Lee Goodfriend and David Racine [Photo:Courtesy of Racines]
Owned and run by David Racine and Lee Goodfriend, Racines on 650 Sherman St., has been a longtime Denver staple for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A true old school joint, on December 27 this month, they are celebrating their 30th anniversary with some very special prizes and giveaways. Racines is the last standing restaurant open in their once trifecta of restaurants which included Dixons and Goodfriends, which are no longer open.
Eater sat with Co-owner, Lee Goodfriend to learn about her restaurant business advice, what it was like to open a restaurant 30 years ago in Denver, her favorite customer stories, their special giveaway to commemorate their 30th anniversary and more.
Open since 1983, Racine's has really stood the test of time. Can you talk about the early days and how things first began? We opened our first restaurant, Goodfriend's in 1979 and it was fairly small. Then we had some people come to us and say, "How would you like to open a restaurant in this other location?" which was 850 Bannock on the corner of Speer and Bannock. Denver at the time, had a lot less restaurants and I was coming from Chicago, the land of food so I asked where are all the restaurants?
What was the genesis for creating a restaurant in the first place? Did you or David (Racine) have experience working in restaurants? There were four partners originally. One of them quit in the 80's— he just didn't want to be in the restaurant business and my other partner Dixon Staples unfortunately died four months after we re-opened Racines. It was awful. So David Racine and I, both worked in restaurants for eight to 10 years. We both loved the business and thought we knew so much— which we didn't [laughs]. So we wanted to own our own business so we opened Goodfriends, Racines and then Dixons, quite a few years later [in 1997].
You've changed locations once. Has anything else majorly evolved since you first started or have you sought to keep the founding pieces similar? Well we've changed our menu every year. I mean, you can't keep it the same. In the restaurant business you constantly evolve and we're always looking to keep it casual, high quality but affordable.
What's your most popular dish? Our most popular dish right now is the nutty cheese salad and we also sell a lot of burgers. I think we have a good hamburger, buffalo burger and veggie burger. Now it sounds funny but when we opened, it was the land of plastic food and we always cooked everything from scratch. Now that's more the norm, but in 1979 it was not. These things are still important to us.
How do you focus on staying current in Denver's competitive culinary landscape? We're always looking at our food, cocktails and wine. For instance, now everyone is into dry rosé, including me, so we've tried to update that. About 10 years ago we focused on having really good margaritas so we focus on food and beverage to try to stay current.
We built the restaurant in a more classic way that wouldn't look dated quickly because for one, that's our taste and two, you don't want a place to look dated because time moves on and things change. I remember when we got a cappuccino machine back then it was unusual and now of course, you can't have a restaurant without one most likely. It's nothing earth-shattering but we want to make it so customers want to come here and getting a good value and quality for the money.
What do you think the secret recipe is to your success? I am personally very interested in food and I think David and I are young at heart, so even though we're older. We've made it a habit of looking in magazines, looking in cookbooks, going to all the restaurants in town, going to restaurants in other cities and I'm always looking for something I can steal from somebody else! I've even gotten ideas from watching the Food Network or random TV shows.
As a veteran to the restaurant industry, what advice would you give to those just getting started? My most valuable piece of advice I could give anyone is learn it from the bottom up. Become a server, become a cook, be in it a for a number of years so you learn the business otherwise it is going to be very difficult.
You're celebrating your 30th anniversary in December and to commemorate, you're giving away some pretty amazing prizes to winners. Can you tell us about that? Yes, of course! The first prize is a trip to Paris for three nights. We're going to pay airfare and three nights lodging. We want the winner to go to this restaurant called Bouillon Racine's and have dinner, which we'll also pay for and we would love to see their photos from visiting. I'd like to win that prize!
The second prize, we thought we were being funny and fun, but it has turned out to be so much more interesting than I thought. Second prize is a trip to Racine, Wisconsin. That's my idea of heaven, the beach, shopping and eating! It's also the home of the Danish pringle.
We're not starting the contest until the day we opened on December 27th. People can enter by coming into the restaurant and filling out their ballot there. Then February 1st, we're going to put our hands in the ballot box and pick a couple of winners!
We are also going to ask people to post stories of important events they might have shared with Racine's on our website and we'll pick one we like the best and give them free dinner each month for a year.
On that note, are there any favorite stories you have about regulars or your own community you've built at Racines? We did have a lovely woman who ate her twice a day for twenty years, but she passed away, she was older, and I felt like we were her home.
Also, at Goodfriend's we had a Kim English painting of the capitol hanging, and it doesn't even look the same now. When we closed it, everyone wanted to buy it and we didn't want to sell it since we loved it so much. So we put it up in Racine's and this young lady left me a note today saying that she had grown up in Racine's and Goodfriend's and her mother had always loved this picture and did I know the artist and how to get ahold of them. I've been asked about it so many times so of course I remember the artist. I have a feeling now, she might be buying her mom one of the pictures.
In terms of our employees, I have a girl working for me who just had a baby— well I remember when her mother brought her in, in her baby carrier. We're just so glad to be part of the Denver community.