When Dakota Soifer opened his first restaurant five years ago, many were surprised to learn the chef’s chosen location: It sat smack in the center of Boulder’s University Hill, otherwise known as a restaurant wasteland. Why would Soifer, an alum of acclaimed spots like The Kitchen and Zuni Café (in San Francisco) open Cafe Aion, his refined Spanish tapas concept, in an area most often associated with pizza and burgers? The head-scratching gave way to praise, however, as Cafe Aion was quickly deemed a winner, even landing a spot on our 25 Best Restaurants list in 2011, 2012, and 2013. This past Thursday, Cafe Aion celebrated it’s fifth anniversary. (Bonus: Boulder’s Fate Brewing Company created a special Aion Saison to ring in the occasion. Nab a pint at Cafe Aion while supplies last.) But according to Soifer, finding success in the offbeat location hasn’t come easily. We sat down to catch up with him on how he made Cafe Aion work, and his ongoing mission to improve the neighborhood.

(Read more stories from our Ask a Chef series)

5280: You opened Cafe Aion on the Hill five years ago. What’s the process been like, from choosing the location initially to finding your groove with the community?

DK: We came into this space for a couple of reasons. I majored in architecture at CU, so I liked the funky space itself, the shape, the bay windows. Also, it was price-per-square-foot. Rent was less on the Hill at that time than Pearl Street. I was in my 20s then and didn’t have big investors or a lot of capital but was really motivated to start a restaurant. This location afforded me to get my foot in the door. We took over the space, there was a lot of excitement about the Hill, [people saying] “the Hill is going to be redeveloped, it’s moving in the right direction.” There was this feeling that it was cool, and it would be worth the risk. The other piece was that there wasn’t really any competition for a nicer restaurant on the Hill.

I guess there’s a reason that people haven’t opened up a nicer restaurant on the Hill. It’s been challenging finding our demographic, and figuring out how to reach out to the surrounding neighborhoods and how to connect with the University’s professors, the visiting lecturers, and people who are headed over there for a performing art event in the evening. We’ve tailored our hours, our menu, our style for what works the best. When we originally started, we opened five nights a week, and we had a small tapas menu that was, like 15 items. Again, being young and kind of idyllic, I was like, “this is what I want to cook, it’s going to be awesome.” Then we quickly realized that if people were coming up here to the Hill to eat here, they wanted to have dinner. We realized that in a funny way we’re kind of a destination restaurant.

So we added our paellas, platters to share, and kind of fleshed out the menu so that people could have a full menu for dinner. And then it progressed, and we kind of swung the other way. We did breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week, we had this amazing, talented baker, we did our own croissants. We thought, we’ll be this thing to the community, always available. And I was so proud about that. But [the community] just didn’t support it. One of the main problems was, at least four years ago, there weren’t offices here. Students would get coffee and go to class, they weren’t doing brunch during the week. And there weren’t people having business meetings up here. So then we scaled back: lunch during the week and dinner, and then on Saturday and Sunday we still have this wonderful brunch for the community and the neighborhood. It’s really cool, there’ll be bikes and baby strollers lined up. It’s nice to feel like we’ve hit that happy medium.

It’s been really rewarding and it means a lot to be mentioned by the neighborhood, by the community as a business that’s now appreciated here. The thought does come to my mind—would I be more monetarily successful if I had opened up on Pearl Street? Who knows. But at the same time, I went to CU, I live near here, my daughter goes to a school just a few blocks away. That sense of community has a lot of worth. We’re in it for the long run, and I’m very committed to the improvement of the Hill, along with the University Hill Commercial Area Management Commission advisory board. I recently started a nonprofit with a couple of other business owners—we’re coming up with programming and branding for the Hill. It’s a chance for the community to see that this is a great place to hang out.

Bonus: This summer, look out for Heart of the Hill—a series of community-friendly events including concerts, outdoor restaurant pop-ups, movies screenings, and even a massive water slide installation.

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Callie Sumlin
Callie Sumlin
Callie Sumlin is a writer living in Westminster, and has been covering food and sustainability in the Centennial State for more than five years.