Roll the Bones
Frank Bonanno has become Denver's most successful restaurateur over the past nine years, so you'd think the brash chef would know better than to open an upscale noodle joint in the midst of the worst economy since the Great Depression. Then again, maybe he knew something others didn't.
A couple of weeks earlier, Bonanno and I stand in the little wedge of a space, on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Grant Street in Capitol Hill, that is to become Bones. Despite the wad of chewing tobacco wedged into his bottom lip, he hasn't stopped talking since arriving late to our meeting. He's stocky, and today he's wearing worn hiking boots, jeans, and an oversize L.L. Bean jacket that makes him look shorter than his five feet seven inches. He looks, and often acts—with his frequent exaggerations—more like a workman than the owner of three finely tuned restaurants.
Bones is a departure for Bonanno. It's his first Asian eatery—more specifically, it will be an Asian-inspired noodle bar. It's also his most affordable spot (menu items average about $11 and top out at $17), and it's his smallest venture. With just 800 square feet—500 of which is actual dining and kitchen space—every decision is calculated with an eye toward efficiency, maximum occupancy, and, ultimately, profit.
"There are two trains of thought when opening a restaurant," Bonanno says, using an index finger to dislodge the tobacco and fling it into the trash. "Be aggressive, or go slow and dot your i's and cross your t's. We're the aggressive sort. We charge ahead and assume we'll pass our inspections."
Bonanno squats to scrutinize the delivery of boxes packed with everything from yellow onions to plastic condiment squeeze bottles. Behind him, a shiny Taylor Twin Twist soft-serve ice cream machine and a combi steam oven are installed. The hood hangs over a six-burner range (though he'll later switch that out for one with 10). Bonanno's father, who spent years working construction in New Jersey, helped him hang floor-to-ceiling wine racks while visiting over Thanksgiving weekend. The restaurant's sous chef balances midway up a ladder, painting a wall a deep Bordeaux—appropriately named Eating Room Red. The wall to the north awaits a 10-foot-by-10-foot painting by Denver artist Quang Ho. The space is swiftly becoming Bones, even though Bonanno still doesn't have one of the keys to any successful restaurant: a liquor license.
The hearing for the license is in three days at the Wellington Webb Building downtown. Bonanno is confident the city will grant the permit, despite a colossal paperwork headache a couple of months back that delayed the process by several weeks. But betting that the city will grant the license could be a costly assumption: If denied, Bonanno will have to push back Bones' opening date by at least a month.
Bonanno is willing to risk it. He's used to the restaurant gamble. After all, he was still finding his way with Mizuna, his very first (and very high-end) restaurant, when planes flew into the World Trade Center, and the American psyche, not to mention the world economy, was shaken. September 11 was exceptionally personal for Bonanno—he grew up outside of New York City in Demarest, New Jersey. If anything, the tragedy furthered his resolve to succeed. "Work hard and good things will happen," he says. "My father drilled that into us as kids."
He steps around a pile of wood that leans against a counter left over from Sparrow Market and Cafe, the previous occupant. The counter will be ripped out, along with the makeshift kitchen. A carpenter's saw whirs in the background. Bonanno jerks his chin toward the windows—they're drafty and have to be replaced. There's only space for one bathroom. The bar and dish pit, he says, will have to be upstairs. Never mind that upstairs—which also houses the Bonanno Concepts offices—has neither heat nor air conditioning.