Lucile's Creole Cafe brought just-squeezed orange juice, quality coffee and good, fresh food to Boulder back in the days when decent restaurants were few and far between. It continued to supply the same delicious and generally homey dishes through the era of excess -- the conceptual decors, the menus selected via focus group, the elaborate foie gras preparations -- and while that era is waning, the restaurant is still filling up daily with devoted customers. In short, Lucile's is one of those places that are woven into the warp and woof of the community.
Some of my most memorable meals have taken place at Lucile's: I've made or re-knit serious friendships over a New Orleans praline waffle or a plate of BBQ Cajun shrimp, treated out-of-town authors to beignets, worried to a friend about the results of a mammogram ("They say one woman in four gets breast cancer," she observed, surveying the room. "That means maybe eight people right here") and, during CU Trivia Bowl days, enjoyed annual reunions on the sunny porch with a onetime Boulder rock critic who returned regularly to compete. When my fifteen-year-old daughter came home from a stint at the San Francisco School of Ballet with an injured hip, her three longtime Boulder ballet teachers met her at Lucile's, where they offered comfort and motherly advice over plates of hollandaise-slathered eggs.
These intimate experiences are far from unique: According to owner Fletcher D. Richards III, at least two marriages have resulted from chance encounters between diners in the cozy, 65-seat Lucile's.
Lucile's Creole Cafe
2124 14th Street, Boulder
Hours: 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday
8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Richards's mother and sister started a restaurant here in 1980, turning a Victorian house into an eatery on a budget of just $20,000. When they ran into trouble -- which happened within a year -- Richards came in to take over. He renamed the restaurant Lucile's for his mother; a photograph of her holding an infant Fletcher adorns the menu.
Food service was a departure for him. He'd worked as a logger in Colorado and has a degree in sociology and a pilot's license. "I had to learn," he says. "I did everything -- waited tables, served as head cook. The people who worked here showed me."
Richards next located a chef, a "Culinary Institute of America-trained, New York Jewish fellow who wanted to cook Creole," he says, and changed the menu to accommodate the chef's interests. Business had been sparse, and "I needed to do something," he remembers.
At that point, Richards says, "We lost all our customers. People saw the menu and said, 'Creole? What's that?'" He smiles philosophically. "But it's the best part of life when you have nothing to lose."
The New York chef left after a year, and Mickey Samuels took his place. After traveling for a couple of years in Asia, Samuels had worked occasionally as a line cook, but he had little sustained experience in restaurant kitchens. He did, however, love to cook. He learned the first chef's recipes, read up on Creole cooking, experimented and took risks. He invented daily specials and tested them on his customers.
"The eggs Sardou, eggs Pontchartrain, Cajun breakfast, Creole omelette -- those all came from the first chef," Richards says. "He put together the Creole seasoning we still use. But when it comes to flavors, interesting taste combinations and putting the love in the food, Mickey's the best in the world." It was Samuels who developed the zydeco salad, a mound of fresh greens topped with sautéed mushrooms, bulghur wheat, avocado and smoked pecans and -- long before raspberry vinaigrette started popping up everywhere -- drizzled with raspberry vinaigrette. He and Richards made up a salade de poisson Chinois, which features roast salmon, horseradish mustard and an Oriental dressing. And then there's the black-bean mayonnaise Samuels created, a combination of Chinese fermented black beans, chili paste and ginger that the restaurant serves with the catfish po' boy.
Nineteen years after he took over Lucile's kitchen, Samuels is still there. His current menu is an intriguing mix of traditional cooking (almost all of the regular customers have a favorite dish from which they refuse to stray) and unique specials. Meals are accompanied by cornbread or huge, hot-from-the-oven biscuits. Waitpeople refill glasses of sweet-spiced iced tea again and again; cafe au lait arrives in large, handmade bowls; chocolate milk is flavored with Ghirardelli chocolate and sprinkled with nutmeg and cinnamon. Almost everything served at Lucile's is made from scratch.
"It's all fresh, whole food," says Richards. "We make the oatmeal and granola with organic grains. We smoke our own sausage."
A few years ago, as Boulder rents soared and many local businesses closed their doors, Richards began worrying that Lucile's might be squeezed out of its original Boulder location. His solution to looming financial problems was to open branches in Longmont and Fort Collins. A Lucile's will open soon in Steamboat Springs, and another is slated for Denver. Each restaurant is small, and each is locally owned because, Richard explains, "You have to have someone there who really cares." Samuels travels constantly among the locations, keeping a watchful eye on the quality of the food.
Although survival may be the bottom line, what keeps Richards in the restaurant business is not numbers, but his patrons -- and the way they've made the restaurant their own. A customer once offered to buy a slew of hemmed, high-quality, 100 percent cotton napkins to replace the colorful, softly frayed version used at Lucile's. But when he tried new linens, Richards says, customers protested: "What happened to our napkins?"
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In fact, people feel so at home at Lucile's and are so relaxed that they sometimes unthinkingly pocket their napkins or wander out without paying, returning sheepishly the next day, money in hand.
"The regulars know exactly what they want," says Dana Faulk, who has worked on the Lucile's waitstaff for over three years. "They bring in family and out-of-town friends. They don't complain if they have to wait an hour and a half for a table. They know what Lucile's is about."
"People are comfortable here," says Samuels.
"Generally, you like a particular restaurant," Richards concludes, "but people love Lucile's. I don't know why, but I feel so proud of it."