The Minturn didn't help its chances by falling somewhere in that big, soft middle ground between bar and restaurant. By name, it was a saloon -- yet it had a menu full of Mexican food, steaks, duck breasts and all-you-can-eat quail specials. It seemed like it was trying to be all things to all people -- or at least enough things to lasso both the big-drinking dollars on Friday and Saturday nights and neighbors who just wanted a simple weeknight dinner.
But the Minturn was also hobbled by its architecture. With a bar on the first floor near the front door, a dining room behind it and a second floor peeled back during the initial remodel into a sort of balcony/loft dining area hanging right over the bar below, the owners decided the entire place would have to be non-smoking, lest the foul vapors of the degenerate nicotine freaks slouching at the bar choke out the swells trying to enjoy their quail upstairs.
The decision to go smoke-free was a choice driven by circumstance, and it might have been a good one had the original business model worked. Unfortunately, the restaurant portion of the bar-and-restaurant formula never panned out. At Minturn's Minturn, the registers ring with a sixty-forty split, food to booze. Here in Denver, things were running thirty-seventy -- with seven out of every ten bucks going straight to the bar. That meant it was time for a change, and on New Year's Eve, the Minturn went dark in order to do just that.
So two weeks hence, we'll have the Minturn Saloon, round two. Same place, same space, but now a saloon in full. "Before, we were a restaurant that wanted a lively bar crowd," says Minturn partner Mike Walks. "Now we're going to be a bar that serves a good lunch and dinner menu. We're embracing the bar side of it."
No more fence-sitting, and thank God for that.
"What we're doing is trying to apply some of the lessons we've learned over the last eighteen months," Walks continues. The first lesson? That Denver is a very different place from Minturn. "In Minturn, you know, we're just the Saloon," he says. "It's been there since 1901. Everyone knows about the place. We have good food, a raucous crowd, a good mix of locals and tourists. Everyone tells their friends, 'Hey, you gotta check this place out.' It's a destination."
But in Denver, the Minturn was just another bar with a dinner menu, another half-Mexican joint in an area that already had a lot of Mexican joints. And no one was telling anyone they had to check it out. "We thought the menu would translate really well here, but it just didn't," says Walks. "The neighborhood never warmed to that kind of menu. And now we understand that we're the new kid on the block. We're not a destination here."
The wicked learning curve resulted in a drastically reduced menu that focuses on reasonably priced Mexican bar food, along with burgers and a couple of sandwiches. The more high-tone dinner entrees have been kicked back to the specials board and will be offered only on nights when the house thinks it can actually move a few steaks or a brace of quail.
And at the new, improved Minturn, customers will be able to light up, too. "We learned that Denver is a smoking-and-drinking kind of town," says Walks. "People walked in, found out it was non-smoking and just walked out. It was a small portion of the people, but still..."
But still, when you're fighting for every nickel, you can't afford to lose a single customer. To that end, the Minturn picked up a big ol' Smokeeter air-filtration system and turned the second-floor dining area that drove the original smoke-free policy into a game room with pool tables, couches, a couple of video games and plenty of ashtrays.
I'll be filling one soon.
Butt out: Denver may be a smoking-and-drinking kind of town, but business is so good at Racines that eight months after it opened in its new home at 650 Sherman Street (just a hop, skip and a stagger from the Minturn), the owners have decided to make all the tables smoke-free. Initially, Racines had set aside a small dining room for smokers, but the place is so popular that it no longer makes sense to have a line at the door while tables go empty in the smoking area. A small, five-stool stretch of the bar and part of the outdoor patio will remain smoker-friendly...for now.
The Cherry Cricket, at 2641 East Second Avenue, recently swallowed up the next-door barbershop space, where it had hoped to open a no-smoking room last week. After blowing through that deadline, the Cricket promises that its puff-free zone will debut any day now. And on Tuesday, the Buckhorn Exchange -- where cowboys first smoked stogies in 1893 -- went completely smoke-free. Cigarettes had been banned from the dining area six years ago; after efforts to retrofit the building with air-purification systems ran afoul of the Buckhorn's National Historic Landmark status, management decide to stamp out smoking in the upstairs bar/entertainment lounge, too.
Leftovers: It's rare for a restaurant's owners to take care of their staff after the restaurant itself shuts down. But when Wolfgang Puck's Grand Cafe closed in the Denver Pavilions on January 25, all the servers were given two weeks' pay as severance. And not two weeks at $2.15 an hour, either -- two weeks with their tips figured in. Kitchen staffers were offered the same deal, and Puck's managers did a lot of groundwork to get their people placed in new gigs. Of course, this isn't the end of Puck in Denver. A new Wolfgang Puck Express will open in Cherry Creek later this year.
During his brief time here, Ben Alandt was one of my favorite sous chefs. Working under Olav Peterson at 1515, he helped Gene Tang pull that double-decker space up out of mediocrity. After 1515, Alandt moved on to Indigo, where he worked with chef Ian Kleinman. Combining these two was like mixing nitro and glycerin (blue wasabi popcorn?), and while the menus they produced were not always financially successful, they were never dull.
Alandt left town in the spring of 2003 and went to work at Clark Lewis in Portland, for a chef he describes as "kind of an idiot-savant with this food no one had seen before." After putting in time there, Alandt began looking for a spot to call his own. "Before this, I wouldn't have even taken an executive chef's job if someone asked," he explains. But after ten years, he felt he was finally ready to take on the task of running a kitchen on his own. And the place he chose? Blue Sky Cafe, a longtime fixture of the Oregon coastal culinary scene that had seen better days. During its decade-long existence, "it really ran the gamut," Alandt says. "Seafood, Italian. Awful, awful fusion crap."
But now it's his name at the top of the menu, and Alandt's looking at simple, purveyor-driven, rustic Northern Italian/French.