For Executive Chef John Daly and his wife, Kerry, Primus represents two firsts.
The new restaurant, at 1017 Main Ave. in Durango, is the first they have opened together, John said. After 26 years in the industry, it’s their first joint restaurant venture.
In addition, it’s an opportunity for Durangoans to explore new culinary experiences.
“We’re kind of trying to do something a little bit different than what you find in town,” said Levi Russell, Primus’ chef de cuisine.
The restaurant specializes in seafood and wild game. The seafood – including lobster, scallops, haddock, swordfish and oysters – is flown in directly, five days a week from sources in Maine, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii, John said.
“You can come in here and get basically the equivalent of a 1¼ pound lobster, stuffed into a hot dog bun, made on the coast of Maine for $26, which is insane,” he said.
On the wild game side, Primus serves elk, venison, duck, pheasant, quail and bison. The bison is sourced within the state, from Colorado’s Rock River Ranches. For the foreseeable future, he said, there will be neither chicken nor beef on the menu.
All of the meats and produce are sustainable and organic, he said. And absolutely everything is made in the restaurant.
“We make everything from the ground up,” John said. “We make our own mayonnaise, our own ketchup, our own pickles, our own mustard – everything – because we don’t buy anything.”
A new spaceThe Dalys came to Durango for several reasons. They were sick of the busy life of Denver and its exploding population, said Kerry, who is also Primus’ service manager. They also wanted to move closer to John’s parents – his father was a middle school administrator in Bloomfield, New Mexico, for 20 years and retired in Aztec.
“And we chose Durango because we know it’s, you know, a foodie town,” Kerry said. “There’s a lot of restaurants around, and we felt like we could bring something a little bit different.”
For the home of their new venture, they chose the thin 1,440-square-foot building that formerly housed Doc Hathaway’s Café and, before that, Skinny’s Grill. The tight location suits the restaurant’s purpose, John said.
“We’re going to be limited on seating – obviously, we’re a small restaurant,” he said. “We have 50 seats total. We’re only going to do about 100 dinners a night and 50 to 75 lunches, so I anticipate us being fairly reservation-only. ... We want people to come in and have a true dining experience and spend a couple hours, especially for dinner.”
While Primus may be at a familiar location for many Durangoans, thanks to renovations, it is in many ways a new building.
“We took it down to the dirt – literally, like, bottom floor down to the dirt. I had to pour new foundation, all new walls, all new plumbing, all new electric, exposed 110-year-old beams. All new lighting, all-new kitchen,” John said. “It took every penny I had on the planet, but it’s a brand-new 110-year-old building on Main (Avenue) in Durango, and we’re happy to have invested that into the town.”
Past and futureJohn attributes part of his interest in cooking to his childhood on a farm, where his family grew wheat and vegetables, and canned and pickled everything. This sparked his interest in self-sustainable and self-subsistent food.
“One of my first memories is grinding grain to make my dad a loaf of bread so that he could have a sandwich to take to work,” he said. “We hunted, we fished, we grew, we preserved. And I’m 100% sure that’s why I ended up being a chef.”
With any luck, John said, Primus will not be the Dalys’ only eatery in town. Once their flagship restaurant takes off, they want to open a poke restaurant and a charcuterie.
John, who also started the Rocky Mountain Chefs of Colorado, a Denver nonprofit that offers apprenticeships and associate degree programs in the culinary arts at Red Rocks Community College, said he has aspirations of bringing a similar program to Durango.
For now, John and Levi Russell, who have worked together for 10 years and across four restaurants, plan to change up at least a quarter of Primus’ menu every six weeks or so, so they don’t get bored, John said.
BeveragesThe restaurant is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The kitchen closes from 3 to 5 p.m. each day.
During that time, though, visitors can sample wines chosen specifically to pair with Primus’ food or signature cocktails, such as the restaurant’s take on a mojito or the Ferolita – a drink the Dalys came up with when they opened up a Cuban restaurant in Littleton about 13 years ago, Kerry said.
The cocktail features a jalapeño lime sorbet, which they have made fresh at the neighboring Cream Bean Berry.
“We put one scoop of that in a martini glass, shake a shot of tequila over ice, and then we pour it over the sorbet. We rim the martini glass with a cilantro sugar rim,” she said. “The reason why we chose the name Ferolita is because it means little fire – as you’re drinking it, you’ll get a sweet taste; and then as it goes down, it will kind of burn a little bit.”