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Back Again

Chris Cina disappeared from the dining scene two years ago. Now he’s back, and in a most unlikely place.

I last talked with chef Chris Cina back in August 2006, after I stumbled across a corporate website that listed him as chief of Roundstone Restaurants LLC. Here's part of what I wrote after that conversation: "Chef Chris Cina (ex of Tuscany, the Fourth Story, Beckett's Table and the kitchens of Kevin Taylor, Radek Cerny and Sean Kelly) is the only chef I know of who has his own Citysearch restaurant page (for himself, not for a restaurant where he works). And although he's not the first guy to offer consulting services (Creative Consulting & Co.) while elsewhere employed, or to have his own website (www.christophercina.com), now he's gone and formed Roundstone Restaurants LLC with partner Kevin Geraghty (founder of Brendan's Pub) before the two of them actually have a restaurant to call their own. But there is a restaurant on the way: T. Kelly's, an American bistro that's going into 1361 Court Place, the former home of Scorpio's."

They'd signed for the space just seventeen days after founding their company and were already talking about opening a second restaurant in Cherry Creek for Cina, to be followed by four to eight more (everything from sports bars to fine dining) in the next five years. To me, that seemed a bit...overly ambitious, and I admitted at the time to some old-fashioned suspicion about chefs building corporate websites and company profiles before they'd opened a single restaurant. Still, Cina was a blooded, experienced chef who'd run the show at the Loews Denver hotel, seen the Fourth Story through its final days. He'd been involved in restaurants during all phases of their life cycles, and when I talked to him, he'd just seemed so confident.

But shortly after that phone call, Cina seemed to vanish. T. Kelly's never opened (the space on Court is still empty), the promised four to eight more restaurants never materialized, and Roundstone Restaurants? Not another peep.

Until a few weeks ago, when Cina's name surfaced in connection with a sandwich shop called Pickles Deli out in Littleton.

"Seriously?" I thought. "Dude ended up cutting hoagies in a Southtowns deli? That's weird..."

I figured maybe it was time to pick up the blower and see what'd happened. Which I finally did last week. And even I was a little surprised by the story I heard.

"The last time we talked," Cina said, "You'd asked me: 'Do you think there's enough money coming into Denver right now to support this?' You know what? There wasn't."

Over the next twenty minutes, Cina laid out the "T. Kelly's fiasco" — a story of absent partners, bad business and terrible losses. "I got involved with people who I shouldn't have been involved with," he said. "That was one fucking year of my life I'd like to get rid of."

It started, he said, with the lease on the 1361 Court Place space. A third partner, Gary Fielder, had talked about investors lining up, people falling all over themselves to throw money into this new venture, but "the day we signed that fucking lease, everything went away," Cina told me. "Gary just vanished."

He and Geraghty, who'd come up with the T. Kelly's concept, tried to keep things together. Geraghty looked for funding while Cina paid the rent on the empty space out of his own pocket. But there was no funding to be had: Business was tanking everywhere, and no one was ready to step up and invest in a new restaurant. "I laid low for a year," Cina said. "Just went quiet."

But the deal finally landed in court, where Cina settled with the landlord for a big chunk of change just to get out of a five-year lease. "I took it in the ass like a good chef with a failed restaurant," he said. And after that, he knew he had to get back to work. Cina has a two-year-old daughter, a wife of five years. "I've put them through hell, too," he told me. "My thought was, get into a place where I can be comfortable and stable. That's it."

Which was when he saw the ad for Tipsy's Liquor World at C-470 and Bowles, an 87,000-square-foot liquor store with two restaurants attached: Pickles Deli and Twigs Wine Bar. Cina met with mother-and-daughter owners Carole and Donna Levine, discussed their plans and, next thing he knew, he was working. "It's fun to be busy again," he said. "It's going really well."

Me, being the cynical motherfucker that I am, found that hard to believe. I mean, going from hotel exec chef to cooking at a sandwich restaurant? That's quite a fall.

But Cina set me straight. Pickles is not just a sandwich shop, and the wine bar represents a real opportunity, because the Levines were willing to spend money — real money they actually had — on making the best restaurants they could. "Half a million on just the bar, dude! That's huge," he said. "Especially for a sixty-seat restaurant? That was my big draw coming here. They said, 'If you can get it, get it.'"

Which he did. Italian product, French product, the best of the best. Because of the quirks of running a wine bar that focuses on pairing the food with the bottles for sale on the floor, the menu is "one eclectic, global mess," Cina told me. But that's how he wants it. "The focus here is wine. Which is kind of a relief, because it means I can do whatever kind of wacky stuff I want."

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