When I heard that Swimclub 32 (3628 West 32nd Avenue) was planning on closing its doors in a few weeks and turning into a pizza joint, of all things, I knew I had to talk with Chris Golub, owner (along with partner Grant Gingerich) of the four-year-old, oft-reconceptualized eatery.
I laughed when I asked Chris whether what I’d heard was true. He laughed when he answered that yes, in fact, he and Grant and the crew were going to remake the place into a pie shack. He understood that it was weird, an unexpected shift. But then he went on to explain, in great detail, exactly what had brought them around to this new way of thinking.
“I was in the restaurant one night,” he began. “I was looking down the restaurant and I saw that every table was there for some sort of occasion.” And he’d been hearing that from his customers for some time. He’d had marketing people come in and tell him that, even going so far as to show him maps of where the bulk of his trade was coming from: Boulder and Capitol Hill, not Highland. But until Chris actually recognized the crowd for what it was, he’d had trouble believing it. “We’d become a special occasion restaurant,” he told me. “And even though we were making more money than we’d ever made before and, I think, people were leaving happier than they ever had before, it wasn’t the restaurant we wanted in the community.”
The solution came to him the way all solutions do in the restaurant industry: out of necessity. Because one of Swimclub’s other quirks was that while it would do killer business between, say, 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., the place was a graveyard between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. In order to even things out, Grant had instituted what he called “Rush Hour” -- a neighborhood happy hour full of cold drinks, nice wine and pizza, of all things. “The kind of pizzas I remembered making when I was still at Upstairs at Varalli in Philadelphia, you know? Simple, unrisen crusts. Thin. All it took was some San Marzano tomatoes, some of the fresh mozzarella we were making in-house, ricotta we make from the goat milk,” he remembered. “And the people loved it, man. They went crazy.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Chris kept on with the Rush Hour thing for a while, feeding good, East Coast-style artisan pies to the neighbors, then serving all the birthday and anniversary parties clogging his floor for the rest of the night. But eventually, there came a time when he and Grant decided that a change needed to be made.
“Look,” Chris said. “People are at work all day making decisions. And then they come in here and I put a plate of Fourme d’Ambert down in front of them. They don’t want to have to think, ‘What’s this Fourme d’Ambert?’ They don’t want to have to make any more decisions. And I mean, over the years we’ve made a lot of changes. We’ve changed the menu. We’ve adjusted to that. But at the end of the day, you want to make as many people happy as possible.”
So he started asking people what they wanted. And he was surprised by the answer.
“Pizza. I mean, pizza? Are you kidding me? There’s this much passion for that?,” he said. “But yeah, for guys like you and me? From back East? We know how hard it can be to get a good pie. It’s impossible. But there are all these other people out there who want it, too.”
Thus, Swimclub32 will be going through what Chris called a “philosophical change” in design, in format, in concept. It’s going to be brighter. It’s going to be more accessible. He’s going to be using his dad’s beer=can collection that he’s been building since the ‘50s as part of the décor. And when it’s all done, he’s going to be serving pizza. Really good pizza.
But there’s still a problem. One of the troubles at Swimclub has always been the closet-sized kitchen that the place has been saddled with since day one, and while I’ve always been impressed with how Golub and Gingerich and the crew in the kitchen have managed to get by with some skillful menu design, small plate formats, limited seatings and a lot of composed plates and Asian fusion, what I didn’t know was that, also since day one, the kitchen has been operating on propane. Seriously: camp stoves, baby. And that is just un-fucking-believable to me. I have had some flat stunning plates out of this place, and to hear that they came off of portable burners, one induction element and a sous-vide set-up? That’s crazy beyond crazy. Remember the last place that tried to get away with that? Aqua. And I think we all remember how that showed just how bad this kind of thing can go. At Swimclub, I didn’t even know these guys were doing the no hood/camp stove thing -- which, I guess, can also show how well it can go when in the hands of serious pros.
“I’d have guys from other kitchens come in here,” Chris told me, cracking up at the memory. “And when they saw the kitchen, they’d just say, ‘Kumbaya, dude. Good luck with that.”
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SHOW ME HOW
After I got over my shock (and minor chagrin since I’d not only eaten at Swimclub several times without ever realizing the stress the kitchen was working under, I’d actually been in the kitchen there, disguised as a new sous chef from another friendly restaurant), it occurred to me that the boys were going to have another serious issue: How were they gonna cram a pizza oven into the space and still have room for cooks to work?
“Oh, yeah. We’re going to have to take down a wall,” Chris said matter-of-factly. And he didn’t mean taking down a wall to enlarge the kitchen (although he’s going to have to do that, too). He meant taking down part of the building just to get the new oven inside. “It’s a tractor trailer, man. Five thousand pounds. We know the floors can take it. Now we just have to get the walls out of the way.”
Swimclub is now cooking a greatest hits menu off those little propane tanks until the concept switch-up in July (including the hot-rock beef and tuna, watermelon salad with goat cheese, fresh housemade mozzarella and the miso black cod that made it a destination restaurant in the first place). Then it will shut down briefly for a remodel, trade in the propane burners for the new monster pizza oven, and start cooking up little plates, greenmarket Italian and Asian fusion with Chris’s “artisan thin crust” pizzas: four or five or six pies, from a simple fresh mozz and hand-pressed San Marzano with organic basil to a somewhat more complicated Chinese pie of duck confit, water chestnuts, fontina and hoisin.
But believe it or not, Chris says he’s going to miss the old set-up: the tiny kitchen, the constraints of working so small: “I would go into the Pacific Market and they know me there. They’re like, ‘More propane, Chris?’ and I’m like, ‘More propane, yeah.’ I don’t know. Maybe I should get one of those little tanks bronzed, huh? Just so we don’t forget.” -- Jason Sheehan