By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
It was like an episode of This Old House: The Restaurant Version.
When brothers Bill and Steve Rohs decided to open an eatery in a building across from Benedict Fountain Park on 20th Avenue, they first had to undo the damage done by the space's previous restaurant tenant. "We knew it was going to be a lot of work, most of which we were doing ourselves," says Steve, who now handles the kitchen. "And a lot of the stuff we had to take care of was apparent from the start, like the fact that the grill was literally right next to the bathroom. The joke was that you could go to the bathroom without ever taking a break from cooking. And there was no hood, so all the smells and everything from the cooking had just lingered in every nook and cranny of the place."
Especially the flooring, which the Rohs brothers initially thought was kind of cool. "It was so soft and squishy, it was like walking on the moon or something," Steve explains. "And then we found out why, when we pulled up seven -- yeah, seven -- layers of linoleum, then a layer of carpeting, then two more layers of linoleum, another layer of carpet, and one more layer of linoleum. And it all stunk so bad, we thought we were going to die." Before they were done, they'd made 35 trips to the dump, restored every inch of the kitchen, pulled down the rafters and moved and replaced the bathroom. "The john was so warped, it was about to fall through the floorboards, and every now and then as we were working, sparks would start flying up from out of nowhere," Steve adds. "And there was one wall that Bill kept telling me, 'Don't try to do that yourself. Call me when you want to knock it down.' But one day I was leaning on it, and it started to give. So I started pushing on it, and it just fell right over. It turned out to be a wall made of corkboard and two-by-twos."
Once they'd nearly torn the place down, though, the brothers could start putting it back together much better than before. "You know, we leased this old building because we loved it for its architecture, and we loved the location, with the park across the street and the interesting neighborhood that we think is just going to keep improving," Steve says. "So we think it's going to be worth it in the long run."
Their restaurant, The Painted Bench, has already proved a worthy addition to the restaurant scene. From its appealing interior -- filled with unique pieces of furniture (including a brightly painted bench done by kids at the Children's Hospital), eye-catching artwork and a very cool bar area -- you'd never guess what the brothers had to go through to get the place to this point. (Being one of about ten people on the planet to eat at Carter's Bar-B-Que, the space's previous occupant, I realize the extent of the transformation: There's not so much as a whiff of the dead-animal-and-urine scent that dogged Carter's.) "We still have a lot of work to do," Steve admits. "Every week we add something new, change the art around. It's a work in progress."
But at least they now have time to concentrate on the food, which is why the brothers wanted to open a restaurant in the first place. The Rohs boys grew up in Springfield, Illinois, with a doctor dad and nurse mom, along with two more brothers and two sisters. "The story in the family is that my cooking career started at the age of nine," Steve says. "I told my mom that the pizza in our town sucked, and so she got me all the stuff to make my own from scratch. I was pretty into it." The family as a whole was into anything outdoors-related and came to Colorado every year to ski, fish and golf. "In the summers, we went to a dude ranch in Durango," Steve says. "Bill and I always knew we wanted to come back here to live."
After dabbling in pre-med, architecture and art studies, the affable Bill -- who handles the front of the house at the Painted Bench -- eventually moved to Winter Park to do the ski-bum thing. Steve, meanwhile, was working in sales -- and hating it. "I'd say I was going to be out on calls for three or four hours, and I'd end up at the Tattered Cover, reading cookbooks and scribbling out dream menus," he says. "And Bill had moved to Boulder and bought a house here in Denver as an investment, and he was fixing it up. He kept driving past this building and thinking it would make a great restaurant. But we were both busy doing other things at the time."
One of the things Bill was doing was parking cars at the Flagstaff House, where one day he met Brett Davy, a local restaurateur planning to open the Coos Bay Bistro in the University of Denver area. "They hit it off, and Bill became a partner in Coos Bay," Steve explains. "And not long after they opened, I quit my job in sales and went to cook there for them." That was enough to hook Steve on cooking for good, so he put himself through the program at Denver's Culinary Institute of the Arts before heading to California to get more experience. He found it working at Domaine Chandon, Pinot Blanc and Auberge du Soleil and studied pastry at a satellite branch of the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley.