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."
Wacky stuff like lump crab cakes (built up from a scallop mouselline) with Osetra caviar, parsnip purée and fried parsnips. Like real duck-confit pizzas made in the custom stone oven. Like lamb sliders on housemade focaccia with tzatziki. "I have not skimped on anything here," he pointed out.
Tipsy's, Twigs and Pickles all opened on April 7. The day we talked, Cina had been up and running for three weeks. He sounded more relieved than anything — happy to be back in the kitchen, happy to be drawing a paycheck. "It's good news," he said, maybe trying to reassure himself as much as me. "I'm happy. Lucky. I landed on my feet."
Leftovers: Early this week, I checked in with Leigh Jones about the new concept she's cramming into the Dish Bistro space at 400 East 20th Avenue. When we'd talked before, she'd said she was having trouble coming up with a name. The one she really liked was The Zephyr, but there's already a Zephyr Lounge in Aurora. She also gave some thought to going the English pub route — naming it after some neighborhood landmark or feature — but told me that "the Homeless Fountain Pub" just didn't quite have the right ring.
In the end, she essentially came down to naming it after herself, deciding on Jonesy's Eat Bar (which, the more I think about it, the more I like, if only because it reminds me of one of my favorite juke-joint dives in the country: Doe's Eat Place, in Little Rock, a back-in-the-day haunt of then-governor Bill Clinton). "It's kind of like at Mel's," Jones said of her eponymous decision. "Even when Mel isn't there, you still have that feeling of it being his place. And all my regulars? I think they'll get that, too."
Though chef Carl Klein moved on when the Dish closed May 4, Jones has retained journeyman cook and knife-for-hire Mike "Waldo" Walden, a veteran of Solera and the kitchens of Matt Selby who'd been there about a month when Jones decided to close the restaurant. "He gets it," Jones said. And he'll have the chance to prove it when Jonesy's Eat Bar opens the first week of June.
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In the same April 24 Bite Me column where I first wrote about the Dish closing, I talked a lot about Georgetown history, as told by Rube Goeringer of the Georgetown Valley Candy Company, which occupies the former home of the Silver Queen restaurant. While doing some background research on Rube, I'd stumbled across a two-line mention in a 1960s tourist brochure of a French chef who'd opened a fine French restaurant in Georgetown sometime in the late 1800s. Which, unless I am terribly mistaken, could possibly be the first true French restaurant opened in the West.
From what I've been able to dig up since, the chef (ex of Alencon and Paris, France, a runaway seminary-school student and U.S. Army deserter who — like so many other shady characters — worked briefly as a journalist) went by the name Louis Dupuy, which he adopted after going AWOL in Wyoming. But according to research done by the Hotel de Paris museum in Georgetown, his real name was Adolphe Francois Gerard, and his restaurant inside the old Hotel de Paris opened sometime between 1873 and 1890.
I'm still following a few leads, and you can read where they take me on the new Cafe Society blog.