Now that generations of prom-goers, graduates, and newlyweds have celebrated special occasions at Flagstaff House, the owners realize it’s time for a reboot.
A pair of twenty-somethings, Chris Royster and Adam Monette, took over this year as the Flagstaff House’s new executive chef and general manager. First they changed Flagstaff’s dinner format to offer three- and five-course tasting menus. Next, they plan to redesign the historic labyrinthine ‘house’ in hopes of securing its place among the country’s great modern restaurants. For those who haven’t been to this glass and stone structure atop Flagstaff Mountain in a year, or 10, or 20, now is a pivotal time for a drink on the forest-wrapped patio or dinner overlooking one of Colorado’s over-the-top vantage points.
The space has survived nearly a century as a Boulder destination. It was built in 1929 as a schoolteacher’s summer cabin, and by the late 1930s it transformed into an event center. For the past 64 years, the Flagstaff House has operated under the same name as a restaurant.
The road to Flagstaff is a curving and climbing mile up otherwise-open space in the Rocky Mountain foothills. It’s past the last residential streets, the first lookout point, and a ranger’s cabin. When Don Monette bought five acres of land here along with the restaurant in 1971, he had hoped to create a high-end Colorado dining destination. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the Flagstaff House had been AAA and Duncan Hines-rated under chef Hugo Buelk, whose dinners sold for $2 to $4.
For better or worse, diners now associate the restaurant with foie gras and filet mignon. Don Monette’s son Mark took over the kitchen in 1985 and continued his dad’s vision. “He never took French onion soup off the menu, and he never took off prime rib,” Adam Monette says today of his own father. The Flagstaff’s newest, third-generation partner is standing over now-executive chef Chris Royster’s carrot risotto with spring vegetables. “You don’t have to have a centerpiece filet,” Royster adds to the sentiment. It’s a seemingly small concession in the year 2018, but it’s a big one for a business bucking 47 years of its own tradition. Across Royster’s new menu, the vegetable-based dishes — smoked eggplant mousse, morel and ramp ravioli — are some of the most exciting.
“It’s okay to change,” Scott Monette, Adam’s uncle and the family’s second-generation co-owner, had encouraged. “We have to stay true to what we do and why we do it.” On a late spring weekend evening, some 40 staffers were on deck for just over 60 reserved patrons. Of those, two came to celebrate golden anniversaries, and a pair were turning 70. At the other end of the spectrum was a couple out to dinner on their wedding night, and another about to get engaged at the table.
For each of these parties, waiters will still dramatically present bottles, cakes, and ice sculptures. For everyone else, there are complimentary hors d’oeuvre platters, palate cleansers, and baked goods to take home for the next morning. Down in the basement cellar, a 16,000-bottle wine collection is one of two in the state to receive Wine Spectator’s Grand Award; The Little Nell’s in Aspen is the other. Here century-old Bordeaux and brand new Corsicans are both catalogued for customers on an iPad. Twenty-year veteran servers and 20-year-olds alike greet guests wearing button-up vests and neckties. The scene is anachronistic, but the view is leveling.
As Royster, a 2016 “Chopped” champion, continues to expand and hone his menu, he and Monette may open up the divided dining room and expand their bar area. For decades, those in the know have been coming to Flagstaff House for a glass of wine on the patio. Now Royster and Monette hope they can reach more customers, younger customers, for a drink or an appetizer on their way up or down the mountain. It’s a sign that one of Boulder’s finer destinations is now relaxing back into its foundations of a family summer cabin.