For those who want to know everything.



Denver, CO

Check Out Their Website: HERE

Accolades: James Beard 2013 winner: Best Chef: Southwest.

Key words: Pride, Cultivation,

For a good time, (make reservations): Here

Coming Soon: Stoic and Genuine

Recently I had a drink with an old friend, the head sous chef of Oak at Fourteenth. We talked about restaurants (duh we did) and he made a point that ties in perfectly with my stage at Rioja. He told me that if one restaurant house is exceptional and the other isn’t, everyone is wasting their time.

Matching houses of excellence


What does that mean? It means if you are going to serve excellent food, it better be swaddled in excellent service, too. Rioja, in Denver, CO is a perfect example of a restaurant that has two matching houses. The relationship is not one-sided, both houses bring an A-game.

In 2013, chef Jennifer Jasinski won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest.

Do you know why? Because her food is amazing. A-maz-ing. I can’t string together the right words to describe its fresh and smartly comprised flavor complexities. (Order the artichoke tortellini. Take a bite. Put down your fork. Pick up your phone. Come back to this article and thank me for the 411.)

But what is excellent food if it’s not backed up with an army of excellent servers, food runners, expeditors, and bartenders? Well, then it’s just good food, which is, um, good, but we’re looking for fricken’ great!

Going out to eat should satiate and gladden your palate, but also have you leave the experience feeling that you have been pampered. And cared about. And guided by a trustworthy professional…who really cared about you.

This restaurant team was one of the warmest I have met. And that’s great because as someone who encounters a new group every night, it means a lot when they are nice and friendly. But as you know, nice is only one component in the superior hospitality equation. This staff wasn’t just nice, they were smart, competent, and knowledgeable.

Why? Because that’s the bar that has been set. That’s the expectation. And when a bar is set, when expectations are high, people deliver…or they work somewhere else with a lower bar.


“The dishwasher was promoted.”


How often have you heard those words?

For me the answer is, ummm, never!– until I went to Rioja. Susan, my totally wonderful server buddy, tells me about all the promotions and cross trainings that have recently taken place within the Rioja restaurant. Keewan, formally the diswahser, was just promoted to stocker. Harrison has moved from a back serving position to begin his training as a food runner, and Adrian started working expo in addition to his front server shifts.

I watched Adrian as he called for dishes, wiped plates, and executed the running. The dishes looked beautiful, as to be expected. The line was moving with speed and finesse, and they trust Adrian, as the expo, to catch any food that doesn’t look absolutely perfect. I ask him if that ruffles any feathers, but he assured me that egos are moved aside and everyone is in it to create and deliver the best experience possible. Adrian reminded me, “I’m not doing anything for my own personal image.” All decisions are made for what’s important, and that’s Rioja.

The service team chooses to move around to different positions in order to master them. They see the vitality of every job within the restaurant. They understand that all  jobs, executed well, are why their earned reputation is one of excellence. And as the long time Rioja server, Neil, told me with pride, “I have never worked for a restaurant that is so put together.”

That’s what sums this restaurant up; it is put together. Every department, every section, every job, has been designed and put together well. And when all the working parts are working well, that makes for a fierce and lovely machine.


This restaurant teaches us that every job within a restaurant holds a tremendous weight in its ultimate success.

Thank you Katie for allowing me to spend time with your team and the hospitality you glowed. Thank you Beth and Jennifer for creating a restaurant worth writing about. And thank you wonderful team! Susan, Elena, Andrea, Chef Jim, Robin, Niko, Moondo, Dustin, Keewan, Jim, Scott, Kelly, Lincoln, Harrison, Alex, Kelly and everyone else!


We are in this profession together. Let’s start applauding, sharing ideas and bringing more excellence to our game. Do you want to help me with this tour AND become a stronger server or manager? Thank God! Check out the iamWaitress product line HERE or make a donation on the left.

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