By Gretchen Kurtz
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On its very first day of business, Limón was a hit, a force to be reckoned with on 17th Avenue.
Actually, from before its first day, because -- as is the habit lately -- Limón opened very soft, for friends and family, with no flags or fanfare, just an unlocked door and all the lights on. These days were technically tests for both the floor and the kitchen. And what tests: first night, 120 covers; next, 180. By the time Limón officially opened last July, there were lines at the door and eager would-be diners packed into the bar like sardines in a tin.
I've seen openings of larger, grander and more spectacular restaurants come off with all the excitement of a pauper's funeral, others so over-hyped that anything short of a personal appearance by God or Bocuse to bless the crabcakes and love up the Garlands would've been a disappointment. But success came to Limón overnight, seemingly effortlessly. The crowds didn't see all the behind-the-scenes exertions as chef/ owner Alex Gurevich (who also owns Cafe Bisque in Lakewood) and crew worked like crazy on menus, design and decor, battling with customs authorities to get their stock and supplies into the country.
1618 E. 17th Ave.
Denver, CO 80218
Region: Central Denver
Chicharrón de pollo: $7
Causa limena: $7.50
Langostino cebiche: $8
Atún con tacu tacu: $17
Lomo saltado: $15
Aji de gallina: $13
Arroz con pato: $17
Those battles highlight one of the reasons that Limón's early takeoff was so surprising. Gurevich's chosen cuisine -- Novoandino, an iteration of modern immigrant Peruvian food that he acquired a taste for on several trips to South America and that remains a rarity today even in the most cutting-edge North American restaurant cities -- wasn't exactly tame or easily approached. Had Gurevich been giving away free pie and balloons, I could've understood the crushing, very nearly overwhelming hit he and his guys were taking. But he was offering tabule de cereals andinos; cold, ring-molded mashed potatoes; green-mango langostino cebiche; Chinese/Peruvian lomo with yellow chiles. I've been playing with food for many, many years, and even I didn't know what half the stuff was.
And it's not like there's a dearth of dining options in the area. Seventeenth Avenue has become an unusually cosmopolitan stretch, where anyone with a few bucks and an appetite can find nouvelle Vietnamese and Chinese, jumped-up Mexican, lowbrow Mexican, New American, Old American and all-time American. With a lineup like that, you'd think nouvelle Peruvian wouldn't be such a draw.
Still, during those first few weeks, I received regular phone calls from Limón's manager, updating me on how shocked he and Gurevich and everyone else was at the reception their little Novoandino place was getting. And while I was talking to him, I was doing recon at Limón myself -- first talking to people who'd waited an hour at the bar just for the chance at a table, then scouting the floor, arriving early so I could slip in without having to fight the crowds, giving up my table to the first rush as soon as it started to pour in.
The main floor, at maximum capacity, seats two dozen; a large, rough-cut community table placed uncomfortably in the lane between the kitchen and the floor adds another six or eight tops to the count. Patio seating adds still more. But by a quirk of architecture -- which may have been deliberate, though I can't think of why -- the bar-lounge/waiting area on the left of the room occupies about as much real estate as the main dining floor. This adds six bar stools and a couple of armchairs to the available seating, but these are almost immediately spoken for by those waiting for proper tables. Limón is operating just a few inches on the good side of teensy, which helps explain those early lines.
Small and weird and uncommon and devilishly crowded at its peak is not a standard recipe for wild restaurant success. By all rights, Limón should have imploded after about three months, collapsing into a supernova of fava beans, fried plantains and designer shoes. The crew should have cracked, the chef should have broken, and the customers -- sensing disaster -- should have fled.
Instead, it took just over a month.
Following that huge opening, the counts collapsed. And suddenly, rather than doing five, sometimes five and a half turns of a 36-seat room, Limón was doing one. The 200-cover nights dropped to sixty, to forty, bottoming out as fall turned to winter and the patio was closed for the season.
It was the best thing that could have happened.
Maybe not for Gurevich, who had not only his money, but his reputation and passion tied up on 17th Avenue. The manager who'd been so happy in his early reports of killer numbers became somewhat scarce, no longer calling with weekly updates. And I'm sure the kitchen and floor staff were a bit heartbroken, having become accustomed to big money, big waits and big nights, night after night after night.
But here's the thing: Limón was dying at 200 covers. The service was either rushed or exhausted, the potentially interesting food suffering from the grind of constancy, the strain of a five-turn repetition turning what should've been tight plates into muddled puddles of starch and protein and sauce. All of the elements were there, but the soul was gone, drained away by the nightly battle on the floor.