Underneath two screens broadcasting Man v. Food and the Stanley Cup, a beer-sipping man in a blue tracksuit chats across the bar with the bartender. At 5 pm on a Thursday, it may be happy hour, but this is no sports bar. An elderly couple from Baltimore leans across a corner table over an appetizer that looks like an ice cream sundae, if not for the guacamole, while a chef chops tomatoes behind a counter behind them. Adjacent, a Floridian lounges by the ceiling-length wall of windows, a binder and a carton containing a cupcake saved for later across from her.

Melissa Windsel's never been to Elevation Bistro (103 E Water St., 820-0363) before. In lieu of standing and taking her order, server John Herrera sits down across the table and helps her decide. After dismissing barbecue chicken and New York strip, she settles on the house-smoked baby back ribs slathered with chile glaze and rosemary balsamic barbecue sauce.

Moments later, she's talking to SFR between bites of warm spinach salad, sprinkled with pecans, grilled pear and balsamic vinaigrette. "This is one of the best places I've been," Windsel says. High praise from someone who is sometimes in a different city every day with her job traveling around the country with an education company.

Elevation's co-owner Lane Sanders would be glad to hear that. After seven years working in the industry as a cook, busser, manager and bartender, and eating at the location, formerly the late-night haunt Atomic Grill, since middle school, he's fulfilled a dream as a first-time restaurant owner.

"There's something about being together with your family, your friends and having a good meal," he says. "I want the locals to feel comfortable, you know, coming in here. And I want it to be kind of like a homey atmosphere."'

Catering to people in the service industry is one of the reasons why Elevation stays open until 11 pm daily, Sanders points out.

"A lot of the bartenders, servers, chefs, whatever, they don't get out until 9 or 10 o' clock. So if there's a place for them to relax and hang their hat, then, you know, why not?" he says. "We slow down from about 8 to 9; 9:30 to when we close—it's packed. There's a wait sometimes at 11 o' clock."

Many are waiting for one of head chef Andres Portugues Castro's specials, which he changes three or four times a week. When I first visited, I ordered the day's trout reduction with chimichurri sauce, sautéed carrots and kale and saffron rice ($20).

"He puts his heart and soul into these dishes," Sanders says. "He'll watch a plate go out to the table and he'll stand there and watch and see the reaction from the people when they look at him, when they eat it. First bite."

For me, the trout was OK, moist but nothing special, and the garlic butter sauce for the couscous felt a little heavy, but the incredible chimichurri sauce made up for it all. If more nutritionally advisable, I could have eaten a whole plate full of that tangy green paste of herbs, garlic and vinegar.

For dessert, I enjoyed a chocolate bread pudding with cajeta ($8). Even with a cake covered in caramelized and sweetened condensed goat's milk, the vanilla bean ice cream served alongside was the best part.

My next visit, I ordered the grilled orange barbecue chicken, Sanders' favorite, with a sliver of loaded baked potato and jícama mango slaw ($14). The chicken was everything I wanted it to be—sweet, flavorful after being marinated in rosemary and garlic—and the slaw's bell peppers and jícama provided a crunchy complement.

I topped off the meal with a tray of their artisanal Japanese sake flight ($10), which was actually the first item sold when the restaurant opened. After sampling the three flavors, I could see why. They enliven an alcohol list that is otherwise pretty standard.

While Elevation's food is at least decent and sometimes extraordinary, the reason to eat there is the workers' hospitality. It's the type of place where customers get dessert on the house if the kitchen's moving a bit slow and wait staff make flustered customers laugh and sit down across the table from people who've never visited before.

Windsel, for one, will return. She comes to Santa Fe three or four times a year and usually tries to visit a different restaurant every time. For Elevation, she may make an exception.

"This is my first time here," she says, "but it won't be my last."