How do you describe the Ore House?
She’s a gracefully aging woman in a basic black dress. In Durango’s dynamic parade of chic and style-conscious restaurants, unexpected in a community this size, there are flashy show stoppers and classic survivors. She’s the survivor.
The Ore House, Durango’s senior steak house, will be celebrating her 40th birthday soon, amid dozens of trendier, well-dressed hot spots. The Ore House stands in the background, wearing a classic dress, but over the years she’s gotten thicker around the middle. The crow’s feet are a consequence of four decades of smiles. It’s nip and tuck for the Durango landmark as she undergoes a fashion makeover to make the most of what she has to offer.
Casual steak houses hit the fashion runway in the 1960s, food historians say. California led the way with a proliferation of tony “fern bars,” dimly lit, sophisticated dining establishments that ditched the white tablecloth and velvet drapes of the Rat Pack era for wood-paneled man caves. The formula was simple: premium meat and potatoes, served up as entertainment.
It was a new era in restaurant design. Ushered in with the question of what you were going to do for your country, were creative entrepreneurs and designers, who were unstoppable. Amid sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, a bold spirit in the food industry was born. Swinging kitchen doors were out. Funky memorabilia and open grills, manned by surfer boys with buff arms, were in.
Line cooks impressed us with signature hash marks on thick slabs of prime cuts of beef. Salad bars ruled. Hundreds of steakhouses sprouted overnight, and they looked like this: Your sandaled waiter, dressed in khakis and a Hawaiian shirt, met you at eye level. He was immediately on a first-name basis. He rattled off the garnishes to your loaded baked potato. If you couldn’t get a table, it was no problem. You sat at the barm where the bartender knew which steak went where by the color of the plastic spear impaling it to the plate.
We may not have been wearing Coco Chanel, but we lived by her word: “Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live ... we’re what’s happening.”
All across America, we were dressed to grill.
Behold the inspiration for the Ore House, Durango’s jolt delivered by a pair of ski bums with shallow pockets, but unbridled talent for starting up restaurants. The two would become known for recognizing opportunity and treading where others would not. They would apply a simple formula to the food and beverage industry, exceeding diner expectations and being successful more often than not.
Ore House co-owners Beatle Abshagen and Jim Arias started the process of founding Durango’s first steak house in 1971, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the restaurant opened its doors.
“It was tough in 1971, tough being the new kid on the block trying to get a liquor license ... old guys, city fathers were not sure what we were going to do, or what impact we’d have on them,” Abshagen said.
Surrounded by service stations and auto repair shops, the Ore House, located on College Drive, was in the bad part of town. There wasn’t a street tree in sight. The rent would be a whopping $125 a month for a space that needed gutting.
Abshagen and Arias finagled a $25,000 loan from a banker who jumped in his car to visit the Vail restaurant prototype for this new steakhouse that would be located across the street from Durango’s only “operating whorehouse,” Abshagen said.
Flash forward 40 years. Now the old guy is Abshagen. He’s in the cramped office of his restaurant, pointing to the two 20-somethings sitting on either side.
He and Arias have symbolically passed the torch to the next generation, to the tech savvy kids with the energy.
Ore House General Manager Ryan Lowe has helped design the “new” Ore House, due to re-open the end of this month. The kitchen in this boutique-size steak house will have a more efficient floor plan. Seven years ago Lowe started as a “pearl diver” – slang for dishwasher – and worked up through every job the back of the house had to offer. Then, he learned the front of the house to become general manager.
Across from him is six-year employee Mandi Davis, a former cocktail server who has risen through the ranks to be Lowe’s second in command.
The two talk openly of their plans.
“The goal is not to take away the landmark staple ... it’s to pay tribute to the classics,” Lowe said.
The classics are prime, aged beef with signature touches such as béarnaise and crab. The classics include organic, roasted chicken and simple sauces that enhance, rather than dominate. Seafood includes wild Alaskan king salmon flash frozen so quickly, that its texture and taste are “better than fresh,” thanks to technology.
Lowe intends to turn up the volume on all that works for today’s dining audience. Today’s customers are more sophisticated and motivated to produce what they see on the Food Network. Ingredients are easier to obtain. The challenge is to recognize the changing tastes in Durango and refine the classics with the addition of quality local produce and hard-to-find, innovative foods. Dining out should be an experience not easily duplicated at home, Lowe says.
Abshagen jumps in, explaining that it’s not just about eating. It’s the whole experience, including offering the best wines to complement whatever is on the plate.
Lowe talks of the taste difference between wild salmon feeding three to five miles off the coast of Alaska, hand-caught reeled in slowly, compared to that of farm-raised salmon sold in most grocery stores. Cryogenically frozen fish is gradually thawed to maintain sashimi-grade texture and taste.
“We’ll do a cucumber dill and a garlic butter sauce. And, of course, the classic salmon on cedar plank with a brown sugar and mustard glaze.”
He’s talking food fashion. Without realizing it, he’s describing how he’ll accessorize the simple but elegant black dress that has stood the test of time. After all, the dress is a classic.
The salad bar will go, he said. Its time has passed. There are better opportunities to showcase fresh produce grown at local farms. All items will be a la carte, offering the diner more flexibility and nutritional choice. Some will object to the change, he predicts, but it’s right for the times.
Local grass-fed and grain-finished beef will continue to be offered, but so will meat from game animals that have been humanely raised, slaughtered and field-dressed at a million-acre ranch in Texas.
The new Ore House will retain its Southwest flair, its historic art and much of its menu, but increased staff levels and new industry technology will improve service delivery. Through the use of in-house Wi-Fi and a device called an Orderman, drink orders will go by electronic transfer directly to the bartender. Premium, top-end wines will now be offered by the glass, because the restaurant is installing Durango’s first Cruvinet, a nitrogen sealant system that permits single-glass service, while preserving the remainder of the bottle for later use.
The customer still will come first, Lowe and Davis said.
That’s in keeping with the Ore House philosophy, local attorney and Durango native Mike Chapman said. He worked for the Ore House in 1977.
No matter how you fit in the service delivery plan, every employee learned from day one that good service was key, Chapman said.
“You learned about every job because you actually did it. You knew how to make things easier for the next guy,” he said. He talked of the restaurant’s reputation for landing excellent suppliers.
“The Ore House always served premium beef and excellent seafood, including abalone, back in the ’70s,” Chapman said.
He and local real estate broker John Wells both talked of their time at “Ore House University,” while enrolled at Fort Lewis College.
Wells called it a great training ground for taking care of people. Rich Fletcher, owner of Animas Media and Inside Durango TV, echoed the sentiment, saying that he learned the nuts and bolts of service and that “people mattered” in this fun workplace of mutual respect. Folks took their jobs, but not themselves, seriously, he said.
Fletcher recalled that he got a “full dose of consequence ... I learned a wonderful lesson” when he took time off to visit family during peak season. He returned to learn he’d been replaced.
“So I went to the Assay Office [a now-defunct steak house built shortly after the Ore House]. I also learned how you needed to pick up and move forward,” Fletcher said.
Abshagen and Arias both reminisced about the challenges and the delights of watching the community become a better place.
Abshagen acknowledges key leaders and volunteers for uniting factions for the benefit of all. As an example, he lists the success of Snowdown, which provided a shot in the arm for the entire community when it most needed it.
Both partners credited each other for having what talent the other did not. Give and take, mutual trust, hard work, good luck and timing were part of the recipe for the partners’ success, Arias said, referencing the many restaurants he and Abshagen built over three decades.
“There’s no reason after 40 years of providing quality, the Ore House should die a death because of lack of ability to change. We can continue to be a landmark restaurant for another 40 years,” Abshagen said.