Zolo sparked it

Boulder’s red hot restaurant scene wasn’t always so.

Dial back to 1994.  Fine dining was exclusive to then-and-now venerables like Flagstaff House and The Greenbriar. The party at the Rio Grande was just getting underway. Walnut Brewery was scratching the surface of microbrew gold.

Then Zolo Grill opened its doors, and sparked a whole new world of possibilities.

Everything about Zolo – the creative southwestern cuisine, gracious and great looking staff, polished but unpretentious service style, inventive drinks, even the graphic look and feel – was completely fresh.  For many of us, Zolo was a genuine revelation.

Looking back, it was also a tipping point for the Boulder culinary scene.

“We certainly weren’t the only ones doing exciting things here at that time,” says John Bachman, Big Red F director of operations who joined the company in 1995. “But we were aiming for an entirely different culture – one that incorporated exacting high standards with a warm, personality-driven service style. People absolutely responded to it.”

Zolo was the opening act of David Query’s Big Red F Restaurant Group. Just prior, Query had made a name for himself as chef of the storied Lick Skillet Café in Gold Hill.

“The Lick Skillet was youthful and tasty and innovative – a little bit of an artsy hit. Dave brought that to Boulder on a much larger scale, starting with Zolo,” says Sam Slattery, who was executive chef for Concept Restaurants at the time. “It changed the scene here entirely.”

Also arriving in 1994, BRF’s Jax Fish House was similarly ground-breaking: the freshest fish, that gorgeous open oyster bar, re-imagined old school martinis, servers who were simultaneously hip and warm.

The reaction to both joints was resounding. Tables were hard to come by but the bar wait was big fun, and diners flocked. It verified what Dave Query knew and others suspected: Boulder had an appetite for innovative restaurant concepts.

Taking note, others tested Boulder waters and when they brought their A-game, locals bought in enthusiastically (think Mateo, Brasserie 10-10, DISH Gourmet, Pizzeria Locale, The Kitchen, Oak, Snooze, etc., etc., etc.).

Fast forward to 2010 and a new high point: Bon Appetit magazine names Boulder America’s Foodiest Town. Daily Camera food critic Liz Moskow has called Zolo one of her favorites, having “consistently tasty dishes, with flavor and finesse.”  This kind of critical praise has drawn diners, businesses and true vitality to the city over the years.

Six concepts and nine restaurants later, the Big Red F team of 500+ continues to push the scene with award winners like Centro and The Bitter Bar. Jax is now in four Colorado cities and headed across state lines this year. They debut The Post Brewing Company in Lafayette this fall. We’ll highlight that effort in our next post.