When Steven Waters started working with Black Eye Coffee, the team was preparing to spin out a second shop, building on its lower-Highland success with a more ambitious space in Capitol Hill. “We love the neighborhood, and wanted to do something different than the LoHi spot,” Waters says. “We wanted to do something that we thought would fit well in the neighborhood over here.” That meant adding a bar as well as a more enterprising food menu, and effectively shifting into an entirely different concept at night.
Waters had met chef William Tuggle three years ago, when the chef first moved to Denver, and Tuggle used Waters as a sounding board as he sussed out the Denver scene and began forming ideas for his own concept. The two bonded over their experiences working in New York City; Waters had done a short stint at the NoMad, while Tuggle worked his way through the Michelin three-star kitchen of Daniel and a slew of concepts in the fine-dining space. Tuggle hoped to raise the bar in Denver dining, and Waters was a willing accomplice. “Michelin-starred life is still something I really wish we could bring here over time,” says Tuggle. “It’s a certain level of accomplishment in that it’s discipline you have to uphold as an entire business. A chef can produce Michelin-starred food, but if everyone else doesn’t follow, it doesn’t matter.”
After Tuggle’s first Denver restaurant gigs didn’t pan out, he spent four months in Italy; when he came back, Waters brought him on to run the show at Black Eye Cap Hill, where Waters is an owner, and its nighttime alter ego, White Lies. We recently chatted with the pair about the Black Eye/White Lies dichotomy, why a cocktail helps get people through the door and into inventive food, and why Denver doesn’t need fine dining to become a culinary destination.
Westword: Although Black Eye Cap Hill had long been a coffee shop by day and a bar by night, you all recently unveiled an official nighttime alter ego, White Lies. Why spin out a totally separate concept?
Steven Waters: We’d talked about having this alter-ego of Black Eye — and separate entities — from the beginning. We didn’t want to be a restaurant open for coffee, and we didn’t want to be a coffee shop open as a bar at night — we wanted two concepts. These are two completely different experiences. But it’s hard to grasp, and if we’d initially opened as that, there would have been more confusion; it would have been, “What is this place? What are you doing?”
William, how did you wrangle the menu for that dual personality?
William Tuggle: When I came on, we knew we were going to get weird. In the morning, we’re doing solid, simple food — for instance, we have a cauliflower Reuben on the menu. It’s different, but it’s a Reuben — people can still relate, and it’s a fun experiment. At night time, we can really pull the rabbit out of the hat and move forward. That’s when you’ll get things like duck and whipped cream and elderberry pie. There are many dynamics to the space, and that makes it really fun here. This is the first time that I haven’t had any caps on creativity, and that’s really allowed me to expand.
You both spent some time working in fine dining, and you have a fine-dining sensibility, both in terms of what’s on your menu and the attentive experience and service you’re trying to provide. But here, you’ve made beverage front and center, which injects a decidedly casual vibe. How does that impact your approach to this place?
Waters: We don’t want to scare people — we’re making drinks and food. It’s easy for people to say, “I’ll go grab a drink,” so that gets people in the door. Then they’re like, “Oh, shit, they have food, and not just standard bar food.” So that’s a surprising element, and an addition to their experience.
Tuggle: Food is a commitment. With a cocktail, you’re getting something valuable, but you didn’t have to spend more than you would on a value meal at McDonald’s.
You guys both spent time working in New York City, but are presumably operating here because you see potential in Denver. What would it take to make Denver a dining destination?
Waters: The biggest thing happening right now is that we have chefs and leaders opening restaurants, but we lack the population density for someone to do something really outside the box and for it to sustain. So there’s a lot of repetition happening right now; I see the same thing on a lot of menus. I’m not trying to knock Denver — we’ve just gotten bigger than our britches. To be on the map as one of these bigger food cities, we need more people to take more chances.
Tuggle: I totally agree. Denver has grown in a very different manner than these larger port cities that have these upper-echelon restaurants and top-tier restaurants. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that Denver has seen this change in terms of a real-estate explosion. My first restaurant in SoHo was $11,000 for forty seats. But people see that growth here, and they say, Fuck it, let’s stick to what we know.
So what would you like to see change in this city?
Waters: So many restaurants are opening, and it’s incredibly hard to find help. Everyone wants to be an owner, a star-tender, a chef — no one wants to work their way up. It took decades for us. I’ve had pots and pans thrown at me on the line. At the NoMad, we were responsible for knowing who designed the restaurant, how many rooms [the attached] hotel had, what was on the walls and why. I worked with a guy who could tell you what everything in that restaurant costs. If you’re working in a restaurant, you should care.
Tuggle: I don’t wish that people went through what I went through — but to have zero respect for it, and to ask why I did it, is hard for me to understand. We can’t push food if you can’t get the response out of the cooks. You can work in a dispensary for $15, and I’m going to pay $13 and ask way more out of you, but you’re going to get something out of it. At Daniel I took $8.50 — not because I thought it was an awesome deal, but because I knew that when I came out of it, I could make a lot more. Right now, there’s a lot of desire for instant gratification.
So does Denver need more aspirational competition?
Waters: Everyone here is friends — it’s not a cutthroat, fuck-that-place type of city. Everyone wants to contribute to bringing the city up as a culinary place.
Tuggle: People go to NYC and L.A. for a reason, and people come here to escape those places, so that changes the industry. It’s not that competition goes away here, but it’s not the same fierceness. People in kitchens in those cities want to be the best at some point — I wanted to be Daniel [Boulud] forever, or Grant Achatz, or Ferran Adrià. Before my cooks met me, they didn’t know who those people were — and that’s not on them. The knowledge just isn’t here. If you see something and want it, you follow it. But if you never see it, you can’t follow it. There’s a handful of people in this city that see it and want it; they just need a chance and a place. When we have five restaurants with cooks and front-of-house that want to be the best, things will start to change, because when we have that, why would you go anywhere else?
Does the echelon you’d like Denver to attain have to be accomplished through fine dining?
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Waters: No. Going to a place and having to go through exactly what that restaurant wants you to experience in a slow march is dead.
Tuggle: There’s a lot of negativity associated with fine dining. It’s stuffy, expensive and regimented. There are a lot of restaurants, though, that take the tablecloth away but still do fine dining. I think you could take what we do and put it in a different space and add a couple of cooks and we’d be fine dining. We should be able to cook extraordinary food at any restaurant. I don’t care if you eat at a picnic bench — you can still have amazing food and feel comfortable. It’s a ballet. That’s really only for us to know, and guests should just be carefree.
So it’s more about the attitude than food fussiness or environs.
Tuggle: Yes. The overall joy you get from eating is more important than technique. Our biggest win is knowing that we’re doing something different, and we get to see people enjoy it.
Black Eye/White Lies is located at 800 Sherman Street. Find out more at 303-955-1205, drinkwhitelies.com or drinkblackeye.com.