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I've said a lot of nasty things about chain restaurants. I've advocated a boycott of Applebee's (because of my horror of Riblets), asked both God and Santa Claus to rain fire down on Olive Garden franchises, given away KFC fried chicken to homeless people, savaged McDonald's on any number of occasions, put the boot to Pei Wei Asian Diner, mocked Fat Burger and suggested that Olive Garden (again) was grinding up hobos to make its sausages. I have, on occasion, even eaten at these places just to make sure they continue to suck (which they do) and continue to promote all that is evil, pre-made, flash-frozen, shelf-stabilized, chemically enhanced and heat-to-serve in the food-service world (which they do).
190 St. Paul St.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
Grilled polenta: $9.50
Lamb: $25< br>Stuffed chicken: $16.50
In doing so, I've actually found some instances of surprising chain excellence that are the exceptions that prove the rule. Il Fornaio, for example, can do very nice work, largely because the day-to-day ops in these kitchens are overseen by individual chefs rather than some corporate über-chef, and the menus are created in-house, not by corporate edict. P.F. Chang's has service down to a science, with a hierarchical set of checks and balances that could be used as a teaching model for poli-sci majors. And Chipotle -- though now a McDonaldland show pony -- has always been on the cutting edge for all restaurants, not just chains, with its intelligent business practices and the employment of quality product in (nearly) everything it makes.
And now in this morass of Riblets and jalapeño poppers, I've found another oasis of decency: Piatti Locali. This place has done something that, for a chain restaurant, is even more rare than just being good. It has redeemed itself, turning away from the easy enticements of the corporate dark side and becoming a serious restaurant.
So serious, in fact, that it has set a new standard for my judgment of chain restaurants as a whole: Absent everything else on the menu, forgetting what Restaurant X has done in the past and what it might do in the future, would I eat organ meats there? Would I eat them there right now?
The Piatti chain was founded in Napa Valley in 1987 -- in the cradle of the revolution and in a good year for revolutionaries. After that, new locations were slowly added, mostly in California, and all followed a basic plan that called for restaurants with big patios and rustic decor serving simple and unchallenging Italian food in a loosely European iteration of the ideals of California cuisine. There was a lot of grilling, a lot of fresh, plainly prepared vegetables, and a wine list that focused mainly on Italian labels, which in California was something like a sacrilege.
The formula was flexible enough that its allowed Denver's Piatti to do interesting things when it opened in 1995. John Imbergamo, who did PR for the restaurant back in the day, remembers a dinner that brought together local hairdressers to make pasta hairdos -- giant sculptures of twisted linguine and Rastafarian braids hung with orechiette and elbows. Piatti hosted chef reunions, and its own chef and kitchen crew were encouraged to go to the nearby Cherry Creek farmers' market in their whites to buy product for specials.
With time, though, this freedom began to fade. And in the increasingly hot Cherry Creek scene, Piatti was largely forgotten -- and rightly so. Sure, the place was pretty. Like all of its brethen, it had a nice patio, shaded by climbing vines and spreading branches. But while the place did some decent business, the menu seemed dull as dirt to anyone looking for something original. Why should they eat bruschetta, zuppa del giorno, calamari fritti and pizza margherita here when they could have the same thing (or better, more interesting things) done equally well (or better) at some independent restaurant? On the rare occasion that I found myself stranded in the Creek with absolutely no other options, I would go to Piatti. And though I never had a terrible meal, neither did I ever have a great one.
That changed last year. In August 2005, Piatti announced a sudden shift in its business model that would turn all twelve links in the chain into independent restaurants. Not in terms of ownership or systems or accounting, but in the kitchen, which is where it matters most.
At first I wrote this off as a stunt, a clever bit of marketing that would make a chain restaurant appear independent without actually freeing up the kitchen. But then I talked to Susan Klos, manager of Denver's Piatti, and she assured me that this was the real deal. For eighteen months, staffers had been thinking about what they would do if they could do anything at all, and then for three more months, they'd secretly worked to find local producers and purveyors and determine what was really possible. Chefs had been meeting with farmers and haunting the farmers' markets, writing and testing menus based on what was available in their areas. Denver's chef, Mario Godoy, was spotted in Boulder, in the Creek, poking at the greenery and squeezing the melons. He and his crew were inspired, Klos said. They were excited about the opportunity to go their own way, to deal with product purchased from people whose hands they could shake at the end of the day.
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