Hotel restaurants have always been a sort of safe haven in the food industry. For operators, a hotel restaurant seems like a sound investment, given the captive audience and the chance to piggyback on expenses. For employees, a hotel restaurant looks like a middle ground between the freedom and penury of the independent restaurant world and the soul-killing, jalapeño-popper ennui of the chains. And hotel work generally comes with perks (health insurance, 401(k)s, a certain amount of job stability) unseen elsewhere in the industry, gotten in trade for a sacrifice in autonomy and a murderous three-a-day schedule, plus room service, banquets, parties and other complications.
Besides the fun factor, one of the big differences between the original, freestanding, independent Elway's and Elway's Downtown, which I reviewed this week? The restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton serves breakfast. One of the most confounding things about running a hotel restaurant is that a chef who's probably tried to avoid the kinds of gigs that require folding omelets, cooking pancakes and stocking the scrambled eggs in a morning buffet for most of his career suddenly finds himself in charge of a breakfast line — a hang-and-bang proposition almost completely antithetical to the experience of running a fine-dining dinner line.
At breakfast, Elway's Downtown drops the steakhouse concept in favor of homemade pastries, lots of fresh fruit (good for the food cost and easy enough for even the most brain-damaged or hung-over 4 a.m. prep cook to manage), pancakes, waffles, and eggs in a variety of styles. It's a standard menu, designed to get all those road warriors fed, coffee'd and out the door in classic hotel style.
But while there's not much creativity involved in a hotel breakfast, there is money, since you can charge ten bucks for a dollar's worth of food and have customers thankful just for the convenience. It also helps makes all the pomp of dinner service possible.
When I talked with Ian Kleinman when I was researching my story on O's Steak and Seafood at the Westin Westminster, he told me flat-out that those "continental breakfasts" served to expense-account travelers ($17 for an orange, a cup of coffee and a couple mini-danishes, times a few hundred customers a day) were what allowed him to get as freaky as he did with his molecular-gastronomy tasting menus. He wasn't exactly making the house a fortune with his Alsatian grape caviar and handmade bubble gum, after all. But those muffin baskets for the insurance adjusters' conference? That was where the real money was.
Leftovers: After opening Twelve Restaurant at 2233 Larimer Street just a month ago, chef/owner Jeff Osaka is already making changes. "Due to the current economy, and feedback from our loyal customers, Twelve has responded quickly and adjusted its price structure to reflect this demand," he wrote in an e-mail last week. "However, changes will not be made when it comes to using the finest products available and the care that goes into preparing them."
When I got Osaka on the blower, he explained how opening during one of the shittiest economic epochs ever had made him revise his original plans. He'd come to Denver (from California, where he'd had a good run as a chef, freelancer and owner) with an idea about how much time it would take for his ideas to take hold in an environment not as viciously trend-driven as L.A.'s. "It's simpler here," he explained. Simpler, and with customers not accustomed to paying for pricey meals at unknown places — even when the dishes are made from products supplied by local farms and ranchers, which is Osaka's goal.
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He'd targeted his first menu to come in somewhere between Table 6's twenty-something range and Mizuna's board, which tops out around forty. On his November list, the entrees were priced in the low thirties, but even that seemed like too much of a bite for his customers. So he dropped his prices. "I thought I would react quickly and take care of the issue promptly," he told me. And so everything on the December menu comes in at less than thirty bucks. Which means that Osaka is now offering duck breast and confit with black mission fig for $27, foie with star anise and quince for $15, a killer deal on sweetbreads at $11, and salmon with wilted spinach and sauce gribiche (which I want, like, now) for $24.
It just goes to show that even the worst economy has something of a silver lining for those with nickels enough to still eat well. I'm already looking forward to seeing what Osaka has in store for January.
Twigs, the wine bar inside Tipsy's Liquor World, is closed. A sign on the door promises a "new idea in the making" — but will chef Chris Cina be a part of it? This summer, Swimclub 32's new idea was to serve pizza. But as of this month, Grant Gingerich and Chris Golub have renamed their place El Camino, and it's offering Mexican and New Mexican cuisine, along with cold beer and margaritas. And finally, Mark Tarbell has chosen a name for the new restaurant he's putting into the old Chama space near the Oven, his first restaurant in Belmar: Mark & Isabella. "The name, like a good rock lyric, has no real story," he says. Mark & Isabella will run with an American-Italian menu, dinner only, seven nights a week, and should open by the end of the month.