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Bite Me

A Square Deal

 Dean was the son of a wino, one of the most tottering bums on Larimer Street, and Dean had in fact been brought up generally on Larimer Street and thereabouts. He used to plead in court at the age of six to have his father set free. He used to beg in front of Larimer alleys and sneak money back to his father, who waited among the broken bottles with an old buddy. -- Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Ah, the good ol' days. Neal Cassady (Dean) stealing cars and banging high school girls. Jack Kerouac stumbling along with the whiskey leg, a head full of benzedrine and "the most wicked grin of joy in the world." Back fifty, sixty years ago, grand-theft auto, statutory rape and alcoholism were all part of a fine Saturday night in Denver, especially among the "old bums and beat cowboys of Larimer Street." It was one of Denver's earliest commercial areas, later became the heart of skid row, and today remains the site of some of the city's most memorable landmarks. The elegant Manhattan Restaurant survived fifty years at 1635 Larimer, and the Citizen's Mission, where young Cassady ate most of his meals, had a space right down the street, at 1617.

But time will change a place as surely as it will change a person, and unless Neal was back in town looking for a Vespa or Kerouac for a cucumber salt-scrub facial mask at the Body Shop, there isn't much left for the boys in their old stamping ground.

Location Info

Map

Ted's Montana Grill

1401 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Downtown Denver

Samba Room

1460 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202

Category: Restaurant > Seafood

Region: Downtown Denver

Tamayo

1400 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Downtown Denver

The Capital Grille

1450 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Downtown Denver

That there's anything left at all is thanks to visionary urban developer Dana Crawford, who in the 1960s saved an entire block of Victorian buildings in the 1400 block of Larimer that otherwise would have been demolished, just like the buildings in the blocks to the east. She turned what had been skid row into Larimer Square, a tourist destination that boasted such exotic eateries as the now-long-gone Magic Pan and Bratskellar, as well as Josephina's. By the time the block became the property of a group of partners headed by Jeff Hermanson, it was catering to tourists and locals alike with a mix of retail shops like Ann Taylor and Talbot's, along with restaurants like Mexicali Cafe, the Market, Cadillac Ranch and, yes, Josephina's. Joe Vostrejs, who in 1996 became general manager of Larimer Square Management, launched the next attempt to revitalize this block -- and eight years later, what a block it is.

Larimer Square on a Saturday night is now the city that Denver really wants to be in its deepest heart of hearts: a dense commercial stretch of big-name restaurants, bars and retail shops packed with happy locals and a smattering of tourists, all stumbling around with their wallets open, glare-blind from the bright lights of commerce. With lines out the door at Ted's Montana Grill, music drifting out of the Samba Room, passersby stopping to peek through the windows of Tamayo and valets chatting amiably with parties waiting on tables at the Capital Grille, Larimer Square seems one-half Parisian boulevard and one-half idealized Woody Allen Manhattan street scene played against a backdrop of old Denver made new again.

At least, that's how it felt one Saturday in April after I finished my meal at Bistro Vendome and wandered, full and happy, down a block alive with light and noise, surprised at how much of Denver's nightlife had become so concentrated in such a small place. The week before, Larimer Square was different. Next week, it'll be different again.

"The thing is, it's always a work in progress," Vostrejs says. "You're never done. And just when I think, 'Okay, that's it,' David will come to me with this great new idea, and I'll see that Larimer Square will never be done."

"David" is David Levine of Real Estate FX, a Dallas-based firm specializing in pedestrian malls, shopping plazas and the like, who was brought into the Larimer Square project as a consultant in 1999 and has been here ever since. "In some ways, Larimer Square was having a little bit of a heyday," Vostrejs remembers. "It was kind of a little oasis in downtown. But then restaurants started opening at an alarming rate in LoDo. We really suffered because of the hundreds and hundreds of seats that were suddenly available." And not only were there new restaurants in LoDo and by Coors Field, but at the Denver Pavilions. Meanwhile, suburban strip and shopping malls started opening outlets of retail shops once unique to Larimer. Says Vostrejs: "We had to ask ourselves, 'How are we going to make it?' Suddenly our restaurants were the oldest restaurants around, and our retail business was being duplicated everywhere. So we started in on this plan."

First, he says, "David started off by telling the owner that all his restaurants have to go." So all those places -- restaurants and retail businesses alike -- that Hermanson and his company had a stake in? Gone. Levine told the owners that not just locals, but tourists were becoming more savvy. They no longer wanted to see just another mall, just another Cheesecake Factory, but something unique. "David would say, 'Everything's the same no matter where you go,'" Vostrejs says. "So when tourists go to a city, they now want to find the place that's really different, that says ŒThis is Denver.'" And if the tourists were looking for something with a local flavor and the locals were looking for something with a local flavor, Levine told them, then shouldn't that be the primary goal in any revitalization?

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