If 240 Union (see review) is a model for how a restaurant makes it into middle age, then Steak au Poivre (in the old, subterranean Manhattan Grill space at 231 Milwaukee Street) exemplifies why so few places reach an age where they can be called "venerable."
"This is the toughest business in the world, Jason. I tell you. It's a motherfucker of a business, but I've been in it my whole life and I wouldn't want to do anything else." So says Marco Colantonio, managing partner at Steak au Poivre and a fixture at the host's stand every night.
He called last week to report that, after just a month in business, he'd revamped the solid Frog bistro menu at Poivre to make it "more accessible to customers" and bring in entrees at both lunch and dinner with a "lower price point." Our conversation started out very professional, very flack-to-critic, but it didn't take long (as any conversation between two restaurant guys is wont to do) to devolve into the sort of telephonic commiseration you'd get between two thirteen-year-old girls lamenting the loss of their favorite Backstreet Boy -- only with slightly fewer giggles and a lot more cursing.
"A smart restaurateur," Marco said, meaning himself, "does a soft opening, then sits down and listens to everything his customers have told him. And you know? I did that."
He's right: Thirty days is a good time for an owner or a manager or a chef to evaluate how a new restaurant's doing. Things change drastically during that first month. Expectations go bust, surprises creep out of every corner. The reason why the restaurant-critic handbook says that no place should be reviewed before ninety days of service is that almost every place needs thirty days to get built up, followed by thirty days where everything gets torn down again, and then another thirty days to get built back right. It's a rare restaurant that gets everything right straight out of the gate, and only the most freaky-brilliant chefs are still cooking at night 91 what they set out to cook on day one.
"Every night I stood there and watched people read the menu. I talked to the customers," he continued. "The trick is looking to what your customers say. Ask them what makes them happy and give them more of it."
Which is all a very circumspect way of saying that Steak au Poivre missed the mark with its assumption that what Creekers (and Denverites at large) really wanted was a very French, rather pricey basement bistro serving big steaks and heavy sauces just in time for the 90-degree Colorado summer. So now Steak au Poivre's menu is both lighter and cheaper and showcases a cuisine that's "not so French-forward," according to Marco. "We don't want to be another Brasserie Rouge, you understand? Even though I loved that fucking restaurant. And we already have Bistro Vendome." What he wants (or so he claims) is for Steak au Poivre to be a little neighborhood place with great food and strong drinks: Cheers, with a French accent. But what he really wants right now is customers -- that wave of support that will lift him, his restaurant and his kitchen and carry them on through the years. And a smart restaurateur will do anything -- absolutely anything -- to feel that tidal pull of success.
Which includes cutting the heart of your kitchen in half if that's what's required. Marco's done that, too: Last week, the former two-man team of Yoann Lardeux and Tobias Burkhalter (late of Le Central) was reduced by one, as Lardeux made a fast exit and Burkhalter was promoted to executive chef. The rest of the crew remains under Burkhalter's command. "I wish Yoann nothing but the best," Marco told me. "But Toby carried that kitchen. He's an unbelievable fucking star."
Square deal: There are changes in and around Larimer Square, too. The old Tommy Tsunami space at 1432 Market Street, which most recently saw life as the doomed Tom Tom Room, will soon be home to the newest location of Bara Sushi -- which is both the Japanese name for a kind of rice salad native to Kansai, and the name of a mom-and-pop sushi enterprise in the Denver Tech Center, at 8000 East Belleview Avenue. For the past eighteen months, Bara Sushi has done a good business catering to the weekday Techie crowd.
Bara Sushi's owners will encounter the reverse on Market Street: lots of weekend foot traffic, lots of bar and club crowds, followed by some very quiet weekdays. That schedule is what killed Tom Tom Room, according to Larimer Square's Joe Vostrejs. Thursday through Saturday, the place would "just get crushed, totally packed," followed by days that were silent as the grave. "And that's the trouble with places like this, you know?" he says. Tom Tom Room "actually looked like they were doing pretty good, but when you make all your money in three days? You end up giving it all back on the other four."
Also, the space is roughly 7,700 square feet, which is a lot for a sushi bar. Hell, it's a lot for almost anything short of another chain restaurant. As for a third Asian concept going in where two have already failed? Bara Sushi must be hoping that the third time's a charm, because there's already a sign in the window promising "Opening in July."
Over at what's left of Josephina's (1433 Larimer Street), Randy Rutherford has moved on. The longtime partner of owner (and managing partner of Larimer Square Associates) Jeff Hermanson, Rutherford sold his Josephina's ownership stake to Hermanson some time ago, about when it became obvious that the place was going to lose the bulk of its real estate to Rioja going in next door, but he stayed on board as an employee until recently. "It's kind of the end of an era," Vostrejs explains. "I mean, Randy has been involved, in one form or another, with Josephina's since the '70s."
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But what's old is new again, since chef Eric Laslow, a big name in the Pacific Northwest food scene, has been brought on board. According to Vostrejs, Laslow's posting at Josephina's is only temporary, until something better can be found for him. And if something better doesn't come along?
"We'll create an opportunity," Vostrejs says. "I don't know if that would be in Larimer Square or elsewhere, but we'll make something work."
Leftovers: The good folks at Gaetano's -- the north Denver institution at 3760 Tejon Street that was recently picked up by Wynkoop Holdings Inc. , the company watching over Mayor Hick's investments while he's watching over the city -- are getting an unexpected vacation this week, courtesy of one very bad driver. According to Marguerite Lucas, general manager at Gaetano's, at about 3:45 p.m. Saturday afternoon, someone going south on Tejon ran a red light and forced an SUV to crash into the façade of the restaurant.
"Structurally, we're okay," says Lucas, adding that it's going to take a little time until the insurance adjustors finish their business and the mess gets cleaned up. With any luck, Gaetano's will be back up and running -- and making money -- by the time you read this. And if not? "Who knows," she says. "I might be out selling sandwiches in the parking lot on Wednesday night."