Treeline Kitchen - Interview
Welcome to the Leadville, CO restaurant blog series! Here is my interview with Christine, the owner of the Treeline Kitchen with her husband, Eric.
Many guests that stay at The Silver Rose of Leadville ask where they should eat when they are in town. Rather than just give a simple recommendation, I thought it would be fun to go a step further and interview local restaurant owners. The restauranteurs would get a chance to convey who they are and what makes their restaurants unique. By providing guests with more background and personal information on Leadville's restaurants perhaps choosing where to eat can be easier.
How did you end up in Leadville?
My husband Eric and I met in the Vail valley in a restaurant, of course. We lived there for a few years, and then when we decided to start our family we thought Leadville would be a better place to raise kids. Now we have three children, and we have been here for 15 years.
How did you enter the restaurant business?
I started working in restaurants when I worked my way through college at Colorado State University (CSU) and got a degree in Commercial Tourism, which I feel like I am using now. I went out in the field for a while and then came back to being in a restaurant. It's in your blood, or it isn't, and once you get it in your blood, there is no way out; you just feel like you have to do it. My husband is a chef, and it's always just been our life.
What is your favorite part of the job?
All the different personalities of the staff, and the community, so really the people, they are amazing. I love our town; I love our locals, and our second homeowners, and our tourists. It is so different throughout the year; it is always changing; it's like a rollercoaster, which I love. I love the adrenaline rush; I am a total junkie. It's so much fun.
How did you come up with your menu?
I collaborated with my husband. It is really hard to come up with a menu because you can do anything you want, so when there are absolutely no parameters, it's hard to narrow it down. In the beginning, we just started it by listing what Leadville already had and not doing that. From there, it was deciding what Leadville would understand? We have a dish on the menu that is Pork and Beans, and it is a traditional French dish called Cassoulet. But if we put Cassoulet on the menu, it might be a bit intimidating in the Leadville market. This dish has been really successful! So we find a way to make great food accessible. There are, however, so many factors: portability, sustainability, and what we can get locally? We source all of our animals whole from local ranchers. What do we do with a whole lamb? If we have a lamb shoulder, we need to braise it, and then we can make pasta with it. So that's the evolution, but of course, it has changed a lot in the past 3 ½ years and primarily based on what we have discovered about the market, the demand, and what Leadville likes. Also the price points and what is available to us seasonally. It's mostly been my husband; he's a trained chef and has been in the business his entire life. He's worked all over the world and is the inspiration for all of the food.
What is your favorite dish, and what are your customers' favorite dishes?
I don't really have a favorite dish; it depends on what mood I am in. I like everything, so if it's winter, I'll probably want to do the beef burgundy, and then I'll eat more salads and fish in the summer, so it's very seasonal. I really love the Blackened Cod, and it is one of our top-selling items. It is so ironic because when we were developing the menu, people were like, you have to do meat and potatoes since it's Leadville, no one will eat fish. Today Blackened Cod is our #1 bestseller and has been since we opened the restaurant. I think that is because it is a really hard thing to cook at home, you really need to know how to cook it and you just can't go to the store and buy good fish. We can source good sustainable Icelandic cod and cook it right and add a lot of flavors, which is different from what anyone can do easily at home. Our chicken sandwich has been a star for us because it was priced at $10, and it's a giant sandwich. We do a special during the off-season with the sandwich and a beer or a glass of wine. It has been great with locals. It has been a dish that brings them in, and it allows them to try other things. It has been a gateway menu item for many people, which is great because we want to cater to locals as a crucial part of our market.
Was there anything that surprised you regarding your customer's reaction to menu items?
Yes, it has taken a lot of endurance and resilience to rejection. We have messed up and disappointed people at times. When we first opened, we realized our wine menu was a bit high-priced for Leadville, and we had to bring the price down and make an entry-level glass of wine more affordable. Also, there have been many weird things that my husband has tried with the menu that has worked that we were surprised about. When we buy whole animals we get all of the parts. He's tried dishes to use some of the more obscure parts and succeeded. We have also gained a lot of trust over the past 3 ½ years. In the beginning, people didn't know if the value was there, and now they know that it is worth it.
What is special about your restaurant?
We are a community gathering place that anybody can go to. There is such a variety of different spaces within the restaurant like the rooftop with the most incredible views. We are so lucky to have that; it is pretty unique. I think we might be one of the few restaurants in the state that has those views. We also have a full menu up there, and right now, we are doing igloos during winter. We used to just close the rooftop down in the winter, and now with Covid, it made us think of the igloos for social distancing, and now we are like, why didn't we think of this sooner? It's great to get a full dinner and be able to see the mountains and the stars. We have a fire pit and a private dining room. We have all these unique areas that are like different venues for people to experience, and they all have a unique vibe.
How did you come upon the building?
The history of the building is fascinating. It was a drug-store called Sayer-McKee, and before that, it was a Safeway, and before that, it was several things that go back to the late 1800s. It still has the original brick wall and a lot of the infrastructure. It's interesting because back in the day, Leadville was the big city, so people would come up to Safeway to do their grocery shopping, like Summit County residents. Sayer-McKee was an everything store. It was a drug-store; it had liquor; you could buy a bathing suit or a gift for a birthday party, anything. In 2014 we had a huge snowstorm one March, and the entire front of the building collapsed in the storm. A local construction company, KW, bought the building for $5.00 from the owner, who thought it was so dilapidated that it should just be scrapped. KW went forward with this immense undertaking. Once they started to gut it and I saw the exposed brick wall, I thought we just had to do something with it. You know when you walk into a place, and you just know that you have to be there? It was like that. The restoration process took three years. They peeled back layers upon layers and painstakingly hand-scraped all of the bricks inside. There is a barrel ceiling in there now that was covered by a drop ceiling. It had to be revealed and cleaned up. It didn't have the lofted ceilings when it was the drug store, so that was a cool exposed feature. KW came up with the rooftop and the patio idea. They had started the process of the design you see today. When we came in, we designed the interior, and they built that to suit us. We were able to salvage a lot of the material such as the bar face from the old Leadville train depot, and a lot of the furniture was salvaged from other restaurants. It has a lot of historical significance and throwbacks to the whole period of Leadville's heyday.
If you were to open a new restaurant in Leadville, what would it be?
This question is ironic because today (12/11/20) is our new restaurant's opening day, right across the street from the Treeline. It is called the Before & After. There used to be an old barbershop in the space. We signed a ten-year lease on the area the day before the shutdown. We had plans to open it in June, and then, of course, with the shutdown, everything got messed up. We lost our financing, contractors, supplies, and staff. That has been the last eight months of our life, a pandemic and bootstrapping the building of another restaurant. Most of the furniture came out of our house, and our kids are like, hey, we don't have anywhere to sit. We had to pull it all together with what we had. We took some furniture from the Treeline. We pilfered from anywhere and everywhere. It is going to be more like a cocktail lounge with appetizers.
My husband John and I were on our way to Leadville for the weekend and decided to check out the Before & After. It has a quaint and relaxing environment with a very local hangout feel. It is so great to have a new venue where you can get a great cocktail, a glass of beer or wine, and even get an espresso. The appetizers looked delectable and there was a large selection to satisfy a variety of appetites. We will be back to check it out again!
The Treeline Kitchen is one of our go-to restaurants. The house wine, red or white, is my favorite and I love that its price tag isn't the cost of a whole meal. For dinner, I always get the blackened cod, and my husband enjoys the lamb pasta or the vegetable curry. My kids don't get stuck on a favorite; they try everything. Nothing has let them down. If you decide to go, you must go check out the rooftop bar. The views are outstanding!