What: Sarto’s Denver (a North Italian-inspired eatery)
Where: 2900 West 25th Ave., Denver, CO
Pro: Sarto’s provides a chic, elegant and delectable experience that you’d expect from a fine dining restaurant, except it won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Pro tip: make sure to order anything from the cicchetti offerings. Chef Laird handcrafts these little bites every day for a tailored experience for each diner.
Con: The menu has a lot of well done Italian classics at a very fair price, but the more unique offerings will cost you a bit more or come in smaller portion sizes.
For many years there’s been one question in the world of food and dining that fueled countless dinner debates, articles and interviews. It seemed everyone had the same query: “Is fine dining dead?” Bon Appetit’s restaurant editor, Andrew Knowlton, re-sparked this debate when he published his list of the best new restaurants in America for 2014. The list did not include your typical Michelin star-rated restaurants but rather featured everything from a marketplace to a food truck. He explained to Eater Denver that, like many others, he didn’t believe fine dining was “dead” per say, but it was no longer as important. With an impressive year for restaurant openings, many of which were mid-priced eateries and fast-casual concepts, it does seem that Denver values a more relaxed dining atmosphere. Plus chefs all over town proved they could still produce a quality meal at a much lower price point. But along with this also came complaints of poor service and a never ending sea of burger joints. So as we move into 2015 we argue that the question should no longer be if fine dining died, or is it dead, but how can its essence of quality and service be maintained? And as we ask this question, there’s one person we should look to…
“There was no surprise or element of gratitude… I found it boring.”
For 14 years, Chef Brian Laird spent his days catering to Denver’s elite at the renowned Barolo Grill in Cherry Creek. He crafted elaborate multi-course tasting menus filled with extravagant ingredients paired with a pricey but beautiful wine list. Many diners came in for special celebrations or business meetings that resulted in a hefty bill. Laird, being a talented chef with a dedication to high quality, shined in this arena. He quickly made a name for himself as one of the best fine dining chefs in town, winning a multitude of awards and accolades. But after over a decade of serving solely the top-tier, Laird became tired:
“For so many years after serving ‘two-percenters’ they came in expecting great food. In return there was no surprise or element of gratitude… I found it boring,” Laird explained over the phone.
With a desire to rekindle connection with the customer, Laird decided to break from traditional high-end establishments and open his own restaurant. With the help of Taylor Swallow, a local entrepreneur, the two created Sarto’s in the budding Jefferson Park neighborhood. The concept, which opened up in November, first appeared to share many general characteristics of a fine dining restaurant. The decor is elegant yet understated: muted grey tones, white marble counter tops and big bakery windows create an atmosphere of gentility. The food is chef-driven and refined with new nightly offerings from Laird himself. Service is superb with industry professionals that are knowledgable and kind. It is everything you’d expect from a high end restaurant but here’s the kicker: you can eat AND drink here for less than $20.
“I’ve been told that I am doing fine dining so I should charge fine dining prices..but it’s not about that.”
Yes, for $19 you can have an order of house-made potato gnocchi ($13 for full/$7 for half) tossed with gorgonzola cream, drizzled with lavender honey and a glass of presecco ($6). Or share plates such the as grilled octopus ($9) served with fresh spinach, tomato, fingerling potatoes, seared bone marrow & a light lemon dressing or the roasted pheasant ($8) tossed with mixed greens, agrodolce peppers & onions, crispy leeks, focaccia croutons & basil oil. If the price tag didn’t tell you so, you’d believe you were paying top dollar. Laird explained that people have even expressed concern about the cost:
“I’ve been told that I am doing fine dining so I should charge fine dining prices… but it’s not about that. It’s about where a family of three can come into eat.”
Laird continued that he wanted a neighborhood place where families and friends could gather after work in jeans and t-shirts and still have a nice meal. Admittedly, Laird explained that many of his Cherry Creek clientele have followed him to Jefferson Park, but he hopes that the neighborhood will catch on as it develops. He mentioned that they opened in Jefferson Park because they wanted to be the anchor that attracted more businesses– so far it seems to be working.
However the presence of the high-end clientele does suggest that Laird has successfully created a “fine dining” restaurant but at a cheaper price point. Because the fact that Laird can open a restaurant across town and still attract a wealthy dining crowd that is notorious for sticking to its bubble says that he must be doing something right. But the best news is that the reasonable prices and more approachable area does not reserve this space for the elite. Rather you can come into Sarto’s on a budget and be wined and dined like you’ve got money to blow (especially if you snag a seat at the cicchetti bar where Laird will personally cook for you).
What does this all say about fine dining? Well, it’s definitely not dead but it has changed. Because more and more chefs, like Laird, are realizing that they want and can cook for a wider audience rather than just those that can afford it. It seems people are starting to remember that food and cooking is love, and it’s better when it’s shared. And we’re more than okay with that.
All photography by Kiddest Metaferia