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Chicken and waffles drizzled in maple bourbon syrup and arancini dipped in house-made pesto and marinara bookend the soulful menu at downtown Durango’s latest gathering place, Public House 701. Dave and Connie Tolle opened the pub in March 2023. Bolstered by brilliant chef and manager Kailey Hatem, the Public House team showcases familiar fare, cocktails, and a unique craft beer selection guaranteed to zest up any average or extraordinary day in southwest Colorado.

“We wanted to feature the food we like to eat,” Connie Tolle said. “It’s pub fare with a little something special.”

Owner Dave Tolle polished his food and beverage skills in the 1980s, catering concerts for rockstars like Sting and Eddie Van Halen. In 1992, during a stint in Las Vegas, he directed a banquet for Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, and 4,000 of her guests. To pull off the five-course extravaganza, Tolle’s catering company posted a citywide request for reinforcements.

Connie, then a blackjack dealer in Vegas, answered the call. She and Dave met, married, and had two kids. All the while, they dreamed and schemed about the restaurant they would open together someday. After Connie’s father passed away last year in Farmington, where Connie grew up, the couple moved back to the area to be closer to Connie’s mother. They figured it was time to make good on their goal to open a restaurant.

“We’re a comfortable place for the community to gather, affordable enough that you could return with your family every week,” Connie said. “We want to be flexible and provide what the community needs, from a snack before a play or football game or a destination for prom dinner.”

After more than three decades in the hospitality industry, Connie and Dave are passionate about creating and maintaining a healthy work environment for their team.

“People don’t understand how hard the restaurant industry is on workers,” Connie said. “Many hospitality personnel are homeless or hungry; that’s offensive. We aim to take care of our people as much as we can. All employees get meals before and after shifts, and as we grow, we plan to offer health insurance and retirement planning options. Why can’t serving food to people be a career that provides for a family?”

Connie and Dave’s commitment to supporting their staff is reflected in how Chef Hatem runs the back of the house.

“A healthy kitchen revolves around flexibility, open communication, and a willingness to learn and not think you know everything,” Hatem said. “I want to see my colleagues excel. There will always be stress, but I try to remember why we’re here: to make people smile.”

Hatem and her sister Gina grew up near Columbus, Ohio, with their mother, who loved cooking creamy potatoes, homemade noodles, and “the world’s best egg sandwich” for the girls. When they were at their father’s, the girls savored Middle Eastern cuisine, passed down from his parents and grandparents who migrated to the States from Egypt and Lebanon. Hatem and Gina would set the table for Sunday dinners while their grandfather, Henry, prepared his secret spaghetti sauce or lamb stew with Hungarian peppers.

“Talking and laughing around the table at Sunday dinners shaped my passion for cooking,” Hatem said. “And that sense of family drives me every day.”

After high school, Hatem had to pass on a college soccer scholarship for financial reasons and got her first job in professional cooking when she was 18. She spent more than a decade traveling the country with mobile catering gigs and learning from chefs nationwide before accepting the sous chef position at the renowned City O’ City restaurant in Denver. When the Public House 701 opportunity materialized, she moved to Durango with her partner, Kristy, and Kristy’s 10-year-old daughter, Annabelle.

From fixing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for Annabelle to crafting one of her signature sauces for Public House 701, Hatem puts her heart into every morsel. Even when the restaurant is busy, she’ll take time to chat with tables and has no problem accommodating dishes to meet any dietary need or food allergy. The seasonal menu celebrates crowd-pleasers, including deviled eggs, a wedge salad with charred tomatoes, and Southwest classics with a twist, like the Four Corners green chili-blended burger or vegetarian cauliflower tacos. One ingredient flows through all of Hatem’s creations: “I put love into every dish,” she said. “You never know what kind of day people are having. I hope if someone’s had a bad day, they’re open to an experience that could change their mood. My philosophy is that you take the first bite with your eyes. Then, they’ll take that real first bite and find comfort. I love the look on their faces when they try something extra delicious.”

Public House 701 (701 East 2nd Avenue in downtown Durango) is open Tuesday through Saturday 4-10 p.m. with Happy Hour from 4-6 p.m. and live music Thursday through Saturday evenings.

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