One of the most noticeable things about James Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya’s big new Denver restaurant is how obviously feminine it feels. At Safta, orchids line the shelves, roses climb the glassware, blonde wood crosses the tables, a soft pink wallpaper and blush tiles cover all the walls. For a restaurant named after the Hebrew word for grandmother, the vibe makes sense. For a chef who months ago parted ways with high-profile restaurateur John Besh and the New Orleans-based Besh Restaurant Group, accused by 25 former and current employees of sexual harassment, the setting now makes a statement.
“We worked really hard on creating an atmosphere that makes you feel really comfortable,” Shaya said regarding the space and decor on the second floor of the industrial new Source Hotel. “And like you’re ready to dive into some roasted cabbage or some hummus,” he added on a lighter note.
Safta is the second Israeli restaurant of Shaya’s newly formed Pomegranate Hospitality group. On its webpage, the company’s mission states: “We will spend our days together in a place where everyone feels comfortable and safe. We will create a space, whether in our restaurants or throughout our community and beyond focused on furthering love, mutual respect and professional and personal fulfillment.”
“You can’t just do these things, you have to set the structure for these things to happen,” Shaya says. After opening his first restaurant, Saba (Hebrew for grandfather), in May in New Orleans, Shaya and his wife Emily bought a home in Denver and now plan on splitting their time between the two cities. Along with incorporating into larger Colorado life, they’re building their own, smaller community.
At Safta, the dining room will only open five days a week for lunch and dinner. In between each service, the restaurant will close for a “proper family meal” as well as weekly staff lunch and learn sessions. Employees are receiving formal mentoring and health benefits. In return for a balanced life in an often unbalanced industry, the staff went through a rigorous vetting process.
“Are you someone that’s going to communicate well? Are you going to be respectful to people? Are you going to be accountable and hold people accountable if they’re messing up?” were some of the questions the Shayas asked applicants early. About 70 percent of those hired in the end were women.
Jessica Nowicki, who moved from Chicago, leads the kitchen alongside pastry chef Liliana Myers, formerly of Frasca. Ashley Wakeman, who came from Hop Alley, is Safta’s general manager. Chelsea Little, most recently of Ultreia, runs the bar program. “They just crush it,” Shaya said by way of explanation. “We interviewed a lot of people.”
The whole staff is preparing for Safta’s grand opening Saturday at The Source Hotel. Diners can expect a menu of five types of hummus, salatim or Israeli salads and spreads, small plates of grains and vegetables, and larger portions of meats like harissa-smoked chicken or pomegranate-braised lamb shank. The spice-forward foods will go well with wines from — among other regions — Greece, Hungary, Morocco, and Slovenia.
“The beautiful thing about Israeli food, it’s like saying American food,” Shaya said. “Polish is Israeli food. And so is Russian, and so is Greek, Yemenite, Palestinian, and Moroccan. […] It doesn’t have to be one thing, it’s not about one person’s grandmother, it’s not about one place or food, it’s about this feeling of comfort.”
Status: Safta opens for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, August 18 at The Source Hotel, 3330 Brighton Boulevard. The restaurant will open every Wednesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner. Safta’s Market Hall, selling coffee, pastries, and quick meals, will open daily starting from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on weekends. Check the website for updated hours, menus, and information.