Bite Me

What can I tell you? Clair de Lune is definitely not going to make it through the summer."

I've been waiting for this call for weeks. Not sitting by the phone, exactly, but knowing it's coming. And when it does, it's like hearing that the relationship is finally over. Like getting a message from the hospital saying that you better come quick, because the end is near.

This started, what...a month ago? Middle-of-the-afternoon chat with Sean Kelly, owner/chef at Clair de Lune, talking about the all-time great food flicks. Sean's pick was a scene toward the beginning of Big Night, with the two brothers standing, arguing, in their restaurant's empty dining room. And then Sean -- a guy I consider a friend and one of the best chefs I know -- just popped. Just blew up.

"I cooked six dinners on Thursday night, man! Six fucking dinners," he said. "I come in the morning, spend all day cooking, getting ready, and for six dinners? I may as well just pop open a can of Campbell's, go home and cook for my family."

I knew that was it: Clair was done but for the announcement. And now, this call from Kelly.

"As it progresses -- I don't know," he says. "I'll keep you updated. But things are week-to-week at this point. If someone comes in and says, 'I got another job,' that's it. We're closed. I can't hire anyone else. I can't sell gift certificates, because I don't wanna have to tell anyone that we might not be fucking open in three weeks. And I'm obviously bleeding here at the end of every week as it is."

Bleeding -- and for what? For want of twenty covers a night. That's what the math comes down to. That's the reality of what it took for Kelly to cover Clair's nut every week -- pay the staff, keep the lights on, pay the produce man. Not twenty tables -- twenty heads. Twenty seats filled each night by twenty paying customers. And that's an average of twenty, so if Kelly cooked for thirty on a Friday, he only needed ten on a Wednesday. Two four-tops and a deuce. But last week, he now tells me, he'd only done 35 covers by Friday. Too few by half.

"Mario Batali, you know," Kelly says of the New York über-chef and Food Network frontman. "He says he won't even look at a space that can't do three turns a night. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday here, we were lucky if we got one turn. In April it was like we put up the white flag. We just surrendered. Every night that we're here and we're slow, I'm not thinking about what my accountant is going to say. Or even what my wife is going to say. It's that I know I should just be home with my kids, because what's the point? I'm at the point where I just don't want to embarrass myself anymore in an empty room."

Kelly is a nice guy even when he's pissed, so he won't say the things that need to be said here. But I'm not such a nice guy, so I'll say them for him.

This is your fault, all you self-professed foodies with your moldering stacks of Gourmet back issues, your dining cards, your fussiness and constant fretting about Oh, when is Denver going to step up and do something about all these chains? All of you who never went to Clair de Lune when you had the chance, who never did anything but complain, who moaned to your friends about not being able to get reservations when the only reservations you ever asked for were at 7:15 on a Saturday night, who wouldn't go for dinner because you couldn't use a credit card, who had microwave lasagna and a glass of Beaujolais in front of the TV on a Tuesday night instead of just dropping in at Clair de Lune and saying hi -- this is your fault. The prices aren't high, not even for a scene as deflated as Denver's, so don't lay that trip on me. Dinner for two in one of the best houses in town, with wine and tip, and you can get out the door for well under a hundred. Try that in Manhattan. Christ, try that in Chicago! I've had bigger bar tabs here.

Yeah, the restaurant is small, but it doesn't feel small when you've got the place to yourself -- it feels special. And Sean Kelly was -- is -- one of the best chefs we've got. He's been there every night waiting for you -- Lord Jim of a one-man galley, every plate his own -- and in any other real food town, the trade from the neighborhood alone would have been enough to keep him afloat. The locals would've protected the place like treasure, and I would've gotten a raft of angry letters after my review came out from regulars worried about having to fight outsiders for a table.  

But in Denver? Nothing. Six covers on a Thursday night. It's enough to make a fella wonder why he bothers, why he shouldn't just chuck it all, throw in the towel and get a job heating alfredo out of the bag at Olive Garden. If that's what people really want (and they certainly fucking seem to), then that's exactly what they deserve.

Sean is taking this much better than I am. On the phone, he sounds resigned, almost philosophical about the whole thing. A weight has lifted; a chapter ended.

"Fine dining is..." he stutters a little, searching. "I don't know. I think it's just done. It's been hand-to-mouth for a long time. There was never a point when the checkbook was so padded that we didn't have to worry about next weekend's reservations. People always said, ŒOh, it's cool, but it's cramped; you can't get a reservation when you want it; they don't take credit cards.' We always struggled with that. People want all the services that the restaurant in front of the fucking mall has. Valet parking and whatever. And we could never do that here. So it's run its course. It's time."

So some time soon -- maybe next week, maybe a month from now -- Clair de Lune will close. After that, because Kelly still has time left on the lease and he doesn't want to stiff some farmers growing product specifically for him, the space will get a bit of an overhaul, a name change. "Maybe we'll reopen as a tapas bar," he says. Something fun. Something with small plates and small prices more apropos to what he calls "the sushi generation." His roundsman, Seth Black, who has been with him since his days at Aubergine, will likely have a big hand in that. Kelly wants to keep the doors open for the staff that's hung with him through all the lean times, and for Black, whom he thinks is ready to grow. "I'd really like to step back and see what they could do with a place like that," he says.

And what will Kelly be doing? He's wondering that himself. "I love food so much," he says. "I can't think of doing anything else. For a chef to come in at eight in the morning and stand there with flour and butter on his hands? Then he bakes, then he butchers? That's what it's about, isn't it? But I think my days of standing in the kitchen all day are over. It's not really something I'm down about or bummed about. I still look at Clair like it was the best two years of my career. It's just run its course and now it's time to say goodbye."

Leftovers: My recent cheeseburger ramblings took me past another worthy spot: Burgers-n-Sports out in Parker ("Building a Better Burger," January 22). I had two reasons for stopping there. One, those excellent wax-envelope cheeseburgers, good fries and thick milkshakes in all the primary colors: vanilla, chocolate and pink. And two, I had to make sure the place was still open, because Burgers-n-Sports (and its parent company, Ninth Inning Sports) has recently (or I should say finally?) landed in the crosshairs of a lawsuit filed by the good folks behind In-N-Out, the California-based burger chain

The basis of the complaint is thus: That the people behind Burgers-n-Sports are a buncha big, fat copycats. Sure, a lot of fancy-shmancy legal terms are being bandied about, but what it comes down to is a lawyered-up, shirt-and-tie version of a simple schoolyard dirt fight. On one side, there's In-N-Out burger -- the cool kid, the stylish one, the aggrieved party -- and on the other, there's Burgers-n-Sports, the upstart new kid trying to shortcut the long climb to locker-room credibility by co-opting a little of the cool kid's style. Okay, more than a little. And if the court papers recently filed by In-N-Out's attorneys are the cool kid's initial salvo -- the stiff shove and quick "what the fuck?"-- then what promises to be a stupefyingly dull period of arbitration, negotiation and legal motions will serve as the grown-up equivalent of the three o'clock throw-down out by the bike racks.

Why the fuss? Well, because in the opinion of the In-N-Out legal team, Burgers-n-Sports is flat-out ripping off In-N-Out's rather distinctive style (not to mention distinctive spelling) and, to use some of those big words that the lawyers are so fond of, that could add up to copyright infringement, conspiracy, misappropriation, misrepresentation and trade duress. Yes, Burgers-n-Sports gets some mileage out of its nominal frontman (and Ninth Inning Sports partner), Colorado native Goose Gossage. And no, I've never been to an In-N-Out that had a batting cage or gave up a quarter of its floor space to a big, sports-themed gift shop or topped its booths with green chain-link fence like a Little League dugout. But come on: Short of the jock stuff, everything else about this place looks, tastes, smells and feels like an In-N-Out burger joint. And while I think that's great (because it saves me a seven-hour high-speed drive to the nearest In-N-Out location in Vegas), I can certainly understand where the law-dogs are coming from on this one.  

According to Ninth Inning, Burgers-n-Sports never had and does not now have anything to do with the In-N-Out burger chain. So while the spat works its way through the legal system, the outpost in Parker will continue to cook up a mean cheeseburger -- and its owners are even planning to expand to a second location.

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