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I have now been to 250 Josephine Street more times than I can count.
250 Josephine St.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
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Ceviche, three ways: $11
Tuna nachos: $9
Tuna: $20< br>Duck: $22
Pork chops: $18
Achiote lamb: $25
The address was predestined to fascinate me. As Papillon, it was ground zero (one of the ground zeros, at least) for Denver at its height of pre-millennium excess: a jumping-and-jiving bastion of high-tone, big-money weirdness with more action going down in the bathrooms than at the bar. Papillon was Radek Cerny's restaurant, was Radek at the top of his game, was Radek squared. The food was French by way of Venus, and the scene was like that R.E.M. song: "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)."
Papillon closed shortly after I moved to Denver -- not that you read about it in my column that week. One of the most important restaurants in the city, the biggest closing of the year (which in time would prove to be small potatoes as big address after big address went dark), and I'd missedit? My editor screamed, called my journalistic judgment and skills as a reporter into question. I reminded her that I wasn't any fucking reporter, I was a food writer (I thought they were different things at the time), and what did I care if a bunch of brat Creekers had lost their favorite Jack-and-Coke(aine) watering hole? And chef Radek who?
I almost quit my new job over that. Obviously, I didn't. I learned a few things instead, educated myself about the Denver dining scene before my arrival. You know how they say childhood trauma sticks with you the longest? Same goes for new-job trauma. I've been obsessed with 250 Josephine Street ever since.
Papillon out, Indigo in. I loved Indigo. Sometimes it seemed like I was the only one. My review of the place was a love letter to chef-driven restaurants and culinary suicide missions and the unusual comforts some guys can find in the strictures of the French brigade system. It was about streetfighters of cuisine -- guys like Indigo's chef Ian Kleinman and Ben Alandt, his sous -- who'd walk into anything, no matter how bad the odds, and just keep swinging until they were down or everyone else was. They had some dishes on that menu that no one but another chef or a certifiable lunatic would pay real money for, some other dishes that were so good I pity anyone who never got the chance to taste their freaked-out genius.
Indigo failed hard, and owner Larry Herz switched it out for Go Fish Grille, Indigo's evil twin -- a restaurant that was all about commerce, with no room for art, and looked like a stage set for Finding Nemo on Ice. Because life isn't fair and because the restaurant industry is cruel and merciless, Go Fish did all right for a while. Then it did even better. Then it vanished like it had never been.
"What, do they have a dead gypsy buried in the basement or something?" my friend Matt asks as we pull the car into the parking lot that's been 250 Josephine's most consistent asset. Four restaurants in four years is a tough run for any address, and I'd been giving him the grim history on our way over to the newest occupant: Tula, which opened with the new year, a few months after Go Fish went dark.
The curse of 250 Josephine is Tula's problem now. It's chef-owner Chris Douglas's problem, and his wife's. But it's also a bit of a problem for me, because if there's a center of my personal Denver dining experience that's not the Breakfast King, it's 250 Josephine, this metaphoric black hole at the dog-leg end of Cherry Creek that sucks in hopes and dreams and time and love and money (lots and lots of money) and gives back nothing but heartbreak. I know this building better than any in the city besides my house and my office. I know its kitchen, the smell of its dish room, the way its steam tables and prep tables and stubby, European-style hot line are arranged. I've drunk beers in its office with Kleinman, done shots with the traveling New York food press at its bar. Walking down the sidewalk past the picture windows with their potted plants obscuring the view of the interior, I go up on tiptoes to see how the crowd looks.
"Slow night," I mutter, and Matt nods.
"Shouldn't have trouble getting a table," he says.
With everything I know about 250 Josephine, I also know its finances. Rent-plus-parking lot, buildout, overhead, a skeleton crew of nine, maybe ten, just to keep the place going even on a slow night, and an artificially deflated price point that's necessary to remain competitive when everybody and their mother is banging out chicken mole and salmon in poblano cream. The menu at Tula is Mexican, high-end, market-corrected by Douglas in his first few weeks to cater to the crowd he was drawing, if not the crowd he'd expected. As it turns out, people come to Tula to dine, to have something special. And Douglas delivers, but the wrap on those kinds of dishes -- the food costs above and beyond the center-plate protein, starch and veg -- is murder. Organic greens, huitlacoche, blood oranges, epazote oil to lace the posole blanco and the pink papaya for the salmon ceviche: These things do not come cheap. Just to cover the nut, Tula has to do eighty covers a day on weekdays, double that on weekends to make up for Monday and Tuesday shortfalls.
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