Flagstaff House is an iconic restaurant in Boulder that sits atop Flagstaff Mountain overlooking Boulder with 360-degree mountain views. As one of only two restaurants in Colorado to be a recipient of the coveted Wine Spectator Grand Award, its prominence and reputation reaches much beyond Boulder. Don Monette opened the restaurant in 1971 and since then it has been a family business, now also run by his two sons, Mark, chef/owner and Scott, general manager/partner Monette. With a high value placed on personalized service, quality ingredients and ensuring every evening there is an impressive event, the Flagstaff House still maintains itself current and relevant after all these years, turning an enviable number of tables week after week - just recently, over Mother's Day and CU Graduation, in four days, the Flagstaff House had 2,000 covers!
Longtime employee and server, Amy Supik has been with the Monette Family for 16 years at Flagstaff House and shares, "It's fantastic to work for a family?it has been a blessing. To have two people [Mark and Scott Monette] put so much time, effort, and commitment to this restaurant is amazing."
Mark and Scott sat with Eater to share their summer plans to renovate their dining room, special upcoming collaborative dinners, a nail-biting service mistake turned right, their rigorous testing and quality control for their staff, and more.
Your father bought Flagstaff House in 1971. Growing up, how involved were both of you in the day-to-day operations at the restaurant?
Mark: We became involved right around 1975. It's when we built a house in the back, so we lived next door, and when I was in 8th grade it really took off. We would come over here to bus tables in the summer, cut vegetables, and we would have to peel shrimp –we had bushels of them and we didn't like it, we were cutting our fingers – all that always kept us busy. As we got older, in junior-high and high school, we would have homework to do and even though we were putting off our homework, we would pray that the phone didn't ring. But nine times out of ten, it would and they would say, "Hey we need your help here!"
Were you really always on call then?
Mark and Scott in unison: All the time!
Mark: Getting a Friday night off was tough. Dad would ask if we were leaving for a high school dance or something, "You're not working tonight? It's busy. It's Friday!" And oh, the guilt! [Laughter]
As a family run restaurant, you also each have your children working here with Mark's three children as valet, server, and bartender and Scott, with your son as assistant server and daughter who has been working as a server and even your nephew – are there any trials and tribulations within the family or is it smooth sailing? Mark: The kids? They are great. See, my kids work for Scott, which is great. They have to go to Scott. I'm not their boss.
Scott: Then when I can give them a night off every once in a while, I'm their hero. "Uncle Scott got us a night off!"
Mark: But really - Scott, Dad, and I never had any issues.
Scott: It probably took us about two years to get things right in the beginning though. I've been here going on 20 years and Mark has been here for 30 years. We really were at opposite ends of management styles. Mark is a chef and aggressive, he goes for it and was running the restaurant by himself, by running the front from the back, but he had no other choice. He laid down a lot or rules and it was a hard thing to do. When I came in and I'm a different type of personality, I do things a little differently and I take different things into account so it took us a while to understand each other. We did some management consulting courses too but it's great mostly because if I'm not here, he's here and visa versa. We're always watching.
Mark: We really couldn't take the time to spend with our families if we didn't have each other.
Your wine cellar is impressive and beautiful. With 16,000 bottles and one of the largest collections in Colorado, could you talk more about your wine program and your WireWineList on the iPad?
Scott: Dad started collecting wine way back when he opened the restaurant. People would tell him, if you really want to have a nice restaurant, you have to have a great wine list. He really took that heart.
Mark: He knew nothing about it then! It was all self-educated. He grew the list little by little.
Scott: The Wine Spectator thing really kicked it off when they awarded that. Once that came out in 1981, Dad really wanted to be the grand award-winner, which is a significant accomplishment and even today there, are only 90 in the world.
Mark: He was the first one in the state of Colorado to have one and now there are only two, the other is Little Nell in Aspen. It's substantial to keep up that inventory is huge and it's a passion to collect these wines and hold onto them. It's hard to do.
Scott: Thankfully for him he was able to buy a good assortment back then, because that does carry us through even today. Because some of those important wines – the DRCs, Bordeaux, and Champagnes have been collected for many years. If we had to buy all of those now, it would be really hard to do. We try to source wines from all over the world at different price points. We want to have a lot to offer because the cuisine is so varied and different. Having the iPad available to us and search them out is great – you can say you want to spend $100 on a Pinot, it will give you Pinots from all over the world and in that price range and you can see it all there together. You can hone down on what you want as a customer, really quickly.
Mark: Sorry to interrupt – but it's also the paper waste and inventory control that we've saved on [with the iPad wine list] which is great. Everyday we were switching out papers if were out of just a few wines we would have to switch out multiple sections and with 15 wine lists, we were always printing. The printer was just running, "Rrr, rrr, rrr" all day. Now, we save a lot on paper.
Scott, could you talk about your standard for service and how it plays an integral role in the restaurant?
Scott: It stems from trying to have the staff realize that we need to do something special for every guest, every night. We as a staff are always here, so really the basis of it is, let's make sure we all understand it's often for a special occasion. People come in here for their anniversaries, 100th birthdays down to 1st birthdays and more.
Mark: Yeah, we had a graduation party last night and the family said, "We come here for every special occasion." It just feels good when you take care of the guest. They're elated and clapping and it's really, really cool.
Scott: The basis is to help them understand that. We start everyone, with or without experience, at assistant server level. It can take anywhere from a year or more to get to the server level. We really work from the bases up.
Mark: They have to know everything. They go through a huge menu test – there are three different tests – it's a verbal test and leading up to it we have worksheets. They have to spend days in the kitchen as well. With the menu changing so often, they have to keep up and know and understand the new meanings and definitions on the menu. We'll bring out the produce or fish and talk about them each day and how it's prepared.
It's evident that your high standard for service pays off but what about a service experience gone wrong and how did you rectify it?
Scott: Nothing ever goes wrong here! [Laughs]
Mark: What about that ring story?
Scott: Oh, don't bring that up. He's digging me. Okay, fine, it's an interesting story and it does have a good ending. It wasn't all my fault though. [Laughter].
We had a guest come in and it was a proposal, we have a lot of proposals here, and it was a really busy night. We had 3-4 hostesses on. The lead hostess, her job is to stay at the door, takes the ring from the guest, it was a box of chocolates, a box of Godiva with the ring in it. The hostess says, "No problem, we'll take care of it." She says, "Take them to table 62." The other runner hostess brings them down and seats them and leaves. Then when they sit, a server walks by and that couples asks to sit at another table nearby. Meanwhile, another hostess is coming down to seat that seat they're asking for. They get up and move and the server moves them and says 64 is booked, so I'll seat them here. She never goes up and says this table was switched. The hostess comes up to me and says, "Scott, here is the ring. It's table 62. It's for dessert." We put it in safe-keeping. Then, that hostess goes home since it's toward the end of the night. The night keeps going on, and it's time for dessert, so we bring out the box of chocolates and we bring it to table 62, even though it's the wrong couple. They see the chocolate and it happens to be their anniversary. They think it's cute and we give a lot of different treats as surprises all the time, so they didn't think it was unordinary. Then they say, "Oh look at this cute fake ring in here." She tries it on. Meanwhile, the guy who asked to be moved who was supposed to propose, is watching but he doesn't realize it's actually his. I don't know why, that's a different story.
The anniversary table gets up, they leave and take their time walking out.
The server comes up, after they leave and says, "Table 64 is wondering where their ring is." I say, "What?"
Mark: And Table 62 was a walk-in so we didn't have their phone number!
Scott: That's right. Oh that's right. He finally tells me and I call the hostess and she says I put them on 62. Then we realized what happened. I told the couple, it's not here. We called the police since we had the credit card number. They found them and went to the guy's house late at night. They said they almost threw it away without knowing what it was. The police gets the ring and we invite that couple back up for dinner and we made it a really special evening.
The funny part is that the whole story hit the paper the next day. I was at Wendy's in line with my kids and it's the Daily Camera calling, asking about the ring story. Then 9News came up and the Today Show wanted both those couples to get on their show. It's funny it went viral. But see, it wasn't really my fault? Mark likes to blame me for it. [Laughter].
Mark, can you talk about how your view the food you serve here here and how the menu has evolved over time?
Mark: It's interesting when I first came back here as the Chef, Boulder isn't what it is now. As far as customers they didn't know either. I would have fresh truffles from France or foie gras and no one knew what they were. Throughout the years we kept growing and people understood it. They call it farm to table and all that but we've been doing that forever. I was trained in France and that's just what you do. I do a lot with Cure Farms and she's raising a pig for me too. I've got the head of the pig coming in - I'm going to do some head cheese which is a classic French dish. It's [the menu] very seasonal. The menu updates everyday. I have two sous Chef and a kitchen crew of 20. We just sit down daily and look at the menu and throw out ideas here and there and we make it better based on our ingredients.
Scott: I think we continue to find things to tweak for example – we brought in organic cream a while back, so we're now making our own butter. And from that water, we make our own ricotta and then we fold that into house-made ravioli. We're hanging our own prosciutto's and curing our own bacon. That was an evolution. It's always about what can we do better? If we don't make it better, we won't do it. We buy local as we can, but if it's something better than we want to source out the best thing.
We hear there are plans to update your dining room in a few months? What will the changes entail?
Mark: We're putting in a new divider that separates the bar and the dining room. It's going to be all glass and crystal.
Scott: We also are getting rid of all the oak and it will be all cherry wood everywhere. We're going to redo the chairs and carpet, with all new fabric. It will be big. We're also redoing all the fixtures even in the bathrooms.
Anything you've kept since the beginning through all your renovations over the year that holds sentimental value?
Scott: There is one painting up in the dining room by the wait station by Ruby that has been here since Dad bought the restaurant. There are also antique chandeliers that are from France that the original owners had brought in. We have them out on the terrace and they're the other piece we have kept.
Since you've been open for so many years, how do you stay current and relevant, yet true to your roots?
Mark: Quality, quality, quality.
Scott: It's all about staying true to the quality of everything - from the fabric on the walls, to what goes on the plate, to the quality of the crystal and our stemware. Really, we listen to our guests. For instance, we didn't do gluten free five years ago. But we started getting that request, so we now have gluten-free bread, gluten-free beer, all our sauces are gluten-free – we do many things gluten-free. We realize who we are, we want to always provide value.
What can we expect to see in the future from Flagstaff House? Any special events?
Scott: We're starting our Tastes on the Terrace, kicking off this week [last week in May] which is small plates. We have a cocktail list that we created for that, as well. It's an opportunity to come up and just have an appetizer and sit on the deck. It's first come first serve and very affordable at that. We have a few wine dinners and a beer dinner coming up this summer. Then in the Fall, on October 19th, we're doing a lunch at Flagstaff House as part of the Burgundy Festival. We're doing that with the staff of The Little Nell who will be down here with us from Aspen.