10 OG Servers You Need to Know in Denver/Boulder

These industry pros have raised the local hospitality bar
January 30, 2017
by Ruth Tobias

In an industry notorious for high turnover rates, these 10 front-of-house longtimers stand as exceptions, proving their commitment to the letter and spirit of hospitality year in and year out. We wanted to find out what makes them tick — and they, like the pros they are, obliged. 

Ali Seify at The Palm
This one tugs at the heartstrings. At 66 years old, Ali Seify is an industry vet who’s been a fixture at The Palm for 17 years. As he explains, however, a career in service wasn’t his original plan: “I’m from Iran. I came to the U.S. in 1978 for school and got a management degree in 1981.” In the meantime, of course, “The revolution happened and my mother said, ‘Don’t come back.’”
Seify moved around the Pacific Northwest for a while after that, but “Denver is the place I like,” he says — and Denver clearly likes him back. “Our guests treat us like movie stars,” he swears. “The mayor comes and calls me by name. It’s very sweet.”
Secret to success: We heartily concur with Seify’s self-assessment: “I’m very friendly and sincere,” he reflects. “When I compliment people, I say it honestly. I see ladies wearing nice earrings, I tell them. And I like to create memories, so I have a notebook,” where he jots down his customers’ favorite dishes and details about their daily lives. For instance, “I have a family who just went to Paris to celebrate their daughter’s birthday. When they come back, I remember.”
Insider tip: “Tom [Wainwright] makes the soup. He’s the soup man. Every day you can have an incredible soup,” Seify enthuses. “The other day he made a green chile that I served to three customers, and all three made comments that this soup is fantastic.” True to his kindhearted nature, he adds, “People don’t see the kitchen staff, and so I mention their names.”

1672 Lawrence St.; 303-825-7256

Rose Votta and Matt Mather at Frasca Food and Wine
Both Rose Votta and Matt Mather have been on staff at Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson’s Boulder destination since its opening in 2004 — which means both can take no small amount of credit for its James Beard–certified renown for hospitality. For general manager Votta, it's been a continuous thrill not only to create “authentic experiences for my guests and for myself,” she says, but also to “help people realize you can make a career out of service.” As for Mather — a self-described failed actor turned sommelier — the opportunity to build relationships through wine is what it’s all about: “One thing I’m so proud of,” he says, “is people saying, ‘We don’t want to look at the list. We just want to talk to you.”

Votta’s secret to success: Humility and compassion. The Long Island native recounts a lesson she learned 12 years ago as though it were yesterday: “There was a woman, an important person in our community, who I got off on the wrong foot with. I said, ‘I don’t want to take care of her again,’ and Bobby said, ‘No, you do want to take care of her, and turn it around.’ Now she’s one of my closest customers. You have to find that one thing you can identify with.”
Insider tip: Don’t pass up a nightcap. “We have a beautiful amaro cart,” says Votta, who recommends Nonino Quintessentia to digestivo newbies: “It’s a gentler, gateway amaro.”

Mather’s secret to success: Mather stresses that a big part of “making wine, in all its detailed glory, seem accessible” is “not talking, but listening and remembering what guests like. Keeping that Rolodex in my head” is the key to guiding you toward the perfect bottle.
Insider tip: For the ideal Frasca experience, you need only one thing, says Mather: “Trust.” Open up about your likes and dislikes and then put yourself in the hands of the staff, who, he promises, “aren’t going to push you toward an uncomfortable price point.”

1738 Pearl St., Boulder; 303-442-6966

Kari Cummings at Vesta
Nearly 14 years ago, Kari Cummings recalls, “I found a really cool home with Josh and Jen [Wolkon]” at LoDo longtimer Vesta — the first of many restaurants for the couple’s Secret Sauce group — and she hasn’t left since. Now a bar manager known for her bubbly personality, she says she prides herself on “talking to people like they’re people, like they’re friends. My voice doesn’t get higher. I’m not fake. ‘Do you want to try this tequila? I just tried it today.’” Which doesn’t mean she can’t be sly. “For instance, last night a guy came in who just wanted to talk to the bartenders — he was ignoring his date,” she laughs. “We were trying to throw softballs to get him to pay attention."
Secret to success: “Going with the flow,” Cummings says. “Some days are gonna be good, some days are gonna be bad. Some days you’re fed up and kinda burned out. But stick with it, and you find passion you didn’t know you had."
Insider tip: She jokingly estimates that she herself orders the beef tartare “30 times a week.” And the meat and cheese plate is her benchmark for other restaurants: “When I go out, I always want to get one to check it against ours.” To wash it down, she recommends the barrel-aged Diamondback.

1822 Blake St.; 303-296-1970

Kathleen Doyle-Murphy at Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar
In her 20 years with the Big Red F group (15 of them at the flagship location of Jax in Boulder), Kathleen Doyle-Murphy has worn many hats, including those of bartender and manager. But the Alabama native prefers the “looser” role of waiting tables, she says, which “allows me the freedom and time” to grow her jewelry business, James & Jezebelle: “I’ve even met some of my best customers at Jax, selling pieces right off my body sometimes! Boulder has such an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Secret to success: “I’m kind of shy — but not at my job,” Doyle-Murphy observes. “I can easily walk up to a table of 20 and command their attention. Isn’t that weird?” Weird or not, that confidence helps her “see and feel what the guest wants and needs," she argues. "I have literally waited on people on first dates who now come in with their kids, and we can get super-personal, but I also have businesspeople I’m able to cater to.”
Insider tip: “Order anything with tuna. We get the most amazing sushi-grade tuna,” she suggests. “You can do anything to it, and it’s still just this purple deliciousness.”

928 Pearl St., Boulder; 303-444-1811

Katie Kelly at Barolo Grill
If the fact that an appreciative customer once sent her on a trip to Hawaii doesn’t attest to Katie Kelly’s knack for service, we don’t know what does. She chalks it all up to proper training. Though hardly a novice when she joined the team 14 years ago as a backwaiter, she credits Erin Fletter, the wife of current owner Ryan Fletter, with “taking me under her wing” and helping her achieve the polish required to intuit that “these people like it like this, or don’t talk to those people too much,” she says. Of course, over time, every coat of polish mellows to a warm glow — and now, she adds, many guests “have become more family than they are customers.” She admits her current position as lead bartender involves “a lot more pressure” as she both makes drinks for the entire restaurant and waits on the diners seated at the bar — “but it’s more rewarding as far as ownership goes too.”
Secret to success: “Definitely passion,” Kelly says without hesitation. “I’m very particular and I want everything to be perfect, so everyone has an amazing experience."
Insider tip: Think Barolo Grill’s only for special occasions? Think again, says Kelly: “I tell a lot of people I meet throughout the day, ‘Don’t be scared to come in. You can come in and just have a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine'” — no judgment.

3030 E. 6th Ave.; 303-393-1040

Heather Morrison at Mizuna
New Hampshire–native Heather Morrison has done it all, from doubling as a bouncer while bartending at a dive bar to doing the fine-dining thing alongside Katie Kelly at Barolo Grill. But after nearly 10 years at Mizuna, she says, she’s become part of Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno’s “family”: “We’re never micromanaged here. We’re empowered. We have the flexibility to make decisions.” For the former psych major, who calls herself a “student of human nature,” that comes in handy on the floor, allowing her to respond quickly to “so many different needs.”
Secret to success: Morrison takes an old adage as her personal mantra: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Recognizing “people come to be fed” first and foremost, she says, she takes it upon herself to ensure “they feel heard.”
Insider tip: Because the menu changes often here, you’d best hurry if you want to try Morrison’s favorite dish right now, the pan-seared ostrich with potato-prosciutto pierogi (which she recommends pairing with Stag’s Leap Cabernet).

225 E. 7th Ave.; 303-832-4778

Ryan Patrick at Flagstaff House
Ryan Patrick says he moved to Boulder from Chicago at age 20 after stumbling across a job posting for the Flagstaff House and asking friends in the area for their opinion: “They said, ‘Wow, it’s the nicest place in town. You need to go check it out.'” But for a one-year return home, he’s been working there since 1997. On the one hand, the family man likes the flexibility of life in the hospitality industry. On the other, he clearly gets a kick out of the fine-dining ceremony. As he observes, “More often than not, our guests are here for a special occasion. It’s a big night for them. So we’ve gotta be at the top of our game.” From the amuse-bouche to the personalized and signed menus, he adds, “It’s the whole package. People really get excited.”
Secret to success: If "one of the biggest things is being mentally organized,” says Patrick, another is just “being positive. It’s not for everybody, talking to strangers every night!”
Insider tip: Enrich your experience by asking for a little background on the Flagstaff House. Patrick truly enjoys recounting the highlights of its 100-year history — right down to the lobster soup, which, he says, “was on the menu for many, many years before I got here.”

1138 Flagstaff Road, Boulder; 303-442-4640

Amy Farrar at Sushi Den
You’ve got to be pretty unflappable to work the door of a restaurant as wildly busy day in and day out as Sushi Den. For nine years, hostess Amy Farrar has proven herself to be just that. “We have 3,000 people who come in every week,” she says, “and about a thousand of them are regulars. So I have to remember a great many people.” Not to mention placate a great many. When first-timers get antsy waiting for tables, Farrar challenges herself to “make them regulars in just moments of meeting them" by making them feel like her top priority, she explains. “I figured out very quickly that you can change someone’s mood at a drop of a hat. When you’re dealing with hundreds of people a day, you have the ability to change the atmosphere of the whole restaurant.”
Secret to success: The mere fact that the sunshine she spreads is genuine. “I don’t just work here,” she asserts. “I dog-sit for customers. I go to the funerals of customers who have passed away. I bring these people into my life.”
Insider tip: If you’re hoping Farrar can tell you how to score a table at Sushi Den without a wait, forget it — she’s not a magician. What she can do if you ask, however, is provide insight as to which of the restaurant’s two adjacent siblings, Izakaya Den or OTOTO, might be a better bet for seating at any given time.

1487 S. Pearl St.; 303-777-0826

Doug Cameron at The Fort
Doug Cameron has been bartending at this Morrison landmark for so long he can’t even recall exactly when he started, but he guesses it was 31 or 32 years ago. It was the mid 1980s, in any case, when he returned to his hometown after graduating from college in Wyoming only to find “a lot of jobs were leaving Denver,” he says. “So I picked up this job bartending. It was a stop to doing something else” — at first. Now you could say he’s a bit of an ambassador to the city, giving out-of-towners glimpses into the history of The Fort and its place in local lore (including the time he got to shake President Clinton’s hand during a visit back in 1997).
Secret to success: Entertainment is the name of the hospitality game for Cameron, whether he’s describing the flavor of Rocky Mountain oysters or explaining what Trade Whiskey is — bourbon mixed with hot peppers, gunpowder and tobacco. “We sell a ton of it,” he notes. “People are always really interested.”
Insider tip: Actually, if ever there were a place to do as the tourists rather than the locals do, this is it. That means getting the signature mixed-game plate, though any of the buffalo steaks will do, according to Cameron: “That’s what we’re really known for.”

19192 Highway 8, Morrison; 303-697-4771

capitol hill
frank bonanno
lachlan mackinnon-patterson
bobby stuckey
platt park
yasu kizaki
country club
toshi kizaki
central business district