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For Venue's Holly Hartnett, a room of her own

For two years, Holly Hartnett worked the floor as a manager at Table 6 (609 Corona Street) and dreamed of a place of her own. She'd inspected space after space after space, but there were problems with all of them. Actually, there was the same problem with all of them: They needed to be built out or so seriously rehabbed that they were out of her price range.

She was at a meeting with contractors talking about yet another space when her broker told her about an address that had just come open: 3609 West 32nd Avenue, the spot that Scott Durrah was leaving in order to open 8 Rivers at 1550 Blake Street in LoDo (see this week's Second Helping). It was small, which was ideal for a first restaurant. It was a sublet, with Durrah basically walking away from a going operation. The kitchen was there, as was a small dining room. And it was in Highland — a neighborhood that Hartnett loved. She was ready to sign.

Then, of course, one of her investors walked away (he didn't like the space that she already loved), and Hartnett needed some green. Fast. "I was scrambling," she remembers. "Obviously, I got the money, but..."

But it wasn't fun and it wasn't easy, and even once she got the deal done and signed on the dotted line on October 6, the next part wasn't easy, either. She had to turn the space in just over a month, opening up the kitchen and giving the dining room (a tiny thing, capable of seating maybe thirty people) a makeover. "A lot of cosmetics," Hartnett explains. Or, more to the point, taking off a lot of the cosmetics. She wanted a room that was clean and pure — something that 8 Rivers definitely was not. "The most interesting things should be the person across the table from you and the food on the plate," she says. "We're not here to entertain anybody."

Hearing that, I melt just a little, because Hartnett is a chef after my own heart — one who understands that the most important thing is what's on the table, not what's on the walls or on the floors or in the bathrooms. I mean, I can be charmed by decor as much as the next guy (I fell head over heels for Beatrice & Woodsley, for example), but I truly love a chef who is brave enough to serve with no cover, nothing to hide behind. Wayne Conwell is like that at Sushi Sasa, where his room is a blank canvas. Super Star Asian is like that — just a big box with tables and chairs and food in it. And now Holly Hartnett is like that at Venue, which I review this week.

So after two years of searching, one stroke of good luck in finding Durrah's now-ex space and one stroke of bad in losing the money she needed to make it her own, she finally had her spot. Hartnett opened Venue's doors on November 12.

And no one showed up.

"It was tough," she admits. "Word wasn't getting out."

Hartnett knew tough: When she was younger, she'd fallen in love and run off to Florence, Italy, where she taught English and washed dishes in a local restaurant, working her way up from the pit to pastry and from pastry to the floor (once she finally mastered the language). After three years, though, the romance fell apart and she came back to the States. Her first gig after landing in Denver (excepting two training shifts at a local Italian restaurant that she won't even name) was at Restaurant Kevin Taylor, one of the best restaurants in this city. While there, she enrolled in culinary school, even though she didn't particularly want to learn how to cook. Or, at least, not only how to cook. "I never wanted to be a chef," Hartnett says. "I just wanted to know how to do everything. I've known so many owners who didn't even know how to work the coffeemaker."

From there, she moved to a floor manager's job at the Beehive, a little spot at 609 Corona Street. When the guys from Adega bought the Beehive, she didn't feel like leaving; she came with the building, she says. While the new owners were making the changeover to Table 6 (and battling over liquor licenses and the delineation of who owned what), Hartnett killed time working the floor at Adega. But when Table 6 finally opened, it was busy from the start.

Not so Venue. Hartnett had wanted to open quiet — to just unlock the doors and see what happened. When nothing happened, she got worried and did something she swore she'd never do: She hired a PR person. This helped, but didn't really work magic (I don't remember seeing a single press release), and Venue didn't really find its crowd until Tucker Shaw, my compadre at the Denver Post, heaped on the love in a review a couple weeks back. "It was like a switch flipping," Hartnett tells me. 

The day I visited was the first Sunday that Venue had opened its doors at 11 a.m. and been crowded straight through to close, no break, no breathers. The kitchen started running out of food that night; it was that unexpected. And when I called Venue to talk to Hartnett last Thursday, I called at noon, thinking she'd just be starting to ramp up, handling a couple of tables. But no. She chased me off the phone in about five seconds, proclaiming, "I'm in the middle of my lunch rush here!" I waited three hours and caught her pre-dinner. And even then she was busy. "I'm sorry," she told me. "I'm just so overwhelmed here."

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