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ARCHIVED  October 22, 1999

Gourmet restaurants challenge chains

FORT COLLINS – In the sea of chain restaurants that is Fort Collins, a small coterie of fine-dining establishments is attempting to turn the tide. With linens on the tables and a conspicuous absence of children’s menus, locally owned Cuisine! Cuisine!, Pulcinella and Table 65 are among those quietly making waves.

Where once Nico’s Catacombs was a lone bastion of gourmet fare in the Choice City, now these relative newcomers give the more discerning diners among us greater opportunity to refine our palates.

“I’ve never seen so many chain restaurants in one city in my life,” commented Philip Trapp, chef and owner of Cuisine! Cuisine! “I think a certain amount of their popularity has to do with the hurry that everyone’s in these days, but when people have to wait 45 minutes for a table, that illusion of convenience certainly vanishes.”

Trapp trained as a chef in San Francisco, France and Italy and worked at “world-class” restaurants in a number of cities, including Palm Springs, Calif., and Los Angeles, before purchasing Cuisine! Cuisine!, an established Fort Collins restaurant, five years ago.

“I saw a lot of possibilities for this place,” Trapp recalled. “It’s not at all what it was when I bought it; the only thing that’s the same is the name and the address,” he said.

Trapp’s focus is French cuisine.

“There’s a reason that certain cuisines are classic cuisines,” he said. “They’ve got hundreds of years of refinement; I don’t like novelty for novelty’s sake.”

Although Trapp loves to eat out, he admits that, as a restaurateur used to his own exacting standards, it can be frustrating.

“My wife and I walked out of five breakfast places in one morning, in search of someplace that actually had butter,” he recalled. “I love real butter on my toast and pancakes. And when you read the ingredients on the spread that they give you, and it’s the same as the ingredients on the nondairy creamer, you know there’s something wrong there.”

Trapp has good things to say about his peers in town, however, and he feels a camaraderie among the local, upscale places.

“We have a small list of restaurants that I’ll let my waiters recommend if we’re full and we have customers we can’t accommodate,” he revealed. “We trade back and forth. All the better restaurants are independently owned, so that kind of binds us.”

“I’m glad to see people giving it a shot,” Trapp continued, “because the sophistication level is definitely here and it’s rising all the time. But we need some variety, some ethnic diversity. We’ve got close to 300 restaurants in town, yet the variety is minimal.”

Cuisine! Cuisine! does not offer a children’s menu. While Trapp is himself a parent, he feels strongly that kids need to learn to order in a ‘real restaurant.’

“There are plenty of things on the menu that little people are comfortable with here,” he said.

When Paul Smith opened Table 65 in August 1998, he also decided against a children’s menu.

“In the past year,” Smith said, “we’ve received four or five scathing letters from moms who thought it was absolutely inappropriate that we didn’t have a booster chair or children’s menu. And we try very graciously to explain, that’s not who we are.

“I’m going after a market, a little bit of a niche that says, ‘I’d like this to be date night’ – parents who love their children but don’t want to spend 30 bucks on a baby-sitter to listen to yours,” reasoned Smith. “We get nine-, 10- or 11-year-olds in here, and that’s fine. But at 7:30 at night, toddlers need to be getting ready for bed.”

Given the restaurant industry’s notoriously high failure rate, Smith is grateful to have survived his first year.

“My year-one objective was to get to year two,” he admitted. “My year-two objective is to become operationally better at serving the guests who have discovered us.

“I got a steady diet of customer-service training at Tiffany and Company, the last place I worked before I jumped off the bridge and did this,” continued Smith. “And at Tiffany, they were very deliberate about understanding the difference between quality and value. In this town, there are all too many places where good enough is ‘good enough,’ and I’d like to see that change.”

Changing its menu every six weeks is something on which Table 65 prides itself, and Smith enjoys offering unique items.

“What brings people back,” he said, “is they try something here that they’d never fathom to prepare at home. A lot of people can cook a pretty good steak at home – why do they need me? They come here because they like our music, like that our wait-staff is attentive, like the fact that they feel special when they leave here. If people are going to go out and spend a premium, I think they have every right to expect to be treated in a pampering fashion. We have Reed and Barton flatware – it’s heavy; I don’t like to go to a place where you can pick up a fork and bend it. I want people to notice our details.”

At Pulcinella, details are typed up “double-spaced, 12 font, two to five pages in length” once a week, explained manager Dave Whatley.

“Because we have approximately 600 wines to choose from, we assign weekly essay reports on a given wine,” Whatley said. “Many of our staff are in school, and their friends say ‘you have to write papers? You have to go home and study to work in a restaurant?’ But every Saturday we have a required, two-hour meeting to read and discuss the essays.”

Whatley is proud of the fact that, despite their high expectations, Pulcinella has employed only 15 people in eight years of business.

“That’s kitchen and dining room,” he emphasized. “Chain restaurants go through that many dishwashers in a month.”

If working at Pulcinella requires an extra time commitment, so does eating there: meals typically last two to three hours.

“We pre-make just two things: our chicken stock and our tomato sauce. Everything else is made on the spot,” Whatley said. “Pasta is cooked fresh to order, seven minutes al-dente. Most restaurants cook a bunch of pasta al-dente, set it aside and then throw it back in the water to get it hot when you order it. Then it’s not al-dente anymore – it’s overcooked.”

“The first time people come in, they might think ‘wow, 20 minutes just to get an appetizer,’ not realizing that when they place their order, we start with a clean pan and butter and fresh garlic,” Whatley continued. “But once you explain that, and they taste the sauce, then they sit back and relax and start to listen to the music and look into their date’s eyes and say OK, this place is cool.’

“And that,” added Whatley, “is what I love about working here.”

FORT COLLINS – In the sea of chain restaurants that is Fort Collins, a small coterie of fine-dining establishments is attempting to turn the tide. With linens on the tables and a conspicuous absence of children’s menus, locally owned Cuisine! Cuisine!, Pulcinella and Table 65 are among those quietly making waves.

Where once Nico’s Catacombs was a lone bastion of gourmet fare in the Choice City, now these relative newcomers give the more discerning diners among us greater opportunity to refine our palates.

“I’ve never seen so many chain restaurants in one city in my life,” commented Philip Trapp, chef and…

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