Delk has maintained his vision over the years, while evolving to entice new customers looking for a singular dining experience. Here the restaurateur shares the details of how he created Beatrice & Woodsley and the challenges of appealing to an ever-diversifying Denver.
Keving Delk: My official start with restaurants in Denver was many years ago, with Two-Fisted Mario’s Pizza, and Double Daughter’s Salotto, in 2000 and 2003, respectively. These were fantastic creations for my early twenties, but I soon developed an appetite for something a bit more cultured. Always interested in immersive installation art, this appetite, and the exploration it inspired, brought into life Beatrice & Woodsley.
The essence of Beatrice & Woodsley is to capture what I had hoped to discover in Denver and in Colorado when I moved here from Atlanta in 1997. Perhaps a bit of naïveté can be credited, but I was really quite surprised at the abundance of cowboy hats, antler chandeliers and wagon wheel motifs. It was as if someone ripped the book flap off of a history tome of Colorado and the West and then flung the rest of the book into a rancher’s bonfire. Citing just the overtly clichéd selling points of this flap, it became easy to see why Denver was called a cowtown so often. Unfortunately, without even considering the history, there was no regard for the signs of an emerging metropolis or its hungry population looking for new experiences and culture. More important, this surviving flap lacked all the tough stuff; it included neither the original “general-store approach” of Denver’s beginning nor its mining rushes, oil booms, sheep grazing, water wars, agriculture, wildlife, natives, immigrants, railroads and logging. Just mountain peaks and cowboy hats. Further, and I think even more sadly, it had no mention that the overall position of this early Denver was serving as a last stop on the path to the edge of our expanding country. These were exciting times indeed! But by routinely presenting what was more or less the children’s illustrated book version of Colorado, I couldn’t help but miss the inspiration that’s gained from learning about the human-powered hope and imagination that formed — and continues to shape — this city and the region at large. I wanted to recompose this misdirection, set the record straight, tell a better story, at least — and I guess I wanted to enjoy a good meal and a glass of wine while I did so.
Just as it did long ago, there’s now a certain romance that continues to bring people here, a romance that shouldn’t be contrived into simple iconic images. Besides, most of these oft-clichéd images aren’t really all that relevant to the current crop of socially nomadic, information-mining, adventurous spirits, currently exploring today’s version of this wild frontier. Even still, our current self-image and direction doesn't mean we should forget about the region’s history or overly simplify it. Maybe this isn’t a simple backstory here, but for me, I guess I was looking to anchor and juxtapose the history of this romanticized rustic frontier with the cosmopolitan and sophisticated environment Denver currently offers and continues to embrace and build upon. I wanted to capture this while offering well-crafted food and service along with it. I wanted our guests to cross the threshold from South Broadway into Beatrice & Woodsley and be transported emotionally in both space and time. I wanted to bring into your life, for a moment, the beauty I see in contrasting the forest, its nature, an experience of being in a rustic cabin in the woods, with the captivation and energy of a cosmopolitan-bent city. A city full of people who continue to want to celebrate and explore both of these worlds. I wanted our guests to be able to hit pause, but in a really reverent — or at least beautiful — place. If nothing else, this has allowed for some really captivating conversation and engagement with our guests, our city, and this time we’re currently creating as tomorrow’s history. Every moment has meaning; I just set out to provide a marker that can remind us of this.
It’ll sound a bit goofy, but the more personal story of how Beatrice & Woodsley came to be, at least in terms of its fundamental design, originates from my imagination’s attempt to capture, in a physical form, a beautiful short poem written by D.H. Lawrence. As I set out to design this restaurant, I poured over everything I could find that celebrated the history and direction of the city: photos, plans, biographies, building techniques, ghost stories, etc. But it was the inspiration that this D.H. Lawrence poem, "Things Men Have Made," provided that made everything come together finally. It’s a perfect poem that resonated deep within me years ago (along with a certain musical album) that helped this overall vision pour out onto paper. The moment I read this, everything clicked:
Things men have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.
The cuisine of Beatrice & Woodsley is loosely based on the immigration patterns entering the U.S. during a fifty-year span between 1870 and 1920, along with the limitations this time period demanded. While not exclusively re-creating the recipes of those times, we were striving to pay homage to the dishes that were being created as the early formation of our collective culture. We wanted to really delve into what the food aspects of the phrase “melting-pot culture” meant, which for my upbringing, was synonymous with the United States.
For the menus, we started with a very strict “creative budget” initially. And by this I mean, I wanted to fence in our endless imaginations so we had to reach even further to make something special. None of the pop-culinary techniques such as liquid nitrogen or fancy lab equipment was allowed. Just the opposite, in fact: cast-iron pans, basic heating elements, historic and region-relevant ingredients (as much as possible). It’s an amazing exercise for those of us who enjoy creating; to be limited like this cultivates even more creativity, amazingly. This was before we’d heard any terms like “farm-to-table” or “slow food,” and frankly, we really didn’t know what to call what we were doing. The vision of the food menu was to capture what, at the time, we ended up labeling as “New Old-World Rustic.” We invented this label to convey what we were trying to accomplish through bringing to the table foods from a very specific time in the development of our country.
“New” represented our relatively new country, the United States, while “Old World” represented, more often than not, Western Europe (and surrounding geography), where a great many of our recipes originate from. The word "rustic" was intended to represent the state of the art during the time that many of these “mother recipes” were first being created. But the real charm (and flexibility) of this approach was, as our history-buff readers will recognize, that this time period straddled the introduction of Women’s Suffrage (~1901). This was not just a setting-off point for the betterment of women, their recognition and human rights in our society, but it was, as far as food and preparation were concerned, a huge turning point in the culinary world.
Women’s suffrage introduced with it the beginnings of what we now refer to as food science. For instance, companies started producing gelatin that one could buy off a shelf and quickly mix on one’s stove top — as opposed to spending a couple of days rendering gelatin the “old fashioned way.” More important, it introduced the first quintessential cookbooks that moved us from “recipes” calling for a “handful of” or a “walnut of” as a measurement concept, to codified recipes using standardized measurements, such as tablespoons, cups, specific temperatures and time, along with empirical processes to convey how to re-create the recipe so it reflected what the author intended. It cannot be stressed enough how incredibly life-changing and time-saving this new approach provided American households and the productivity of the world at large. No longer did people have to be tied to their kitchens for the majority of the day, thus freeing many to seek more important life pursuits and challenges.
We wanted to play with this idea and, just as important, explore what this meant to one’s ability to create. We brought in self-imposed limitations, but at the same time allowed for “modern conveniences” in testing our limits. It was a blast! The conversations were — and continue to be — mind-bending and exhilarating. The ideas and their obstacles were bizarre but fresh; solutions were both complicated and sometimes hilariously obvious. Before Beatrice & Woodsley, none of us who’ve had residence here really appreciated how good we have it in the modern kitchen and restaurant industry as a whole. We discovered this by doing what so many of us in our industry strive to do; push our boundaries.
How do you gauge B & W customers now versus then?
We love our guests! We honestly continue to have some of the most genuine and down-to-earth guests I’ve ever experienced during my many years in restaurants. We’ve made a point to encourage our favorite guests to bring back only those friends who they think will truly appreciate what we’re doing here. It’s a small room, so I always ask the question, “In the future, when you’re in next time and you look over your shoulder, who do you want to be dining with?” It’s a funny question, but it’s more true now than ever before, especially with all the many restaurants tripping over themselves to be the next new and shiny. Despite how absolutely fantastic some of these new Denver restaurants are, I still firmly believe that the best restaurant in the world is the one in which you’re a regular.
Most of us in this artistic-meets-business pursuit we call “the restaurant industry” are in it for the long haul. In our view, we recognize that restaurants are nothing but mere kitchens and tables — until you add guests and staff. It’s always the people that make the magic. So who do you want to surround yourself with? And how do you encourage their continued effort and patronage? As artists who like to be challenged, those are the questions we are constantly asking ourselves within. We find that we are performing for the best type of audience, one that is demanding, but extremely appreciative and supportive. Our audience really wants to be an intimate part of the process. And that’s all a restaurant is: a human-powered process to get immersed in so as to restore and replenish your mind, belly, and soul.
What are the lessons learned after ten years in business?
Maybe don’t push all the boundaries at once? We signed a lease in late 2006 and then opened on South Broadway, as its first truly fine-dining establishment, in 2008. We were by no means the first fine-dining restaurant in Denver, but, boy, did my peers warn me about how big of a mistake I was making choosing such a gritty location. It was used book stores, adult video stores, and utility delivery restaurants at the time. Most people were patronizing the Hornet, Señor Burrito’s or the Mayan Theatre and then quickly leaving the neighborhood. No strolls for delicious ice cream at Sweet Action. No clever Spanish tapas at Leña, no heavy-metal breweries, no distillers, no fancy Asian-fusion food, no posh bowling, no swank clothing at Fancy Tiger. South Broadway was mostly an overlooked strip of unloved retail — unless you were generally looking for used appliances, cheap paperbacks or a coin-operated laundry. To me, it was a beautiful area and reminded me of my home town, so it was a natural place to settle into, at least in my eyes.
Aside from location, we also pushed our luck by starting as a classic fine-dining service restaurant, standards and all: crisp serialized currency, three-piece suits, and wine-service rituals. We actually guided people over, chose, and pulled out their chair so they could order a drink at our counter! Who expects this when they walk in looking for a drink at the bar? Our staff at the time were actually trained in how to serve royalty… if they were to ever show up! It was a bit silly, all things considered.
In addition, we were among the very first to offer “small plates.” Holy monkey, did this cause pandemonium! No one was really ready for this, and so we spent 20 percent of the dining experience explaining the philosophy while encouraging guests to try many more dishes than they’d typically order from a more traditionally formatted menu. Most weren’t having it, and so ultimately felt that they left hungry, as they never saw an “entree” materialize.
In short order, we methodically transitioned into a “classical” restaurant experience with a more casual service standard and a more traditional menu format. This was the biggest lesson: go wild, push boundaries, but fundamentally, give ’em what they want. But I’ll add that you still must keep hold of your confidence to offer a healthy sprinkle of what, which they may not yet even realize, they really want. Believe and fight for your vision, but don’t fail to see it through other people's eyes, at least occasionally.
Do you have a favorite dish since the beginning?
Most would say the Crawfish Beignets, which have been on the menu since we opened... but me and my sweet tooth, we would vote for the Monkey Brains, served during our weekend brunch service. Buttery, nutty, cinnamon-y — completely rich, decadent and delicious. I may go through two in one sitting!
The restaurant is filled with creative decor and art objects. Are there any hidden secrets? Do you have a favorite that has personal meaning?
Great question! Honestly, everything has personal meaning. It’s all beautifully tied to a time in my life where my wonderful (and very patient) wife, Michelle, and I spent every spare minute over the course a year, scouring the region, trying to find these pretty little aspen trees — without cutting down a grove that had no reason to be cut down. We sought out a development that was going to clear their land regardless, allowing us in good conscience to give these aspen creatures a “second life” for future appreciation.
The cellar is another point of personal meaning as upon the wall is a large painting that I had the opportunity to finally commission. A very talented artist friend painted a version of one of my napkin drawings that professed my love of our little prairie dog friends and their secret underground — but civilized — lifestyle. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but if we’re below-grade, in the cellar, shouldn’t we get to see how these prairie dogs really live and what they’re up to?
As far as the inspiration of Beatrice & Woodsley, it’s a simple story manifested, that we’re all participating in. This story reflects going out to explore the world, discovering yourself and how you fit into everything. It’s about the confidence of being on your own and with others, through thick and thin. It’s about discovery; it’s about danger…new places and new ideas. It’s about doing it yourself. It’s about hope; it’s about the preparation of finding your love, building upon it — and hopefully living happily ever after. Yep, I’m a romantic, through and through.
Secret fun fact: I exclusively listened to the CocoRosie album Noah’s Ark on repeat during the entirety of the design process. I dare you to try doing this for four months straight sometime. I’m a romantic and perhaps a bit twisted, I suppose.
Not directly, no. It’s been a bit tougher finding staff, as it’s no secret our industry’s labor pool is being tested and diluted. But all in all, the relatively quick burgeoning of Denver’s restaurant scene has really helped to further focus and refine our vision and techniques. My hope with choosing South Broadway was, in part, to provide a sort of proof of concept for the neighborhood and future restaurants. I saw so much potential, and I wanted others to see it was possible so they might find their opportunity in all the cheap and empty spaces that were available at the time. I believe all ships rise in high tides, and the tide certainly came in high.
This high tide can mean more opportunity, but often less sailors to go around. But all in all, if you’re in this boat, you’re absolutely trying to make it ship-shape, agile and ready for any weather. It’s not a race, it’s a process. For better or worse, depending on one’s perspective, gone are the days of the “occasional” staff members who are just looking to have a “beer money job”. And that’s fine with us, as those who are here now are the ones who are in it for the passion, first and foremost. This industry contains, and nurtures (and certainly overly challenges), some of the most creative and passionate people I have ever known. I’ve never seen so much laughter and tears in any other profession.
What's next for you and B & W?
Our conversations inside the restaurant all center around how we’re viewing the next few years and our next decade overall, especially in terms of how Beatrice & Woodsley will engage with our city and its ever more sophisticated but unpredictable guest and food culture. We want to keep true to our core philosophy but exist in reality. This has always been an experiment for us, and now, having ten years under our belt, we have a lot more experience, approaches, and even less equipment in our little South Broadway menu-imagination incubator. We’re extremely excited to be able to share some truly fantastic ideas and insights into our repertoire for everyone’s delight. We’re not reinventing the wheel, by any means, but we’re certainly taking a full measure and interest in what we can do to be better, and more important, what we can do to make ourselves an even better standard for Denver’s restaurant scene. We know we hold a high flag in our industry, and we won’t let this flag down, but we want to continue to take risks and find more ways to inspire ourselves and the many fresh faces and talent looking to build our city into an even more passionate, respectable and expressive hospitality oasis.
At this very moment, I’m also extremely thrilled to share with Denver the culmination of many years of diligence (and creative outbursts) with our new neighborhood hub and restaurant, Bang Up to the Elephant! I found a building [1310 Pearl Street] on colorful Capitol Hill, where my home is, and decided to build out a space that captures everything we have always appreciated about this neighborhood: It’s quirky, lush, dynamic, overly creative with a festive-like-culture and attitude. Our little troupe has opened up a vibrant and inclusive calypso-style restaurant with inexpensive tropical beach foods and drinks. It’s open almost all hours of the day and night. I know this sounds weird, but boy, howdy is it fun! We’re wide open and will always continue to build onto this ourselves, with our neighbors, so we can all enjoy a little space offering repose from the all the fancy-pants offerings...like Beatrice & Woodsley.
Am I harping on Beatrice & Woodsley? Absolutely not. Sometimes, however, we just want to wear our flip-flops and hang out under the sun, with a thousand happy plants and a fresh-cracked coconut cocktail in hand. We’re offering up everything we enjoy indulging in; cafe yummies and culture, bustling brunch with live music, various long-play happy hours, sultry dinners, and even late-night dining. If this isn’t enough, we have a little walk-up window in our cafe that’ll very soon be offering vegan soft-serve alongside our already super-popular tropical vegan doughnuts. Along with our friendly and creative neighbors, like City, O’City, Wax Trax, Capitol Convenience, Steel+Leather and Hudson Hill, we’re making sure Cap Hill continues to be one of the most interesting and fun-loving neighborhoods in Denver.
For me, I’ll certainly continue creating, but always with this in mind, which I think applies to far more than just food or restaurants: I refuse to believe in the simple notion of a “good meal.” This is not why I dine out or participate. Instead, I think it is the process of dining that should be celebrated — no matter the style or tier of the restaurant. Yes, you have to eat, but you do not have to dine. Dining is simply part of being in the moment, sitting with yourself or spending time with your friends and loved ones. It is an obliging process with errant disregard for the finish. It should be about coming to the finish line while forgetting that there ever was a finish line. That’s a well-lived life, that’s a good restaurant.