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Last Man Standing

Remember The Restaurant, the reality show that crashed Rocco DiSpirito's career? Remember all the pissing and moaning about how Rocco seemed to spend all his time zipping around on his Vespa and tongue-kissing B-list celebs while his restaurant fell to pieces? Yeah, well, as anyone who's had any dealings with those upper echelons of celebrity chefdom can tell you, the real un-reality to The Restaurant was not how little time Rocco spent in his own kitchen, but how much.

When you've reached a certain level of fame -- a level where your name alone is enough to assemble the money, attract the staff and get a restaurant open in a market like Manhattan -- you're no longer a chef, you're a pusher, and your product is your name. Book signings, Today appearances, Food Network clusterfucks and charity events -- those are the job. Meanwhile, making the meatballs gets left to your team of presumably well-trained prep mercenaries.

Richard Sandoval is in the super-chef club. Six cities, nine restaurants, hundreds of employees -- that puts him in the big league. But so far, he's the only celebrity chef to open a serious restaurant in Denver -- three of them, actually, including La Sandía, which I review this week. And this prompts the question: Why haven't other big names come to town?

Imagine that you're one of those multi-unit chef/owners, sitting in your offices in Manhattan. You're surrounded by paperwork -- P&Ls on your various outposts, stock and labor numbers, one-sheet reports on the previous night's business that tell you how many tables got turned on the upper westside, the bar numbers from San Francisco, the latest bad news from your boîte in Madrid, whatever. You've got three months' worth of Gourmet and Food & Wine stacked up, galleys from your new cookbook that you have to look over, a slew of requests from charities wanting a piece of you. It's Wednesday, so there's the New York Times food section open on your desk; food sections from the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago papers, maybe the Times of London or whatever paper Americans read in Paris, are stacked up near the door. You've got three calls on hold from high-volume purveyors who want your business and your manager at the new L.A. bistro on another crying about a staff walkout last night.

Still, today is a good day. For months, you've been working to put together the money for a new restaurant. You've got a solid concept, a blooded staff poised to come up through your other outlets (which is what caused the troubles in L.A. in the first place -- none of them were ready, and now they feel overlooked and abandoned), a menu that you just know is going to blow everyone away, and last night you finally convinced your silent partners -- the money guys in the expensive suits and sensible haircuts who wouldn't know a gaufrette from a gelée but can read business plans and F&B numbers like voodoo women seeing the future in spit and chicken blood -- that the time is right to expand again. All those guys care about is the balance sheet; they expect a return on their investments -- a dependable, regular return right after month six. In a way, getting in bed with them is worse than just taking that friend's advice and throwing in with one of the big restaurant groups, with their impersonal crowds of shareholders or mobs of small-time investors. The restaurant groups can take a hit now and then and still recover, and the shareholders each own only a little piece of you. But your guys? They know where you live...

Anyway, hands were shaken, and suddenly you have a nice chunk of development capital available: $2.5 million. Not a huge chunk, but enough to get the job done. You hope.

Today's business? Finding a home for your new restaurant. You've already got Manhattan covered with two addresses: upper west and lower east. L.A. will take care of itself, provided your manager can talk the staff back into the kitchen. That trampy starlet OD'ing in the bathroom two months back was tragic, sure, but the press was great. The bistro in San Francisco? It's been almost a year, but you're starting to get some traction. Madrid is a disaster, but who could have predicted how offended the Spanish would get over a fusion-paella restaurant?

If this were two years ago, Las Vegas would have been the natural choice for a new spot. But now everyone is in Las Vegas and no one is doing all that well. Miami is hot, but Miami has always been hot. There's D.C., of course. A lot of guys are moving into D.C. Big money, big crowds, good supply chain. Bouncing between New York and D.C. is easy enough -- not like flying to Madrid. You've always sorta wanted a place in Tokyo, but with $2.5 million, Tokyo is so far out of your price range that it's not worth thinking about. Philadelphia might work, though. It's almost as good as D.C. Better, in some ways.

 

What about Denver? You've been hearing some interesting things about Denver recently. There was that place with the wine room that won all those awards a couple of years ago. A couple of friends just went through Denver after skiing in Aspen and found the restaurants much better than they'd expected. Zagat has always seemed strangely impressed by the place. And, hey, didn't that guy Sandoval use Denver to test a couple of his concepts?

But wait. This is Denver we're talking about. Meat and potatoes. Cowboys. Steakhouses. It's flyover country -- how do you set up supply chains smack in the middle of nowhere? It's frightening to think what kind of local help -- and local diners -- you'd be forced to contend with. And sure, it's cheap (comparatively), but Chicago is already way out on the edge of your Midwestern comfort zone. Denver might as well be Siberia. All of a sudden, Philadelphia is looking real good. You shake your head, light a cigarette. Denver...Jesus, what the hell were you thinking?

On a national scale, the sad reality is that Denver just doesn't make the cut of top-tier restaurant cities. And although this status may be based on false assumptions (i.e., we have no supply chain, everyone here eats steak seven nights a week, we're a bunch of rubes who wouldn't recognize fine cuisine if it crawled up and humped our legs), it's borne out in numbers.

"It's a population issue," says restaurant consultant and man-about-town John Imbergamo, and he's exactly right. Denver itself has a population of 550,000, with 2.6 million in the metro area. Each year, we push about ten million visitors through the city. But New York City's population alone is almost that large, and Miami and Orlando count tourists at a rate of about ten times what Denver does.

Rather famously, Mr. Super Big-Time Celebrity Chef Mario Batali has said that he will not open a restaurant in any location where he can't turn his dining room three times on any given night. And how does Mr. Super Big-Time Celebrity Chef Mario Batali decide whether he's going to be able to turn a dining room three times before a place gets open? By comparing the size of the potential dining room with the population and tourist count of the city.

"There are many cities you would go to first before you'd think of opening a restaurant here," Imbergamo says. New York, Los Angeles, Miami/Orlando, Las Vegas, maybe Chicago or San Francisco -- that's the first tier. Below are second-tier cities like Houston/Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Denver falls somewhere between those cities and the third tier, above places like Minneapolis and Cleveland, probably on par with Austin and San Diego. And it's all about the numbers, about risk and reward.

A few name chefs have attempted restaurants here, and with the very notable exception of Sandoval, they've all failed. Wolfgang Puck opened three outlets in Denver -- a Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe in the Denver Pavilions and two Wolfgang Puck Express outlets, one in Cherry Creek and another on Concourse B at DIA, which is the only location that remains. Roy Yamaguchi opened a Roy's in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center several years ago; today it's a Kona Grill.

None of this means that Denver is not a great restaurant city. It is. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, we have the stock and supply. We have the talent. And not for nothing, but we already have our own crowd of homegrown, multi-unit owners who are doing very well: Kevin Taylor, Frank Bonanno, Dave Query, etc. And we also have Sandoval, who was in town a couple of weeks ago checking up on things at his restaurants. And while I may not be crazy about La Sandía, I've got to give the man credit for coming here, for trusting in Denver despite our numbers, for using us to test concepts that will go into cities where the math is kinder and the risks less severe. I don't think he's ever done the kind of business in Denver that he does in New York, in San Francisco or in D.C., but he's held on. And there's something to be said for being the last man standing.

Open-and-shut cases: Two other multi-unit owners have just lost local outlets. Last week, the original Emogene Patisserie at 2415 East Second Avenue ("Sugar Rush," May 4, 2006) went dark, six months after the Belmar outpost closed. Depending on who you talk to, the space will soon be a lunch place, a breakfast place or a breakfast-and-lunch place named Penny Lane. The one thing that's certain is that the property will remain in the hands of the Sullivan Group: The real estate is just too good to give up. And Tin Star, at 5332 DTC Boulevard, the only Colorado location of the fast-casual Tex-Mex chain, has also shut its doors. Unlike Emogene, Tin Star had an absolutely awful location -- a blind strip-mall middle suite with zero visibility, buried in the heart of the Tech Center. And while I dug the place ("Heavy Metal," September 1, 2005), my love alone was not enough to keep things going.

 

Pim Fitt is about as far as you can get from a multi-unit restaurant operator, but apparently neither love nor great food was not enough to keep her Yummy Yummy Tasty Thai (most recently re-named A Yummy Yummy Tasty Thai Food) going after she left East Colfax Avenue and moved it to Louisville. I just got word that the place has closed, and the phone is going unanswered.

But for every restaurant that closes, another opens. That hot stretch of East Sixth Avenue where Fruition and Montecito ("California Dreamin,'" April 19) opened over the past six months also has another new restaurant: Thai Thai Hibachi, in the former home of Oliver's, at 1312 East Sixth. Although the joint had some trouble tracking down a hibachi chef, everything else makes its timing seem good. The space is large and good-looking in a lacquer-and-Asian-statuary fashion, with room to catch the overflow business from the neighborhood's new heavy-hitters, as well as diners who're looking for something more casual -- something with absolutely no connection to California or New American cuisine. And up in Boulder, where we recently lost Rhumba, this month we gained Lulu's Low Country Kitchen, a Southern-style comfort-food joint with a distinct Louisiana twist.

Leftovers: I'm still getting notes and calls from folks who've dropped by to visit Jerry at the Conoco at 11802 Oswego Street in Englewood. He's the sandwich savant who picked up this year's Best of Denver award for Best Sandwiches From a Gas Station -- the guy who serves every hoagie with a large side of crazy and the occasional hour-long dissertation on the art of sandwich construction (molecular chemistry figures prominently), who rolls up his sandwiches tight as joints. I've heard about people tossed out for daring to question Jerry's sammich skills (which no one ever should, because I don't care who you are, Jerry knows more about sandwiches than you do), about customers held up for two hours while waiting on an Italian hoagie, about folks driving all the way up from Colorado Springs just to get a taste.

If you haven't yet made the scene, you should. My only fear is that someday this gas-station counter will get so crowded (and with the amount of time per sandwich that Jerry averages, any more than five customers waiting at any one time could bring the entire operation to a standstill) that Jerry will have to hire on a sandwich apprentice, and that will ruin everything.

But that hasn't happened yet. Before it does, I think I need to go get myself a couple more sandwiches.


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