Posted on | February 27, 2013
Written by | Alia Akkam
A 2011 fire left the just-opened Boulder, Colorado restaurant OAK at Fourteenth in ashes. But the team spent nine months rebuilding from scratch, and this rustic, new-American eatery persevered, recently celebrating a year in business. Co-owner Bryan Dayton, the man behind the popular beer, wine, cocktail and artisanal soda program, is also a champion of old-fashioned hospitality. Here, he talks about courteous service—and his customers’ predilection for Knob Creek.
THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: Denver has fast emerged as one of the country’s most interesting cocktail destinations. What is OAK at Fourteenth’s approach to drinks?
BRYAN DAYTON: Ours is a little more simple than some of the other programs. We have classically inspired drinks with modern twists. Some of the ingredients, like green Chartreuse, might be esoteric for the average person, but not for the PDT and Milk & Honey crowd. It’s about finding a way that’s fun and gets people into cocktails.
TBN: The cocktail menu is divided into low-alcohol and high-alcohol libations. You even pay special attention to drinks without liquor, like housemade passion fruit and lemongrass soda. What are some of your most popular creations?
BD: Under Low Alcohol, the Venetian Cup, which is essentially a Pimm’s Cup with Pimm’s, Campari and our own ginger beer. We pour it tableside. The East Aspen Heights is boozier, with Bombay Sapphire East, yellow Chartreuse, blackberry, pear and lemon.
TBN: Because the city is indeed cocktail savvy, what trends are you seeing?
BD: Seeing people from all these different, dynamic backgrounds ordering cool cocktails blows me away. You would think Boulder would be more of a wine and beer city, but guests are looking for us to walk them into a cocktail and open their palates. Vodka is still definitely king. We only have one drink—the Oak Martini—on the menu with it, but we sell a lot of them. We also sell a ton of whiskey and go through a bottle of Knob Creek a week, which is surprising for a 120-proof spirit. Boulder’s also big on tequila, and even mezcal because Richard Betts of Sombra is here.
TBN: Because OAK at Fourteenth is a restaurant, do you consider the food when dreaming up your cocktail menu?
BD: We do have a business model where great food and great beverage coincide. Some places emphasize the food and don’t have the best wine list, and some have great cocktails but the food isn’t so good. We get a lot of compliments on our shared plates—items like wood oven roasted bone marrow with anchovy chimichurri and herb salad—so guests can have a few bites and a few drinks.
TBN: It’s clear from the options on your menu and the enthusiasm you have for your guests that hospitality is important to you.
BD: From the moment a guest walks through the door with the host, we need to be as humble and gracious as possible, make sure all their needs are taken care of and provide the best service. Educate yourself so you know the menu and you aren’t fumbling. You have to make yourself invincible.
TBN: How do you instill this mindset in your staff?
BD: Every night, in pre-service, I tell my staff, “You’re going to make people happy tonight, right?” If they don’t, there’s the door. It’s ingrained in them.
TBN: What should the bartender’s ultimate mission be?
BD: There’s a lost art of hospitality. A lot of people get away with mediocrity, but people are also more complacent now. I’m impressed by the old-school maître d, the one who takes hospitality to the next level; five days a week he’s doing his gig.If you came over to my house, I would make you a great cocktail, not a bad one. I would take your coat, offer you a seat and a glass of water. A restaurant is someone’s home.