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.
"Going upstairs" also means navigating a blind corner, 18 precipitously steep steps, and a low ceiling for anyone taller than 5 feet 10 inches. There's no computerized ordering system, so servers will run drink tickets up to the bar while lugging dirty dishes. They'll come down and service another table while the bartender delivers the cocktails. Ideally, this will take two to three minutes. There's talk of cutting a hole in the floor and threading a wire down to the kitchen so drink orders can be sent up—almost like a game of cocktail telephone.
Ever confident, Bonanno has a plan for that wrinkle as well. "We'll do that after the building inspection is complete," he says, only half joking.
Long before he signed a lease on the Bones space in October 2008, Bonanno, who is 42 years old and retains his Jersey accent (he pronounces his last name hard, like "banana" with an "o," instead of with a soft Italian lilt), tried to buy the building. He tried to buy it many times, actually. He liked the location, the building, and the proximity to Mizuna and Luca D'Italia, which are both steps away. He originally hoped to use the square footage to open Luca Deli, a small Italian-style shop selling artisanal cured meats and cheeses. The deli would complete Bonanno's trifecta, the perfect triangle of restaurants on one block. But the building's owner wasn't interested in selling. The space was leased to a restaurateur who opened the short-lived Sparrow Market and Cafe.
Though Bonanno's restaurants are French (Mizuna) and Italian (Luca D'Italia and Osteria Marco), he has always loved to cook and eat Asian food. One evening, shortly after opening Osteria Marco in October 2007, Bonanno told director of operations Chris Gregory that someday he'd like to open an Asian noodle bar that would have the same principles as Mizuna: well-executed dishes with high-quality ingredients. "We'll be local and seasonal and artisanal. We'll make our own sweet-and-sour, fish sauce, bonito, dashi," Bonanno said. "The food will be disciplined. I want to go deep with simple, rustic food." The idea clicked with Gregory, and when Sparrow Market closed in 2008 he suggested that Bonanno open his noodle bar there instead of the Italian deli.
Lease negotiations began in late summer, and, almost immediately, Jacqueline dubbed the restaurant Bones, an ode to Frankie Bones, Bonanno's childhood nickname. To this day, Bonanno remains close with his pack of hometown friends. The eight boys romped around the neighborhood and bonded over stickball and street hockey. During the cold Jersey winters, they'd toboggan down the nearby golf course's steep seventh hole. Even as a youngster, he was used to being in charge and having a voice. "I was always the captain on the sports teams I was on," he remembers. He also was one of only two freshman to play varsity football at his all-boys Catholic high school.
In September of last year, Bonanno ripped up Bones' lease and rewrote it to his liking, all while the United States plunged into the Great Recession. Bonanno didn't have any loans or investors. Still, he budgeted $130,000 for the new venture and started designing the space as cheaply as he could: Jacqueline was charged with the decor and logo, while Bonanno took on the kitchen. Zenman Productions, a marketing agency, got to work on a Web site, and Jacqueline picked out simple, white dinnerware and sturdy, hardwood chopsticks. (Bonanno is persnickety about chopsticks—he hates porous, splintery wood in his mouth.) They inked an opening date of January 2009 on the calendar.
Meanwhile, high-profile Denver restaurants, including French 250, Ocean, and Mel's Bistro, closed their doors. Many other smaller spots also disappeared. Even during the best of times, one in four restaurants fails before its first anniversary. Statistics and trends be damned, Bonanno had decided he was going to open Bones—no matter what.