
And he expanded the hours until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
Not only did he start getting a much younger “after-midnight crowd,” but Le said he began to see people from a wider variety of backgrounds — Asian American, Black, Latino, white. “We have a little bit of everything and they are all craving some good soups,” he said.
When COVID hit in 2020, every restaurant in Denver struggled to make ends meet, and Now Pho was no exception. But Le, who also works in real estate, was able to keep his employees working with to-go service, and by the time restaurants began to get busier again in early 2022, he’d put together “a really loyal crew. They stick with me, with us, through thick and thin,” he said.
He also began to heavily market Now Pho’s late-night hours and quickly built an even larger following of customers. It was something that made him stand out from other Vietnamese restaurants in the vicinity — and Le said he has counted around 20 within a mile or so of his place.
These days — and especially in the summer when there are more festivals, concerts and other events — Now Pho can get up to 100 people at a time late at night. With takeout and delivery service, along with the eat-in crowd, “it can get hectic and busy,” Le said.
“They usually go for soup after midnight. People need hydration after drinking too many shots,” he added with a laugh. Today, Now Pho serves more than 100 different variations on its soup (which won Westword’s Best Pho in Denver award last year).
Sometimes, groups of young adults will get into it with each other at that time of night, and Le said his staff is polite but prepared to deal with that. Now Pho doesn’t serve alcohol, which helps things calm, and if worse comes to worst, Le said he has a good relationship with the police.
Something like that is very rare, though. “We are known for having very authentic Vietnamese food — everything is fresh,” Le said. “When it comes to late night, they can choose 24-hour tacos or diners. But they come to us for the quality of the food and the service they get.”
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