The dining scene along the Front Range has evolved in a big way over the past several years, and that growth has helped put Denver on the map as a veritable culinary destination.
Yet, when we dine out in Denver — or any city, really — we don’t always get to see the heart and soul of a restaurant or the people who make it what it is. The really great experiences, the ones that stick with us long after the meal is over, are the ones steeped in generous service, warmed by undeniable inclusivity and authenticity that make you want to return again
It’s not easy to find restaurants like this, and most don’t even last long enough to fully develop those traits. That’s what makes restaurateur Dave Query and his restaurant group so unusual.
It was 1994 when Dave Query first created Big Red F restaurant group, which now includes Zolo Grill, Lola Coastal Mexican, Centro Mexican Kitchen, West End Tavern, The Post Chicken & Beer, and a shoal of Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar locations in Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins, and Glendale.
While he is widely respected as one of Colorado’s pioneering restaurateurs, Query will be the first to tell you he never set out to own a restaurant group. What he did set out to do was create a place where everyone was treated with warmth and respect. A place where success wasn’t measured in grades or tests, but in serving high-quality food with a smile, every single night.
One might assume that the “F” in Big Red F represents the group’s commitment to good food. Or maybe the fun-loving staff and cheerful culture. Dave’s wife and Big Red F head of marketing Dana Faulk Query likes to say that the “F” in Big Red F really stands for “family.”
And in truth, Big Red F is all those things. It’s a story that begins with Dave Query, and passed along and augmented through the years. Today, it’s a story told by the people who have been part of Query’s life and restaurants for more than two decades and counting.
He may not have known it at the time, but when Query first launched Big Red F in 1994 he was creating something of a food movement. “We just thought we knew what good food tasted like and how to serve it with a smile in a way that wasn’t being done at the time,” he writes on the company website. That concept of serving good food to all has guided this mission, and also inspired the tribe of people who have joined him along the way.
Jamey Fader, Big Red F Culinary Director and Executive Chef at Lola, is one of those people, and reflects on meeting Query in 1996. “I saw this opportunity at Jax, and hearing Dave talk about doing ‘cheffy’ dishes but also a great burger, shrimp cocktail, and po’boys served with love and passion and quality ingredients, no matter who the guest was … well, that was revolutionary at the time.”
That foundational devotion to good food and passionate hospitality connected Fader and Query with Jennifer Broyles, who came on board at Lola in 2002. “I remember telling Dave I’d be at Lola for maybe a year,” she says, laughing. “Seventeen years later I’m still here, and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
The food and menus at Lola in particular have continued to evolve over the past 14 years, and it’s more successful than ever. Today, the regional Mexican influences and modern creativity guide menu items like Lobster Tamales, Grilled Octopus, and Whole Red Snapper. And that’s just at Lola. From fried chicken to craft beer to fresh oysters, the high-quality food options are only getting better. Thanks to Query’s restless and creative spirit, “the team has never been afraid of innovating and experimenting in order to keep challenging ourselves,” Broyles says.
Atop the foundation of great food rises the ever-growing focus on silliness and fun. From throwing fish at the annual Labor Day fish toss to throwing a great party at each restaurant every night, it’s clear from talking to anyone at Big Red F that fun is baked into the culture.
John “Johnny-Mo” Bachman attributes that to the early days at Zolo Grill, which created a culture that has lived on in all Big Red F restaurants.
“The staff at Zolo was so strong, so knowledgeable, and took so much pride in their work, that anyone who didn’t pull their weight was immediately and daily called out for it,” recalls Bachman. “As a new bartender, I quickly got a reputation for taking a bit too long to make the margs.” For his entire whole first month on the job, he’d hear “Hey Molasses, those drinks ready for 52 yet?” dozens of times a night. Molasses became Johnny-Mo and the name stuck.
While nicknames and slinging drinks are part of the fun, Big Red F’s culture runs even deeper than that. Talk to any longtime employee at Big Red F and you’ll immediately get the sense that they’re more than just work buddies. They’re family.
On the subject of family, Broyles says it’s integral to the group’s identity. “It goes back to the company in general, wanting to really connect with people when they walk through the door, whether they want a three-dollar beer and chicken taco or top-shelf tequila,” she says. “Our restaurants always were and continue to be places where family is created, and places that take care of their own, staff and guest alike.”
That sense of family even extends beyond the restaurants and into the community, thanks to Philanthropy Queen Diana Underhill (and yes, that’s her real title.) “We want to contribute and support the organizations here that make our communities so rich,” she says.
Of the many charities Big Red F supports, one notable recipient is There With Care – a nonprofit organization supporting families and children in medical crisis. At the annual Jax Fish House High West Oyster Fest in 2015, Big Red F raised an astounding $590,000 for the charity in a single evening.
Employees like Underhill and Bachman also have their own personal experiences of family at Big Red F. They each met their future spouses while working at one of the restaurants. Query himself presided over Bachman’s wedding ceremony. And they each have their own children now, who (like all three of Query’s kids) have spent a big part of their lives in those same restaurants.
“When you have a 21-year-old restaurant business, amazing things start to happen,” Bachman says. “We’ve watched guests go out on first dates, witnessed their courtship and marriages, and now, some of their kids work for us. That’s one amazing part about Big Red F.”
With so much history and community woven into their story, the real meaning of Big Red F is hard to describe in a single word. Fader puts it this way: “It was evident from day one that it doesn’t matter whether you are washing dishes, bussing tables, shucking oysters, or pouring drinks,” Fader adds. “We are all held in the same high regard. That’s why so many of us have been around for 15-plus years, because we respect each other so much.”
The sentiment surrounding Query is summed up by his eldest son who put it like this: “He’s really the kind of guy who does it all. He’d be doing kitchen prep, polishing glasses, and making it to a James Beard dinner, all of which took place before or after picking us up and dropping us off at school. DQ is a remarkable man and a remarkable father.”
It’s big feelings like this that encompass what Big Red F is all about. It’s the feeling you get when you walk into Lola during happy hour, live music and strong drinks filling the space. It’s the feeling that someone is taking care of you, whether you’re working a long shift or finally sitting down to a good meal with your family. It’s that authentic, no-nonsense sense of passion that Dave Query and his team live and breathe each day. And more than anything, it’s feeling — knowing, even — that we’re all in this together.