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Dakota Soifer's chicharrones, seasoned with a dash of chile oil and salt, are crispy puffs that crack between the teeth and dissolve on the tongue almost instantly, leaving behind nothing more than the sweet smokiness of pork. They're not on the menu at Cafe Aion, but they're sent, along with other scraps-turned-tapas, to diners as thanks for their business, and as a way to use every part, even the skin, of the pig the chef buys to make sausage and ribs and pancetta.
In this economy, nothing should go to waste — and no diner should be taken for granted. Even the most established restaurants have adjusted, proffering bargains in the form of extended happy hours and fixed-price menus while working with leaner staffs and lower food costs. The ones that don't do it well go out of business, leaving vacant spots that were once culinary landmarks. In times like these, opening a restaurant isn't just risky; it's more like a death wish.
Even if this were a fertile financial climate, the four adventurous alums from the Kitchen who decided to open Cafe Aion didn't make it easy on themselves. They're trying to bring upscale dining to the Hill, the epicenter of Boulder's college scene, an area inhabited almost exclusively by cheap sandwich shops, pizza joints and bars hawking pitchers of PBR and avoided entirely by the adult crowd that Aion aims to attract. They took on a spot that needed a complete gutting and renovation, and gave themselves just $100,000 to get the place open — a meager figure meant to cover everything from the daunting remodel to the stocked refrigerator required for their first night of business.
But even without a recession, Soifer and his partners — Jason Hein, Jake Kirkpatrick and Eric Lee — probably wouldn't have done much differently in opening the restaurant they dreamed up while on a chairlift in January 2009. They're an energetic, DIY crew, in this industry because it lets them lead an active lifestyle. "We're like dogs," says front-of-the-house manager Hein. "If you leave us cooped up in the house too long, we'll start chewing the rug." A fixer-upper was right up their alley.
Last December, the crew saw a chance to make their dream reality when Burnt Toast, a restaurant where Soifer had occasionally helped in the kitchen, fell empty. They took over the location on January 1 and sprang into action, debating how to blur the line between dining out and home entertainment in everything from the space design to the menu. By February, they'd all quit their jobs to concentrate on the project full-time.
"Everything in this restaurant has a story," Kirkpatrick says, sitting at a table in front of one of Cafe Aion's large windows, sipping from a glass bottle of soda. "We built this place, we made every decision together, we got a lot of help from our friends and neighbors, and now we're having a constant dinner party."
It helps that the building feels like an old house, with a long front patio and a wrap-around veranda that begs you to sit on a sunny Saturday morning with French press coffee and a crossword puzzle, a physical factor that convinced the foursome to offer brunch on weekends. Up the steps, the dining room is cozy, with good lighting and well-sectioned space, but it's also completely open to the kitchen, allowing everyone to socialize, even the chefs.
The goal was to create a spot where friends would want to hang out. "We want it to be a place where climbers and bikers and skiers can feel comfortable mingling with people who like fine dining," Hein explains. "Basically, it's Gore-Tex meets Gucci."
Kirkpatrick, who manages the bar and beverage program, is a skilled carpenter, and he crafted almost everything in the room. He scavenged beetle-killed wood for the massive bar and then covered it in reclaimed industrial metal, creating a focal piece that facilitates social gatherings without obstructing the flow. He cut the tables to a precise height, hoping to encourage guests to linger for hours. He even laid the pine wainscoting along the vibrant, Mediterranean blue wall, lightening up the room and giving it dimension.
What the partners didn't build, they foraged from sales and restaurant closures and secondhand suppliers, fussing over details until they all agreed that they had it exactly right. As a result, the space feels well-loved and efficient. Everything inside has a story, another origin — even the name, which was etched into the brick outside back when the building was the home of Aion Bookstore.
Soifer's a DIY-er when it comes to food, too. While the others worked in the gutted space that would become the restaurant, he was curing the meat, preserving the lemons and making the marmalades that would make up the menu on opening night. Now, new creations are worked into the rotation when he determines they're ready.
Whether an accoutrement or the main event, Soifer's salumi is a standout. Sweet and spicy chorizo sausage adds depth to manila clams bathed in white wine. Salty coppa, the cured neck and shoulder of a pig, is balanced by aioli and a crisp bite of arugula, all served on a hearty chunk of baguette. And the silky lomo, pork loin that melts on the teeth and tongue, needs nothing more than a spoonful of fruit compote to cut its richness.