First you, Graze, then you, Gulp. Or is it the other way around? Chef and restaurateur Jennifer James has unveiled her newest venture, a sophisticated lounge called Gulp, in the storefront next to Graze (Central and Buena Vista, 268-4729).
“Customers wanted a martini before dinner. In order to keep up with the neighborhood, we knew we needed to have a full liquor license,” James told me. Makes sense. Neighbors Zinc, Gruet Steakhouse/Monte Vista Fire Station and Yanni's all have separate, full bars. But couldn't she have just gotten the license without opening another place? “Yeah, but we didn't want anyone else moving in there and opening up a bar!”
The photography studio had been mostly an open space, blanketed with ugly carpet, but boasting a big, double-doored bank vault. The carpet got ripped out, the concrete floors stained, and the airy space was fleshed out with earth tones, blond wood and simple metal fixtures. The vault has become an extraordinarily secure liquor storage room. The vibe here is of a space that's different from Graze—with its exposed wooden beams and green grass chair-railing—but feels similar.
“I wanted an extension of the restaurant, a kind of rustic, outdoorsy, maybe a little industrial feel,” James said. The project's architect originally proposed something much different, with an icy blue floor and lots of cool colors. “He wanted it to look like you were walking into a drink, literally,” James told me. “I said that sounds really cool, but that's not us.”
James is particularly fond of the art hanging on the walls at Gulp, paintings of industrial equipment like backhoes, done by one of the restaurant's servers, Nina Elder. “She says they're tractors, but they're not,” and having grown up in Illinois farm country, James knows a tractor when she sees one.
Gulp has been open since the first week of March, and already weekends have been busy. With 50 seats, Gulp triples the total seating, bumping up James' seating capacity by one-third. Right now, the full restaurant menu is available in the bar, from lunch through late-night. A bar menu is in the works, scheduled to debut in the next few weeks, along with Graze's spring menu.
Between Graze, Gulp and Restaurant Jennifer James, the chef is stretched pretty thin these days, but in April she plans to close her first restaurant to concentrate on Graze and Gulp. “Graze was what I originally wanted to do,” she said. “I'm just not into that style of dining anymore.” Asked to explain how the food at the two places was different, aside from plate size, she told me she wanted to focus on food that was clean, fresh and healthy. And by those words she meant not just washed carrots and recently picked arugula, but dishes that are minimally handled and processed. “The less that we do to things before they make it to the plate the better. You don't feel heavy, you don't feel weighed down.”
After Restaurant Jennifer James closes (the exact April date is not yet set), Graze and Gulp will gradually transition to serving seven days a week, including brunch on Sundays.