Stepping Out: Cafe Jacques mixes flannel-shirt, tie crowd

In my younger, less responsible days, a trip to Laramie meant a trip to those bars that served 18-year-old Colorado State University students the liquor we thought we so desperately needed.

One poor sap would have to sip Pepsi all night to ensure safe passage back across the border to repressive Colorado, while the rest of us reveled in our new-found freedom.

We obviously had a little too much free time on our hands.

If you’ve never been there, Laramie is an interesting trip for those of us south of the border. It’s a dry, windswept and tough old town. The University of Wyoming is there, trains roar by, and the streets are wide. The drive up U.S. Highway 287 is beautiful, especially at sunset.

We went up on a recent Friday night, surveyed the dining landscape and decided that most folks were more interested in enjoying the contents of the bottle than sitting and ordering three courses. Read: The bars were packed, cacophonous and smoky. The restaurants downtown were sparsely populated, like the Wyoming plains. Obviously, the hard-working folk were tearing into their weekends with gusto.

After reading a few menus, we decided to dine at Cafe Jacques at 216 Grand Ave., right at the corner of Third Street.

It appeared to be the only fine-dining option in Laramie, and a chat with owner Richard Jensen confirmed the observation.

“We’re the only place in town with cloth napkins,” he boasted.

The menus themselves were those padded synthetic red leather-bound tomes that used to be the signal of “serious food” in the ’70s. The menu had a lot of Continental fare such as surf and turf, halibut in lemon dill sauce and veal oscar. The food itself was well-prepared and nicely presented, and the service was great.

The wine list was shocking. Prices were low, like Crazy Eddie himself was just “giving ’em away!” And the choices were diverse and decidedly unique. There are very few wine lists in the big burg of Fort Collins that could compete. It was obviously created by someone who knows and loves wine. It was almost weird to find it. One of my friends said it was something you’d see in a Northern Exposure episode.

Cafe Jacques is attached at the hip to the 3rd Street Bar and Grill. Jensen said that five years after they bought Cafe Jacques in 1986, the Third Street location became available, and he and his partner Greg Smith snapped it up. After sticking a doorway between the two stores, 3rd Street became the bar and lounge for Cafe Jacques.

It’s an interesting setup. Folks in suits dining on lobster right across the hallway from the flannel-shirt gang pounding Buds, eating a burger and watching the game on the bar TV. They would probably frown on the idea at Restaurant Strategy School, saying that the bar and grill will pull people away from the dining room and cheapen the restaurant’s reputation.

Well, we’re in Laramie, and the concept works just fine. Folks in the bar can even order from the dining-room menu if they’re in the mood for something a little less pedestrian than chicken wings.

Smith and Jensen were both working at the Laramie Country Club when they met and decided to go into business together. Jensen pretty much minds the store at 3rd Street and Cafe Jacques, while Smith tends to another location called Elmore Lovejoy’s right down the street. Lovejoy’s is more of an eclectic college hangout, with pool tables, pizzas and live music.

I asked Jensen about the wine list, and he told me that wine rep Bob Adams has a lot to do with the list’s personality. The philosophy is that low prices will encourage people to drink a nice bottle of wine with their meal, thereby enhancing the dining experience and encouraging them to make a return visit. Good thinking. Why don’t more restaurant owners buy into this concept?

Third Street does only about 40 percent of the revenue but makes up the lion’s share of profits. Lower overhead (paper napkins!) and the standard markup on liquor offset the lower revenue. It should be noted that 3rd Street was the first bar in Laramie to explore the now-entrenched trend of micro and specialty beers. At any one time, 3rd Street has between 75 and 85 beers in stock. For a space so small, that’s a formidable number.

The bulk of Cafe Jacques’ trade is derived from the university and local professionals. They also do a good business during summer when the tourists are on the road. Next time you make the trip up to Laramie for a football game or just for a nice drive, stop in at Cafe Jacques or the 3rd Street Bar and Grill. Dressed up or down, they can take care of you.