Welcome back to The Gatekeepers, a feature in which we roam the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Patrick DuPays, a French native who is committed to local and seasonal cuisine, opened his restaurant Z Cuisine, a French-inspired bistro, seven years ago. Several years later, he opened A Cote, an absinthe bar, next door to Z Cuisine. There is a special magic mood and vibe in both of these places that comes from DuPays' dining philosophy. He shared that with Eater.
What is your guest and hospitality philosophy? Every party, every night is a book. Every book is a story. You open it up and read the story. What is the story? Birthday? Lovers? Buddies? When we know everyone's story, we can serve them better. We listen to the person, to their energy, attitude. If someone asks in a pissed-off voice how long it's going to take for a table, here, we all agree that that person is not a good fit for us. We tell them that the wait may be too long and gently ask them to try A Cote. Every night we keep our eyes and ears open, we listen to our customers and respond to them, to their mood and their story. We talk to them and try to be as flexible as possible. We never say no - we want to treat everyone with kindness and try to accommodate.
Why no reservations? We never accepted reservations for very specific reasons. The average reservation system is predicated on a very specific length of dining. Our customers dine on average for two and a half hours. We cannot predict how long they will be at the table and we don't want to have to predict. We are a bistro. A bistro is based on the idea that you come in, you wait, you sit down, eat, no timing or rush necessary. It's kind of like organized chaos. We want our guests to be able to stay for as long as they want. Sometimes regulars get worried and ask for their bill when they see a long way. You know what I do? I say, you stay right here - coffee is on me, I will bring you a Calvados. Other times when I really need the table and feel comfortable with the guests, I say dessert and absinthe is on me next door at A Cote.
Are there any exceptions? We know this is hard on some people who have a specific time, a babysitter to get back to, some other scheduling situation. We make exceptions. We want to hear your story. We will work with you if you are willing to work with us. If you say, This is my twenty year anniversary or My grandmother is coming to town or I am going to propose to my girlfriend. We always ask when you want to come in. If it is about 5:30 or 6, no problem. If it is later, say 6:30, we tell people that it is more difficult, that we don't know and can promise a table at Z Cuisine, but that we will try to best accommodate them and that, if we are very busy, we can get them started at A Cote.
What about for a larger party? We will reserve a table for a larger group at A Cote, but with some restrictions. If you want a table of twelve or six on Saturday night at 7:30, no. If you want that same table on a less busy day or earlier in the night, sure. What we generally do at A Cote for larger parties is the floating bar.
No reservations but do you have a waiting list? Not anymore. Two years ago, I lost it. It was a Saturday and our hostess came in smiling in the kitchen with a list in her hand. I wasn't in a great mood to begin with so when she came in sort of laughing, I asked her what was funny. She said, "Oh, nothing, we just have a lot of people waiting at A Cote for a table at Z Cuisine." We had twenty-five parties, not people - parties - waiting at A Cote for Z Cuisine at 9:30 p.m. I lost it. I said "This is not acceptable, this is not funny, this is embarrassing to have people waiting this long and not getting served.
With the waiting list where you put a name down, people will wait at A Cote an hour or more than they sit down at Z Cuisine and realize that, for example, the cassoulet takes twenty-five minutes to be cooked and they get upset. The list just made for this clusterfuck of problems that made me freaked out. This was just before Christmas. I went home and told my wife that this isn't working anymore. I did not open a restaurant to get insulted and I get insulted all the time. People are mad, upset. I closed the restaurant for one month. When we reopened, we dropped the waiting list.
What do you tell people when they ask how long the wait is? I tell people when they come in and ask how long-- I don't know. The only way I can possibly know is by going and asking my guests and that I will never do. I always say to those waiting, our customer enjoy their meals from two to three hours so we don't know how long it will take. The thing I can do right now is tell you a thing I don't even know - lie to you. I won't do that.
Say it is Saturday night at 8 p.m., how long is the wait for a two-top? That is actually probably very short. That is basically when our first rush of customers wraps up dinner and we turn the tables.
When the wait is not short, what's the strategy for waiting for a table? I know the Z Cuisine space is small. When we came up with the menu at A Cote, at first it was small. It is not small anymore. I ask customers who want to get started at A Cote. It is more casual, more fun. A lot of times customers just end up spending the evening there, enjoying both the atmosphere and the food. They just say "you know what, we are happy here- we have the foie gras, we have the bourguignone, we have the mussels, the cheese, the fondue- we are fine." For a while, people thought that A Cote was the "lesser" Z Cuisine. It is not. My best friends come to Z Cuisine once a year, but they come to A Cote twice a week.
What are the advantages of no reservations aside from never having to rush customers? Well, basically what happens is that people know that the way to get a table is to come right at 5 p.m. or around 8 p.m.. That means that we fill our tables early in the evening, we have an early bird seating every night. If I took reservations, that may be different. Everyone wants to go out for dinner at 7 o'clock. The rush is always between 7 and 7:30, a bottleneck.
Why not open Z Cuisine at least one extra night for dinner - say on Tuesdays? On Tuesdays, we get our deliveries. That is when we do the prep for Z Cuisine, our stocks, our marinating, our consommes, chopping, cutting, new menu items. If I open on Tuesday nights, that will throw off both my food cost and my staffing. I am ok running a forty percent food-cost but I am not ok to run a forty-one percent food-cost. The only reason I am ok with forty percent is because I want to, because I know that good food costs money. Forty percent is very high but it works for me because we make good quality food. We don't open on Tuesday night because we want to keep the high quality of the food. If we were to open, we might compromise the quality. Then there is the staff. Now they have two nights off every week- Sunday and Monday. If I open Tuesday night, we'll have to hire more people to cook on Tuesday night, which means I will have to be open more to keep them working - lunches and brunches and maybe seven-day a week dinners. You are either open all the time or you just pick your spots which is what Z Cuisine does.
Where do you eat out in Denver? My favorite place in town is still my house. I love to cook there and spend time in my own kitchen. Aside from that, my wife and I love to go out to dinner at Sushi Den. I always leave inspired by the flavors, the presentations, the combinations of ingredients, the simplicity. We go and sit at the bar and always appreciate the experience. Aside from that, Spuntino, Fuel Cafe, and Sassafras - all places that are close in the neighborhood that we visit often, mostly for lunch.
Nearly on every night that his restaurants are open, DuPays is either on the line or in the dining room. A Cote is open Tuesday through Saturday and Z Cuisine on Wednesday through Saturday for dinner only.