The hilly Lower Highlands district of Denver, CO, is a place where urban residential neighborhoods meet upscale restaurants and bars. Nestled a corner in an especially quiet section of the city is a pair of Parisian-inspired establishments called Z Cuisine Parisian Bistrot and À Côté Bar à Absinthe. Quaint and authentic, these establishments offer a taste of traditional French culture as well as an inspired take on food, people and life.
This is all due to chef and owner, Patrick Dupays, who opened Z Cuisine in 2004. Charisma and passion practically leap from his person as his describes his business. The charming Parisian bistrot seats about 35 people and offers authentic French cuisine, the entrées recorded daily in Dupays’ beautiful chalk script on the central blackboard menu. The restaurant was so successful that, in 2007, Dupays opened À Côté Bar à Absinthe, or simply, À Côté (pronounced ah-coat-ay).
A welcoming "Z" at the entrance to the bar
The name Z Cuisine is a play on the linguistics of French pronunciation, specifically the “th” sound. Dupays smiles as he points out his own heavy French accent. “I thought Z Cuisine was a cool name,” he says. The name stuck, and after several years of operation, the restaurant is known simply as “Z” to its regulars. When he opened the bar next to the restaurant, Dupays knew what to call it right away. “À côté means ‘next-door’ so, next-door to Z Cuisine,” Dupays explains. “That was easy.”
À Côté has only been around for about a year and half, but it has taken on an identity of its own, which regulars and new customers alike cherish within the community.
Although À Côté offers a fine wine list in addition to absinthe, the concept is meant to be different than a typical wine bar. “I didn’t want it to be another wine bar in Denver,” Dupays says. “I wanted it to be something different. The restaurant, Z Cuisine, is a French Bistrot with a Parisian menu. That’s our identity. And we’re the only one in town. So, you know, Bar à Absinthe over a wine bar, to me, was a better way to put ourselves outside the box.”
À Côté is designed to represent an authentic French bar from the 1900s. The wood floors and exposed brick add a rustic feel, but the glistening metal table tops and the artsy green bar add an element of modernity. The giant, hand-crafted wire chandelier hanging from the ceiling is draped with beaded strands of amulets and jewels; a similar one hangs from the ceiling of in Z Cuisine.
The green sign adds a bright addition to the liquor display
Dupays explains that the concept of an absinthe bar turned out to be the ideal means of expressing the artistry and culture of a French bar while offering something totally unique. “You always try to be different. I always think we’re trying to present ourselves as authentic, different, [and] fun, because if you come here you’re going to have fun.”
Indeed, the idea of an absinthe bar provides an element of intrigue. Many people visit to sample one of À Côté’s ten different types of absinthe, each of which includes the traditional ingredients of wormwood, anise and fennel. Different botanicals bring out distinctive flavors and aromas in each brand. Dupays even provides absinthe from producers in Oregon, California and Colorado.
“I didn’t want it to be another wine bar in Denver,” Dupays said. “I wanted it to be something different.”
In addition to its selection of absinthe, wine and cocktails, À Côté offers a separate menu from Z Cuisine. There is a kitchen in each establishment, and they share resources when needed. At À Côté, one can find what Dupays calls “the best bar food in Denver.” And when it comes to food, Dupays is both traditional and cleverly contemporary, attracting people of all kinds to his restaurant and bar. À Côté offers traditional French fare, but not the stereotypical frog legs and snails. Dupays describes his food as “great-grandmother cuisine,” since he cooks the way his great-grandparents did as they brought him up in the French Pyrenées mountains. “Everything we cook here was what my great-grandmother was cooking when I was in France. I never went to school, so everything I learned was in my kitchen at home,” says Dupays.
A bartender serves absinthe the traditional way
When visiting À Côté, guests choose from a variety of fresh dishes such as French onion soup and artisan cheese plates. The Tartine Croque Madame Gratineé is a house favorite. A fresh twist on a traditional sandwich, this dish is made with artisan bread, local ham, fresh cheeses, a fried farm egg and organic greens. “You can have a whole dinner, because we have appetizers, we have entrées and we have desserts. So it’s basically a mini Z Cuisine,” says Dupays. “You go to a bar to drink…you come here to eat.”
Dupays’ regular clientele knows that À Côté is your typical bar. Although people come to try the absinthe and wine, they return because of the superior ingredients and exquisite food. In fact, Dupays relies solely on local farmers for all of his food products. Twice a week he visits the Boulder Farmer’s Market to select his produce and meat for the week. In the cooler weather, when the farmers’ markets are closed, Dupays goes directly to the farmers.
“Two times a week at the market when we go, we don’t know what’s going to be there,” he says. “Our technique is very simple. We go to the market. We shop at the market, whatever is in season that very same day, and then we bring it back here. We look at it, wash it, pack it, take care of it, separate it, peel it, prepare it, and then we compare it with a protein that we have, which comes back from some of the markets, from local providers.” All of Patrick’s ingredients are local and organic, and he plans a new menu almost daily, depending on what produce he buys.
Dupays and his wife, Lynnde, believe this is the only way to operate the business. Although the food is expensive, it is worthwhile to provide quality cuisine from local producers. “My wife is my accountant and she said, ‘You know, I never mind paying bills, because every check I send is somebody we know, we respect and we love,’” Dupays says. They do pay larger companies when necessary, such as for electricity or equipment, but when it comes to food, everything on the menu comes from a different farm or local provider.
“You don’t open a restaurant to make money. You open a restaurant because you have the passion.”
Dupays believes he is running his business the right way. However, his way does not mesh with the way other successful restaurants are run. He meets resistance from those who stereotype French culture, or those who do not understand his success. “I market to the ten percent of people who don’t hate the French,” says Dupays, barely joking. “I have to go against this image of the French Cuisine…we’re very traditional, but not in the sense of traditionally rich.” Not only are people wary of unfamiliar cuisine, but other restauranteurs have been known to harbor suspicions of Dupays’ operation. For a small bar that is only open five nights a week, and a restaurant that is only open for four nights, others wonder how he makes money.
The bright exterior of À Côté and Z Cuisine
Dupays jokes about the stories he has heard from others hoping to discover his secret for staying in business. “You hear stories like, I have a rich wife, I won the lotto, I just do this for a hobby,” he says. “And I don’t care…it’s obvious I don’t go after the money.”
Dupays has no secrets, however; only truths. “We spend the money we make,” he says. He pays his bills, his mortgage and his operational obligations, including staff wages and kitchen equipment. He makes enough to live on. “You don’t open a restaurant to make money. You open a restaurant because you have the passion,” he says. “Unfortunately, ninety-nine percent of restaurants open to make money.” Dupays finds that relying on locally farmed ingredients is a risk, and sometimes he does not know what to expect. “We have no idea what the day is going to bring us. But at the end of the week, at the end of the month, we somehow manage to pay our bills,” he says.
Guests love the unique, friendly atmosphere.
Critics praise Z Cuisine and À Côté, but the place is not well-known by the public. Their residential location, small size, and the fact that Dupays does no advertising, make it an undiscovered gem to many. However, those who know Z Cuisine and À Côté bring in new people looking to learn what Dupays and his establishments are all about.
“If you give me any location anywhere in Denver for free, I will not switch it…I won’t even blink,” says Dupays of his location. “We could be in East Village, New York. We could be in Paris. We could be in Lyonne, you know? Nothing really gives away America right here.” Dupays believes his corner of the neighborhood, which is only a few minutes’ walk from the heart of downtown, provides a fine location for people all over the city to visit Z Cuisine and À Côté.
Patrick Dupays works in this business to share his culture as much as he possibly can, and he is proud of the place he has created. “It’s a great accomplishment to have created a place of community. If you come here, every time, you will never be alone,” he says. And indeed, Dupays has built a place of community where local people and local products come together.