While driving back from Boulder after visiting Radda Trattoria (see review), I got to thinking about the restaurant scene and how it relates to anthropology. Specifically, to "carrying capacity," the term that anthropologists use to describe the size of population that can be sustained by a certain tract of earth. Carrying capacity takes into account arable land, usable resources, density of habitation and all that science-y stuff, and it's a convenient measure to have on hand when drinking with a bunch of off-duty anthropologists and discussing sunny anthropological things like plagues, land wars and genocides.
The term can also be twisted a bit and used (like everything else) to discuss the relative health of a restaurant scene. You take a population (like, say, the people of Boulder), you look at their relative wealth, education and propensity for dining out (all fairly high in the Republic), then compare that to the distribution of restaurants. A well-to-do, culturally engaged and hungry population like Boulder's will have a pretty high capacity for supporting restaurants — will keep a proportionally high number of them in business and a steady stream of them opening.
But no matter how rich or willing a population is, there's always going to be a top end to the carrying-capacity calculation, a number above which the restaurant roster cannot go without some event rejiggering the scales. And while I'm no anthropologist (and really not all that good at math), I'm wondering whether Boulder may be close to the limit. I mean, it already has Frasca (which, all awards aside, really hit the big time on January 14 when chef/owner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson became the first non-New York chef ever to do a Q&A with Frank Bruni in the New York Times' Diner's Journal) and Radek Cerny's L'Atelier across the street. There's Dave Query's El Centro and West End Tavern, Eric Skokan's Black Cat Bistro, the Kitchen (which a lot of people love even if I don't), Colterra, the Royal Peacock and Mateo, Matt Jansen's other restaurant — and then there are all the little joints serving great tacos, pho and spring rolls.
L'Absinthe, chef Maurice Couturier's haven for fine French cuisine done in the hotel tradition (tenderloin Rossini, sea bass en papillote, Coquille St. Jacques dieppoise and seared foie gras with a chilled glass of sauternes), closed late last year, and its former home at 1800 Broadway is now the Scotch Corner Pub, bringing the many joys of Scottish cuisine (and Scotch whisky) to the people of Boulder. One Boulder Plaza also lost Kevin Taylor's Boulder outpost of Prima — a restaurant I'd really had high hopes for, since the kitchen looked out over the Boulder Farmers' Market and Taylor's cooks could have shopped just steps from their front door.
"Too many seats there," Taylor said matter-of-factly when I asked about the Prima closure. "Absolutely too many seats." Years ago, when he opened his first addresses in Boulder, there just wasn't the same concentration of restaurants. "Now there's three on every block," he told me. "And there's no theater, no convention business. There's nothing. So it's purely local. And what becomes of that saturation?"
Like any natural system, it balances itself. Taylor closed his Boulder Prima because it did no trade; Denver's Prima is doing three times the business in half the square footage. And Limelight — Taylor's new place smack in the Denver Performing Arts Complex — is doing great numbers because it has "a captive audience," he told me, and because Denver has not yet reached the point (again) where good restaurants are forced to close purely from dearth of trade. We have plenty of bad restaurants that close. Plenty of poorly run ones. But it's been a couple of years since we had a serious die-off triggered by oversaturation.
The lesson? Fuck with the immutable laws of science at your own risk. And be nice to anthropologists. Because who would've thought the eggheads knew so much about the restaurant world?
Leftovers: I caught up with James Mazzio, whose consulting gig with the new restaurant-inside-a-movie-theater project, Neighborhood Flix, has kept him plenty busy. Later this month, he'll roll out a new board there, and he's also reworked the menus for Via and Cucina Colore. And because he's an exec who likes to get his hands dirty (he was actually on his way into Colore for the dinner shift when I got him on the phone), he tends to bounce around a lot — one week here, another week there, sometimes two lines in one night.
Via's menu changes will be substantial, taking advantage of local, seasonal product and Mazzio's current obsessions (artisan cheese, primarily, but also a killer salmon with goat-cheese potatoes and romesco over garlic spinach that I want to eat right now). But he'll only make tweaks to the almost inalterable menu at Cucina Colore, a Cherry Creek mainstay. "I've got to be careful there," he explained. "I change too much, there'd be rioting in the streets."
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