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Indo-Hawaiian fusion. A French restaurant-slash-sushi bar that opens at nine o'clock at night and cooks through to the morning. I've heard a lot of bad ideas in my time, have seen a lot of suicidal business plans and even been involved in a couple (an Irish farmhouse restaurant in central Florida, a white-tablecloth diner in upstate New York). But Frisco's Deli and Market may be the most unlikely concept yet.
It starts with two rookie owners, Steve Devery and Bryan Lee (the first a trained chef with almost no real-world restaurant experience, the second a former engineer on Boston's Big Dig), who sign on three trained chefs (Paul Reilly, who was schooled at the French Culinary Institute in New York and then made his bones at Le Bernardin; Teri Nelson, an ex of Whole Foods Market with a specialty in prepared, industrial production; and Thomas Roberts, a thirteen-year veteran who did time with Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali before coming to Denver to manage the opening of the Capital Grille), and then plunk them down in a brand-new restaurant in a suburban shopping center alongside twenty-odd kids from the local culinary diploma mills. Their mission: to create a three-a-day restaurant plus deli, plus market, plus catering operation.
This sounds like a premise for the worst restaurant reality show ever.
7057 W. Alaska
Lakewood, CO 80226
Region: West Denver Suburbs
Stromboli: $4.99< br>Mac-n-cheese (normal): $6.99
Mac-n-cheese (five-cheese): $7.99
Steak hash: $7.99
It shouldn't matter that the owners have the best intentions; most first-time owners do, and most first-time owners go broke fast. It shouldn't matter that the chef/managers are really putting in the hours, that the schoolkids on staff are quick learners. It shouldn't matter that Frisco's is located in a choice storefront in the new Belmar development, which is not your average shopping center. None of this should matter, because the basic idea -- essentially trying to cram a bistro into a deli simply by bashing the two of them together hard enough -- is ridiculous, a pipe dream of the terminally starry-eyed. It may look great on paper, seem possible in theory, but it's been tried before a thousand times, ten thousand times, and it never works. Eventually, the owners either smarten up and choose between the restaurant and the market, or they fail. Because in the simple and unforgiving economics of the food world, you can bank on this: If an idea doesn't work the first time someone tries it, it's probably not going to work the hundredth, either.
Except that it's working at Frisco's.
"It was an experiment," explains executive chef/marketing director/manager Thomas Roberts when I get him on the phone after a visit to Frisco's, determined to figure out exactly how much of his soul he had to sell to the devil to get this gig, and what the going rate might be. According to Roberts, the owners just wanted to see what would happen if they took a dozen or so young culinarians, put them under the command of a heavy hitter or two and let them go nuts. "It was an experiment with their life's savings, and I told them I thought they were crazy," he says. "But you know what? It seems to be working out for them."
Walking past Frisco's, you'd never guess at the noble experiment within. It looks just like any other yuppie storefront market hawking bagged artisan pastas and Stonewall Kitchen mustard, with a few steaks in the cold cases and some stinky French cheese in the window. Step inside, and it still seems like nothing special. Comforting earth-toned paint job, a nice mural along one wall, bottles of herbed olive oil for decor. At lunch, the counter does a brisk trade, serving fairly prosaic Boar's Head sandwiches and cold prepared salads to the Belmar window-shoppers and employees of the big-box retail outlets that surround the place. You could walk in and out of it a dozen times and never see anything unusual -- unless you happen to have an eye for food-world weirdness and think it's a little strange for so much real estate to be given over to tables, leaving room for only two wire racks of dry stock plus the meat case, the prepped-food case and the cheese case; or that for a place supposedly just making sandwiches and a few prepared meals, Frisco's appears to have an inordinately large kitchen with a lot of cooler space and too many white jackets running around.
I wasn't that smart, though. I just happened to wander in one night feeling a bit peckish, looking for a quick sandwich. Since there was no menu, no chalkboard list of specials, I asked the guy at the counter, "Do you guys do dinner?"
"Absolutely," replied the guy. "What do you feel like eating tonight?"
Turned out I felt like eating stromboli and stroganoff -- not that I'd had any idea of that when I walked into Frisco's.
When I ask Roberts about the whole "what do you feel like eating" thing, he assures me that it's serious. "If we have it in the house, we can do it," he says. It's a little tough to hear him, because he's in his kitchen, clearing up the last of the day's lunch business so he can start setting up for dinner. "Our kitchen is very purveyor-driven," he explains. There are no order sheets for the produce companies, no worrying over pars and back stock. Instead, every morning Roberts calls up his guys at the warehouses to ask, "What looks good?," then has them send over the best of anything they've got. And that's dinner.