Cafe Society

Circus Maximus

In fourteen syllables, the sign out front -- a small thing, almost understated, the color of wet slate -- manages to capture the kind of arrogance, the brash hubris, that would be celebrated in Los Angeles or Vegas with spotlights and names spelled out in hundred-foot-tall bonfires of neon.

That's how they draw attention to themselves in the Big City, but in Boulder there's just the sign hanging shoulder-high on the wall beside the front door, quietly but fully embodying the sense of shameless self-promotion that used to be de rigueur among chefs (especially American chefs, particularly foreign-born American chefs) and inspired an entire generation of quasi-celebrity butchers, bakers and coq au vin makers to name everything from neighborhood brasseries to four-star Michelin temples of haute cuisine after themselves. Anyone with a name even vaguely recognizable would slap it on a shingle as though he were naming his firstborn. Today, though, such blatant grandstanding is the exception rather than the rule. The cool kids give their new restaurants just a number (à la Jean-Georges Vongerichten's 66) or some barely pronounceable French name (like La Grenouille or la Goulue), and they assume that those in the know will simply find them.

But not here. This sign is an unabashed throwback to the days when chefs had to have their kitchens' swinging doors enlarged just so they could walk through without bumping their massive, swollen heads. It's so small you'd almost think it was subtle -- until you read it:


The Artistry Of Radek R. Cerny

Cerny, the man behind such legendary hot spots as Papillon Cafe and Radex, may as well have had the words "Super Genius" etched underneath, because when you see something like that hanging next to the front door, you know you're in for a show. A sign like that says you won't be eating tonight, you will instead be appreciating the style and skills of a man who was one of Colorado's first celebrity chef-owners, a guy who was at the top of his game just a few years ago, then stumbled, closed a couple of restaurants, and now is coming back strong with Boulder's four-month-old L'Atelier. Step through the door, and you are walking into a universe of very specific brilliance -- a space with one sun and many stars. Sit down, and you understand that you're in a place built first and foremost to house the ego of the guy whose name is on the bottom line. You're in the house that Radek built.

And apparently he wanted his house built to resemble a JC Penney home-furnishings department circa 1985, because it's filled with bright primary pastels, faux chrome and chairs with creaky, silver-white plastic-mesh seats. And inside that home-furnishings department, he apparently wanted a museum: tiny and spare, with glass sculptures in standing cases, silver serving utensils on open shelves, little ceramic figurines in courtly pose standing behind glass in lit boxes hacked into the lemon-yellow walls.

And inside the museum, Cerny wanted a circus -- or at least the impression of a circus -- with ugly, mottled-gray industrial carpeting instead of sawdust on the floor; tall dividing walls that look like rustic plywood; and high, big-top ceilings that capture all the voices and sounds in the room, then mix and amplify them. There are too many people on this floor, all taking orders, delivering food, busing plates, pouring wine, pouring water and shuttling from table to table to table. You could spend a night just sitting, watching, waiting for the inevitable moment when two will collide. It's three rings of manic activity, and because this place is the expression of one man and one mind, somewhere in the back is ringleader Cerny, the calliope music running nonstop in his head: Doot doot doodle-oo da doot doot doo doo...

Our server is a clown. At first he seems like the creepy kind, the sort who scares children and gets a little too close so that you can smell the sweat under the greasepaint. His shtick is an expertly realized parody of French service -- absolutely obsequious, almost sickeningly ingratiating, all monsieur this and madame that, and tiny little bows with his hands folded at his waist. But when he asks if this is our first time at L'Atelier, then launches into his speech about how anything we want is ours, how it would be his pleasure to provide any little thing we might need to make our night perfect, it clicks. His act is over the top and a little intimidating, but it gets him laughs from nearly every table and has me thinking that when he gets off shift at the end of the night, he must switch off the lights, have a last glass of sherry, then hang up his tuxedo in the back with his body still in it.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan