Boulder County is a Mecca for High Quality Dining

When Bobby Stuckey, a Master Sommelier, came to Boulder with colleague Chef Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson, taking the risk to open Frasca Food & Wine in August of 2004, the entire fine dining environment changed here. Word quickly spread that Stuckey and MacKinnon-Patterson were alums of The French Laundry – a restaurant in the upper echelon of dining in the country, and the world. People naturally took interest. There was also a feeling of specialness that out of all the cities big and small around the country, the pair would choose Boulder. As businessmen, they also looked at Denver to house their fine, Fruilian concept, knowing though any new business – and especially a new restaurant – is a risk, they’d be taking a much bigger one in Boulder. This risk was mainly due to population, with Boulder being a town of 100,000, compared to Denver’s 550,000
[with a greater metro area population of almost 3 million].

[Boulder ever evolving]
Of the notable restaurants still open in Boulder County, in the late 60’s and 70’s, The Greenbriar Inn [1967] and The Flagstaff House [1971], were the fine dining options. The Boulder CORK joined next [1981], adding a new alternative in that decade, and Q’s in the iconic Hotel Boulderado [1993], in that one. Other restaurants came and went during that time, and in the time since, but with a focus on those still operating, these 4 opened in as many decades. In the 10 years between 2003, when L’Atelier opened, through 2013, when Volta did, a new crop of 13 – or one per year on average – joined the Boulder County restaurant scene.

To be considered a world-class city, there must be aesthetic beauty, good infrastructure, sufficient green space, an intellectual community, pedestrian-friendliness, and an array of cultural opportunities. Restaurants – especially high quality ones – are cultural opportunities, as much as going to see an elite dance troupe performance or hear a Philharmonic play. In addition to all of these factors, a great city also has a good feeling about it – it welcomes, energizes, excites. A place can only be as welcoming, energizing and exciting as the people who populate it and those who choose to bring businesses to life there.

As Boulder has grown over the years since The Flagstaff House opened, it’s become a powerhouse in the technical, research and environmental fields, and has also shown itself to be a place of high standards for excellence. People here are spoiled in the best possible sense with all the elements of a world-class city. With regard to food, residents are conscientious and care deeply about where it’s sourced, how the animals are treated, how the soil is treated, there’s strong non-GMO support and an outspoken environmental community that practices what they preach in terms of living green. Supporting local farms and doing the bulk of business with places that are similarly committed – be they grocery stores or restaurants – it is these kinds of businesses that thrive here. It is the most competitive market in the country for natural foods. The fine restaurants that already existed, and those that have come on the scene in the interim, have had to take seriously the environment they are doing business in. There is no room for gimmicks, or insincerity.

[Excellence begets excellence ]
Just before Frasca, Radek Cerny – a Denver/Boulder veteran chef and restaurateur – opened L’Atelier on Pearl Street in Boulder in 2003. At that time, it was the 5th Denver/Boulder restaurant he’d opened, and the 2nd in Boulder, after The European Café. Following L’Atelier, he opened a 6th more casual spot, Radex Bistro. L’Atelier – his finest concept of all – is the only one still open. That same year, Brasserie Ten Ten opened, which could be considered by some as fine dining, though brasserie by definition is a relaxed setting, traditionally with white linen. The St. Julien Hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, Jill’s, opened in early 2005, and that same year, Chef Bradford Heap’s Colterra in Niwot as well. Sugarbeet in Longmont, a Boulder County town in large need of a fine dining restaurant at the time, came on the scene in December, 2006. Heap opened another spot, SALT, in the old Tom’s Tavern space on Pearl Street in 2009. Basta, in the Peloton, opened in 2010.

Volta, a Mediterranean fine dining spot from Boulder front of house veteran and wine expert, Jon Deering, and his native born Greek wife Eleni, joined the ranks most recently in the Fall of 2013. Why bring another fine dining concept to fruition in an area some would say had been oversaturated with them for over three years? The Deerings say, “We can’t help it. Running a fine dining restaurant is in our DNA. We’re here to please, and fine dining is the art of pleasing to the highest degree, especially here in Boulder. In a nutshell, we just love what we do.”

The Kitchen also opened in the same year as Frasca, both of whom celebrate ten-year anniversaries this year. There’s no question Kimbal Musk and partner Chef Hugo Matheson helped change the dining philosophy of Boulder specifically, and Boulder County as a whole. Their focus on authentic farm to table and proudly naming their farm and purveyor relationships, they trailblazed a restaurant culture here where residents now automatically expect these things to be disclosed. Hailing from South Africa and England respectively, the pair also brought an international sensibility to Boulder’s restaurant scene that was refreshing and invigorating.

In 2006, Chef Eric Skokan, and his wife Jill, opened Black Cat Bistro, which they bill as a small neighborhood bistro, but is really fine dining. They took their need for sustainable sourcing one step further than even The Kitchen, by opening their own 130-acre farm, which with nearly 400 animals and 250 varieties of fruits and vegetables, supplies not only their restaurants – Black Cat, and a more casual concept next door, Bramble and Hare – but also has a bi-weekly booth at the Boulder’s Farmer’s Market in season, as well as offers CSA shares. This extends the accessibility to high-quality meats and produce for Boulder County residents far beyond the 8 walls of their restaurants.

Each of these spots, with the exception of Q’s and Jill’s, are independents, still open and thriving, in a notoriously competitive and challenging industry, supported and sustained by the greater Boulder County community, those who drive in from Denver and other outer lying areas, as well as national and international visitors.

Still, there are burdens the Boulder restaurateur has to manage in order to have a presence here. “At the end of the day if you write a business plan, Boulder is a much bigger long shot. Lots of restaurants for much fewer guests and much higher rents”, says Stuckey. “When we signed our lease in Boulder, our rent was higher than a friend of mine signing a similar lease in the Marina District in San Francisco [a city famous for its exorbitant rents, both residential and commercial], where you have so many more people [potential diners]”.

[Fine dining definitions run a fine line in Boulder County]
Fine dining is an elevated experience where each of the elements is truly cultivated, just as in fine art or fine jewelry. There’s craftsmanship behind it. There’s quality. It’s true you get what you pay for in all transactions in life, and it’s no different in restaurants. Fine is also the root word of refined – gracious, polished, cultured, stylish, elegant, sophisticated. When we go into a casual, or fast-casual spot to eat, we’re not looking for this. We want decent food at decent prices in a clean, decent environment. When we go into a fine dining restaurant, our expectations are heightened. Still, fine dining is a fine line in Boulder County. With the casual nature of the area, even seemingly more laid-back places can be considered upscale.

A commitment to excellence in the environment, food, wine and cocktail programs, service, and hospitality are the benchmarks I use to define fine. For the high quality restaurateur, it’s an understanding of the importance – and ability to sustain – consistently elevated experiences that contain each of these elements as close to equally as possible. And the quote, unquote little things matter greatly. From the way the diner is greeted and how the fork feels in the hand, to countless other graces and luxuries, this is what sets a place apart. One of the luxuries is also an unhurried experience. Most fine dining restaurants plan for 1:45 – 2 hours for their diners to relax into the experience. It’s a respite in the truest sense – a rest from the general distressing nature of life itself.

In addition to area residents seeking this respite, Boulder sees a large amount of travelers. Parents visiting their kids at college, professionals in tech and various other industries and leisure travelers with and without passports come in and out of town regularly. Travelers need to eat out, and the ones with higher budgets, whether their personal budget, or expense account, have more options than ever as to where to spend those dining dollars in Boulder.

[On success and risk
Why not stay under the wing of guaranteed success, in an environment that has a lot of resources at its disposal such as The French Laundry does? “It’s different if you want to have your own restaurant”, Stuckey says. “I think it was the perfect time for me to leave the nest of Thomas Keller. Having said that, it was the best wine job someone could have.” Stuckey’s wife spent part of her time growing up in Lakewood, with her father now in Golden. While the two enjoyed their time in Napa Valley – where Stuckey had honed his craft of hospitality under the perfectionistic eye of Thomas Keller – it was the aesthetic beauty and lifestyle Boulder afforded them, along with proximity to family, that caused the couple to choose it when looking at a move. Years before, Stuckey had worked as a sommelier at the renowned Little Nell in Aspen, so it was a coming home of sorts for him as well.

The day Stuckey unloaded the U-Haul at his new home in Boulder from Napa Valley, he drove to Chautauqua to take a run. Not knowing the lay of the land, he stood there, trying to figure out which trail to take, when another guy standing next to him sensed his confusion and offered that they could run together. That was ten years ago, and that guy was Bryan Dayton, now co-owner of Boulder’s fine spot, Oak at Fourteenth. While Bobby was just arriving in Boulder, Bryan was leaving it and the very next day went to San Diego for work. A year later, he called Bobby, who by then was a year in in both Boulder and Frasca, saying he wanted to come back and work with him there. Bobby said ok, and so began a colleagueship and friendship that has spanned longer than many marriages do.

Dayton and Chef Steve Redzikowski had both worked at Frasca – Dayton having overseen the beverage program for four years, and Redzikowski having been the opening Sous Chef – when they decided to partner together to open Oak at Fourteenth in 2010. Subsequently, a fire in the restaurant’s hood system and resulting severe water damage had them on an 8-month hiatus, while the restaurant was rebuilt from the studs. Now, not only stabilized, but recognized as one of Boulder’s best restaurants both locally and nationally, it has become another feather in Boulder’s fine dining cap.

[More accessible than you may think ]
Though based on a model of a 4 course dining experience, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy Frasca – and all fine dining restaurants – on varying budgets. Everything at Frasca can be ordered a la carte, so you can go in for just an entrée and glass of wine if you like. Some local chefs even stop by after their shifts to sit at the bar with a plate of charcuterie and a cocktail. Frasca had a challenge implementing their reservation system – a system most fine dining restaurants require – but in Boulder, just wasn’t part of the dining culture. “Reservations are a service that is provided and managed by the restaurant for the guests to better take care of them” says Stuckey. With the help of their system, Frasca exceeds the fine dining table turn average by 20-30%, allocating a full 2 ½ hours for each party, because, as Stuckey says, “We never want to go into the night feeling like we are rushing a table”. If as a diner, you’ve ever felt any sense of hastening from the service staff, you know what an uncomfortable feeling that is. It is part of the graciousness of hospitality and the fine dining experience overall not to be made to feel that way in the slightest.

[We can’t talk about fine dining without talking about wine ]
In 2013, Frasca won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Outstanding Wine Program. What happens in the glass is as much a contributor to their success as what happens on the plate. Along with Stuckey, this is attributed in equal measure to Frasca sommeliers Matthew Mather and Carlin Karr. Mather has taken on the large task of searching out stellar wine producers in Italy, with special focus on the Fruili region, building relationships locally with distributors, and linking them. Now you can go to Boulder Wine Merchant, for example, and purchase bottles of favorite wines once only available in your Frasca glass. This was not possible before these relationships were cultivated.

When a thriving business sustains, it creates the possibilities and opportunities for all kinds of other businesses to do the same, both in example and by necessity. Craig Lewis, recently retired pro-cycler and Boulder resident, started his wine importing business Stelvio Selections in Boulder, inspired in part by Stuckey and Mather. Named after the Passo della Stelvio – the iconic climb in the Italian Alps – Stelvio combines Lewis’ love of cycling and wine. With three elite wine experts consulting with him to help select only the best of the best – including Stuckey, Owner of Boulder Wine Merchant and Master Sommelier Brett Zimmerman, and Master Sommelier Richard Betts [who passed his MS on the first try; a rare feat], one would be hard-pressed to gather a more qualified group. When these 4 are together, 3 of the world’s 214 Master Sommeliers are in one room. Pretty impressive.

For the 30th straight year, Flagstaff House has won the coveted Wine Spectator Grand Award, which recognizes excellence in depth and breadth of wine offerings covering the major wine producing regions in the United States and internationally. It will celebrate its 43rd year on November 1st, achieving an enviable, sustained triumvirate of excellence in food, wine and location, nestled as it is in the glorious Flatirons. With patriarch Don, and his sons, Mark running the back of the house, and Scott running the front, this is the grandfather of Boulder fine dining and to be respected for its staying power alone. The Boulder CORK and Brasserie Ten Ten are no slouches when it comes to wine either – both having been awarded the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for their lists.

[World class]
Felix H. Rohatyn, former United States Ambassador to France, when asked by Forbes what constitutes a world-class city, on his list, among other things, was 3 great restaurants. There are 14 great Boulder restaurants – 17 in Boulder County overall – mentioned in this piece alone. Boulder has this element in spades.

Note: The Big Red F group plays a large role in Boulder dining as well, and because they are a group of restaurants, they weren’t included in this piece as its focus is on individual restaurants.

[82% increase in notables in just past decade alone]

For a streamlined post on this topic, see this:

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