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Food for Thought

An oldie but a goodie: At a hundred plus, the Chautauqua Dining Hall withstands the test of time -- and taste.
Anna Newell

The word chautauqua is Iroquois for either "two moccasins tied together" or "jumping fish," depending on which historical linguist you believe -- and its first use by non-Native Americans was to name a lake in western New York. Later the word referred to an institute for Sunday-school teachers, one that focused on educational rather than religious good works; by the late nineteenth century, it had been attached to a movement that involved gatherings of people interested in new ideas, public-policy issues and cultural events. Initially these gatherings were held in tents, but eventually someone came up with the idea of erecting buildings to house the folks who would come from all over to participate in summer-long learning-fests.

Of the thousands of formal and informal chautauquas that sprang up across the country, today only four physical sites remain, and only one of those is west of the Mississippi: the Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder, which includes 26 acres of hiking, an auditorium, an academic hall, a community house, sixty cottages, two lodges and the Chautauqua Dining Hall.

Colorado's chautauqua was created in 1898 through a part-public, part-private partnership between the railroads, Boulder and the Texas Board of Regents, which wanted a summer school for that state's educators. The dining hall was one of the first buildings constructed; since the teachers stayed in tents, they needed an inexpensive place to eat. (Total cost of a full meal in 1898: 35 cents.) Over the years, many groups traveling the national "chautauqua circuit" visited Boulder to enjoy the gorgeous setting and work through their particular agendas. One of these was the Women's Christian Temperance Union -- which, of course, insisted that there be no alcohol available at any of the chautauquas.

Today the Colorado Chautauqua site is owned by the City of Boulder and run by the nonprofit Colorado Chautauqua Association. The property is the only permanent chautauqua open to the public (the others are part of gated communities or resorts), and the beautiful white dining hall serves delighted customers year-round.

The dining operation has always been run as a concession, with varying degrees of success. The first chef was Boulder Canyon truck farmer Oliver Toussaint Jackson. But Jackson wasn't a very good chef, according to the CCA's Martha Vail, and he wasn't asked back. (Jackson went on to found the all-black community of Dearfield in Weld County.) Like several other CCA staffers, Vail signed on for what she thought was a short-term job in the dining hall, then later decided to dedicate her working life to preserving the unique spot.

The CCA's Nini Coleman worked in the dining hall in the 1970s. "It was a bit of a catastrophe," she remembers. "We would go in at noon and decide what we were going to cook for dinner that night, and then we'd run down to the grocery store and buy the ingredients. We always had hamburgers, homemade pie and rolls, and then whatever else we came up with." Cooking in the primitive kitchen was a challenge. "Nobody who worked there had eyelashes or eyebrows because of the terrible stove," Coleman says, laughing. "But we didn't care, because people who lived here treated us great. They would say, 'Shhh -- this place is our little secret.'"

In 1980, Steve Leblang, who owns a market in Boulder and once ran the Market Grill, assumed the dining hall's contract and elevated its offerings to a new level, serving summer visitors sophisticated fare. By 1997, though, he was ready to move on, and chef Bradford Heap and his partner, Rick Stein, took over. Heap and Stein already had a strong foodie following, thanks to their nearby Full Moon Grill, where Heap's savvy northern Italian cooking -- he was a James Beard Foundation nominee as one of America's best chefs in the Southwest region -- and Stein's wine smarts had combined to create one of the area's best dining experiences.

For a time, Heap and Stein kept the hall's summer-only hours, but they soon realized the place had much more potential. So they remodeled extensively, modernizing the kitchen, putting in carpet to muffle the noise, and installing radiant heat on the wraparound porch to extend its season. The dining hall is now open year-round, serving a modified dinner menu in the winter, with breakfast on weekends only. The full menu -- breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week -- is available from April to October.

At all times of the year, the view from the porch is stunning. On one side, the Flatirons jut up into the sky; on the other, the whole of Boulder and the plains beyond spread out as far as the eye can see. The view inside is almost as good: Warm yellow lighting softens the pristine white walls, and the room has an austere, moneyed look that made us feel as though Jay Gatsby might pop in at any moment. And what comes out of the kitchen is just as lovely. While Heap divides his time between Full Moon and Chautauqua, chef de cuisine Tim Bouse takes care of the dining hall's day-to-day kitchen operations. But no matter who's cooking, every meal displays Heap's dedication to using the freshest ingredients, organic if possible (during the summer, he goes all out at the local markets). Each dish relies on its individual ingredients to make a straightforward statement rather than complicated mixtures that mask the components' flavors.

For the winter, the appetizer menu was scaled way back, with only two grazing items -- a steamy-warm bowl of garlic-scented mussels served with grilled bread, and a top-shelf shrimp cocktail with a sharp, homemade cocktail sauce -- along with a handful of salads and a soup of the day. But what a soup it was: The thick, creamy mushroom concoction was incredibly soothing, with tiny bits of the fungi floating on top. The salads were sublime, too: The warm mushroom-and-goat-cheese version, with plenty of fresh mixed greens and a raspberry vinaigrette, had our whole table talking. The Caesar was another stunner, its crispy, well-chilled romaine tossed in an anchovy-kissed dressing that had just the right amount of parmesan for richness. Two large, thick slices of toasted, parmesan-crusted bread were a smart stand-in for the usual cut-up croutons.

The basic Caesar did double duty as an entree chicken salad; it came adorned with strips of ancho-chile-coated grilled chicken whose bite worked surprisingly well with the salty dressing, echoing the sharpness of the garlic and anchovies. That salad, along with a fat, juicy burger topped with bacon and cheddar, made for a fine fast dinner after a day of hiking around the Flatirons.

On another stop, though, we wanted to linger. And that was a good thing, too, since the timing of a Chautauqua meal can be problematic; when the dining hall is full, you can expect to wait a while between courses. But every dish was worth it, perfectly prepared and thoughtfully presented. Even the kids' meals of macaroni and cheese -- four gooey cheeses made the dish rich, rich, rich -- came with a tasty side of grilled winter vegetables. For the adults, a grown-up pasta dish of forest-mushroom linguine brought shiitake and oyster 'shrooms awash in a light cream sauce enhanced with garlic, white wine and parmesan. We almost inhaled the mango-topped Hawaiian mahi mahi, which paired the moist grilled fish with grill-crunchy rice. A honey-cured pork tenderloin was tender, all right, and boasted both an apple-cider reduction and caramelized apples. Tender also described the lamb shank, which, according to the menu, had been braised for seven hours. With its meat barely clinging to the bone, the tantalizing shank was served alongside a mound of chunky mashed potatoes strewn with caramelized onions.

The dining hall's enthusiastic staff, supervised by general manager Susan Sanford, was knowledgeable about the food, and the servers were so sharp that we couldn't tell if the timing problems were their fault or the kitchen's. Sanford is also responsible for the wine list. (When Heap took over the dining hall, he added liquor to the lineup.) The list, a short but interesting roster that pulls from all over the world, is organized by light, medium and full-body vinos, making it easy to pick the perfect bottle for our meal.

But don't tell that to the Women's Christian Temperance Union. We want the charming Chautauqua Dining Hall to be our little secret.

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