Business as Usual

The way things are going in the restaurant biz -- the Colorado Restaurant Association reports that sales will be up about 6.1 percent this year over 1999, which should translate to $6.4 billion shelled out to Colorado eateries, and restaurant jobs in this state will increase by 2 percent, which is double the national 1.1 percent forecast -- no one should be empty on weeknights, let alone on a weekend. But inexplicably, the dining room at the new Zenith (in what was Brasserie Z, at 815 17th Avenue) was less than half full on a recent Friday. (The bar crowd, however, was going strong early in the evening.) Co-owners Kevin Taylor and his partner, chef Sean Yontz, are out of town doing some cooking in New York, but Wendy Mayoros, Zenith's special events coordinator, says they're hitting their new PR company hard to come up with ways to drum up business.

"Lunches are through the roof," Mayoros says. "We're not sure what's going on, if it's the location or what, but we're also looking at ways to bring people in through banquets and business events. I'd have to say that the lack of business at dinner has been frustrating."

Here's what I say: Ever since the original closed two years ago, Zenith fans have been complaining that they missed the restaurant. Taylor and Yontz have been reworking the menu, which includes old favorites (love the corn chowder) as well as some superb new items (try the lobster torta appetizer), and the place looks great. So if you don't want to lose Zenith again, you'd better get your butts in there. I already have, as you can tell from my recent rave of the place ("Blast From the Past," December 23, 1999).

Next door to Zenith is the venerable Broker (821 17th Street), which serves dinner until 11 p.m. no matter how slow or busy the hours before might have been. Management promises that if you walk in the door by 10:59, they'll serve you. A few dozen feet away is another real late-night (or late-afternoon, for that matter) deal: In the bar of Panzano at the Hotel Monaco (909 17th Street), a flute full of Brut Prosecco will set you back a mere $6.50. Panzano isn't a bad choice for grazing, either -- especially if you're a Caesar fan.

More and more eateries are finding that offering small plates or a well-rounded appetizer roster can boost sales as people drink and socialize, skipping full-scale dining entirely. Another place about to get in on the act is the Denver Buffalo Company (1109 Lincoln Street), which recently hired three new chefs and is in the process of revamping its happy-hour drinks and snacking menu.

"We've been in business now for eight years," says Buffalo Company vice president Ed Morrissey. "And although we haven't had many big changes in staff over that time -- in fact, this is only our third executive chef change, and a lot of the waitstaff has been here since the start -- one day we kind of looked at the little things that have changed over the years and said, 'Whoa, this isn't where we meant to end up.'"

Now the company is taking advantage of longtime chef Joe Daniel's resignation -- on friendly terms, Morrissey says -- to return to its roots. "We always were known for our buffalo prime rib and our buffalo burger," he explains. "And we consistently won awards for them, and they were well-known. But that's slipped a bit, so we're aiming to get back on track."

Toward that end, DBC has hired executive chef Thomas Burke, most recently at the Marriott in Boulder, as well as new sous chef Jason Johnson, former banquet chef for the Denver ChopHouse & Brewery, and new deli chef Rebecca Benchouaf, who had been baking at Tuscany at the Loews Giorgio Hotel. "So now we're looking at beefing up -- no pun intended -- all aspects of our food, but really going back to those things that made it good, like buttering the bun on the burger and toasting it real good," Morrissey says. "And we're also going to expand on our happy hour, working at it until we make the best martini, the best Manhattan. And then we'll start adding some snack-type items to the happy-hour menu to get people in here at that time of the day. Because we really haven't been known for our happy hour, and we'd like to be."

To trim the fat a bit, DBC is now closed on Sundays; look for the new happy hour and the back-to-basics menu to be implemented by the first of March. "We're pretty excited about this," Morrissey says. "We'll even be baking our own buns."

No news is bad news: Even though the Newsstand Cafe (630 East Sixth Avenue) was sold over a year ago, the group that bought it -- Ray Robles and Finster Bros. Bagels' Jim Finster and Kim Greenfield -- still have a sign on the place that proclaims: "New Ownership, New Attitude." But regulars are complaining that the attitude, if anything, is worse these days, and a recent stop by for a cup of joe confirmed that. The guy who took my order told me to go sit down and wait because it would be a few minutes, then yelled, "Hey, are you going to come get this or what?" when it took me about twenty seconds to get my backpack out from under the table.

But what really has the regulars up in arms is that they're about to lose the luxury of grabbing a paper inside the cafe: The Newsstand is removing all of its inside newspaper racks and going to an outside box format. "The bottom line is, those things take up way too much room," says Robles. "We need more space for seating." The Newsstand will also reduce its magazine offerings to the top 75 sellers, although it won't be changing the name of the place to Magazinestand or Attitudeland.

"I know the regulars are all upset about this, 'cause they're grumbling a little," says Robles. "But, big deal -- they're just going to have to walk about ten feet outside, and it's not like it's going to cost them anything extra. It'll still be the same price. We'll eliminate those little freebies -- the Nickel, or whatever it is -- and the free papers, like Westword and Out Front, will still be free. They'll just be outside.

"Hey, we're getting sixteen more seats out of this," he adds.

Yeah, but will regulars be sitting in them?

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