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Takah, with a twist

Naomi Havlen

Two days before opening in its new location, Takah Sushi owner Casey Coffman sits in a small office off the restaurant’s kitchen, taking dinner reservations from the answering machine.The rest of the restaurant is buzzing with activity from contractors, the architect and a designer who have been working steadily for 90 days. Coffman emerges after writing down nine reservations, with more still on the machine.

She looks slightly frazzled, but genuinely happy at the transformation the space that once housed the Grottos and The Golden Horn has undergone. What was once a dark basement with a drafty, empty fireplace is now a warm, glowing establishment with modern, Asian-influenced decor.

Takah Sushi, Aspen’s first Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, was opened in 1981 by Coffman’s then-husband, George Sells. Over the past 23 years, the restaurant has developed a strong local following and upheld an esteemed reputation in a town where restaurants are often referred to as world-class.”I really enjoy giving people a good time, and the sense that they are eating great food at my place,” Coffman said. “I want them to walk out of the doors very happy, and this all has worked out for me.”Raw fish?Coffman first tried sushi in the late ’70s, when she and Sells were living in Southern California for a few months with their two small children.

“George came up with the idea for Takah Sushi, even though neither of us had had sushi that many times,” she said. “I’ve had more sushi here at Takah than I’ve had anywhere else.”Sells opened the restaurant in 1981, using the couple’s home as collateral to keep the business going. Coffman wasn’t really a part of the business at first, and said that “very few people in Aspen at the time were ready for a sushi bar.”The basement space where the restaurant was located was tucked down a mini-alley off the Hyman Avenue mall – the same space Takah would occupy until October 2004. Sells believed the long, narrow space would only be appropriate for something with a deli counter, a Japanese restaurant/sushi bar or a champagne and caviar bar. Sushi won out. According to Sells, Takah Sushi may have been the first restaurant of its kind in Colorado and the bordering states. That doesn’t mean business thrived, however. When Sells decided the restaurant business wasn’t for him and transferred ownership to Coffman, she bit her nails for years.

“It was slow. That location is established now, but at the time it really wasn’t,” she said. Somewhere along the way, though, locals discovered Takah Sushi. Aspen visitors weren’t far behind. Coffman thinks sometime during the late ’80s more people started vacationing in Aspen, and their tastes became more sophisticated. Sushi became more popular, more acceptable and “more hip.” It all came together in 1987 – the year Coffman paid off her original debt to the bank. “I had borrowed money several times because offseasons were really brutal back then,” she said. “For six years I felt like the restaurant was just hanging on, and a couple of years later I could actually take money out of the business in addition to taking a salary. I thought, ‘Oh my God, you can make a living at this.'”

A bigger and better basement spaceWith customers clamoring for reservations in the weeks before the restaurant reopened Dec.18, it’s clear that business hasn’t slowed down for Coffman. Takah Sushi closes for several weeks during the spring and fall offseasons, but it is otherwise open for business serving sashimi, sushi, rolls, tempura and an array of other Japanese entrees.Last summer, Coffman announced the restaurant would move from the Hyman Avenue mall to the below-grade space at the corner of Cooper and Mill streets, where The Golden Horn, the Grottos and, briefly, Cabos once were located.Remodeling the space was a huge investment for Coffman, and she’s visibly anxious about it. She laughs, but she also puts her head in her hands when she thinks about the cost. The restaurant business isn’t exactly one with a large profit margin, she notes.

“This is the biggest financial risk I’ve ever taken in my life – I didn’t owe anyone anything when I got involved in this,” she said. “My Polish grandmother used to pay cash for everything she ever bought, and now I’m living the American dream because I’m in debt up to my ears and then some.”Commercial real estate broker Ruth Kruger of Kruger & Company helped Coffman look for a new space for two years after convincing her it was time for Takah to move.”She had expanded in the other space to her maximum potential, and it was either stay there at that level or move on to the next,” Kruger said. “[The new space] has undergone a transformation from an unsalable ugly duckling to an absolute swan. It’s an amazing transformation.”The new restaurant has an estimated 20 to 30 percent more room for seating, but many things about Takah Sushi haven’t changed at all. You still walk down a flight of stairs to get in, and you can still expect to be handed the same menu by a member of the friendly wait staff.

Several nights a week you’ll still be greeted by Coffman, but what you’ll see behind her might surprise you. The former Grottos space has been completely gutted – bar, stage and fireplace are gone – and is now filled with Takah-worthy furnishings.The ceilings in the dining area are covered with cloth, which are barrel-vaulted and lit from behind, giving the room a warm glow. The sushi bar contains shadow boxes with backlit beargrass; sushi rolling mats encased in Plexiglas cover the eating surface. Aspen-based architect Jeffrey Halferty and local designer Alex Kim worked together on the remodel, giving the space an airier, more contemporary feel than the old Takah.Taking over another below-grade lease doesn’t faze Coffman. In fact, she might have her finger on a new trend for local restaurateurs.”Frankly, I think most restaurants in the future in Aspen will either be below- or above-grade, because ground level is just not affordable,” she said. “Restaurants require so many square feet, and landlords can rent it for so much more than restaurants can afford to pay and stay in business.”

Coffman will remain a hands-on restaurant owner, although she credits her restaurant manager, sushi chefs and wait staff with being the true key to a successful restaurant.”They all make my guests feel welcome and taken care of, and they’re awesome. This is really a team effort – even my dishwasher is great,” she said. “It’s a big deal to move a restaurant, and all of us have put a lot of sweat, time and work into this.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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