Adam Monette sits next to a crackling fire in a newly renovated, posh seating area near the bar at the Flagstaff House restaurant.
You’d never guess it, amid the swanky furniture, dim lighting and cucumber and kiwi gimlet the bartender is pouring, but this front room used to be a rugged shack. In the 1920s, it was a Boulder County storage station, likely used for Gross Reservoir.
A lot has changed since then. Everything.
Monette, a Boulder native, holds a stack of old menus that date back to the 1970s, smiling down at the listing for a $5.25 steak and 95-cent dessert.
“That was an expensive steak in 1971,” he says.
At age 31, he doesn’t recall those days firstand, but what he has witnessed firsthand is the evolution of his family restaurant alongside his own growth. Monette — like his grandpa, grandma, all five of their kids and all of those five kids’ grandchildren — grew up here, in one of Boulder’s finest restaurants.
The Flagstaff House is truly Boulder’s shining star (in fact, it’s perched on the side of the Flagstaff Mountain not far from Boulder’s famous “Flagstaff star” that is illuminated every winter and on special occasions). This French-American, family-run business boasts more dining and travel awards than any other restaurant on Colorado’s Front Range.
This year, it’s celebrating its 50th birthday. And it’s doing it big.
The Flagstaff House’s 50 bash will stretch out across five months. From June through October, the restaurant is holding one themed event per month. These special dinners are called “Dining Through the Decades,” a five-part dinner series that will feature past dishes from the 1970s to the 2010s, complete with wine pairings.
The dinners will feature real menu items that appeared in these old menus that Monette is holding. Like French onion soup, big in the ’80s. Only today’s versions of the old classics will be modernized, like French onion soup with baguette-crusted onion broth, sherry onion jam, gruyere and thyme gremolata. Or for the ’70s, a Flagstaff Cut prime rib — with pommes dauphine, spinach, baby carrots, rosemary, black pepper crust and natural jus.
The dinners will also raise money for local charities. Tickets cost $135, with $50 going to the evening’s featured nonprofit, all of which have personal importance to the Flagstaff staff. For example, June’s 1970s-themed dinner benefits the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; Monette’s brother-in-law has cystic fibrosis.
July’s 1980s-themed dinner benefits the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson’s; Monette’s father, Mark, (and former executive chef/partner) has Parkinson’s disease, and Davis Phinney himself used to work at the restaurant. Mark Monette will be the guest chef for this event.
And September’s 2000s-themed dinner benefits the Colorado Foundation for Conductive Education; executive chef/partner Chris Royster’s sister was born with cerebral palsy.
A View Like No Other
If you know Boulder, you know about Flagstaff House. But what many people may not realize is how this landmark came to be.
Like why and how this (and only this) restaurant is built on the side of the mountain, 6,000 feet above it all, overlooking Boulder, smack in the middle of open space. With these kinds of views, you’d expect cliffside patios for days. Yet with Boulder’s avid protection of open space, how could any business be permitted in this location?
The answer: Monette’s grandfather was, well, grandfathered in.
The county originally built a cabin on this land in the 1920s as storage. As the story goes, a schoolteacher from Chicago, Hattie Bilchert, ended up buying it from the county to use as a summer cabin. Today, you can see an old photo of him sitting on a log smoking a cigar, hanging in the hallway to the restroom (next to a photo of the emperor and empress of Japan dining in the restaurant).
Then in the late ’30s, a park ranger named Joe van Gorder bought the cabin to use for special events.
Eventually, in the ’50s, the Buelkes family bought it to convert into a summer restaurant. Back then, the mountain roads weren’t plowed, so it shut down as soon as the snow fell. The couple lived upstairs (where the offices are today) and ran the small restaurant out of the main floor. They called it the Flagstaff House.
In 1971, Adam Monette’s grandfather, Don Monette, bought the building and surrounding five acres. At the time, Don Monette had been running three different downtown restaurants.
He initially moved to Colorado (after falling in love with the state during military training near Leadville) and worked as the manager of a Waffle House. Eventually, he ran a joint called Chimes (opened in 1966), a restaurant and bar called The Viking (1968) and a breakfast restaurant named the Golden Buff Coffee Shop (1970). It was a lot to juggle all three at once, Adam Monette says.
Don Monette learned about the Flagstaff House’s sale before it went on the market; the owners were regulars at The Viking. So he bought the Flagstaff House and immediately liquidated all three downtown businesses, one after the other, to focus his efforts.
“With five kids, living in a small place in Boulder, it was a risk,” Adam Monette says. “This place was a shack, not even insulated.”
It was on well water, septic tanks and propane. The original restaurant barely had the amenities to cook food and flush the toilets.
Don Monette moved into a house on the property and devoted everything to the restaurant. He weatherized it so it could be open year-round, added on a dining room and several outdoor terraces and got connected with city water; the latter came with an agreement to the city to stop expanding and to always blend in with the mountain.
The historic building was grandfathered in; you can’t build anything like it on the mountain anymore, says Adam Monette.
“Otherwise, there’d be restaurants everywhere. It was a lucky property to have in the first place,” he says.
The entire Monette family chipped in, and Don Monette’s son, Mark Monette, became the executive chef. That’s Adam Monette’s dad.
“They started us young,” Adam Monette says. “Take-your-son-to-work-days were every weekend.”
In middle school, he served bread and poured water, complete with a mouth full of braces and a shiny gold vest. He worked every position, from dishwasher to maintenance to finance, from the grill station to fish station, from bartender to server, from valet to host, until he worked his way up to general manager/partner.
Grandpa Don is 86 now, and you might still see him around the restaurant. In fact, he lives in a cabin right on the property of the business he brought to life.
The food grew up, too. It started with prime rib and table-side caesar salads, but as the Monettes traveled, dining around the world inspired them. In particular, fine dining in France.
Last year, the Flagstaff House earned its 42nd consecutive Forbes Four-Star rating and 31st consecutive AAA Four Diamond status. It has been awarded the Wine Spectator’s Grand Award every year since 1983, and OpenTable named it one of the most romantic restaurants in America. The wine collection, surpassing 16,000 bottles, earned the restaurant one of only 85 Wine Spectator’s Grand Awards.
“We were a dirty rock on the side of the mountain, but we are trying to be a diamond,” Adam Monette says. (Literally: The goal is to earn that fifth AAA diamond.) “We do everything we can to elevate it.”
He gestures to the new sitting area and fireplace — what once was that original shack. He points out the new lighting, new floors, new chairs. The menu is always changing.
“We continue renovating so we don’t fall off the mountain,” he says, and of course, he doesn’t mean it literally.
While the Flagstaff House is an important part of Boulder’s history, Adam Monette says he doesn’t want the past to define it any more than the size (and seriously short ceilings) in the original shack limited the potential of this family business.
“You have to evolve,” he says. “After this past year, people have been cooking at home and eating the same foods, buying the same foods. Going to a restaurant with a new chef, new template and new food that is constantly changing is exciting. If you already know what you’re going to eat before you get there, it’s time to change.”
Dining Through the Decades
Here’s a look at the Dining Through the Decades dinners:
Aug. 12: 1990s decade dinner, benefiting There with Care. Wine partnership with Maison Louis Jadot.
Sept. 9: 2000s decade dinner, benefiting Colorado Foundation for Conductive Education. Wine partnership with ZD Winery.
Oct. 6: 2010s decade dinner, benefiting Community Food Share Colorado. Wine partnership with Freemark Abbey Winery.
Tickets are $135 per person through OpenTable or by calling (303)442-4640.