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Start small and keep it simple -- that's the advice I'd offer anyone wondering how to open a successful restaurant.
A restaurant doesn't need to feature a hip gimmick, or offer an enormous menu of enormously portioned dishes, or have a thousand wine bottles in its collection, or bear a name that means "incredibly self-important" in some obscure African dialect, or pay a staff of public-relations people working overtime to promote the place.
Here's what a restaurant does need: a menu that's well-rounded, makes sense and doesn't inject truffle oil into every dish; an atmosphere that tries to take into account why people will be eating in that particular establishment; a wine list that has a few expensive bottles as well as a few geared to the average wallet. And, maybe most important, a restaurant needs an owner who's there keeping an eye on it all.
603 E. Sixth Avenue
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
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Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Emma's Restaurant has all of this and more.
The three-month-old eatery is as small and simple as it gets. The space is small: Emma's occupies an old storefront on Sixth Avenue, with three rooms that seat a total of 44 diners (soon there will be a fourth room, which will hold eight to ten people at one table) and space for four more at the teeny bar. The menu is small, featuring just four appetizers, one soup, two salads and fewer than a dozen entrees, including two or three daily specials. The wine list is small, about three dozen bottles in all. Even the person the restaurant is named after is small, since little Emma Austin, the owners' daughter, is only three years old.
But, oh, what good things come in this small package. The interior is warm and inviting, with cozy chairs nabbed from an auction of old Brown Palace furniture, walls the color of the restaurant's butternut squash bisque, soft lighting further dimmed by antique fixtures, and enough thick fabric draped around to completely obliterate the traffic noise from one of Denver's more well-traveled arteries. The menu is well-chosen, an intriguing assemblage of dishes that touch on major ingredients -- beef, salmon, pasta, chicken and pork among them -- but aren't locked into any one style or ethnicity. Although there are few options, they all sound so good that it's difficult to choose. And while the components of each dish are familiar, there's no sense that we've had these same combinations before: Emma's always adds a little twist, such as cream cheese in the garlic mashed potatoes or a demi-glace reduced with applesauce. To go along with the food, there's the wine list, which features some nice bargains, as well as an excellent roster of affordable champagnes that should make some of the town's more frou-frou spots blush in shame.
And Emma's has its two owners, Garen and Linda Austin, one of whom is always in attendance. Linda, a former server and bartender from New York, met Garen at the Brown Palace six years ago, when she was a bartender at the Ship Tavern and he, a Denver native who once managed both Sfuzzi and the Hyatt Regency, was the general manager. Their first date found them arguing over a restaurant issue. "She was giving the dishwashers Cokes in glasses because she felt bad that they worked so hard," Garen says. "Anyone who's worked in a restaurant knows that that's against health-department rules. But instead of firing her, I married her."
They've never disagreed on what they wanted to do with their own restaurant, though, or when to start it. "We both got out of the business for a while because we knew we wanted to start a family, and the hours are tough on families," he explains. "I was a banker for a very short time and hating it before Linda said to me, 'You know what you want to do, you want to open a little place of your own, so why don't we do it?'"
So they did, knowing from the beginning that they wanted to start small and keep it simple. To realize their vision, they took over a beauty salon -- "What do you do with 4 x 6 mirrors?" Garen asks -- and hired a jeweler friend to paint faux finishes on the walls; they also snagged chefs Matt Hallendy and Ryan Hill, along with a couple of servers, from Jax Fish House, allegedly with owner Dave Query's permission. "I want to give Dave credit, because he's a very good guy," Garen says. "He also let us raid his storage shed for used equipment that would have cost us an arm and a leg."
Query isn't the only friend who's helped out the couple. When the restaurant lost a pair of servers in one night, leaving only two to serve a full house, two of the Austins' buddies came in to act as busboys for the evening.
That was during one of my visits, and even though we could see that all of the employees were racing around like mad, it's very much to the restaurant's credit that none of the details went unnoticed. Our water glasses were kept filled, steak knives appeared long before the steaks, explanations of the dishes were given without that eye-rolling "You're holding me up here with your questions" look and, with the exception of a lengthy wait for the main course that may or may not have been the servers' fault, everything went pretty smoothly.