Renaissance ends as Charles Dale widens his range
In the 13 years since he opened Renaissance restaurant, Charles Dale has seen changes – in Aspen, in the world of food and wine, and in himself. Accordingly, Dale has decided the time has come to bring change to his restaurant.Renaissance will serve its last meals – sophisticated French-inspired cuisine that has earned Dale numerous accolades and altered the idea of dining in Aspen – on April 19. When the doors open again in early June, diners will see a remodeled space, a transformed menu, lower prices and a new name: Range.Dale’s new restaurant, which he will co-own with his current business partner, Rob Ittner, will have some surprises for fans of Renaissance. Virtually all of the main ingredients will come from the American West, from the Rockies to California to the Northwest. Dishes will feature salmon from Alaska’s Copper River, Oregon morels and Idaho trout. The regional twist extends to the wines: Range will feature an all-American wine list, which Dale calls “a huge step for me. Huge.” The upstairs space – formerly the R Bar and currently a private dining room – will become a bar and lounge with a grazing menu, tentatively named Graze (or Grey’s, after Western writer Zane Grey, in keeping with the regional theme). Dale intends to retain his current executive chef, Jason Tostrup.It has been a range of factors that have led to the change. Since opening his second restaurant, the French country bistro-inspired Rustique, in 2000, Dale has enjoyed catering more to the masses than to the elite, whom Renaissance attracted. He has also seen dining tastes move toward the simpler fare. And the state of the world seems to have engendered a patriotic streak in Dale, who was born in the south of France, where his father was an American diplomat. An American-focused cuisine is the best way for Dale to express those sentiments. As much as anything, however, the switch reflects changes in Dale’s own tastes. The last few years have brought two children to Dale and his wife, Aimee, and an accompanying change in lifestyle. Dale wanted to bring the food he served more in line with his life.”My tastes have changed,” said the 45-year-old Dale, whose kitchen training includes stints at Le Cirque in New York and Leon de Lyon in France. “I’m more interested in getting the full experience of a few elements than a lot of complicated things. Maybe my children have taught me to enjoy more simple things. I love a great steak, a simple roast chicken. “I believe you have to be true to yourself. You can only create within the boundaries that are true for you.”Dale is insistent that a move to the basics of food won’t mean abandoning the innovation and excellence that have earned Renaissance a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and a Zagat rating as one of the 100 best restaurants in America. At Range, simple translates into such dishes as bacon-roasted trout with a bean “stew,” mustard-seared sirloin steak with potato and mushroom hash, and chocolate cherry bread pudding. “I fully intend for the food at Range to be of equal quality” as at Renaissance, said Dale. “It will still have a trademark of innovation.”The particular kind of success Dale has experienced at Rustique has served as a guide. With its unfussy French country cuisine and prices considerably less than at Renaissance, Rustique has earned a following from a wider spectrum of diners than Dale ever saw at Renaissance. And Dale learned that the kind of food Rustique offered could still earn him attention from the foodie crowd: Rustique was named one of the best new restaurants of 2000 by Esquire magazine’s John Mariani. Rustique reinvented Dale as a chef for the people, a role he hopes to expand with Range.”I realized, in opening Rustique, you can do simple food, and people will flock to it and enjoy it more often,” he said. “We want to be in touch with people. At Renaissance, we made an elite few happy often and others happy on their birthdays or anniversaries. We’ve been the special-occasion restaurant in Aspen, and that was a great niche to have. That’s probably the hardest thing to let go of.”What’s important now is to be a meaningful restaurant in a different way. And that means attracting more people in on a nightly basis.” Kissing goodbye to Renaissance, a move Dale has been contemplating for two years, means shedding an impressive 13-year history. In 1995, Dale was named one of the 10 Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine. Perhaps as important to Dale, the opening of Renaissance changed Aspen’s dining landscape. Dale notes that there were fine restaurants in Aspen before his arrival – Syzygy, Pions – but Renaissance, he says, “upped the ante. People came to Aspen as a culinary destination.” Dale claims the change is not primarily business motivated; he notes that this year’s numbers are up over last year’s. And he doesn’t believe Renaissance has slipped in quality. Instead, Dale says that Renaissance, the first restaurant he opened, has hit its peak. Which means it’s time to change course.”They say that every seven years, you’re supposed to reinvent yourself,” he said. “So we’ve gone through almost two cycles.”
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