Le Central is not a flashy restaurant or one that travels the social-media seas, trawling for new customers and sending up flares for "look at me, look at me!" attention. The affordable French restaurant keeps doing what it has always done since opening at Eighth Avenue and Lincoln Street back in 1981: serve kiss-your-fingertips French cuisine with country charm and a complete lack of pretense. Mussels and lobster are measured in truckloads, so popular are the eatery's daily and weekly prix fixe menus and specials, even after more than thirty years. Changes are few and generally go unannounced, except for special events listed on Le Central's website, so it was almost by accident that we learned of a change in the kitchen: Chef Michael Long, whose Opus and Aria restaurants, in Littleton and Cherry Creek, respectively, rose to renown for Long's artistic platings and high-end menus, is now cooking at the venerable temple of homey Provençal cuisine.
Opus closed in Littleton in 2012, merging with Aria at 250 Josephine Street in Cherry Creek to become Opus Fine Dining. Long was already out by that point, but he's kept himself busy in the intervening years with various projects, including running Chef & Brew — the beer festival that pairs local chefs and brewers — with Happy Leaf Kombucha co-owner Mike Burns. Along the way, Long says, he did some soul-searching and realized he wasn't interested in dramatic food or intricate presentations anymore. "I just want to cook steak frites," he states. "My passion has always been for cooking."
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And steak frites it is, along with coq au vin, lamb shank and the seafood dishes of southern France. Despite his résumé and previous penchant for multi-course dinners for the moneyed set, Long says he feels humbled coming into a kitchen where some of the crew have already been cooking for years and where the lobster special is still priced unbelievably low. He's been on the job for a week, settling in and returning to his roots, as French cuisine and the brigade system were part of his formative years. "When I called about the position, that's exactly what I said: 'I just love cooking this kind of food,'" he explains.
And rather than getting caught up in what he calls "the drive-by food paparazzi," Long just plans to do what he loves.