While Bonanno's nine other concepts — which include Mizuna, Luca, Milk Market and more — all reopened in 2020, French 75's location in Denver's small financial district presented some unique challenges. "There is nobody in the building. There is no reason to open," he explains of the decision to keep the restaurant closed for nearly ten months. "When we were able to reopen the other restaurants in June , I don't think there were more than 25 people coming into a 38-story tower."
There were other challenges, too. "Staffing issues and trying to reopen everything else," he says. "The juice just wasn't worth the squeeze to us at that point."
Because "our landlord has been super-supportive," Bonanno notes, he had the ability to keep French 75 on pause. Even now, the building where French 75 is located and those around it don't have many office workers, but it was Bonanno's own staff that was the motivation to finally get the restaurant up and running again. "It took me having some people that worked with us that I really love working with being like, 'We're ready to open French,'" he recalls.
"We have a crop of people who are enthusiastic, who are into the hospitality business. Why not give it a go?" he says. While many key employees have stayed on with the Bonanno Concepts group, he notes that a majority of the current staff is new. "When you're able to train people and get everybody like-minded and all buying into what we're trying to do as a group in the restaurant, it goes so much better," he says. "We're a team. All ideas are valuable, all input is valuable. We're here to make each other better."
But while there is some uncertainty, Bonanno sees this as a chance for renewal as well. "We have an opportunity at French 75 to change the perception of it," he explains. "When we opened, I was so intent on having it be a real French brasserie." While many of the entrees on the menu remain the same, like the French dip (which is now on a softer roll made at LouDough Bakery at Milk Market), duck confit and steak frites, Bonanno has also added some unexpected additions. "Now I just don't care," he says. "I'm making food that I think people want to eat that is fun, approachable and not gonna break the bank. I'm just making food that literally I would eat."
Among appetizers such as escargot gratinée and mussels frites, you'll also find steamed pork dumplings, vegetable egg rolls and shrimp shumai. The lobster ramen from Bonanno's defunct Bones makes an appearance, as does the Bolognese from Luca and one of his longtime favorite dishes, Frankie's Tagliatelle: fresh pasta with béchamel, country ham and Gruyère. "It's like the most warm and comforting dish ever, Bonanno says. "So that, I'm hoping, will become a signature here."
In fact, the restaurant opened quietly for delivery-only via UberEats on November 3, which gave the staff time to work out kinks in the kitchen before dine-in service begins — an idea for which Bonanno credits his wife, Jacqueline. "It's a great way to open, and I never would have thought of that," he notes.
Bonanno Concepts remains the only large restaurant group in Denver requiring proof of vaccine for dine-in customers. That will be true at French 75, too. While Bonanno has seen some pushback on the policy on social media, he says that in the restaurants, "overwhelmingly it's been extremely popular." The motivation for the requirement was not guests, but his staff, he adds: "We went and asked our employees, and we got feedback that, 'Yes, we would feel much safer if this was in place.'"
While other restaurateurs have not yet followed suit, Bonanno is firm in the decision. "We have to start caring about people who wait tables, bus, wash dishes and the chefs that cook," he explains. "We have to stop thinking of them as just a cog that is what the day-to-day is. I think there's way too many restaurants that do that, that don't humanize what it takes to actually run a restaurant."
While running a restaurant is hard work, making the experience a positive one for staff and guests alike will remain the focus at French 75. "Hopefully," he concludes, "we can have some fun, make some money, and it'll be great."