In a business famous for ruining relationships, Bruce Rahmani and Lupe Gonzalez are a rare pair. Since 1979, when Rahmani was the general manager of the Quality Inn at I-25 and Speer Boulevard where Gonzalez was the kitchen's sous chef -- under executive chef Radek Cerny! -- the duo has worked well together, running some of the area's most popular eateries.
"We all knew we were a good team right from the start at the Quality Inn," remembers Rahmani, who was 24 years old at the time. "The food and beverage side of things, which usually accounts for 10 percent of the take in a hotel, was taking in a much higher percentage of profits than the hotel side. Radek came to me one day and said, 'I want to do something fancy; let's open a restaurant,' and I thought, what the heck. I really didn't plan to be involved in it, I was just going to work on the money side of things and then be done with it."
Fat chance. The restaurant was the trend-setting -- and bar-raising -- European Cafe, which opened at 2460 Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder in 1987 with Cerny as chef and Gonzalez as his sous chef. Two days after the eatery's debut, Cerny called Rahmani. "He said, 'I locked the doors,'" Rahmani recalls. "And I thought, okay, this guy's nuts, he doesn't really want to run his own show, so he just threw in the towel and locked the doors. And he says, 'No, Bruce, I locked the doors because there are too many people here.'" At that, Rahmani decided Cerny had lost his mind, so he hopped in his car and drove up to Boulder. "I pull up, and there are people just standing there, with the doors locked, hoping Radek was going to let them come in," he says. "But the dining room was full, and there were people standing inside waiting to get a table. It was something."
It continued to be something through two more European Cafes. In 1991 the first Denver outlet opened at 1515 Market Street, in the former home of lower-downtown-pioneering Cafe Giovanni; the partners put an upscale Italian eatery, Al Fresco, in the space next door, ultimately expanding their empire to seven restaurants. When Cerny left in the mid-'90s to start Papillon, Gonzales was elevated to executive chef for the three European Cafes and four Al Frescos. As rents rose in LoDo, however, the two Market Street restaurants moved a few blocks away to a space in Brooks Towers -- but they never regained lost momentum. Today the former European Cafe portion is La Fondue. Meanwhile, the adjacent spot that had been occupied by Al Fresco will become yet another national-chain steakhouse, Gallagher's, by mid-September. (One Al Fresco in Fort Collins is the last remaining vestige of that group.)
Rahmani cites competition from other LoDo restaurants as a major factor in the downtown changes. "Remember when the only upscale dining choices you had were Strings, Zenith and the European Cafe?" he muses. "Now places like the Cheesecake Factory and Palomino have moved in; too many places have opened. Diners have so many choices, and they like to try new things. So now we have to give them new things."
Rahmani's also giving them new things in the space currently housing the area's last European Cafe, at 5150 South Quebec in Greenwood Village. By the end of October, the space will be converted into two restaurants: another La Fondue upstairs and the chain-link Country Kitchen downstairs.
"I decided to go with Country Kitchen there because the Denver Tech Center really doesn't have much in the way of casual dining at all hours," explains Rahmani, who also owns the nearby Holiday Inn, Holiday Express and Super 8 motels. "And the people who come in from out of town have expressed that they would like to see something more low-key, something that could accommodate families, too."
What's old is new: Fans of Trail Dust Steak House can kick up their heels again when the I-25 and Arapahoe location (7101 South Clinton) reopens September 24 after being gutted by a fire last year. The eatery promises "a totally new and very chic atmosphere" that will still include that beloved slide, music and dancing, and, of course, "tender filets and succulent ribs." Still no date, though, for the official reopening of the Saucy Noodle (727 South University Boulevard), the victim of a fire last March. (The owners have their fingers crossed for mid-October.) Fans of the longtime red-sauce joint keep calling to find out what the heck is going on; they can now check the status for themselves on the restaurant's Web site: Log on at saucynoodle.com for the latest.
In last week's Bite, I lamented the loss of Saffron (now Pesce Fresca at 6600 South Quebec), mainly because I would miss its talented chef, Mo Riasati. Well, chef Mo's followers can rejoice: He's resurfaced at the reincarnation of the Greenwood Tavern, now located in the old Bayou Bob's space at 5650 Greenwood Plaza in Englewood. The resurrected eatery is owned by Dave Lowe, who also owns Retreat Lounge, 2186 South Colorado Boulevard, and his partner, Mark Chaffee, former owner of the ill-fated Chives American Bistro and Moondance.
The Greenwood Tavern menu is not Mo's usual Mediterranean-meets-the-Middle-East, but instead focuses on traditional breakfast and lunch items, since those are the only meals -- plus a 3-6 p.m. daily happy-hour bar menu -- that the restaurant will offer. Look for breakfast items such as salmon and eggs, homemade granola and veggie burritos and huevos, as well as what Chaffee calls "killer sweet-potato pancakes"; the lunch menu will include salads and sandwiches.
"We're not going to try to be a family place here," he adds. "We're looking to serve the businessman for meetings and a more professional atmosphere for lunch." Chaffee describes the new decor as "pubby, real tavernish," and he counts the big-screen TV as a major asset. In fact, starting September 1, the eatery will add Saturday breakfast and lunch to its current Monday-through-Friday schedule; the owners also plan to offer burgers and beer during college football games in the afternoon.
Also new, but with a simpler menu, is Banyan Market (1645 South Broadway), a deli and coffee shop that specializes in the four S's: salads, sandwiches, snacks and smoothies. Owners Joan Glover and Liz Ellis do all of the work, with the exception of the baked goods, which are brought in from outside vendors.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.