By Jonathan Shikes
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I'd intended to waste the bulk of this column on a vain, poorly researched, smarty-pants essay about the cuisine of the '80s and Denver's best practitioners thereof — but then actual news had to happen and wreck my plans.
Remember just seventeen days ago, when things seemed relatively tranquil? Well, that was the past, baby. The distant past. Because then the stock market crashed and even seasoned traders were going all Mad Max, looking to put their money in canned food and shotguns. (No joke. Two of the stocks that did reasonably well on September 29, Black Monday, were Campbell's Soup, which ticked up while everything else was cratering, and Sturm, Ruger, which manufactures shotguns, among other things, and was showing gains by October 1.)
Here in Denver on Black Monday, Jim Sullivan closed the final two properties of the Sullivan Restaurant Group: Nine75 at 975 Lincoln Street, and Ocean in Cherry Creek. And that same day, he met with former SRG loyalist George Eder and his new partners at Jet Entertainment Group, and Jet decided to buy Nine75. It reopened last Friday with new chef Jose Guerrero (ex of Ocean and Aqua, right down the block at 925 Lincoln), the same name and Nine75's original concept: rock-and-roll comfort food.
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And just as Sullivan once had eyes on an empire spanning city, 'burbs and multiple concepts, so, too, does the Jet set. They've already got Jet Hotel at 1612 Wazee Street (which used to be Luna Hotel — a historic meltdown in its own right), where they recently added Twenty — a subterranean, members-only club that requires a $500 annual membership fee, perfect for this day and age when guys who used to have that kind of money are now standing by off ramps on I-25 flying signs saying WILL MANAGE HEDGE FUNDS FOR FOOD. Plans are also in the works for XO, an Asian restaurant for normal people, which is going into a space being added at the back of the hotel. And last month, as Jon Solomon reported last week in Bar Back, Jet picked up two of the three Purple Martini spaces; the group will turn the Greenwood Village club into Jet South, with an opening set for December. Meanwhile, on October 30, Jet will open Wicked Garden, a rock-and-roll-themed bar/club, in the former home of Open Bar at 1403 Larimer Street.
Sound crazy? Fuckin' A right, it is. "You know me," Eder said. "I'm nuts." But, hey — at least we'll all have somewhere to drink martinis and eat potstickers when the rest of America finally devolves into some kind of post-apocalyptic, Beyond Thunderdome-style future where Tina Turner rules Bartertown and everyone wears hockey pads out to dinner.
As if the Jet takeover wasn't enough action for that block, word came down last week that Aqua was closing. Right now. That surprised precisely no one; really, the bigger question was how the place held on as long as it did. Jay Chadrom, who's locked in a battle with Aqua's landlords at the Beauvallon, keeping at least some lawyers gainfully employed during the downturn, announced that he's offering the entire Aqua menu at Opal, his restaurant across the street at 100 East Ninth — which should be a cinch, considering that anything on Aqua's menu that needed to be cooked was already cooked at Opal (since Aqua operated without a kitchen of its own, working on portable butane burners and toaster ovens). Unfortunately, the last time I ate at Opal — once one of the best restaurants in the city — it was awful. As soon as things settle down, I'll make another visit to see whether there's been some kind of miraculous turnaround. But I'm not holding out much hope — not for that restaurant, not for Wall Street.
Arrivederci, Valente's: After 44 years, Valente's Italian Restaurant closed Monday following a combination Columbus Day/retirement party for owner Ray Valente. But this closure had nothing to do with economics; it was simply time for Ray to step down. Both of his sons, Mark and Ray Jr., have careers, and they didn't want to put a manager in charge of what had always been a family joint. "A lot of people have used the word 'bittersweet'," Mark said. "My dad's almost 84. It was just good to be able to do this by our own choice."
The family announced the impending closure to their staff two weeks out, and asked their people to stay around until the final service. That's something Jim Sullivan told me couldn't possibly work in the restaurant industry — insisting that if he'd told his staff that he was closing his restaurants, the whole bunch of them would have immediately walked out. And while that may be the case for an owner whose staff doesn't like or doesn't trust him, it worked just fine for the Valentes. Although one member of the crew found another gig before the last day rolled around and another had to cut back to part-time, the rest were there right until the lights went out. As Mark told me, "One of our guys, a young guy, said, 'No. I'm staying with you 'til the end. This was my first job, and I'm staying.'"