Early last spring, Delores Tronco and her boyfriend, Tony Maciag, both of whom are Denver restaurant industry veterans, signed on the dotted line, inking a lease that would make them the owners of their own restaurant -- a restaurant, says Tronco, whose name is also synonymous with the Justice League of Street Food, that was built on a leap of faith. "There is no backup plan. Tony and I put everything we have on the line, even clearing out our savings account to do this, but we believe in this restaurant, so we took the leap, leveraging everything we had to take a good, calculated risk," says Tronco, adding, too, that while she and Maciag had financial assistance, there's no rich uncle harboring gold coins in a safe. "We have no angel investors. Everyone who helped us get this restaurant open -- they're all friends, family members and people that we've worked with who did this because they believed in it and wanted to invest money in something that was more personal than the stock market."
The culmination of their efforts will be unveiled to the public on Wednesday, when Tronco, Maciag and chef-partner Dana Rodriguez, the former exec chef of Bistro Vendome, open Work & Class in a 1,468-square-foot space at Broadway and Larimer, a mixed-use shipping-container project that's pioneered by Denver-based Gravitas Development Group.
"Tony, Dana and I have no ulterior motives; what you see is what you get, and if I were to talk about what it's like to open a restaurant, I'd compare it to sedimentary rock: There are just so, so many layers," says Tronco, noting that when she pitched the concept to Ryan Diggins, her landlord -- and founder of Gravitas Development Group -- she knew it was "sink or swim."
And she credits her staff, her investors and Kevin Morrison, who owns Pinche Tacos, where Tronco was a server before leaving in November of last year to concentrate solely on Work & Class, for giving her and Maciag the momentum to persevere. "While you realize that you know more than you thought you knew, whatever you don't know, you find someone to teach you, and people like Kevin, who first told us about this space, have been so generous with their time and advice that we couldn't have done this without them," she says, sweeping her arms around the dining room of Work & Class, which epitomizes a neighborhood restaurant that was clearly crafted with love, passion, personalization and whimsical creativity.
Above the antiquated, glass-topped hostess stand hangs a bright-orange series of four words, all starting with "Now Serving Good..." The last word in the phrase -- "beer," "meat," "pork," "donut" and "masa" among them -- is the word assigned to guests waiting for a table, so instead of the hostess writing down your name on a clipboard, you'll know your table is ready when the word you've been assigned pops up on the sign. It's clever, and just one of many details that makes Work & Class really stand out.
Exposed plywood ceilings; factory windows that swing open to a fifty-seat patio and mirror a photograph on the wall of a demolished automotive factory in Detroit; a 1,000-pound, twelve-seat community table designed from a conveyer belt salvaged from a wrecking yard; wide-planked mahogany floors from the original shipping containers; stuccoed walls stained the color of concrete; mesh metal work above the bar; wood-and-steel bar stools; a handcrafted, bulbed light fixture, designed from brake rotors in Maciag's stash of car toys, illuminating the entryway; and wooden chairs -- they were $5 each -- from an auction at the University of Pennsylvania, round out the space, which also trumpets an exhibition kitchen and chef's counter, where Rodriguez works her magic.
Her menu, which she describes as "half Latin and half American," ballyhoos a board of dishes that, says Rodriquez, is a "combination of all our childhood favorites." For Rodriguez, that equates to the red-chile-braised goat stew, braised goat and cochinita pibil, all of which are dishes that she grew up with in her homeland of Mexico. Tronco, who's from New Jersey, points to the veal-and-pork meatballs paired with polenta, while Maciag is honored with a shout-out to "City" chicken, which is actually breaded and pan-fried pork and veal cubes on a stick, a staple in Detroit, where Maciag was born and raised.
The goat, which is from Colorado, is one of Rodriguez's favorite ingredients. "I call on Friday to order it, it's killed on Monday, hanged for two days and then we get it here, so it's really fresh and delicious, and because we order the whole goat, we utilize everything, and that's the way I like to cook," says Rodriquez.
Meats, including whole chickens and short ribs, are rotisseried or braised and served in three different portion sizes -- a quarter-pound, half-pound or full pound -- and they're augmented by a killer selection of side dishes: green-chile beans; roasted Brussels sprouts; sweet potato-and-bacon hash; creamy braised greens; fried sweet plantains; goat cheese scalloped potatoes punctuated with poblano peppers; and herb-roasted vegetables among them. And all but the hash are vegetarian and gluten-free, and even the hash can be prepared without bacon. "My food is a combination of cultures, really good technique and simple presentations, and a lot of is vegetarian and gluten-free," explains Rodriguez.
Work & Class, which is open Tuesday though Sunday for dinner, will also feature a daily happy hour, inclusive of $3 draft craft beers; $4 house wines by the glass; $5 cocktails; and food specials like a $2 pork slider, $4 biscuit-and-gravy sandwich; and $5 green-chile fries.
"This means everything to me," says Rodriguez. "It's my payoff for working really, really hard, and I appreciate it -- and myself -- so much." It's proof, she adds, that "you can do whatever you want when you work hard for it, when you fight for it," a sentiment that's echoed by Tronco: "For all three of us, this is the story of the American dream. We own something, and it feels really good to be your own boss."
But it's Rodriguez who sums it up best: "Boom, bitches!"
I had the privilege of spending some time with Rodriguez, Tronco and Maciag last week, when I got to tour the space and sample several of Rodriguez's dishes. Here's a sneak peek of what you can expect.