Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Beast + Bottle [Photo: Adam Larkey]
Beast + Bottle celebrated its one-year anniversary yesterday. The Uptown eatery, owned by siblings Paul and Aileen Reilly, was an encore of sorts for Reillys who closed their first restaurant, Encore, in April 2012. Paul, who helms the kitchen, and Aileen, who oversees the front of house, landed the old Olivea space and created a cozy homey dining room that Denver diners fell in love with. The menu, emphasizing a "farm to fork" philosophy, utilizes in-house butchery and wines by the carafe to round out the concept.
The combination has proved successful, with Beast + Bottle earning both Best New Restaurant and Best Restaurant nods from 5280 Magazine in its first year. Eater sat down with the Reillys to discuss their first 12 months on 17th Avenue, evolving brunch offerings and their take on service and hospitality.
How long do you think it took to settle into Beast + Bottle?
Paul Reilly: I felt at home in this space almost immediately. In terms of a comfort level and being able to do what we want to do, I think even beforehand it felt like home right off the bat. In terms of finding our groove, I don't even think we've found our groove yet. I think we're still evolving into the restaurant we want to be. We're still becoming better at what we do. So in that sense, it's a continual project. The comfort level here, I basically live here. I love it here.
Aileen Reilly: Every day I think there's still something we learn about what we're doing to make that groove right.
What has been the biggest adjustment you've had to make going from Encore to Beast + Bottle?
PR: I think at Encore—just because of where it was situated—we had to kind of play to the crowd, and here we cook whatever we want. Whatever inspires us, we don't worry about "Hey will this not sell?" We just get to be really creative and let our freak flag fly a little bit. I think an adjustment would also be turn times. That was a big adjustment. Because it is so comfortable. Encore was like "Eat, have a drink, get out." Here, people will stay for hours.
AR: I would agree with that. It's not unheard of that we've had five-, six-hour tables. So I think for us, getting used to it and being able to juggle that...in such a small space. There's plenty of people who come in and sit in the dining room and have a three-course meal but they're on their own time so they'll be in and out in an hour and 15 minutes. We've had plenty of two-top groups too that will be here for four hours at their own pace. So, I think us finding the balance of how many people are doing that and how do we react. But also make sure we take care of the people who could be coming in as well.
Did you encounter any major surprises or setbacks during the first year?
PR: The bar fell one night…In the middle of service. 5:30 on a Saturday…I want to say it was in November. But the back bar just fell off the wall. It was the loudest thing you've ever heard in your life. That back cabinet. It was terrifying. And people just sat there, so the band played on. We served them—half the staff cleaned, and half the staff cooked and served and we actually had an alright night in the end. But we had to close the next day. And you know it's not just the well. There's some expensive bottles of liquor back there.
AR: And we closed for safety reasons and for us to reinforce everything in the restaurant. And of course get that back up. We lost every liquor bottle, had shattered glassware. But we were fortunate no one was hurt. It obviously made us close a day. All the house-made stuff we lost, because all of [bar manager] Dean's bitters and infusions are on top of it. So all those broke, not one of them was saved. So we actually didn't have our own bitters for almost eight weeks.
What kinds of tweaks or changes have you made over the last year? Any instance where you've said "this just isn't working"?
PR: We've been pretty lucky with menu items because most of them have all sold. I think that from a food perspective, brunch is always evolving. There's always like one or two things on the brunch menu that people don't really go for. But I think that's because there's things on the brunch menu that everyone gets. We could probably have four things on the brunch menu—the four biggest sellers.
AR: We originally looked into doing brunch six days a week. And then when we opened we just did Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And we started that way and for what we were doing in the space and what it took for the kitchen to prepare the food we wanted to serve, we just found that opening the six days wasn't something we were going to do. So we kind of came back around and decided not to do it. We kept with Friday and I think over time we just decided to move away from Friday and really focus our brunch on Saturday and Sunday services. So that was a tweak from our original concept. At this time, we love our Saturday and Sunday brunch. We talk about bringing Friday back maybe when the patio hits a little bit more. Right now our focus is dinner six nights a week and the brunch two days a week.
What's been your biggest accomplishment or point of pride since you opened?
PR: I mean, making best restaurants in 5280 I'd say. And best new restaurants. And retaining staff too. We have a lot of people here that worked at Encore that are still with us now.
AR: Both of those specific accolades I'd definitely say are a big part. I also think that the amount of people who were Encore regulars and have come with us here. That's a big deal to us. That they've come with us, we are a different restaurant, but they still support us. So seeing their faces is, you know, that's a huge accomplishment that they're still here.
Has it been more validating to receive praise from the media, or from other chefs and restaurateurs?
PR: Both of those are great. It absolutely validates. When you come in and the kitchen pulls 18-hour days—we don't as much as we used to—many, most of them have before. You come in and you get somebody saying "this is one of the best places in this city" or you have another chef, somebody you look at as a colleague or somebody you look up to say, "God, I just admire what you guys are doing," that's great. But really I think the regulars, people who come in here and spend their time with us, that's amazing. It's almost even better. The people who will come in and come back and hang out, share a meal, bring more people with them, tell all the people about it, that's pretty special too.
How do you feel the neighborhood has received Beast + Bottle?
PR: Awesome. There will be nights, specifically when the weather's bad, and we'll look around and it will be neighborhood people. Just hanging out like this was their living room.
AR: There's really good relationships around the board in this neighborhood. Everyone is so supportive of each other. And the resident neighbors, they love, I think, the diversity that's happened on the block. We get the feedback of having the fine foods market across the street to having us as more of their fine-dining spot, to…
PR: ...Grabbing a burger at Steub's, grabbing some bao at Ace. Getting a vegetarian meal at Watercourse. This neighborhood to me is very, very Denver.
AR: I think we always had this idea of how great it would be to be on 17th Avenue, but for us to actually then look at being up here, living in this neighborhood, and all of a sudden it all kind of came together. It's a neighborhood that I think really supports each other. And that's the whole 17th/Uptown neighborhood.
Your wine program offers a lot of flexibility. How has it been working out with guests?
AR: Fantastic. We based the wine program on having these different varietals that people don't necessarily see everywhere. And it was kind of to get people to not only try something new but serve a couple wines that we felt were a little more food-based. And a lot of the wines we serve are pretty characteristic of certain regions of Italy, France, Spain. We have tons of Austrian and German wines right now. And it's gone really well and we take a lot of time to make sure that not only the servers, but the guests have the opportunity to learn about it. It's very frequent when someone comes in and says, "Well, I drink Sauvignon Blanc," and we don't have Sauvignon Blanc. And we're able to bring them tastes of two things that—one may have the acid of Sauvignon Blanc and one has more of the body—and so we get people to try these and they find something they love. But with the pours, I think it's awesome and it's reminiscent of a European restaurant or trattoria when you look around and there's just liters on every single table. It's a fun look. There's nothing better than having a group of five and being able to share a liter together. It's a fun way to drink and everyone kind of gets into it. We love wine and we respect it, but I also want people to be able to enjoy it. It shouldn't be something that people think is over their head. As a whole people think that wine is kind of this different level. At the end of the day, it's grape juice, in a very, very beautiful way.
What's your favorite thing on the menu right now?
AR: I have a different favorite every single day. There is a dish that came with us from Encore. When Paul and I started, we knew it was coming with us, and that is the lamb pappardelle ragu. And it's always on the menu, it's one of the only items that's always there. It is so amazing with the pasta the kitchen makes down to the braised lamb shoulder, a little lemon oil on it. I would eat it every night. But it's tough because there's other days where I look at a dish like, "God that's my favorite, I love this dish." But that's a constant in my life.
PR: For me, it's hard right now because we're in a transition period. The kitchen is so ready to start cooking with spring ingredients after we've had nothing but root vegetables and kale for three months. I think for my favorite one right now, I love the lamb sausage pizza. It is delicious. It has a house-made sausage and olive tapenade. People get it when they have a three-course meal and people can come in the bar or patio and have a glass of wine with it. I think it's a nice expression of what we do.
You're obviously accustomed to working together, but what do you think it is about your dynamic as siblings that makes for success?
PR: Trust. This can be a very shady business. I think especially with the financial side. I mean, you hear of horror stories like that. Guess what? We don't have any horror stories like that because we're family at the end of the day. I would say that's the number-one thing, is I know that no matter what's going on, Aileen's got my back. She's got the back of the restaurant. There's really nothing else left to say beyond that.
AR: There's also, highlighting the trust factor of it, is it allows us both to also work a little bit more under your specialty. You hear people who are just like, "Oh I was so worried about what a chef was doing in the kitchen I didn't watch what the front of the house was doing." Well I don't think that ever happens here because I know who's doing the kitchen, it's coming out great, and that's what matters. We can always work on ways to work together and make it enhanced. But he knows that I'm doing front of the house; he trusts what we're doing.
PR: That's a great point, actually, because chefs should not be allowed to run the front of house.
AR: It can be tough. You know, Paul's spent almost 20 years in the kitchen and I've spent almost 15 years on a restaurant floor. I couldn't get behind the line and do what he does and vice versa. People have their specialties and when you can work on that, I think it also creates a better product.
Who are your restaurant or food role models? Other restaurants in Denver you admire?
PR: I really think from a service and food standpoint, the chef and service we can kind of look to would probably be Fruition. They've basically laid out the gold standard of how to run a higher-end restaurant in this town and how to do it and how to keep it still modern and exciting. I mean Alex [Seidel] is certainly someone that I've looked to as a chef and a style of a chef. I think also now with him bringing Stephanie [Caraway] on that they're at the top of their game, again. From a way that you make a restaurant a family, I'd probably look at Josh Wolkon. Both Aileen and I have worked for him. That family environment, he nailed it. And I've always admired how loyal his managers, everyone down to the dishwashers is to him and just how he's created this place where not only it's good to work, but it's fun to work and you're rewarded for doing well. On a more national level, and I mean, this is redundant, but Danny Meyer—the guy wrote the book on how to run a restaurant.
AR: Literally. He wrote the book.
PR: Hospitality 101. And look at the chefs who've come through his kitchens—from Tom Colicchio to Michael Anthony. That's how you run an American restaurant.
AR: We actually ran into him in New York—like physically ran into him on the street—and I was more starstruck…I lived in Los Angeles for years and ran into plenty of people. I walked into Danny Meyer and I just stopped. Jaw dropped, like lost my mind. You read his book over and over and over again and there's not one time that I've read his book that I don't learn something else from it.
There's been a lot of discussion lately about service in Denver restaurants. What's your take on the opinion that service is lacking? How do you approach the service element in your restaurant?
PR: Before we opened this restaurant, I looked at Aileen and said, "You have a much harder job than I do." I think service-wise, I don't know if it's as bad as people think it is, but I think it is behind where the food is.
AR: I would say that here, our servers go through testing constantly and they go through very intense pre-shifts every day, and we go through every menu item and we talk about what it is. And if there's ever a question we go through it even more in-depth. And our menu changes daily, and our servers do an incredible job being able to keep up and also retain. So it's not just the one day. They're doing an absolutely killer job keeping up with it.
PR: It's not easy. We ask a lot of them, and we ask a lot of the kitchen too.
AR: We want to take care of you, so allow us to do it. Allow us to enhance your experience, guiding you through our menu, and letting you know what's happening in this restaurant. I think the techniques are by far there, and now it's about allowing the experience to open up as well. We can't do anything if you don't tell us you're unhappy in the restaurant. If you don't tell your server, if you don't tell a manager, it's very difficult for us to fix the experience that you weren't satisfied with. When we bring in our staff, we look for hospitality and that they want to be in this industry and I'm incredibly proud of the staff we have.
PR: They believe in the food and the idea, and it's not that easy to make that happen.
What are your plans for the future? Short-term? Long-term?
PR: There's both. We'd like to continue as a restaurant company and Aileen and I talk about other concepts all the time. They're coming—can't say they're coming that quick. But maybe they are coming that quick? I don't know. I think we just want to keep evolving and to be one of the best dining experiences in Denver as well. That's our long-term goal. That this restaurant will be considered among the best in Denver for awhile...
AR: ...Past the one-year mark.
— By Ashley Hughes
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