Repent, foodies, for the end draweth nigh: The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story this month full of doomsday prognostication and dire warnings for the future of the indie restaurant biz. According to Technomic Inc., a food-consulting firm out of Chicago, last year the Big Evil Empire of chain restaurants finally succeeded in gobbling up a majority of the restaurant-industry market -- just over half of a $350 billion annual pie.
So is this it? Is this the beginning of the end for the little mom-and-pop neighborhood spot?
Not according to Sean Kelly, whose restaurant, Clair de Lune (1313 East Sixth Avenue), may not be mom-and-pop, but sure is little. "They don't scare me," Kelly says. "My clientele doesn't want to be in a chain. But what worries me is the fact that they're publicly held, so they don't have the day-to-day or month-to-month worries of an independent restaurant."
He's right: One of the biggest strengths of the corporate-concept restaurant is the vast pool of assets that many of them have to draw from. Between stock sales, venture capital and loans from other investors or partners, many links in restaurant chains open with enough cash to go a year or more before seeing one nickel in profit. Add to this the advertising budgets, eager hordes of PR lackeys, discounts for a chain's ability to buy in bulk for multiple locations, and you can see that the field is definitely slanted in their direction.
Are other Denver restaurateurs getting nervous? Not the ones I talked to. Ken Fredrickson, partner and master sommelier at Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street), insists that commitment and passion in the kitchen are what set an independent restaurant apart. "With the people we have," he says, "we can have tremendous creativity as opposed to the corporate environment."
Kelly would seem to agree, citing adaptability as his big weapon. "If I see something I like in a magazine," he points out, "I can have it on my menu the next day."
Michael Smith, general manager at the Fourth Story (2955 East First Avenue), would rather not think of the relationship between chains and independents as an adversarial one. "It's a restaurant community," he says. "I don't think of it as a competition."
Can we all just get along? I guess time -- and the stock market -- will tell.
Happy birthday, Julia: What do you get a ninety-year-old woman who has everything? You throw her a big-ass party at twenty high-end restaurants scattered across the country, invite a veritable who's who of the industry to come on down and cook some of her favorites, and encourage everyone to get sloppy drunk as they toast the first lady of American cooking. On the evening of August 1, Martin Yan (of Yan Can Cook fame) will be at Joel in Atlanta, Jacques Pepin (one of my hash-slingin' heroes, in case anyone cares) will be at New York's French Culinary Institute, and Julia herself will be at the Fifth Floor Restaurant in San Francisco. Closer to home, we'll have Jill St. John sharing the pans with Chef Charles Dale at Renaissance in Aspen, and right here in Denver, chef Jennifer Jasinski will throw down with Charlie Trotter at Panzano (909 17th Street). The Panzano party starts at 6 p.m. and is $120 per head; for details, call 303-296-3525.
Fine dining not your thing? Then how about the Spicy Pickle's third annual pickle-eating contest set for 1 p.m. Saturday, August 10, at the sub shop's original 988 Lincoln Street location? The record is nine pickles in sixty seconds -- and those are quality, homemade pickles. Think you can do better, stud? Prove it. Minimum donation to enter is just ten bucks, and the Spicy Pickle will match any donation up to $500, with proceeds going to the Make-A-Wish foundation. And did I mention that there are fabulous prizes to be won? Stop by any of the three Spicy Pickles for information on how to enter.
Two more opportunities to eat well while doing good this week: From 6 to 10 p.m. on July 26, "Savor the Night" brings bands, food from local restaurants and plenty of Coors products (some of those restaurants feature recipes using Coors Beer) to the Denver Performing Arts Complex Galleria. The event benefits the Colorado Women's Chamber of Commerce, the Gathering Place, Safehouse Denver and the Women's Bean Project; tickets are $25. For information, call 303-458-0220. And from 4 to 7 p.m. July 28, this year's version of Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation debuts in a new location, Johnson & Wales University. Over fifty restaurants and 75 wineries are contributing to the spread; admission is $50 (VIP tickets run $200). For information, call 303-297-0408.
Coming soon to a suburb near you: Fast approaching is the triple-threat unveiling of Opus Restaurant, Main Street Tavern and Aroma Cafe at 2575 West Main Street in Littleton. That single address will house a trio of eateries with three distinct menus, but sharing contemporary decor and a full bar and wine list; Opus and Aroma both have open kitchens, and Opus has its own grand fireplace. This is an ambitious project, to say the least. Getting just one restaurant up and running can be a nightmare; I can't imagine what kind of headaches might be involved in trying to open three at the same time.
I've gotten a peek at advance copies of the menus for both Opus and the Tavern, and I can confirm that the ambition doesn't end with the blueprints. At Opus, we're talking lobster and leek strudel, ratatouille-stuffed artichoke with saffron couscous, and oxtail ravioli in porcini broth with poached quail egg and white truffle oil; the Tavern will offer upscale bar food like mozzarella spring rolls and seared Flat Iron steak. I've spoken with both executive chef Michael Long and pastry chef Anthony Polakowski, and while neither will say for sure exactly when the doors will open, I've been assured it should be sometime around the second week in August. For more details, call 303-703-OPUS.
The arrival of Opus, et al., compensates for two recent departures. Mama Pirogi's Bakery (2033 East 13th Avenue), a longtime fixture on Capitol Hill, has stuffed its last pirogi. And Busara (1435 Market Street), the sophisticated Thai restaurant that never really grabbed LoDo crowds, has closed its doors; a new venture could open in that elegant storefront space as early as next week.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.