Katie Coakley
Daily Correspondent

The reinvention of Larkspur, a staple Vail restaurant

a 35-year career would have some people looking for the gold watch and planning for the next 20 years in Florida.

But Thomas Salamunovich is not some people. His culinary career has spanned three decades, including studying in the kitchen of Chef Paul Bocuse in Lyon and Elysee Lenotre and Poilane Boulangerie in Paris. He moved to Vail in 1993 to take the position of executive chef at Sweet Basil and has spent the last 15 years focused on Larkspur Restaurant. Not one for any downtime, he also opened Avondale at the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa, Centre V at The Arrabelle and conceptualized, created and opened Larkburger, which now has 13 restaurants in Colorado and more planned nationally.

So what does Salamunovich do when he realizes that the current situation at Larkspur is not as ideal as he’d like?

He changes it.

Thinking outside the restaurant

Instead of serving lunch and dinner as he has done since the inception of Larkspur in 1999, Salamunovich decided to discontinue dinner service and instead focus on special events and “customized gatherings.”

“Dinner stopped being ... I dreaded those services,” Salamunovich said. “I stopped having fun. When the fun stops, it becomes a job. All of a sudden it was a duty. Now that’s gone.”

In the midst of construction at Larkspur (the restaurant was renovated at the same time the concept changed), Salamunovich is practically giddy with excitement about his team, the changes and his plans for the future.

“It’s all about the people,” he said. “I’m working with a vibrant and young group of people who are really getting into it and making it their own. We’ve always run this place with people in positions, not really as names. Now it’s reversed. It’s really a team effort, pulling from everyone’s strengths.”

Eliminating the dinner service allowed Salamunovich to play outside of the rules of a traditional restaurant and led to the creation of Larkspur Generated Events. These events capitalize on what Salamunovich thinks customers really want — and it makes more sense on a business side, too.

Take Larkspur After Bravo! Vail for example, which began June 29 and continues Sunday, Monday, July 18 and 25. Taking place in Larkspur’s bar area, the event doesn’t begin until 8 p.m., after the performance, which is when people are looking for a bite to eat and some entertainment. Larkspur After Dance will start at 9 p.m.

“Why do we have to chain ourselves to traditional hours?” Salamunovich said.

Instead, the group is concentrating on thinking outside of the restaurant — both literally and figuratively speaking.

“One of our first events is Tequila Tuesday, which is tied into the free concerts on Tuesdays at the Ford Amphitheater. We’re providing another place to go,” Salamunovich said. “We’re setting up a tent and not opening up the kitchen. All food is simple, truly authentic Mexican fare.”

Starting at 6 p.m., Tequila Tuesday features music, tacos and drink specials on the patio. “We’re having fun with this,” he said. “No one has to wear a chef’s coat.”

‘The real town hall’

It’s the dissolution of dinner that has allowed Salamunovich to find his passion once again.

“I’m over the grind. There’s no grind to this,” he said. “The whole culinary team is working towards a moment with these events and it takes on a bit of theater. We present the show, but not every night and they are different shows.

“When we have an event, we’re putting our full attention to it — it’s not being wedged between dinners. We try to be thoughtful and ask ourselves, ‘What will bring us the most joy? What will bring our guests the most joy?’ In this day and age, the real town hall is a restaurant. This is the closest we can get to our town hall meeting where guests can get together, breaking bread and drinking wonderful wine.”

The hardest part about the restaurant business is finding balance, Salamunovich said. This new concept, he said, provides balance, even though it’s a whole different challenge. This sort of business model is fundamentally different than anything he’s ever done.

Larkspur will continue serving lunch during the winter season and will also be open for apres, but this summer is the testing ground for the new concept which, in addition to the public events, will also include private catering and opportunities for groups and meetings. As to the success of the venture, only time will tell. But if enthusiasm equals victory, then Salamunovich will surely come out on top.

“I will be in my 35th year of being in this business,” Salamunovich said. “I’m a little nervous, and that’s good.”

Stories you may be interested in

The VailDaily Updated Jul 1, 2014 06:03PM Published Jul 1, 2014 11:30AM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.