Remembering Don Monette, founder of Flagstaff House in Boulder

If there’s one thing to remember about the late Flagstaff House owner Don Monette it’s that he would do anything to make sure his customers had a special experience at his restaurant.

On Mother’s Day weekend in 1971, not long after he bought the restaurant, rain washed away part of the old gravel road leading up to the top of Flagstaff Mountain, where Flagstaff House has sat since the 1920s, overlooking Boulder below. So Don and his sons, Scott and Mark, flagged down cars on their way up from the bottom and shuttled guests part way up in a van. At the washout, they laid down plywood for people to walk across and then greeted them with champagne and another van on the other side to take them the rest of the way up.

“It was one of the busiest days of the year, and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer,” Scott said. “We saved Mother’s Day that year and continued to do that … when the road closed.”

“Even if it only meant he would have 10 people dining there that night,” added Adam Monette, Mark’s son and Don’s grandson, who now owns the restaurant.

Monette, who built Flagstaff House into a fine dining establishment that is now synonymous with Boulder, died on Feb. 14 at the age of 85.

Don was a pioneer in the Boulder restaurant industry with a vision to create a timeless fine-dining experience, and over five decades, the restaurant has won global recognition and awards for its food and wine, and is often cited as one of the best restaurants in Colorado.

“Guests who have had a relationship with Don for the last 50 years have been coming in and sharing their stories of hospitality and even from moments outside the restaurant,” Adam said. “I’ve heard about times where he would help buy flowers for someone’s wedding when they needed it, or tracked down a special bottle of wine that someone was missing from their wine collection.”

Don, originally from Michigan, was a cook for the Army and fell in love with Colorado while stationed there during the 1950s. In 1963, he and his wife Carole moved to Boulder, where Don later opened the Viking Restaurant and Golden Buff Coffee Shop.

Flagstaff House was originally a cabin built in 1929 and later became a summer-only restaurant under its current name. The owners of the former spot were guests of Don’s restaurants, and when he heard they were selling it, he had an aha moment.

“At the time it was a huge investment and a huge risk,” Adam said. In addition to the single dirt road, “it was on well water and you had propane tanks. It just wasn’t fit to be a restaurant.”

“Everyone doubted him, even his dad, especially where he’s from, he was taught as a kid that, ‘People like us don’t make it in the world,’ but he kind of said, ‘Forget that,’ and really made something special of himself,” Adam said.

But Don was confident, investing all the money he’d earned from his previous ventures into Flagstaff House and its surrounding five acres. But getting it up and running wasn’t easy.

To make it fit for year-round dining, Don transformed what used to be patios into indoor dining rooms, winterized the restaurant and added panoramic windows for 180-degree views of Boulder and the mountains. He also petitioned the city to build gas and water lines up to the restaurant.

“I thought, ‘Well this is going to be rough for a few years,’” Carole said. “At the time, we had five young children, and I knew he was going to be gone 25 hours a day and seven and a half days a week, but we made it happen, and I’m so grateful that his dream came true, and he created all of this with his vision, especially when I look back on where we came from.”

Carole and Don were a team. She would take reservations on a red phone they had on the second floor of their home, running up and down the stairs day and night. She would often host on the weekends, bringing their five kids to help work odd jobs when they were old enough.

When they would take a rare vacation, Don made sure to take his family to the nicest wineries and restaurants so that he could get a taste of their food and wine and learn new techniques to bring back to Flagstaff House.

“He worked hard and wasn’t necessarily wealthy while building a business, but we really knew the value of going to the nicest places, and he always wanted to be the best of the best, so he would take us out and show us what that means and looks like,” Scott said.

“He would always say, ‘Have whatever you want,’ no matter where we went because it was food,” Mark added. “He was so involved with the restaurant business and loved being a part of it. It was in his soul.”

All 13 of Don’s grandchildren have worked at Flagstaff House in some capacity. Adam, 33, said the business was never pushed on any of them, but he and his cousins would use the restaurant job as a method to secure a phone or save up for a car.

Mark, who honed his culinary skills in New York City and had stints at Michelin-star restaurants like French Laundry in Napa Valley, and Scott, who received a degree in hotel and restaurant management from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, returned home and became partners of the restaurant with their dad in 1993.

“We were fortunate to work with him every day,” Mark said. “He never really looked at it as work.”

“Once we got together, he was really there in a supportive role and was very trusting of us,” Scott added.

The trio worked together to elevate the restaurant, introducing modern takes on traditional tableside service and New American cuisine and building a wine cellar that has won the prestigious Wine Spectator Grand Award for 38 consecutive years.

The Flagstaff House is a sort of castle on the hill, where guests — including celebrities — visited often for high school proms, graduations, birthdays and other special occasions, and Don became a sort of celebrity himself in the Boulder dining scene.

“Don Monette brought a lot of style, swagger, and joie de vivre to the Boulder dining scene,” said Dave Query, who owns Big Red F Restaurant Group, which includes Jax Fish House, West End Tavern and Post Brewing Co. “He made caviar and French cheeses and local meats and produce from nearby farms, something of importance. His dining room was the bastion for fine dining and big deal making. His flatware and glassware and china was the nicest and most expensive, when everyone else was buying stuff that could fall off the dish table, bounce and not break.

“Don was pure style,” he added. “A lot of us learned from Don, the art of running a high-end restaurant. But he was, The Don.”

The Monette family likes to say that Don never really retired. Even in his older age, he would pop over to the restaurant almost daily and check in on the number of bookings for the night. Adam became a partner in the restaurant with executive chef Chris Royster in 2017, and they officially took over the business from his uncle Scott in December last year.

Some of Adam’s fondest memories with his grandfather are when they would share a beer after a long day of work and lament over the trials and tribulations of being a restaurant owner. And before Don passed, Adam made sure his grandfather knew his legacy would survive through him.

“Ultimately, I made a promise to him that I would keep the restaurant going as long as possible, and that’s exactly what I plan to do,” Adam said.

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