First look: Drakes Haus opens in Boulder

There are plenty of chefs who are passionate, hungry, driven. But Kimber Hollar is all that and a merlot burger. "I was thinking earlier today that I'm just this small town girl from a cow town who never thought I'd be doing this," says Hollar, fighting back tears. "This is a big deal, especially for someone like me, who's always been incredibly adverse to risk, but I took a leap, had a ton of encouragement, especially from my amazing sisters, and here I am...opening my first restaurant."

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Hollar, the executive chef and co-owner of Drakes Haus, a restaurant that opens Friday in the new Baseline Crossing development in Boulder, pauses before continuing. "I call myself a recovering social worker who's finally getting back into the food world and doing what I love -- cooking."

Hollar, who's originally from a tiny town in Montana -- population 1,800 -- first starting working in restaurants when she was fourteen, starting out as a dishwasher and eventually managing a camp kitchen. "I didn't come from a foodie family," she admits, "but my sisters and I are good, creative cooks, probably out of necessity, because my mom can't cook at all," she says.

The idea for the merlot burger -- the signature dish on the Drakes Haus menu -- came later, just under two years ago, when Hollar and her boyfriend moved to Boulder. "He wanted to go to law school, and I wanted access to the mountains and the outdoors, so Boulder was ideal," she tells me. She met her business partners, Jamie Hanson and Rich Fitzpatrick, not long after, and invited them to a barbecue. Burgers were on the menu, but when a friend of Hollar's gifted her with a bottle of merlot, she chose to cook with it rather than drink it. "To tell the truth, it wasn't a very good bottle, but I hate wasting things, so I decided, pretty much on the fly, to inject the burgers with the wine and see how the burgers turned out," remembers Hollar. They were an instant smash, and, as luck would have it, Hanson and Fitzpatrick wanted to open a restaurant -- and merlot burgers, an uncharted concept, were their inspiration.

Hollar, who sources her beef from an Iowa farm, "massages" the wine into her beef -- it's 100 percent chuck -- every morning, adds spices, and then hand-forms the patties, which, she explains, are "bigger than a slider and smaller than a burger: They're a merlot burger." And they're served on custom-made buns from Breadworks, a Boulder-based company.

There are seven of those merlot burgers on her menu, all of which read like a passport: South American; French; California; Italian; Oregon; Greek; and, of course, Boulder, which is naturally vegetarian, as is her Greek burger, a falafel smeared with tzatziki sauce and topped with tomatoes, feta and lettuce. Two burgers come to an order, and you can choose from among each of the seven selections -- or build your own. Sandwiches, including a Nurenburger, a pretzel roll plumped with mini bratwursts from Continental Sausage; non-wine burgers; salads; several variations on French fries; skewers; macaroni and cheese with prosciutto; and several small plates round out the board.

The dishes are all pumped out from a behind-the-scenes kitchen, tucked in the rear of the first floor of the staircased (there's an elevator, too!), two-story space, designed by Semple Brown. Floating ceilings, three community tables, sharp angles, industrial metals and a neutral color palette dominate the quarters, which lay claim to two bars, one downstairs and another on the mezzanine that's embellished with steel liquor cages; a sun-grazed, open-air lounge overlooking the Boulder Flatirons also resides on the second level, and the views alone will undoubtedly amass a rollicking crowd.

A formidable beer list, including six taps, most of which are Colorado brews, along with several more by the bottle, are complemented by craft-cocktails and a global spread of wines. "The genesis of the menu is merlot, and the impetus behind the beverage program," explains Hollar, "is a traveling theme, in so much that if you're traveling through the different merlot regions around the world, this is what you'd find along the course of your journey."

"I'm incredibly excited about what we're doing here, and I'm looking forward to evolving and expanding the menu over time -- and introducing people to some really great merlot burgers," says Hollar.

Drakes Haus will be open from 10:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday and 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday through Saturday; an abbreviated -- but substantial -- late-night menu will also be served.

In anticipation of Friday's opening, here's a first look at the space...and those burgers.

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