- Olav Peterson, Chef/Owner of Bittersweet
- The comfy lounge at the entrance of the restaurant.
- The dining room towards the entrance.
- The intimate bar that overlooks the dining room in the front of the restaurant.
- The slightly hidden open kitchen that sits between the dining rooms.
- The dining room towards the back of the restaurant.
- The back dining room.
Bittersweet was 10 years in the making for chef Olav Peterson and his wife Melissa, and last year on New Year's Eve they saw their dream restaurant become a reality. The small, artisanal West Wash Park restaurant is dedicated to providing sustainable fine food in a comfortable atmosphere. It's surrounded by a garden that supports the kitchen during the growing season, and it's not unusual to see the Peterson's out picking during service when the kitchen runs out of something. Within a year's time, Bittersweet has created a swarm of good buzz, including a feature in 5280's 25 Best Restaurants. The Petersons also welcomed their first child three months into service. They learned that headcheese and rabbit can be a hard sell for some people, and that the neighborhood can be a bit unpredictable. The Peterson's know their concept is a little different. You can't show up and order a steak with a side of mashed potatoes. You just can't. Chef Olav doesn't have a signature dish and he never will. It's just not that kind of place.
So there's never going to be a signature item?
No, there's not. People have a really hard time with that. I've had a frisee salad on my menu for frickin'-ever. We brought it on over here [at Bittersweet] and people would come in just for that. When we took it off the menu we had a backlash. "Well you have to bring it back," they'd say. Well, no, I don't. You can learn to try something else. I mean, take Fruition. They've had their carbonara on since the day that they opened. We could have done that, but the thing is, those kind of items get boring and they're not as good. So if you ate at Fruition the first time they put that dish out — and I'm just using Fruition as an example — at some point, that dish isn't as exciting to the guy who's making it and he's not making it as good as he used to. That's the problem with signature items.
Are you glad you chose this neighborhood?
We are. I don't want to use the term "regentrified neighborhood," because it's actually a very nice neighborhood. I would love to see more restaurants in this area. I think that would make this area more of a dining district. I'd like to see more restaurants come in that kind of share the same philosophy that we do — really caring about their ingredients and products. I would love to see that happen. I think that would only draw more business to this area and more attention to what we're doing.
Did you look at other areas?
I think if we had decided to go to the Highlands we would have seen more of an immediate boom, just because it's become its own microcenter of food. We've joked for awhile — it doesn't matter what you put up there, it doesn't even have to be quality food. It's going to be busy. On this side of town, it's about laying the ground work. It's about the pioneering spirit. It takes a little more trust in yourself to go after a location that's not as well-known.
Tell us more about the pioneering spirit.
We know that the success and the money will come, to the extent that the money is. We're not looking for the million dollars and the bigger home. We're looking for a livelyhood and longevity. That's where we're at. We're looking to do food that pushes the boundaries. We don't have the traditional ribeye steak with mashed potatoes. A lot of times people will come in here and look at out menu and tell the server that they don't eat things like rabbit and pigeon, and they think they're nothing for them.
How do you deal with that?
It would be easiest to just go ahead and throw a steak on, but that just doesn't really fit with that we're trying to do. Ninety percent of the time they have have to take the leap and be adventurous.
After years of working for other people, how's life as a chef/owner?
I've been able to make mistakes with other peoples' money in the past, not to say I haven't made mistakes with my own money, but the severity isn't as bad now. The mistakes I'm making now verses the mistakes I made in my early 20s are totally different. The big mistakes I made then have taught be what not to do now. My wife and I own the restaurant together. There's no more going to the owner and convincing them of something. It's really alleviated the stress of, "well, how are we going to get 'so and so' to go along with it?" That's always been the constant kitchen battle.
Did the 5280 ranking in the Top 25 give you a bump in business?
It's hard to say. We'd already seen business levels increasing. So much is online and it's so immediate. You can be reviewed on the first night you open for business and nine months down the road, but people are getting their information for immidiate sources and they're not waiting for the best 25 restaurants. They're not waiting for the review in 5280, The Denver Post or Westword anymore. There are restaurants that have been ranked really high, but they've slid a lot, or they're not even in there anymore. Those restaurants are still really busy because people are comfortable. For us, years down the road, we become that same type of restaurant — one that's comfortable and known. It's a struggle and battle to get to that point though. We've never been to the point where we've been like, "Are we going to close?" We haven't gotten to that point. There's definitely been, "Oh, we owe $20,000 to purvayors, but we don't have the $20,000, so how are we going to do it?" I have confidence after doing this for 20 years of how you get to the finish line. I would have never opened a restaurant if I didn't have that confidence.
What are you hoping for Bittersweet in 2012?
(chuckles) Simply that we stay open. To be more specific, I hope to see my sous chef grow, and that I can pay my staff more money. Those are my goals. I believe in the food and the format that we're doing it in. It's kind of like that cliché, "if you build it, they will come." I do believe in that philosophy. It takes time for people to go, "oh yea, that place."