Boulder residents love their food. The local restaurant scene took off in the 1990s, and by the early 2000s, the city began seeing the start of what would become a farm-to-table movement defining the way Boulderites eat out.
In 2010, a Bon Appetit article named Boulder the “foodiest” town in America, calling the city “a bellwether of a changing food culture across our land.” The magazine highlighted a handful of restaurants that it said represent the spirit of Boulder’s culinary scene.
Most of these restaurants still exist. I visited a handful of them recently to see what has kept them relevant for more than a decade.
The consensus among their owners: continual change, especially to their menus. Most restaurants that opened during the farm-to-table movement have continued tweaking their food and drink offerings to center local, seasonal produce.
“Boulder is one of the country’s healthiest cities, so restaurants that feature healthy, whole, and freshly made foods are a great fit,” said Sara Stewart Martinelli. She co-owns Three Leaf Concepts, which runs Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, Chautauqua Dining Hall and Leaf. Produce from the company’s Three Leaf Farm in Lafayette supplies its restaurants.
Basta’s owner Kelly Whitaker said he also sources produce locally and seasonally – and is frequently changing other aspects of his restaurant as well.
“We’ve always been in the place where it’s like, ‘what’s happening next? What’s new, what are we working on?’ I think it keeps the employees engaged,” Whitaker said. It does the same for customers, he added.
“We always want to be making food that’s upping the game for the community.”
“Finally, a pint of Left Hand Brewing Company lager and a few pizzas (one with house-made sausage and mozzarella and another with seasonal local potatoes and goat cheese) from Pizzeria Basta come to the rescue. Some recoup with a massage, I prefer wood-fired pizza.”— Bon Appétit, 2010
Italian restaurant Basta was in its first year at the Peloton West building in 2010 when it was featured in Bon Appetit. It has had several lives since then.
“We’re a local, seasonal restaurant, so we change when we want to change,” Whitaker said.
That meant, for instance, converting Basta into a pop-up concept serving Israeli food for two months at the end of 2021. Though Whitaker invited several guest chefs and bartenders to do residencies at Basta throughout the pandemic, Brian Lockwood’s chef residency and five-course Israeli-inspired tasting menu transformed the restaurant into a new concept.
Last January, the restaurant reopened following its first remodel, which included adding outdoor yurts, new lighting and furniture, and a new bar. It also launched with a new menu, though the kitchen’s wood-fired oven remains a staple for cooking nearly every item on it.
“Some guests really noticed every nuance,” Whitaker said, and loved the overhaul. “But there were a lot of customers who missed the sausage pizza” and other longstanding menu items. So Whitaker has balanced familiar favorites with new ones. Basta now offers the Cart Pizza, still with sausage and mozzarella, but also with kale and chili flakes.
“Conversations are ongoing everyday,” Whitaker said of Basta’s changing recipes. “Today, we’re starting to change the dough again.”
“Thinking about how these grains work in pizza and pasta has been something that the kitchen always does,” Whitaker said. This time, Basta is shifting to Rouge de Bordeaux, a French grain that gives pizza dough greater extensibility. Instead of importing the grain from France, however, Basta buys it from purveyors in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
“The three of us polish off a small-plates smorgasbord including fried cauliflower, fried chicken wings and drumsticks, house-cured bacalao, and foie gras tourchon.”— Bon Appétit, 2010
Cafe Aion also opened in 2010, as a tapas bar. The restaurant’s owner, Dakota Soifer, launched the restaurant on The Hill with a U-shaped bar and high-top tables to match the small plate and drinks concept. But Soifer noticed customers wanting more of a meal.
So a few months after opening, Cafe Aion began selling paellas and a handful of entrees. Where high-top tables once stood in a lounge area, a long table now accommodates large groups. Though appetizers are still on the menu, Soifer said 90 percent of the restaurant’s business comes from full meals.
Soifer’s next adjustment was to start offering weekend brunch, then breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. The restaurant paused lunch service just before the pandemic and, come spring, will reopen for lunch.
“It was trying to find that sweet spot in our neighborhood of what we can put out there that people are going to enjoy, that our guests are asking for, but also what makes sense from the staffing and business side,” Soifer said.
In 2020, during the pandemic, Soifer opened Brasserie Boulder as a ghost kitchen, or a pick-up and delivery location that operates out of Cafe Aion’s kitchen without a dining room. Some of Brasserie Boulder’s offerings have found their way onto Cafe Aion’s menu, like the haricot verts – a French green bean variety served with shallots, butter and almonds – Nicoise salad and duck confit.
Cafe Aion and Brasserie Boulder’s menus rotate with seasonal produce from local farmers. There’s gazpacho with tomatoes in the summer, and in the winter, hummus made out of butternut squash, candied pecans and Baharat spice.
“After some organic rooibos tea at The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse…” — Bon Appétit, 2010
The hand-carved and colorfully painted high ceilings of the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse on 13th Street – which was built in Dushanbe, Tajikistan and reconstructed in Boulder – along with the rest of the restaurant’s interior, haven’t changed since it opened in 1998, aside from minor restoration. The menu, on the other hand, has experienced more changes.
“We usually leave the favorites on the menu, and use the remaining dishes to explore our creativity and culinary scope,” Martinelli said. The food menu changes about four times a year, the same as all of Three Leaf Concepts’ restaurants, to feature seasonal produce.
As for tea, the Dushanbe Teahouse serves over 100 types, from around the world and Three Leaf Concepts’ Boulder Tea Company. New blends and single-origin teas are constantly added to the menu, along with limited edition teas.
Much of the teahouse’s clientele consists of tourists or locals dining with their visitors. So during the pandemic, when there were a lot fewer people traveling to Boulder, the restaurant stopped serving breakfast. The Dushanbe Teahouse is also currently closed on Mondays, though Martinelli hopes the restaurant will soon return to pre-pandemic hours.
“The signature frico caldo is a hash brown on steroids, made from potatoes, onions, and Montasio cheese.” — Bon Appétit, 2010
Pearl Street’s Frasca, which opened in 2004, also changes the food and drink menus seasonally. The fine dining Italian restaurant’s executive chef, Rob Hurd, creates and adjusts recipes according to local produce availability.
When the pandemic hit, Frasca expanded outdoor seating and launched the At Home With dinner series, where customers picked up a meal kit that’s easily prepared in their kitchens. The restaurant also switched to a “Whole House Hospitality pay model,” said Frasca Owner Bobby Stuckey, to distribute tips to both front-of-house and back-of-house workers.
Last year, Frasca underwent its first renovation, including a remodeled kitchen, new tables and chairs and guest bathrooms.
“After 18 years, it was time,” Stuckey said of the renovation. “That would be like, if a restaurant opened in 1990 that was built in the ‘70s, you’d want to revamp that space.”
Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant
“Leaf, a Boulder favorite, is packed at lunch with everyday folks eating things like bibimbap and seitan Reuben sandwiches. My sprout salad is as good as any salad I can remember.” — Bon Appétit, 2010
Part of the reason Three Leaf Concepts’ menus shift seasonally is because produce is sourced from Three Leaf Farm, which the Martinellis bought in 2010. While all Three Leaf Concept restaurants receive some produce from the farm, a majority goes to Pearl Street’s Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant, which the Martenillis opened in 2006.
Lenny Martinelli – Sara’s husband, co-founder and executive chef of Three Leaf Concepts – works with each restaurant’s chefs to update menu items that feature Three Leaf Farm’s seasonal harvests, like heirloom tomato caprese salad and roasted beet steak.
Leaf changed locations in 2018, from 16th Street to 1710 Pearl Street, to increase seating by 30 percent and get more visibility. The restaurant’s clean and contemporary decor remains the same.
“Being right on Pearl Street has been wonderful,” Sara Martenilli said, mainly because of the increased foot and vehicle traffic. But also because Leaf shared a kitchen with now-closed Latin American restaurant Aji at its previous location and now has its own.
Oak at Fourteenth
“By the time I finish my Ginger’s Lost Island cocktail prepared by Frasca’s then bar manager (and professional trail runner) Bryan Dayton, I have recovered.” — Bon Appétit, 2010
Brian Dayton worked as Frasca’s bar manager from 2005 to 2010 before opening Oak at Fourteenth on Pearl Street. There, Chef Steve Redzikowski changes the American cuisine seasonally to correspond with how much local produce the restaurant can get.
“We always like to have something for our locals that’s new and fresh every time they come in,” Dayton said.
“I think there’s something to be said for restaurants that have been around for a long time that are still working hard and pushing the envelope,” he added. “A lot of older restaurants get overlooked because they’re not something fresh and new. The fact is we’re always doing fresh and new things.”
MY FAVORITE, NEW MORNING READ!!!! Thank YOU!!!!!!!!
All extremely expensive joints. But deserving too. Inspires me to go back to a couple. Yep it’s rough out there!
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