What: A Boulder-based restaurant that seeks to embrace true and traditional American cuisine.
Where: 909 Walnut St., Boulder
When: Monday – Saturday; 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Arcana—Boulder’s newest restaurant—has a hefty mission: To define what American cuisine truly is by looking at its roots. Starting from scratch in a formerly abandoned lot on Walnut Street, Arcana will attempt to carve its own place in the country’s vastly evolving, loosely-defined culinary history book. Owners Annie and Elliot Toan, in partnership with executive chef Matt Lackey, are approaching food through the lens of shared experience.
“There’s a couple universal [truths], but one of the most important ones that brings community out the most is eating,” said Elliot. “At the end of the day, it is about nourishing the soul and being a part of the community.”
Arcana’s space is designed to encourage these collective experiences. With intimate booths in the back of the restaurant and an exposed dining area with high-tops, bar seating, and a communal table, Arcana is fostering a sense of community that allows each customer to develop their own space and experience.
“I got a little overwhelmed and then got really excited in terms of thinking about how to treat people, and how we really wanted to have a dynamic space that spoke to different occasions and different people,” said Annie. She also explained history’s influence on Arcana. An installation of American history and literature books represents how history is a guiding concept in the restaurant’s design process.
Elliot, Annie, and their team were inspired by implications behind the word arcana. “There are a couple different meanings to the word ‘arcana,’” Elliot explained. “But the one we cling to—the one we identify with—is discovering the mysteries and the secrets of nature.”
While they know that Arcana is not the first place to question the current landscape of American dining, they want to continue the budding conversation—especially in Colorado—by using local products. With this in mind, it becomes clear that the restaurant is challenging the notion of how diners approach food as a whole. “I think, for a long time, food systems and food product in general has been clouded in this sort of mystery,” said Elliot. “Meat comes from the grocery store, vegetables from the farmers market, but the reality is they come from a long hard process of people and nature working together to create these amazing things that nourish us.”
According to Elliot, this process of discovery starts with the procurement of, “local, organic, and down-to-earth,” ingredients that speak to true American tradition. Consider the Shawnee Cake, pairing pork belly with fermented chilies, green apple, and yogurt. Marrying traditional fermentation techniques with the wildly popular cut of meat, this dish represents the restaurant’s mission of merging old world and new American. Additionally, Arcana boasts a selection of 18 ciders as an intent to educate diners; they are available by the bottle, with three on tap to purchase by the glass. Elliot explained that, prior to Prohibition, cider was the most consumed beverage, but as a result of the law, many factories had to shut down. Chef Lackey explained that he enjoyed experimenting with cider while developing the menu. “You’ll see a lot of corn and chilies on the menu, which pair super well with the cider because of the heat,” he said.
From its carefully curated menu and bar to its conscientious sourcing practices, Arcana is doing everything it can to challenge diners’ notions of how they approach authentic American cuisine. “We truly believe 100 years from now, Americans will look back at this decade and maybe the five years that preceded it and maybe the decade after it as the time period in which American cuisine found its true voice,” said Elliot.
Bringing a community together through food is not a new idea, but doing so by redefining American cuisine is a lofty and complex goal. Annie, Elliot, and chef Lackey are building a menu based on what we know of the beginning of American history. Arcana has set itself up to not only learn from the roots of American cuisine, but develop their own in Boulder.
All photography by Noah Berg