In Frasca Food and Wine’s gleaming dining room, amongst crisp white linens, hand-blown Zalto wine glasses, and flatware polished almost into mirrors, something is out of place. Usher’s “Yeah!” screams from the speakers as Frasca’s co-owner and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey, dressed in a tailored suit and tie, pumps his fist into the air. “I’ve waited 20 years to do that!” he beams, explaining that the song was the No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts in 2004—the same year Frasca opened on Pearl Street.

As is true of most long-standing businesses, the restaurant isn’t the same one that flung open its doors and hoped for the best. There were detractors right out of the gate. “On opening night, a guest who still dines with us said, ‘You’re going to go out of business in 90 days if you’re not more Boulderlike,’” Stuckey recounts. “I had a tie on, I took reservations.” At that time, few restaurants in Boulder accepted reservations, and unlike fine-dining peers such as Flagstaff House, Frasca didn’t have decades of prestige under its belt.

An old image of the Frasca team
The Frasca team more than a decade ago. Photo courtesy of Frasca Food and Wine

Even Thomas Keller, chef-owner of the world-renowned French Laundry and Stuckey’s longtime mentor, had his doubts about the venture. “He said, ‘Bobby, I hate to intervene, but they’re not going to understand you in Boulder. You’re a fine-dining guy. Boulder is about breweries.’” For context, Stuckey and Frasca founding chef and partner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson met while working at the Napa restaurant, where Stuckey was wine director and Mackinnon-Patterson was cooking. It was there that the seed for a restaurant in Boulder, a town close to Stuckey’s wife’s family, began to grow.

The truth is that most everyone was right to be skeptical. In 2004, Frasca was a new breed of restaurant entirely—not just for Boulder or Colorado but the country itself. The restaurant’s micro-focus was that of Italy’s tiny northeastern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Friuli, despite being written about by Hemingway and located just 90 minutes from the tourist trap that is Venice, remains a largely undiscovered area of Italy. It was the wines that first drew Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson to the area, but the duo fell in love with the people and the generosity felt in the food they cooked. “We wanted to dig in,” Stuckey says. “It was such dumb luck, if you had chosen any other area we wouldn’t have been as lucky.”

On June 18, Keller will have a chance to eat his words when he joins Stuckey and the rest of the crew in Boulder for a guest chef dinner celebrating the restaurant’s 20-year anniversary. This event follows a veritable parade of collaborative dinners—Mitja Sirk and Alessandro Gavagna of La Subida (the Friulian restaurant that inspired Frasca), Marc Vetri, Gregory Gourdet—all celebrating Frasca’s 20-year anniversary. As Stuckey and the staff see it, why fête one single date (the restaurant officially opened August 4, 2004) when you can extend the party and underscore the milestone?

Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson
Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson. Photo by Adam Larkey. 

It’s a well known fact that roughly 60 percent of restaurants don’t make it past their first anniversary, and even fewer—only about 20 percent—celebrate five years. (Of course, survival rates were even more grim during the height of the COVID pandemic.) Frasca is, in every sense of the word, an anomaly. And the restaurant isn’t just hanging on, it’s the best it’s ever been. The reason: evolution.

When it first came on the scene, Frasca was very much a fine-dining restaurant, but it also, almost incongruously, had a neighborhood vibe. “When we first opened, we were more casual,” says Carlin Karr, director of wine and beverage for the Frasca Hospitality Group since 2012. “We’ve always had white tablecloths and refined service, but we had more tables, a quicker, slightly more neighborhoody service with more covers. We didn’t have the tasting menu.”

In the time since, Frasca and its staff have won just about every wine, culinary, and hospitality award possible: multiple James Beard Awards (including Best Chef Southwest for Mackinnon-Patterson), and this last fall, the restaurant nabbed a Michelin star under culinary director Eduardo Valle Lobo and current executive chef Ian Palazzola. The restaurant has also, very deliberately, become even more high end.

In 2012, after the Great Recession saw many restaurants go more casual to appeal to a wider audience, Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson closed Frasca for a six-week remodel. Rather than follow the industry’s lead, the partners removed seats to make the dining experience even more intimate. They added a tasting menu, which itself has evolved into the current $205 Friulano menu. Firmly a special-occasion spot, Frasca now maxes out at 36 reservations per night.

Fancy Frasca dessert
The Miele dessert on a past menu at Frasca. Photo by Sarah Banks

For many, Frasca has come to exemplify a balletic style of hospitality, service that is so quietly refined that often you don’t even notice that a plate was cleared. “Everyone wanted to go away from fine dining,” Stuckey says. “That thought is recycled every few years, and with COVID it really came up again. But I said I’m going to double down and be more fine dining…. Not everything has to be hipster and trendy.”

A big driver of Frasca’s steadfast influence is its wine program. Across its four restaurants, FHG employs 12 sommeliers, three of them full-time. This is highly unusual, especially in a landlocked college town far from wine country or a major food hub like San Francisco. The priority on wine service is a Stuckey trademark, who sees it an indisputable part of hospitality. Again, in a world where restaurants are casualizing to every degree, Frasca has further dug in and since Karr came on in 2012, the restaurant’s bottle collection has grown tenfold. “A cellar built over 20 years means we have real wine for real wine people,” Karr says. “And, we don’t price our wine on what it’s valued at today but what we bought it at.”

Frasca’s lead sommelier Jeremy Schwartz
Frasca’s lead sommelier Jeremy Schwartz. Photo by Casey Wilson

Around the same time, Frasca Hospitality Group (FHG) was born. One restaurant became two when Pizzeria Locale (now Pizzeria Alberico) opened next door in 2011. FHG then expanded to Denver with Tavernetta in 2017, and again with Sunday Vinyl in 2019. Stuckey has placed his most treasured staff at the heads of these new entities, meaning many have stayed within Frasca’s ranks, with many others continuing to start from the bottom and work their way up.

Over the years, it’s become a point of pride for Stuckey to both give his staff opportunities to prosper and also see them move on and do great things. Duncan Holmes and Allison Anderson at Denver’s Michelin-starred Beckon and Bryan Dayton with Oak at Fourteenth and Corrida in Boulder are good local examples, along with folks like Grant Reynolds of Parcell and Delicious Hospitality Group in New York. “That’s what’s special about a restaurant that’s been around for a long time and is still evolving,” Stuckey says. “You’re putting people out into the community, maybe not even the local community.”

Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson’s original vision has delivered itself into the future. People come to Boulder from all over the world with the intent to swirl a glass and dine on a menu that remains deeply inspired by Friuli’s verdance. And for that, Stuckey is deeply grateful. “If you dine with us once a year, you’re a regular,” he says. “We understand the fragility of being a fine dining restaurant and that guest commitment…. We are very lucky.”

Amanda M. Faison
Amanda M. Faison
Freelance writer Amanda M. Faison spent 20 years at 5280 Magazine, 12 of those as Food Editor.