Q&A with Mark and Andrea Ferguson of Solitaire

By Ruth Tobias  |  January 8, 2014

For years, it was quaintsville: occupying conjoined, flower-bedecked Victorians at the western edge of Highlands Square, Highland’s Garden Cafe took you back decades to a time when cream of watercress soup and rice pilaf were staples. But no longer. Mark and Andrea Ferguson bought the property last fall - and come late spring, they’ll open Solitaire to usher in a whole new era.

That’s a tall order, but the couple has the combined résumé to pull it off. Indeed, in addition to a stint with the legendary Jeremiah Tower of San Francisco’s Stars, chef Mark has spent much of his career alongside none other than Wolfgang Puck - starting with Spago in Las Vegas, where he then became an opening partner at Trattoria del Lupo before moving on to head Spago at The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, in Beaver Creek. Andrea also has some 12 years’ experience in the service industry, working for Alain Ducasse and Jeffrey Chodorow; in fact, she met Mark back in 2001 while at then-famed nightclub Rumjungle in the Mandalay Bay resort, which was part of Chodorow’s China Grill Management group.

We spoke with the couple about their plans for what’s shaping up to be one of 2014’s splashiest arrivals.

Zagat: First of all, what’s behind the name?

Mark Ferguson: I was born and raised in Denver, and my family has a long history here. My great-great grandfather was Chester Stephen Morey, who founded the Morey Mercantile Company in the building where Tattered Cover is now. Solitaire was the name of his product line, which included everything from spices to salad dressings to cigars and snuff. He was cutting-edge back in the late 1800s, and even today you can go on eBay and buy empty Solitaire coffee cans. [Look, it’s true!]

Zagat: Your website slogan is “A Diversified Eatery.” What does that mean, exactly?

MF: Yes, we’re throwing the words “world cuisine” and “diversified eatery” around just to be as vague as possible, but basically, we’ve both been in fine dining for a long time, and now we’re looking to do something different - something simpler in execution and presentation, but with the highest level of training. The menu will be contemporary and globally accented, so it won’t be dissimilar to what I’ve done in the past, whether at Trattoria del Lupo or Spago, but it will change all the time - conceivably every day. And we’re trying to change the way the menu looks. It’s not just going to be starters, soups and salads, entrees and desserts; it’ll be the daily page of whatever we’re serving - not really tapas, but kinda-sorta. Smaller plates at varying price points, using mostly local ingredients. Of course, if it’s November and I can get my hands on white truffles or if we’re serving the best caviar or Wagyu beef, the cost will reflect the ingredients, and we’ll dabble in all of that. But overall the menu will be very price-sensitive.

We just want to keep it interesting for ourselves as well as for our guests. I’ll bring back stuff I haven’t done in a long time from my repertoire of 30 years of cooking, and versions of stuff I used to do with my mom and my late godfather. We’re thinking clean and natural - I’ve never been into the whole molecular thing.

We’re throwing around the idea of lunch as well, but maybe the hours won’t be standard – we may open at 1 PM, say…

Andrea Ferguson: With happy hour all afternoon.

MF: Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see how much we can help to revitalize that portion of the neighborhood.

Zagat: What about dessert? Is that part of the plan?

MF: One guy who’s worked for me the past 15 years and I’m hoping to bring out is well versed in pastry, and I’ve done it as well, but it will be a collaboration. We’re all trying to just be cooks again; we’ve all been executive chefs and executive sous chefs. Titles were cool in the past, but they don’t matter much anymore. What matters to us is having a blast.

Zagat: What will the beverage program be like?

MF: Andrea’s going to be working the floor and running the bar, and at some point we’ll have some help - I have many friends who are master sommeliers - but we’re keeping beverages pretty simple as well. Too much, the emphasis has been on heavy lists of cocktails and monster wine lists. We don’t want to have so much going on that it’s overwhelming.

But we definitely like to represent small, artisan wine producers, not all the staples that everyone has, and there will be cocktails using cool, different ingredients - though we were doing that before it was considered mixology. These days it’s popular to throw around verbiage like “farm to table,” but I learned farm-to-table cooking from Jeremiah Tower back in the late ’80s! Now everybody’s trying to use the idea to their advantage, but it should be a given.

Zagat: You’ve acquired an iconic property, which you’ve been working hard on over the past couple of months: what will it look like when you’re finished?

AF: It’s a beautiful building, and we’re not making significant changes; it won’t lose its Victorian feel. We’re talking about building an enclosed veranda for year-round dining, but that’s the only major structural thing. Well, and there’s not even a bar, so we’re putting the bar in there as well. For the interior, we’re trying to update it a little, to give it a more unfinished, industrial feel. And we’re going to paint the exterior - it won’t be the same colors as it is now. But of course we’re going to keep the garden!

3927 W. 32nd Ave.; 303-477-4732