Upon receiving a press release with the news that Hotel Teatro would be closing contemporary French institution Restaurant Kevin Taylor on March 29, we started to wonder about the future of fine dining around Denver, a city that has always prized ruggedness over refinement, in an era that glamorizes the farmer rather than the maître’d. So we asked Taylor himself, along with a few local heavy weights, to weigh in. Here, he, Frasca Food and Wine’s Bobby Stuckey and Flagstaff House’s Mark Monette touch on everything from the timeless chic of the French and $14 flatware to Thomas Keller's best year yet.
Given the democratization of serious cuisine, does fine dining still have a place in Colorado or elsewhere?
Taylor: You know, I think the biggest change is in the perception of what 'luxury' is. Many restaurants charge $35 for entrees, but they’re not providing all the accoutrements. Hotels drove the luxury-dining sector for years; it used to be our guests would turn their plates over and hold the glassware up to look at the brands. We never see that anymore. I was out for dinner on Saturday night and nobody was in a suit - not one person. The new generation wants to feel comfortable lounging around with their laptops in the lobby. So Teatro’s renovation will be more open, less formal, more driven by the bar. We do still see huge celebrations and five-hour dinners is at the Ellie Caulkins [Kevin Taylor’s at the Opera House]. It’s still the most beautiful room in the city, and we’re moving the chef and staff over there. But that’s driven by the theater crowd.
Stuckey: Look, in the late 1990s, people were already saying fine dining was dead. And when places like Charlie Trotter’s close, we go through this introspective period. But I’m not quite as much a believer in fine dining’s demise as everybody else. The French Laundry’s been open 20 years this summer and Thomas Keller’s having his best year to date. I was in San Francisco recently, and I had to beg, plead and steal to get a reservation at Saison. I spent $250 there before I even got a glass of water.
So I’m not sure this is fine dining’s obituary. Instead, I think there are some cities that go through phases. Take Phoenix as an example: it doesn’t have a fine-dining scene right now. Doesn’t have a formal restaurant. Is it because everyone wants something more casual? Maybe it’s just that nobody’s doing fine dining well right now. At the end of the day, there’s always going to be room for someone who strives for greatness. But it’s a commitment; expectations are higher, and you’re charging more, but you’re also giving more in the form of service.
Monette: At any level, the dining scene is always evolving. For instance, we do have a business-casual dress code - but it’s definitely gotten more lax. For Tastes on the Terrace, our summertime small-plates and cocktail hour, people want to come up in shorts, and we tend to allow it. It’s funny, I was just in Vegas for a Maîtres Cuisiniers de France event at The Venetian. I’m walking around the hotel in a tie, looking at all these people dressed so sloppily and thinking, “Is this how America looks?” But the French were all in suits. So I don’t think it’ll ever die. The sophisticated, well-traveled person will always be concerned with that show of respect.
What elements of fine dining still set you apart?
Stuckey: The thing is to put the guests first and have empathy for what they’re going through. In our case, everyone talks about us being a Boulder restaurant, but only a third of our guests are locals. I’m humbled that people will get a babysitter and drive for 45 minutes from Denver to eat with us - and I’m always amazed by how many formal restaurants don’t take reservations. If you’re charging $60 for a bottle of wine, it doesn’t matter if there are no tablecloths. Shouldn’t you pay someone 12 hours a day to pick up the phone?
Then, think about wine service alone. If you come into Frasca and talk to [wine director] Matt Mather or [sommelier] Carlin Karr - a lot of money has been spent training those two, and they’re there for you. You tell them what you’re looking for and you might actually save money, because they’re going to listen, versus a non-professional waiter who really doesn’t understand your needs. Matt sent an e-mail to an importer here in Colorado recently telling him that we’d had two bottles of his wine that were corked. The guy was like, “I’ve been in business 20 years, and I’ve never had anyone other than you identify a bottle of corked wine.” TCA happens to every wine in the world. So that means there are guests out there consuming flawed wine and not having a good experience on their one night off.
Monette: It’s just a matter of fine dining keeping up with the rest of the world. I was in France in January and after returning I feel really proud of what we’re doing. Good linens, good china, silverware, crystal - all of that plays a part. So does training the staff to go above and beyond. When our guests sit down, they start with cocktail service and two beautiful amuses bouches. Then bread service. After dinner, there are always other little surprises: petit fours with dessert, some bread to take home. You get the whole package.
Chef Taylor, with a few days left in business, what would you consider a best last meal at your flagship? And what can we expect from you in the future?
Taylor: Definitely don’t miss the pepper-and-coriander-crusted bison strip loin, the chilled-lobster salad or the seared foie gras on a poppyseed cake with aged maple syrup; they’re indicative of what we do best.
Now, I want to do something new. Quality food is quality food, period. But we don’t have to have 500 bottles on the wine list or spend $14 on a fork. In New York and San Francisco, you get incredible food experiences without the uptown atmosphere. And I’m good with that! It’s a lot less pressure.
Flagstaff House Restaurant: 1138 Flagstaff Rd.,
Frasca Food and Wine: 1738 Pearl St., Boulder; 303-442-6966
Restaurant Kevin Taylor: 1106 14th St.; 303-820-2600