Wineink: Raise a glass of beer — or wine
If you were lucky enough to be a Buffalo — that would be a University of Colorado Buffalo — through the 1970s, ’80s or ’90s, right up to 2018, you no doubt were familiar with the saloon on 11th and Walnut in Boulder called The Walrus.
One of the best dive bars in any college town anywhere, The Walrus was opened in 1972 by Frank Day, a legendary Colorado restaurant entrepreneur with close ties to Aspen. It was a place where fans gathered after football games, students met future life partners and graduates raised toasts to their accomplishments. And it marked the beginning of Day’s five-decade (and counting) career in hospitality.
Today, Aug. 4, is Frank Day’s 90th birthday, and those who know him will not be surprised if he celebrates it by working.
“I still go to work every day,” said the hospitality innovator, who has opened over 80 restaurants in Colorado through his Boulder-based company, Concept Restaurants, and has owned the Hotel Boulderado since 1980. “This is a detail business, and you have got to pay attention to the details. I’ll go and sit at the bars of our businesses and talk to the bartender. That’s how you get to know what’s going on.”
Over the last 50 years, it is arguable that few have sweated the details, or served as much beer and wine to Colorado diners and customers, as the Concept group that Frank founded. It all began with The Walrus but morphed into an empire that included brewpubs (The Walnut Brewery, Boulder Beer and the Rock Bottom Brewery chain), steak houses (Frank’s Chophouse and LoDo’s Chop House & Brewery) and pizzerias (Old Chicago and Filmore Pizza). His outposts have changed the way Colorado, and America, eats and drinks. The Rock Bottom Brewery helped to nationalize the brewpub culture that is ubiquitous today. And on Aug. 22, in keeping with the ongoing work ethic theme, Frank and his wife and business partner, Gina Day, will open Boulder Social, another Concept eatery that will mine the homemade beer and pizza concept in Boulder.
But the crown jewel and the legacy property for the Days may well be that Boulder institution, the Hotel Boulderado.
“I bought the Boulderado because it had three nice bars, it was the right price and the other group wanted to turn it into offices,” he told me as we sat beneath the famed stained-glass ceiling in the hotel’s lobby.
What Day bought was a piece of history that, though modernized in 2017 with a luxury renovation by Aspen-based architecture firm Rowland+Broughton, still provides the ambiance and character of the last century. The Boulderado opened on New Year’s Day in 1909 and has been a part of the community ever since. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can still ride the original 1908 Otis Elevator, with an operator, to your floor if you stay in the historic main building. For a combination of nostalgic charm and modern comforts, the Hotel Boulderado is uniquely special.
Those “three nice bars” that Day spoke of in the Boulderado have historical precedence, as well, and are all serving guests today on a daily basis. Few know that Boulder was a “dry county” from 1907 all the way up until 1967, when Boulder County voters ended the 60-year prohibition. The best you could do in the hotel was 3.2 beer.
Today that history is immortalized in the basement, or “catacombs,” of the hotel in the multi-roomed License No.1 cocktail bar, so named because it received the first liquor license following the repeal of the Boulder prohibition. On the front patio of the hotel is the airy and cheerful Corner Bar, Boulder’s quintessential “let’s meet for a beer” spot, and inside the lobby diners revel in the casual, but fine-dining, farm-to-table atmosphere of Spruce Farm & Fish.
While Frank has a history with beer and brewing, it is Gina who runs the wine programs and selects the wines at all the Concept restaurants, including Spruce, which has an affordable, well-considered, global list of wines both by the glass and bottle.
“When we opened the Walnut Brew Pub in 1989, I thought we should have a good wine list, as well, to give people a choice of what to drink. And besides, I like to drink wine,” Gina said, as she chuckled.
The list at Spruce is reflective of the philosophy that Gina brings to all the lists she curates.
“A wine list says a lot about a restaurant. If it is overpriced and doesn’t create value for customers, it creates a negative perception about the restaurant,” she explained. “We try and have different price levels so that our guests get good wines at all prices.”
A look at the Spruce list shows a number of wines by the glass under $10, including a Famille Perrin Reserve White Blend Côtes du Rhône for $9 and a “Substance” Cabernet Sauvignon from Charles Smith at $10 a glass.
“I try and look at our lists like I was a customer, with their eyes. What wines would I want, and how much do I think they should cost?” she said.
Gina also shared a test she gives to all the by-the-glass selections she makes.
“Wines go through a lot in bars, especially by-the-glass wines. Whenever I am considering a wine to add to a list, I’ll open a bottle, taste it, then recork it. And I’ll do the same for the next two days. I call it a ‘three-Day test.’ If a wine can’t stand up, it won’t make the list.”
August is a busy month for Frank and Gina. In addition to the 90th birthday and the debut of the Boulder Social, the month began with a celebration on Aug. 1 of their 40th wedding anniversary.
“Gina arranged the wedding just a few days before my 50th birthday, so she could tell her friends that she was marrying a guy in his 40s,” Frank said, laughing at the memory.
Though the Days have never had a restaurant business here in Aspen, their story reaches back to the early days of the venerable ski town.
“I never got involved in hospitality in Aspen but have been a loyal visitor,” Frank said.
His roots in this town are deep.
“My parents brought us for Christmas in 1949. They knew an artist who worked with Herbert Bayer named Paul Gallagher. So, my senior year in high school, we came out, and I learned to ski. My folks bought an old miner’s cabin for $1,500 on 1st and Hopkins,” he said, adding with a chuckle: “Some say they overpaid.”
His mother, Margaret Day, owned the Holiday House in the 1950s, and Frank and Gina still have a townhouse here on the Roaring Fork.
“I love the restaurants in Aspen. We go to Jing and Cache Cache – Jodi (Larner) does a great job – and we like Acquolina,” he said. “Of course, I remember back to the time when Steve Knowlton ran the old Golden Horn. I don’t think I had any trouble getting served.”
As he looks at his career in hospitality, the graduate of the Harvard Business School — class of ’56 — thinks he made a few good choices.
“It’s 110% a people business, and the people who go into it are lucky. I’ve had an opportunity to hire and mentor some great people. When I started, I thought the business was like a mountain, that you just kept climbing. Now I know it is more like a sandhill: You get up, and then you fall back. You just have to keep moving.” He paused, then added, “The hospitality business is like a grad school for life. I’d recommend it to anyone.”
Thanks for the advice, Frank.
Duckhorn Vineyards 2019 Napa Valley Merlot
“We like to carry great wines that have names people recognize, and then price them to provide value,” Gina Day told me, as we discussed the philosophy she brings to the wine list at The Hotel Boulderado’s Spruce Farm & Fish. That “duck”-tailed completely with my experience at the restaurant earlier this summer when I stopped in for dinner.
I had ordered the pan-seared cherry glazed duck breast and thought I might pair it with a Pinot Noir. But then I saw a bargain: The 2019 Duckhorn Merlot for just $66 a bottle. That’s not much more than I would have paid for the same wine in a wine shop. The Merlot, made by the winery that is to this day the standard for Napa Valley Merlot, was rich, supple and soft on the palate. But the beauty of the pairing was the way the aromas of cherry on the nose melded with the cherry glaze on the duck.
It was just ducky.
This past week was a rather lively one for country music lovers in Aspen. The Belly Up brought three incredible country acts to the stage within a five-day period.
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