FORT COLLINS – One of the dumbest marketing phrases ever created goes something like this: “Acme Restaurant is Anytown’s best-kept dining secret.”Yeah, right – like there is some well-orchestrated covert conspiracy involving a restaurant’s management and a group of citizens to keep the number of diners down. If you find a place with good food, you generally tell anyone who will listen.
So, let me tell you about two places that have surprisingly great grub. The Crown Pub and Mulligan’s Food and Ale (both in Fort Collins) have come to the same conclusion: Better food improves bar business.
It makes sense, too. Pointing the menu slightly more toward the high end brings in people that normally wouldn’t go to a bar for a meal. You still get the tavern crowd, but the more-affluent folks come in, too.
The Crown Pub opened in a seemingly doomed location (134 S. College Ave.) in January 1995. It was started by Keith Galeener and his “silent partner” brother after Keith moved here to be with his mom and dad. His father, a Colorado State University professor, had a sabbatical in Cambridge, England, when Keith was 17.
While in England, the family learned to love the neighborhood-pub idea. Keith said the neighborhood bar is a dying breed in the States, where too often they carry the connotation of being smoky, dark refuges for heavy-drinking men trying to escape their dreary lives.
The Crown was born of a desire to lighten up the neighborhood tavern and give it a shot of class, bringing forward as much of the English atmosphere as possible.
On New Year’s Eve of this year, Keith opened a downstairs section of the Pub. This spacious room is available for special functions and is the nonsmoking area on weekends. If I have any gripe about the Crown, it’s the fact that the bar atmosphere dictates you have to sometimes eat that delicious tuna steak or rack of lamb in a smoke-filled room. How ’50s can you get?!
I went to the Crown soon after it opened and truly enjoyed the carefully created pub flavor. There were couches to sit on and a dart room in the back. There was forest-green paint on the walls and accents of dark wood.
I didn’t eat the food my first few visits because I figured it would be typical bar chow. I mean, how many different kinds of chicken wings and nachos do we really need? However, a few months later, Jorma Walter was hired by Keith to manage the food side of The Crown. He created an exciting menu, put up a chalkboard full of unique, low-priced specials and began prowling the floor, asking folks what they thought of the food and answering questions.
Jorma is no longer with the Crown, but his good friend Don Braddy is at the helm now, continuing all the good things that Jorma started.
Don came to the Crown after spending time in just about every fine-dining kitchen in Fort Collins. He has a new, slightly larger menu coming soon. It will feature English fare, but will not be limited to just that. There will be a lot of the favorites left over from Jorma’s stint, plus some new ideas of Don’s.
When asked why he came to the Crown rather than stay at white-tablecloth places, Don told me he loved the kitchen environment Keith had created for him. He called it “carte blanche”: complete control of menu creation, staffing, cost structuring and a friendly, teamwork-oriented atmosphere.
He said the philosophy he is trying to employ in the kitchen is to compete on flavors, not on price. He contends that the Crown food is as tasty as anything you’ll find in the swank joints, but less-formally presented and much less expensive.
It was very interesting talking to Erik Reynolds, until recently the chef at Mulligan’s, and hear such a similar story. Mulligan’s opened in 1990 at 2439 S. College Ave. in the space vacated when County Cork moved across the street.
They were serving basic bar food at the time and soon after decided to try to turn the bar into a more upscale European pub. They remodeled the kitchen and created a menu more focused on finer-tuned foods.
Erik professed similar motivations for working at Mulligan’s that Don Braddy gave for working at the Crown: creative control in the kitchen and a commitment from ownership (Greg Gondrezick) to offer fine-dining food at bar food prices.
As Yogi said: “It’s deja vu all over again”!
The first time I went to Mulligan’s, I reveled in the Irish-pub atmosphere and ate some Cajun-spiced cheese fries to soak up some of the beers I was pouring down. Now I go there and get something like a grilled chicken breast stuffed with smoked trout and wild mushrooms topped with cranberry hollandaise. Bar food? As if!
Erik says they remain flexible to customer requests and will certainly serve some Cajun cheese fries if someone has a hankering for them.
Erik hails from Colorado Springs and like Don didn’t have any formal chef training but apprenticed under other chefs and learned by watching and reading. He says he reads cookbooks like novels and is always hungry to learn new preparations. He creates a special chalkboard every night that focuses on fresh fish and grill specials.
Mulligan’s tells the kitchen that they need only to break even on food, so Erik was able to keep prices down and pay his staff well. I know from experience that kitchen turnover is the bane of the restaurant business.
Keeping those folks around for a long time goes a long way toward ensuring quality and consistency in the food you sell.
There always seems to be a happy hum to Mulligan’s. The friendly service, the slightly animated conversations of the regulars – it feels very “clubbish.”
I refuse to say it’s like a “Cheers” (how tired is that phrase?), but it has a real neighborhood feel to it. Even though its neighbors are Kmart and a Rent-To-Own shop.
I go there for the good food and maybe because I do like the fact that I can walk home from it. It’s easy to have too much fun at Mulligan’s.
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