Lala’s Wine Bar & Pizzeria occupies a busy neighborhood corner near Governor’s Park in Denver, Colorado. A spacious patio protected by an awning draws summertime guests while a warm interior invites clientele any time of the year for contemporary, Italian-inspired hospitality. Since opening day in 2008, Lala’s Wine Bar & Pizzeria has gathered a strong following of locals who have continued to make this a successful neighborhood establishment. 31-year-old Brian “BC” Culligan has been the General Manager of the restaurant since the beginning.
“I was working at the Paramount Café, down on the 16th Street Mall. I was waiting tables and bartending down there, and going to school, finishing up my degree. At the time it was a means to an end. It was a job, it was good money, and it was flexible. I think that the industry lends itself really well to people who need flexibility,” he says. Upon graduating, the Paramount Café offered him a management position. When the owners decided to start another concept in Capitol Hill, Lala’s Wine Bar & Pizzeria, Brian came onboard as GM.
Since opening in 2008, Lala’s has been going strong. Many restaurants before Lala's have existed in the same space, though none have lasted. “It’s been a location of very spotted history," Brian says. "410 East 7th Avenue has seen its share of concepts." Being in Governor’s Park, Brian and the owners believed Lala’s needed to establish a neighborhood feel. “I would say seventy-five percent of the clientele lives within a few square miles of this place,” he says. Lala’s, although upscale, makes itself approachable to the locals by providing a comfortable, welcoming environment, doing its best to leave pretense out of the mix completely.
In fact, Lala’s Wine Bar & Pizzeria was voted Best Wine Bar of 2009 by Denver’s Westword magazine. Achieving this kind of recognition requires direction and effort. Brian strives to make Lala’s approachable, from the warm interior colors and bare wooden tables to the casual staff uniforms. “You can easily throw on some white table linens and keep a relatively similar concept, but it would be a totally different feel,” he says. Brian also attributes a good deal of their success to his staff. They not only wear jeans and tee shirts, but they exude friendliness when it comes to talking with guests about food and wine. A big part of Lala’s concept is making guests feel comfortable and happy.
Brian himself realizes the benefit of a friendly bartender when it comes to learning about wine. He never claims to have been a wine aficionado. Before starting at Lala’s, he would have a drink of wine on an anniversary, holiday, or other important occasion, but rarely otherwise. His background experience involves serving beer and spirits, but as the GM of a blossoming wine bar, Brian felt it absolutely necessary to learn about wine. “Knowing that I didn’t have a wine background just meant that I needed to bring people in here who knew a lot about wine,” Brian says. Many members of his staff are experienced wine drinkers already. “Most of our bartenders all have knowledge well beyond mine, and they do so in a very non-pretentious, cool way.”
For Brian, wine has become a way of life, thanks to his work at Lala’s. When the opportunity for a vacation came up, he took his wife to Napa Valley. “Realizing that wine was just another passion was that ‘aha’ moment,” says Brian. “One of our greatest strengths [at Lala’s] is that our staff really has that ability to make people feel welcome, and not look down on somebody [less experienced].” While the bartenders are able to dive into the intricacies of wine, their first priority is to make guests feel comfortable.
''Most of our bartenders all have knowledge well beyond mine, and they do so in a very unpretentious, cool way...I couldn't do it without their help.'
When it comes to choosing the types of wines to bring into the bar, Brian involves the entire team. “I couldn’t do it without their help,” he says. The staff of six bartenders has a huge influence on which wines make it on the list. Jonathon, Fry, Alex and the other bartenders contribute their expertise and knowledge every step of the way, from tasting the wine to helping create the menu. Even some of the managers and the chef participate, especially for special menus. “It’s great to have some wines that wine nerds can really get into and enjoy,” Brian says. “But a lot of our wines are going to be easy for the novice drinker to get into.” He and his team tend to choose New World wines—wines from California, Oregon, Argentina, New Zealand, to name a few—which more people are likely to recognize, and are often a better value for the bar since there are no added import fees. But for those who do know and love wine, they will not be disappointed. Wines from Italy, Germany, France and Spain occupy the wine list as well. With 64 wines available by the glass and 53 by the bottle, the selection is vast, and new wines pop up every two weeks. “We’re turning people on to things they didn’t know they liked,” Brian says. “That’s what really works for us.”
Wine tasting is popular among guests wanting to host birthdays or other events at the bar, and once a month Lala’s hosts a wine tasting to benefit a local nonprofit. “Once a month we do a wine tasting where we pick a nonprofit and donate a portion of the proceeds from every ticket we sell to that nonprofit. It’s been part of our philosophy from the get-go to constantly be involved in the community in one way or another,” says Brian. In addition to these monthly wine tastings, Lala’s will make donations of wine tasting parties to be auctioned for school and nonprofit fundraisers.
Wine is clearly an essential component of Lala’s concept. One thing that makes Lala’s bar area stand out to the casual observer is the stack of cruvinet wine dispensing cabinets on the back bar. A cruvinet (pronounced Kroo-Vin-Ay) is a wine chilling system designed for chilling, dispensing and merchandising bottles of wine in a commercial setting. The cabinets are temperature controlled, and utilize nitrogen to fill and pressurize the wine bottles, which assists in preserving the wine as well as dispensing it. “I guess the best way to think of it is a tapping system, like a beer,” Brian says. Wine is typically good for 24 to 48 hours after being uncorked and exposed to oxygen. “At that point, a wine is going to change fairly dramatically,” Brian says. “Nitrogen will keep it as fresh as if someone had just opened the bottle, for up to six weeks.” Each cruvinet cabinet keeps a constant, controlled temperature for optimal storage and serving quality. All the wines served by the glass are hooked into the cruvinet system. Once hooked into the cabinets, the bartender can pull the appropriate tap to dispense the wine into a small carafe before pouring it into the glass and serving it to the guest. Full bottles, including the reserve wines, are stored in the basement wine cellar.
Cruvinet wine dispensers and merchandisers behind the bar at Lala's
Although an open bottle of wine at Lala’s rarely lasts longer than a day, this system allows the bar to keep wine at the highest quality for weeks if needed. The first thing people see when they walk in is the grand-looking equipment against the back bar. There is something to be said for the fact that the cruvinet system provides an interesting and unique centerpiece to the bar and restaurant, and it gets people talking. “I think the ability to keep wine for longer periods of time is important, but more importantly, it’s a great conversation piece.”
Lala’s sells wine by the glass as well as by the bottle. “There’s a huge commitment factor with a bottle,” Brian says. “Buying by the glass just allows people to a) sample it, and b) have what they want.” Brian believes in allowing his guests the chance to try a glass of wine, or even a half-glass, without the committment of buying a whole bottle. For those looking for a bit more, Lala’s Reserve List includes individual wines sold only by the bottle. “Some of these bottles are great to sell because they are big-ticket dollar items,” Brian says. “Could we stay in business if that’s all we sold? Yes. But we’d have to sell a whole lot of them.” Ultimately, Brian believes that people should order what they want, and simply enjoy it.
Lala’s definitely goes through their share of wine. Jonathan, one of the bartenders, opens eight cases of wine on an average night. That’s close to one hundred bottles a night. “It would be great if the makers of [the cruvinet] made five gallon, fat bladders of wine,” Jonathan says. There are twelve bottles of wine in a case, and on a busy Friday night he opens up to ten cases. “You get good at it, quick,” he says, holding up a waiter’s corkscrew. “I’ve got it down to eight seconds.”
Lala’s does not only serve wine. Peroni is the only draft beer served at Lala's, but a big seller. “It made sense to go with an Italian style beer,” he says. The tap handle, purchased directly from Italy, is the first of its kind in the country.
''It's great to have some wines that wine nerds can really get into and enjoy. But a lot of our wines are going to be easy for the novice drinker to get into.'
Lala’s focuses a good deal on wine, but they certainly do not leave their cocktails out of the lime light. “One of the things that we’re doing is trying to develop our specialty drinks. The term nowadays is mixology,” Brian says. “We’re really playing around with the art of blending cocktails.” Lala’s resident mixologist and bartender, Alex Parks, works to create new and intriguing specialty cocktails for special events or just a new menu item. She understands the idiosyncrasies of different spirits, and the different flavors that can be paired with them. “It’s fun, and we can do it because we are such a small bar as far as cocktails go,” Alex says. There is time for her to step away from wine and focus on the science of blending cocktails without hurting the wine business. In fact, she has even worked with blending wine and spirits. She has been known to incorporate beet juice, fennel, cardamom, cumquats and candy into cocktails.
One of the most popular is known as “For the Love of Root,” a cocktail made from a specialty liqueur called “ROOT,” mixed with lemon juice and bitters, then muddled with orange and cardamom. This results in a palate-pleasing cocktail reminiscent of a root beer float. Another, the Pomm-a Mint Julep, is a play on an old classic, mixing pomegranate grenadine with whiskey, mint and soda. Alex tests all her concoctions on the bartenders and staff, who help decide what goes on the cocktail menu. She says it’s all about being creative and trying something new.
The wine bar is a big draw, but many guests come for the food. Chef Eric Rivera is sure to use the freshest ingredients at Lala’s, and attributes his success to using untainted, basic flavors in creative ways. Many competing pizza places import or buy their ingredients, especially cheese. At Lala’s, they make their own ricotta and mozzarella. The house-made aspect of their ingredients adds something special, as well as a quality not always found in an Italian restaurant outside of Italy. “We stick with traditional ingredients. We’re keeping it simple,” he said. “We let the ingredients speak for themselves,” adds Brian.
Chef Eric appreciates the adrenaline rush from working in the kitchen, as well as the creative freedom. “We do specials everyday and I change parts of the menu every season.” Currently, the most popular menu items are the Margherita Pizza, a traditional pie with red sauce, housemade mozzarella, basil and parmigiano-reggiano cheese, as well as the Roman Artichokes, an appetizer plate of lightly battered long stem artichoke hearts with basil pesto and Aleppo pepper aioli.
Though the restaurant industry has its perks, Brian points out that the industry as a whole faces some tough challenges. From staffing issues to long, unusual hours, the restaurant business has its share of struggles. Happily, the energetic and committed staff at Lala's help them eliminate some of those struggles. Almost half the staff has worked there since opening day, over a year and a half ago—pretty telling, considering the nature of the industry. “People enjoy being here. It’s more than just a paycheck to [the staff]. Working with them is probably the best part,” says Brian. “And it doesn’t hurt that part of my job is that we’re expected to drink wine every day. That’s kind of nice.”