RIDGWAY – At Kate’s Place last Sunday morning, it was breakfast as usual: omelets plump like dirigibles emerged piping-hot from the restaurant’s small kitchen; stacks of lemon-blueberry-ricotta pancakes were plunked down before eager patrons; plates of green eggs and ham (poached eggs, prosciutto, pesto), born aloft by smiling waitresses, briskly made their way to tables. The only thing unusual was eight balloons dangling outside, and a sign on the front door, congratulating Kate’s Place of Ridgway, population 1,036, for becoming the top-rated restaurant in all of Colorado. This was according to the travel-website Trip Advisor, which publishes consumer reviews of airlines, lodgings and restaurants worldwide.
Kate Leonard, the restaurant’s owner and namesake, had received the news in September, when the Ridgway Chamber sent out a flier congratulating her establishment for becoming no. 3 out of over 7,000 in Colorado. By October, Kate’s Place had climbed to no. 1. The restaurant has received 28 reviews on Trip Advisor, and 27 of them are perfect; several call it “a jewel” or “a gem.” The lone dissenter’s complaint? The place isn’t open for dinner. Kate laughed, recalling the review. This is a woman who takes keeping people happy – her staff had surprised her with balloons, the banner on the door, and a lemon cake – rather seriously, and here was somebody who was displeased. She threw her hands up in the air. “What am I supposed to do?”
One thing she probably won’t be doing any time soon is exactly what the patron wanted: opening for dinner. Kate’s is known for creative, hearty breakfasts (served from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays), and lunch specialties like its Reuben sandwich and an Asian salad with crunchy rice noodles, cilantro, and roasted peanuts, a customer favorite since the restaurant opened in 2007.
A Florida native, Kate is no “proper” culinary-school graduate. “I’m not a chef, but I’ve always been a foodie,” she said.
Her college degree is in marketing, and her first career was selling European-made toys to high-end retailers. She moved to Ridgway to ski, to travel, and to be closer to her parents, who own property here. Soon after she arrived, she took a job at Sandy’s Sunshine Kitchen in Ridgway, where she ran the front of the house. When Sandy’s closed in 2007, Kate bought the business. From the day she opened her own restaurant, her focus has remained the same: fresh flavors, friendly wait staff, fast service.
Business is growing: last year there were nine tables outside, and she needed three servers to wait on them; this year there are 12 tables on the patio (plus 13 indoors), and she needs four servers. Yet she’s loath to expand simply for the sake of growing bigger.
Has she considered a branch in Telluride, perhaps? “I’d have to charge $20 for an omelet in Telluride. People from Telluride come for breakfast here.” What about catering? Though she’s often asked, she does very little, preferring to focus her energies on the restaurant. She did make an exception for Oprah Winfrey (“How can you turn Oprah down?”), who taped one of her last shows at Ralph Lauren’s ranch up the road earlier this spring, and asked Kate’s Place to supply sandwiches.
Her care and attention to detail extend from every item on the menu – she samples every dish, every day – to the menu itself. “I’m very hands-on,” she said. When a soup special read “Potato Leak” on the chalkboard one day, she asked her staff, “Are the potatoes leaking?” Ideas come from everywhere: cookbooks, TV food shows, conversations with her staff and patrons.
“I travel to eat,” she said. On rare days off, she flies to Las Vegas – the closest collection of world-class restaurants to Ridgway (and just a one-hour, $100 round-trip flight from Grand Junction, she pointed out) – where she noshes her way down the Strip. Mexican dishes are particularly popular at Kate’s, so she recently made a point of stopping by the Border Grill at Mandalay Bay, the better to taste that restaurant’s new tapas menu and pick up a few ideas. And she met Hubert Keller, the owner of Fleur, who brings French flair to the masses on TV’s Top Chef.
While she enjoys the great food in Vegas, she doesn’t necessarily admire the way so many top restaurateurs are running so many places: when people get that stretched, she said, quality often suffers. On the other hand, she very much admires Rick Bayless’s style. The proprietor of Topolobampo in Chicago sticks with what he knows: despite his fame, he has opened just a handful of restaurants over the decades, nearly all in the same town.
“He does one thing, and he does it well,” she said. “That’s the key.” It sounds like a recipe for success.