What happened to those delicious days of Boulder business lunches?

In rough economy, we've lost some restaurants while others flourish

| Jan 9, 2010

Sometime back in Colorado’s booming decade of the ’90s, we did a readership study at the Boulder County Business Report that came back showing our business readers ate out a local restaurants about five times a week — or at least once a day.

<strong>Dolan's</strong> One of the ones we've lost

Dolan's: One of the ones we've lost

Now I’m sure that included business lunches, as well as perhaps a nice dinner or two with clients and perhaps family and friends on the weekend.

This all struck home to me the other day with the news that Dolan’s Restaurant, a 15-year Boulder favorite for business lunches, parties and special events, had closed after the state stepped in for the owner’s failure to pay taxes.

Over the years, Dolan’s was a favorite of mine to meet business associates as well as meeting friends for its happy hour, one of the best deals in town. The menu was reliable and good — crab cakes were a favorite — the staff was always friendly and owner Mike Dolan was almost always there, greeting customers by their first names. In CU football season, Dolan’s used to be “the” place.

Businesses weren’t spending

Just before Christmas, however, I met friends for weekday lunch at Dolan’s, and I could clearly see things were a bit slow at the lunch hour. I said hello to Mike and asked him how things were going. “Not so good,” he bluntly told me. Businesses were really cutting back on office parties, his bookings for the private rooms were way down, he said. “Businesses all seem to be doing potluck lunches with their employees,” he bemoaned.

On the reader comments to the Daily Camera story about the closing, one employee said, “Everyone working at the restaurant knew it was in trouble for months, and that closure was imminent. It was every employee’s decision as to whether or not they continued working for Dolan’s.” So apparently the closure did not come as too much of a surprise to those working at the restaurant.

And Dolan’s is certainly not the first locally owned restaurant to fall upon hard times from the recession, nor is it likely to be the last. The list of local restaurant closings keeps growing. Orchid Pavilion, Sunflower, Burnt Toast (although it was sold), the Scotch Corner Pub at One Boulder Plaza, Sobo (converted to Murphy’s South) and Narayan’s Nepal Restaurant.

Many good ones remain

For a relatively small city, Boulder boasts a tremendous variety of incredible restaurants — many recently receiving accolades even from the food writer for The New York Times. The Kitchen downtown is almost always crowded at lunch; next door is Salt, a new entry in the restaurant wars that took over the spot of Boulder’s cheeseburger heaven — Tom’s Tavern. Successful restaurateur Dave Query operates three restaurants in the same block downtown — Jax Fish House, the West End Tavern and Centro. Not far away his newest restaurant is the Happy Noodle House. And, let’s not forget, Boulder chef Hosea Rosenberg won Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

This list of places to eat out is rather endless. There’s enough sushi in Boulder to keep any lover of Asian fare happy. Boulder’s Frasca, where chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson won the prestigious James Beard award, is another receiving national and statewide attention, although it looks like the economy has at least stalled its plans to move closer downtown.

Boulder restaurants epitomize the quote, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens.” Even in the depth of the worst economy to hit the country in decades, entrepreneurial chefs continue opening new restaurants here like Full Belly, Arugula Ristorante and one of the newest soon to open, Pizzeria Basta in the Peloton development on Arapahoe.

Many deals are being offered

Personally I know I do my part in helping support Boulder’s restaurants, but I openly confess to watching for some deals along the way. For a birthday celebration one night over the holidays, three couples chose the “happy hour” at Bacaro in Boulder’s West End. The idea was to go for some reasonably priced glasses of wine, and enjoy the tapas and other appetizers at happy hour prices. Our bill, of course, was considerably less than if we had all gone for a full dinner. This, and the wine, made us happy.

The combination of both consumers and businesses closely watching their bottom line — and, for the consumer, that includes their actual bottoms — translates to a difficult and lean time for restaurants. It’s not just a Boulder trend, of course. Nationally restaurants have had to become extraordinarily innovative to bring out the customers.

So here’s a toast to a much healthier economy in the new decade. One that will get companies out more for business lunches, and even the occasional announcement to their overworked staff: “Beers are on us after work today!” After all, in these lean and tough times, don’t you think your employees — who had to bring potluck for their Christmas party — deserve some special attention?

I drank so much coffee over the past year meeting people to talk about how lousy the economy was that I’ve switched to tea. I still love Boulder’s thriving coffeehouse scene, but it sure would be nice in 2010 if instead of “Let’s meet for coffee,” the invite was “Let me buy you lunch!”

(This article also appeared in Jerry Lewis’s blog, Boulder Report.)