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.
"I don't care if they're ordering a fucking Sprite—you write it down on a piece of paper, and you take it to the bar!"
It's a chilly late-December evening one year ago, and Frank Bonanno, the owner of three of Denver's most beloved restaurants—Mizuna, Luca D'Italia, and Osteria Marco—is drilling his newest waitstaff on the finer points of service, like the importance of remembering orders and clearing all utensils and dishes between each course. In a matter of hours, Bones, the fourth restaurant in Bonanno's growing Denver restaurant empire, will unlock its doors for a soft opening. And although the evening is, technically, a practice dinner for friends and family, it's Bonanno's only chance for a first impression. It might as well be the Big Night.
At 5 p.m., Jacqueline, Bonanno's wife of nine years, waves in Bones' first customers. Bundled diners rush through the door and immediately fill the noodle bar's 25 seats. They shake off their coats and pore over menus, order sake cocktails, nibble steamed buns, and await bowls of broth-bathed udon and ramen.
Bonanno has been waiting for this day for months now, anticipating the moment when mingling conversations and clinking glasses would fill every inch of the space. Tonight they do. And yet, Bones is not a perfect restaurant, not tonight.
Fortunately for Bonanno, the carefully constructed dishes neutralize most grousing. Between bites of rich pork udon, few seem to care that the slippery, black, plastic chopsticks barely work; they just ask for forks. The chilled soba noodles with prawns arrive and help the diners forget about the long drink delays and the stiff service. And crispy lemon chicken with egg noodles distracts diners from the unventilated haze of grill smoke that hangs like a gray ribbon on the restaurant's ceiling.
Most everyone is distracted by the food in front of them—everyone except Bonanno. He's keenly attuned to the hiccups all new restaurants face, and especially the ones most diners are never privy to. "The basement is flooded," he says, running a hand over his shiny scalp, stopping short of the ring of hair that hugs his head. "Our hot water heater broke this morning. The ice cream machine isn't working. The chopsticks we ordered—they only sent us 24 so we had to get these fast and cheap, and they're terrible." He pauses for a moment, planting his feet and folding his arms so that he resembles a human tank. "This is fucking great."
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.
"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.
On a quiet, mid-November evening last year, Frank Bonanno is at home in his white clapboard kitchen, dressed in a long-sleeve crewneck and jeans with a white bistro apron encircling his waist. His physique might not be what it was when he played hockey and tennis at the University of Denver, but time on the squash court and at the gym keep him fit.
Tonight, he's cooking Bones' menu, which is as close as he'll come to writing a business plan for his forthcoming restaurant. "This is the food I like to eat—there are French influences, but mostly I'm just having fun," he says, opening the heavy Lacanche oven door and pulling out a bubbling pan of braised pork belly. The scent of fat and meat rouses the Bonanno boys—six-year-old Luca and four-year-old Marco—from the living room, where they'd been watching Power Rangers.
Chris Gregory, who holds a 33 percent stake in Bones, and who will oversee the front of the house, arrives with a dozen bottles of wine and sake. He plunks the box of booze down on the kitchen island and begins lining up bottles. Bonanno's restaurants are known for their strong wine lists, and Bones will be no different. But there will be an emphasis on sake, cocktails, and unusual beer. Gregory opens a bottle of the sparkling Chikurin Hou Hou Shu sake, fills glasses, and hands them around. Tonight, as Bonanno cooks, Gregory will pour and make note of food and drink pairings.
Bonanno slices the rested pork belly. The meat still registers 300 degrees, but he holds it in place with fingertips that long ago became accustomed to the burning and scalding of a working kitchen. After placing hunks of pork inside freshly steamed, taco-shape buns, he slathers them with hoisin and sprinkles scallions on top. The buns are handed around and promptly devoured. This appetizer, Bonanno predicts, will be one of Bones' best sellers. A plate of two leaves the kitchen destined for Luca and Marco, who have returned to the couch.
Next up are flash-fried shisito peppers, which spit hot oil all over Bonanno. Then it's on to crab-stuffed egg rolls with heady Chinese mustard, the lemon-chicken noodle bowl, the udon pork bowl, the cold soba noodles with prawns, the tempura-fried black cod and pork belly. And, finally, the crowning dish of the evening: the lobster-edamame miso ramen.
This last bowl is essential: It's the newest addition in Bonanno's chain of signature dishes. "I love lobster," he says, pulling a tangle of noodles from a steaming pot. "This is Bones' version of Mizuna's lobster macaroni and cheese or Luca D'Italia's lobster ravioli." It's one of the few dishes he intends to never take off the menu. One key to this entrée is the tableside presentation, where the miso-butter broth is poured over the noodles and poached lobster from a small carafe.
Jacqueline rustles around her kitchen cabinets looking for a carafe (or, in this case, a pitcher) for the broth. When she locates one, she discovers one of the boys' miniature army figurines inside. "They're everywhere," she says, rolling her eyes and placing the pitcher—soldier and all—in reach of the stove. Just as Bonanno goes to strain the broth into the pitcher, he looks in, spots the army guy, and pulls him out.
"I've had a hell of a week," Bonanno tells me on December 11, 2008. "We have a cease and desist order from the city on our salumi at Luca." He breathlessly recounts how the health department has temporarily shut down Luca D'Italia's house-cured meat program (an investment of about $1,200, 40 pounds of meat, and about $200 a night in sales). The problem: Luca's prosciutto, bresaola, and cappicola are air-cured and stored at about 68 degrees instead of the required-by-law 41 degrees. "[The inspector] doesn't even know what prosciutto is—'Never heard of it' is what she said," he huffs.
Bones' opening night is 19 days away, and Bonanno is frazzled from the health inspection fiasco, lack of sleep, and an ever-growing punch list. The building inspector showed up this afternoon—a day early—and informed Bonanno that by replacing the front door (the old one was rotten at the bottom), he lost the grandfather clause that had allowed for a one-and-three-quarters-inch lip between the sidewalk and the door frame. Now, the new door isn't to code because it's not handicap-accessible. "So we have to build a ramp," says Bonanno. "We'll have someone manufacture it—a fucking 12-inch ramp that goes up one inch."
Upstairs in the office turned Bones staging area, Jacqueline learns that the restaurant supply company no longer carries the lowball glasses she picked out—even though she's already received, unpacked, washed, and stacked a half-order of the glasses. Meanwhile, the plumber spent several hours repairing two burst pipes under Luca's dish pit. Two evenings ago, on one of the coldest nights of the year, an employee turned off the heat when closing. There were 10 cracks in all, and fixing them—and the wall that had to be ripped out and repaired—cost $6,000.
To make matters worse, Bones' ice cream machine—designed to turn out cheerful, nostalgic flavors like Creamsicle and Cocoa Krispies—is temperamental at best. Chris Gregory says he's afraid to look at it for fear it'll break, and Bonanno admits that the ice cream base they're making contains so much butterfat that it's clogging the $15,000 machine.
A couple of days later, the servers' T-shirts—in "natural," with Bones' orange fish bone down the front—arrive, and logos are installed on the new windows. Progress is visible, but Bonanno is incensed. The logos are opaque instead of clear, and they're already peeling off. "They're fucking decals!" he says, exasperated, through yet another wad of chewing tobacco. "They charged us $150 to spray some water on the window and put the things on. I could have done that myself—for free."
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 email@example.com.