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.
The fiddling never stops. Since Bones opened on December 30 last year, the chopsticks have been switched out four times over. The idea of making hoisin and soy from scratch was scrapped after an ill-fated attempt at making and fermenting soy sauce. The hole in the floor (designed to thread bar orders from downstairs to upstairs) never materialized—because the opening would have been in the middle of the dish-room floor. As a result, Bones' cocktails often take nearly twice as long as they should to get to diners. The restaurant has juggled personnel, including the opening manager, chef, and sous chef. Bones, like any new restaurant, is a work in progress.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle has been getting diners to understand the "Asian-inspired" noodle-bar concept. Bones is not intended to be a noodle house on Federal Boulevard serving traditional flavors; the restaurant has more in common with David Chang's award-winning Momofuku in New York City than it does with Pho 79 on Federal and Ohio. "People want more than 'we're a noodle bar,' " Bonanno tells me. "They see escargot, oysters, and bone marrow on the menu, and it doesn't line up. I didn't want to be totally authentic. These are the things I like to eat."
Bonanno may claim this food as his own, but it's really his spin on a national trend. Pork-stuffed buns, steaming bowls of ramen and udon, and whimsical ice cream flavors are hot commodities on both coasts. Bonanno was simply the first chef to execute them under one roof in Denver. (Since Bones opened, two more noodle houses with similar concepts have come on the scene. One has since closed.)
Despite it all, Bonanno is pleased with how Bones is doing one year out. The restaurant regularly serves 120 dinners on weekend nights and does one turn at lunch. The average check is $22 per person instead of the expected $20. By seven months, with $420,000 in sales, the restaurant had already exceeded first-year projections. In its October issue, Bon Appétit named Bones one of the country's best new Asian noodle bars (and on page 83 of this issue, we name it one of Denver's best new restaurants).
Some might call Bonanno gifted. Others might say he's just lucky. More than a few roll their eyes at another popular, critically acclaimed establishment from Frankie Bones. His success, while magnetic for some, repels others. Bonanno may be unconventional: He's New Jersey brash; he doesn't believe in writing business plans ("too restrictive"); and he dispenses with social graces and speaks his mind, loudly. But in the kitchen he is serious and meticulous, and he approaches all of his menus with a fine-dining sensibility. It takes 24 hours to make the rich stock for Bones' noodle bowls, another 24 hours to marinate pork shoulder, and the steamed bun dough is made three times a day. Bonanno's "good-things-come-from-working-hard" mantra doesn't leave room for shortcuts, and he knows diners taste the difference between something that's made with great care and something that's simply thrown together.
Outside of cooking, Bonanno is a gambler. His preferred games are craps and roulette—and restaurants. The high-stakes restaurant business regularly chews up the less hardy. Not surprisingly, Bonanno's business model is bold and idiosyncratic: He doesn't advertise, doesn't do discounts, doesn't do much in the way of promoting his four restaurants. He relies solely on word of mouth—and yet he turns a profit on each of his restaurants, even in a still-slow economy.
Like gambling, starting and running restaurants—or at least successful ones—is addictive. "I love working and running the numbers, buying the tables, chairs, china, assembling a kitchen, building a quality staff. I love taking the risk," he says. Bonanno is hooked, to the point that he's already got another project in the works. This time, he's looking to buy the space. At the forefront of the decision process, however, is determining the market's saturation point. Has Denver had enough of Frank Bonanno? Perhaps not surprisingly, he doesn't think so—not yet. Bonanno knows that, as with Bones, the right location in the right neighborhood will present itself. And when it does, he's ready to go. "If I can make the numbers work, I see it as my obligation to do so. Who am I to turn my back on a good opportunity?" m
Amanda M. Faison is a senior editor of 5280. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.