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Thursday, June 14,2012

Dining high

Boulder’s rooftop patio scene is on the rise

By Don Tartaglione
There’s a spice that’s separate from the food itself, a flavor that doesn’t come from the dish. It’s the atmosphere in which a meal is enjoyed, and it can transform a regular outing into a distinctive experience.

Boulder has a love for fine dining and the outdoors, so it’s no surprise that combining both breeds success.

High above the bustling streets, rooftop patios provide a dining alternative where patrons enjoy their meal literally feeling like they’re on top of the world. Restaurants take the natural beauty of the outdoors and make it part of their ambiance. Rooftop dining creates an environment that redefines the concept of stepping out of the house for a bite to eat.

Kuvy Ax of Root Public Relations, who represents several local Boulder restaurants, says that the popularity of rooftop patios is not necessarily growing, it’s just that they’ve always been popular.

It is likely the trend will continue. “Boulder is an outdoorsy place; drink outside, eat outside, [the rooftop] is definitely a plus,” says Eric Turner, owner of the Absinthe House.

When Turner inherited the patio after purchasing the space two years ago, the reputation of the laid-back environment came with the deal. People know how nice it is to eat on the rooftop patio, and Turner added to the experience by installing a DJ booth and a full bar.

The natural background constantly changes, and rooftop patios take what’s going on outside and make it part of the restaurant. During the first year the Absinthe House’s rooftop was open the Fourmile Canyon fire could be seen from its patio.

Next door to the Absinthe House, the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant’s rooftop is growing in popularity and is in its fifth summer of operation. Unlike the Absinthe House, the Rio had to convert its rooftop into the space that is enjoyed today.

“The permitting was probably a two-year process with the city, so a lot of planning, a lot of architect drawing and engineer analysis. We had to put a lot of support beams up there,” says Rob Trenz, manager of the Rio.

Trenz doesn’t hesitate to say that despite the long leasing process and a $300,000 investment to convert their rooftop into a dining space, the result was well worth the effort.

“Each year it picks up in popularity and functionality,” Trenz says. On one recent Thursday night, there was a wait for a patio table between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., something that is becoming more common during the summer.

One of the biggest challenges of the Rio’s rooftop is that it’s known as a “satellite dining area,” meaning it’s located far from the kitchen. Two flights of stairs separate the kitchen from the rooftop.

“It takes a lot of manpower to make that go smooth,” Trenz says.

Rooftop dining comes with its share of challenges for restaurants. The most common are the forces of nature that can take pleasure away from a meal, rather than adding to it. Because the sun sometimes becomes too hot, the Rio had to add misters to counteract the heat.

The wind is also a major factor, especially when umbrellas catch a gust. Tim Shaughnessy, general manager of The Lazy Dog Sports Bar and Grill, says he remembers when the wind took an umbrella for a ride when it was not screwed in correctly.

“The umbrella flew off and landed right in the tree outside,” Shaughnessy says. He says he would rather have it land in a tree than on someone on the street, although getting the umbrella out of the tree proved to be a challenge.

According to Shaughnessy, the rooftop is responsible for 70 percent of the Lazy Dog’s business during the summer. In the seven years since it has been open, the scene on the roof has evolved. The once-makeshift bar is now full, but the live bands that once played out there have been discontinued.

Shaughnessy says that the music ended up being too loud for some customers who were trying to enjoy their meal. If you were there for the band then it was great, but not everyone was.

Due to noise ordinances, the music had to be quieter after 11 p.m., which can be a challenge. Even though the music has been discontinued, the rooftop is open until 2 a.m. to accommodate the late-night revelers of Pearl Street.

Noise ordinances are the reason why Bácaro Venetian Taverna doesn’t host live music regularly. But that doesn’t hold back the events they host on their roof, which can accommodate up to 200 people in the summer, according to their website.

“We do tons of events,” says Klaus Nowels, general manager/event coordinator of Bácaro. “We did a 150-person party up there last night and we served over, I think it was, 240 mojitos.”

One of the benefits of Bácaro’s rooftop patio is that a transparent ceiling provides extra protection from the hot sun and rain. During the winter, Bácaro has heaters and tarp walls that keep its rooftop patio accessible in cold weather.

K’s China is another restaurant that keeps its rooftop open all year. K’s rooftop is more exposed than Bácaro’s, but portable heaters provide comfort for those who don’t want to be stuck inside.

According to K’s Bar Manager Kyle McNamara, its rooftop business is responsible for an extra $20,000 to $30,000 a month, which is worth it, considering the landlord charges for the extra space.

It’s hard to ignore K’s presence on the Hill when it hosts live music four to five nights a week, and most of its business comes from the late-night crowd.

Even though it has to be quieter after 11 p.m., McNamara says K’s hasn’t had any issues with the police in the last couple of years.

Boulder is known to be a city that loves the outdoors. Rooftop patios provide an opportunity for restaurants to make natural beauty a part of their establishment.

The variety of restaurants both on the Hill and on Pearl Street allows customers to take full advantage of quality dining and the amazing scenes that surround the city. They can make the natural environment part of their meal, enjoying not only what’s on their plate or in their glass, but also all the beauty that surrounds it.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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