From the space and location to the cuisine, Lower 48 owners Mario Nocifera and Alex Figura created the restaurant of their dreams. Since opening the doors a year ago, the restaurant which has an American railroad-era theme (there's a train track installation on one of the walls and menus printed to look like train tickets) has made a name for itself in Denver's dining scene. Lower48 has received strong reviews from 5280 magazine, Westword, and the Denver Post.
Mario Nocifera and Alex Figura met at Frasca Food and Wine before deciding to team up to bring their restaurant to Denver. Nocifera runs the front of the house and Figura runs the kitchen. He has developed the menu that has a special each section with bite size portions ranging from $2 to $4. Eater talked to them about the fun they have had, ginger beer, and mullet.
What was opening week like?
Mario Nocifera: We were thinkers and we prepared so much for opening week. I have no regrets for opening week. Maybe some regrets leading up to opening week like construction and what not but as far as opening week goes, it was everything that we planned for. We had weeks and weeks of training leading up to it. This is our first restaurant and really our first time working in Denver in this capacity so we wanted to make sure that we put a lot of thought into opening a restaurant that was backed up by the opening week.
Alex Figura: I think we did our due diligence and did a lot of research. Opening week was kind of what we both expected. It is the times after that where it is a learning curve for two people who have never run their own restaurant in an area that is new to them.
MN: I think a lot of our success of opening was the fact that this was a new restaurant. This used to be a parking lot. Everything was built from scratch so we didn't have to deal with things like plumbing issues. We have a good relationship with David, our landlord, which is part of the reason why we chose this location. To answer your question we built a brand new restaurant and that helped us a lot with minimizing hiccups.
Why did you pick Denver over Boulder?
MN: We saw the need in Denver at the time for something that was original. Alex's food is pretty forward thinking so we thought Denver would be a good spot for our restaurant.
Have there been a lot of changes since you opened?
MN: We had to change a couple of things with the menu. We had to adjust portion size when we opened to cater more to our concept. At the end of the day, Alex's food eats better when it is not a big plate. His food sings when it is a smaller plate. We've gone in that direction and not having your traditional entree on the menu.
AF: As far as the menu goes I think we are just trying to figure out our identity especially in the first year. For me, it has been about figuring out the food that I like to create, also like to eat, and knowing my boundaries. Mario touched upon this but we both decided that when we go out, we don't like to eat a massive portion of one plate; we like to try various items. That kind of morphed into what it is now. We also sometimes have a large section that we decide to keep. When I go out with my family or friends, we get a big plate of food and then just dive in and have fun with it. I think that that big plate played a big role and thinking about more of how we like to eat and how the people around us like to eat. That really helped change the menu into what it is now and it will always keep evolving.
MN: With the luxury of building a new restaurant, we can streamline it to cater to the concept. What's original about our restaurant from a menu standpoint is that we offer small bites of food, but not what you would consider tapas. This is more of a one bite of one thing; an "each" item is what we call it. You can get one small item of food. We had two high school kids come in last night and they had a bunch of each items and our housemade ginger beer and they were just blown away and now they want to come for prom. That is the identity of the restaurant. The idea is that we cast a wide net. We want to get the young people that are interested in food, that want to eat right, and who care about where their food comes from. We also want our grandparent's generation to come in and understand what food is today. I think we have done a good job of at least identifying a menu format that works well now that we have worked out the portion size kinks. The reception has been awesome.
What has been the best part of your first year as first time restaurant owners?
MN: For me being able to watch the people around us grow and to be able to watch the business grow. We are nurturing a brand new restaurant. I've been doing this my whole life and Alex too and we are nurturing Lower48. That part has been a really fun experience for me.
AF: We did a really good job of finding people that we want to be around. We have gotten to know each other better and our staff has gotten stronger and stronger. In the kitchen I've watched four people grow who have been there since day one and that is out of six people. We also picked people who we just want to hang out with. I think we made a good decision in doing that.
MN: We were both extremely cautious when going into business together. It's the same philosophy. Can we hang out together? Can we be friends? We ate a bunch of meals and went traveling a little bit and I think that is really the spirit of the restaurant. We've watched all of our staff grow. It is really cool to be involved with such passionate individuals who genuinely care.
How does it feel to have your one-year anniversary?
MN: I think anybody who has been open for a year is pretty stoked.
AF: It is neat and also it is a great milestone but opening a restaurant is a marathon in a sense so we got past the first mile but we have a long way to go.
MN: We have a hard time celebrating. Alex and I really struggle with that. We should do more of that. It is hard for us to celebrate because we know it's a marathon. How do you really celebrate something in your first month, first two months, first year? When do you celebrate? I think you start celebrating after year six. I think that when you start to see the true fruits of your labor.
How does it feel to get the good reviews from the press?
AF: We have been very thankful for what we've gotten and what we have been a part of. It is humbling to be in the same breath of some chefs that have been doing this a while especially in Denver. It is great for our first year. It has been great for someone like me who hasn't spent a lot of time working in Denver to get noticed. We have been lucky.
MN: We are humbled. We feel very fortunate. You look back at the path that you have chosen in your career and then you come to a point where you open your own restaurant and people actually come through the front door and the feedback is positive. It is very humbling. We feel very blessed.
What do you think makes Lower48 Kitchen different than other restaurants?
MN: I think that going back to the ability to create your own space and to create your space around a concept like our menu format. We've done this with our pastry department and our own "each" items and then how we have organized our menu to the layout and design. I think our menu is very unique. I don't know another restaurant that is offering "each" items besides sushi restaurants. I just think that when you come in here, it's pretty thoughtful. Nothing is really original these days, but I think it is an original experience. The way we designed the kitchen really connects our culinary team with our guests. That is one of our biggest things that set us apart from other restaurants. You will have other restaurants that have open kitchens but with this restaurant there are no barriers. What is unique about Lower48 is the format of the menu and the ability for the culinary team to connect with the guest.
AF: We are able to educate our guests about where we get our ingredients and the processes that we took to get to that final plate. Last night we had people and had a full chef's counter and got people's feedback. Two of them were first timers and they were really hesitant. They ordered more and more each items and they had such a good experience they are coming back for their anniversary. Things like that make it really special.
MN: That is the one thing we believe that is truly special about our restaurant our chefs counter. I mean, they serve the food to the guest, they educate the guests, and it is eye-opening for people to understand how a restaurant kitchen works.
How has it been to be a part of the growing food scene in Denver?
AF: I think a lot of people have asked me, "Why do you want these restaurants to open up?" "Does it make you nervous?" My answer is no. I want to see more successful restaurants and places that I want to be excited to eat at, to get inspired by, and to hopefully do a dinner with or work with in one way shape or form in the future. I think it is good for Denver and helps put us on the map in the culinary world.
MN: We would like to be mentioned in the same breath as Charleston or Austin. Denver is getting there.
Could you explain the menu and how it changes?
AF: The menu changes two to three times a week depending on the season. Now it has slowed down but spring and summer we were changing it like every other day. We work with so many local purveyors and national ones. We don't have a lot of catch-words on the menu like locally sourced or organic because 90 percent of the menu is either organic, local, sustainably-raised, and holistically raised. We work very closely with our purveyors and talk to them on a daily basis about what is available. Now, of course it slows down with the vegetables, but now a good example is we have the squid and conch on the menu. We work with a fish company that works with small fisherman. They talk to the fisherman and see what they brought in and what is good right now. I'll talk to the cooks and see what their thoughts are and that's how it kind of works. It is just a daily conversation.
MN: Alex puts himself in a position to be at the mercy of his vendors. A perfect example is the fact that we have mullet on the menu; so many people were wondering why there was mullet on the menu. Simple answer because it is what was caught and what is best that day. It is really fun to see and great for the culinary team because it keeps them engaged.
How does the cocktail menu change?
MN: Cocktail menu changes often but not as often as the menu. Similar to the menu, it keeps in the same type of sync of the season; it is a seasonal cocktail menu. Nothing ever really does a full change but cocktails will change here and there. We had a winter rum punch for our one-year anniversary and we have a hot chocolate that we put on the menu. This is also the same with the wine list. We listen to our purveyors and if the season is Beaujolais then we'll figure out the best Beaujolais and whether it is by the glass or some nice food pairing with that.
AF: We try to find a way to work with each other; especially Brandon, our bar manager, Gabe, and myself. The ginger beer was a great example of that.
MN: The biggest difference about our ginger beer is that we ferment in house with the guidance of Alex.
AF: We make the ginger bug out of organic ginger and add sugar so we feed it. It's a live culture and we season it with simple syrup. Gabe will then bottle it and it naturally carbonates. We have also done a carrot fly. It taste very similar to lemonade but the natural sugars in the carrots help to carbonate the drink and also adds a little sweetness and acidity. It is much more savory than lemonade. We made that cocktail for a competition and we won. It is a learning experience for everyone.
What is in the future for Lower48?
MN: We are just going to keep doing what we are doing. We have to pay attention to the summer time in this area. We are going to probably do some fun stuff on our patio and make some tweaks to our patio. Maybe get a barrel smoker and do some fun pulled pork sandwiches and barbecue briskets.
AF: We want to get the baseball crowd involved.
MN: Yeah we really want to get the baseball crowd involved. The plan is keep doing what we are doing and try to be better than the day before. That truly is our goal. When we meet at the end of a day we always figure out what we did well and what we can do better. We embrace what we have done well and pay attention to what we can do better.
What would be something you would want your diners to know before coming in?
MN: I think flavor combinations are extremely forward-thinking but extremely approachable once you actually enjoy the dish.
AF: Our food is about keeping an open mind. That's why we have our each section so they can get comfortable with us and we can get comfortable with them. They can decide on how they want to ease into the menu and that is what we are here for. We designed the restaurant to make it a very friendly experience. If you are having a good time we are having a good time too. We have very bright flavors and our food is kind of light. That is how we like to feel. We still like to have some energy after we eat.
MN: We hated feeling extremely full and lethargic when we went out to eat. When we opened this restaurant that was an idea we wanted to keep. Most people who leave here don't feel like that after eating his food.