|LOVELAND — For quite a while, I˜ve felt that the Northern Colorado area is a little lean in the area of unique, locally owned fine-dining restaurants.|I still contend that this assertion has merit, but the Johnny James in Loveland does its part to add to the list of options.
Owners John Winter and James Buehler felt the same void of "destination" restaurants and created the Johnny James to help fill it. Jan. 17 was the restaurant˜s first anniversary, and whereas I wasn˜t privy to information about where things stood with regards to original projections, I got the feeling that things were going as well as could be expected.
Buehler and Winter both grew up in Loveland and were cronies in Gunnison at Western State. They then worked side by side in Keystone trying their hands in the resort industry. John split the team up and moved to Dallas to try brokerage for 10 years. He found the lifestyle and city counter to his and his wife˜s long-term goal to raise a family and decided to return to Loveland to lay down some familial roots.
Buehler had spent the interim in Arkansas and Missouri honing his cooking skills at various social and country clubs. Foregoing culinary school, he instead concentrated on studying under accomplished chefs.
The most striking thing about Johnny James in my mind is the building and its appointments. An indescribably gorgeous turn-of-the-century house that has been meticulously taken care of is split into five dining areas both upstairs and down.
This "compartmentalization" makes each area unique and intimate. Careful with those sensitive conversations! The whole place will seat 75 comfortably and is decorated with art from Columbine Gallery (this doesn˜t just work in Johnny James˜ favor — they˜ve accounted for $15,000 in art sales for Columbine since they˜ve opened).
A "wine room" is set up as a waiting area, and the upstairs bathroom gets my first-place vote for finest lavatory in a commercial setting. Fresh flowers, a claw-foot tub, soft lighting and about 100 square feet of space tempted me to see if we couldn˜t just take dessert in there.
The main porch can be set for dinner or lunch in the warm months, and summer also sees a humidor stocked with cigars from Vince˜s so that after-dinner drinks and smokes can be taken outside on the upstairs porch.
This appears to be a great way to take advantage of the trendy status cigars are enjoying right now, but John said that the response the first summer was under-whelming. I suppose we are a little behind on the trendiness curve at this point. Perhaps by next summer we will be caught up with the Denver crowd.
The fact that the building was designed as a family dwelling (built by legacy Loveland family the McKees) and not a commercial dining establishment has provided the ownership with some sticky logistical riddles. The dish well is in the basement along with dry storage and a prep area. The kitchen is in, well, the kitchen (that means it˜s really small), and more storage is outside in the garage.
Also in the garage is a new smoker purchased from a company in British Columbia. This is the mother of all smokers. Basically, if you had a herd of elk you needed to smoke — you could take it to Johnny James. They concentrate on using unusual and fruit woods rather than the typical mesquite or hickory.
John told me that the game dishes sell exceptionally well, especially ostrich. He also mentioned that his wine sales were better than he had anticipated. If I had to find a quibble with the place (and I always do, don˜t I?), it would be the lifeless, crust-less "French" bread they buy from a local bakery.
With Maggie McCullough˜s baking wonderful stuff in Fort Collins, it just doesn˜t make sense to me for any top-flight restaurant to use that almost-Wonder stuff anymore.
Johnny James maintains a mailing list to alert customers of upcoming specials and events. A recent murder mystery staged with live actors placed around the restaurant sounded like a real treat, and John said it was a huge success. They plan on hosting another murder very soon. You don˜t hear too many restaurateurs say that É
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