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Joe Vostrejs and his army are out to conquer Denver

Spring storms. Swine flu. The complete collapse of the capitalist experiment. Fuck it: Nothing seems to stop Denver's restaurateurs. They take in stride world events that would have most big-city entrepreneurs, moneymen and chefs hiding under their beds. Sure, their plans may get delayed — but their places still open.

At 5 p.m. on May 18, we'll finally see TAG, the quasi-eponymous restaurant by Troy Atherton Guard at 1441 Larimer Street that's been in the planning stages so long it already has a press history longer than its menu. When he left his partnership with Sullivan Restaurant Group two years ago, Guard was already talking about a restaurant of his own. There were concepts bandied about, spaces discussed. But it wasn't until Guard hooked up with Joe Vostrejs and Joe's Army (my new designation for Vostrejs's deep well of partners, designers, real-estate pros and associated tradesmen) that something real started to take shape.

It was Vostrejs who first brought Richard Sandoval (Tamayo, La Sandia, Zengo) to Denver almost a decade ago — and it was Sandoval who brought Guard back from Singapore (where he was cooking at the storied Raffles Hotel) when he needed a talented, Latino-Asian, PacRim cook to handle daily ops at Zengo. After Guard's stint there ended, he and Vostrejs stayed in touch, and they started talking in earnest when Guard left Sullivan and Nine75. "We'd been talking about doing something for a while," Vostrejs explained. "And finally, we just decided, 'Let's do it in Larimer Square.'"

That was close to a year ago, and the original opening date was an optimistic February 1. "I think there were a couple things that complicated it," Vostrejs told me. The first was the tricky location, which involved combining real estate that had been a retail space (Square One) with some that had been a club (Slim 7). There were complications with construction (gas meters that had to be installed, a portion of the street that had to be torn up, work on the building's facade). And Guard also had to pare down his original design that "blew the budget by a factor of two," according to Vostrejs. For all the good work that Guard has done in Denver — and he has done a lot of good work — TAG is essentially his first restaurant, the only one he's been in charge of from the start. And Joe's Army aside, any chef will tell you: The minute it's your name above the door, it's a whole new ballgame.

But now Guard has his staff and menu together, the space is getting its final buff-and-polish, and Vostrejs is happy with the result. "You know, I walked through the space yesterday," he told me last Thursday, "and it feels like a restaurant out of, like, New York or Chicago. It has this great, tight, urban feel. I'm excited."

As am I. I'm always excited to see what a chef can do his first time out — even if that chef already has a dozen or so restaurants behind him.

Vostrejs has also partnered with Ben and Tom Jacobs at Tocabe (3598 West 44th Avenue), the native American fast-casual spot I reviewed three weeks ago that's doing so well they're already looking for other locations. "We're actively out there trying to find another space," Vostrejs confirmed. "We'd like to do something in downtown Denver." Maybe on Colfax by the new Justice Center, maybe on the 16th Street Mall, maybe down at the University of Denver. But they won't go further afield than that. "The family has made a commitment to not do suburban locations yet," Vostrejs explained, mostly because the Jacobses are concerned with keeping Tocabe authentic. And if they started sprinkling outlets all over the 'burbs, Tocabe would look like something conceived in a boardroom, a machine made for taking in cash on one end and spitting out Navajo tacos at the other.

"Building restaurants is easy," Vostrejs said. It's running them — and running them right — that's hard.

Vostrejs is also involved with the former North Star Brewery space, at 3200 Tejon Street, where he and Sean Kelly (yeah, that Sean Kelly) will open LoHi Steakbar in June — although Vostrejs doesn't know when in June. "We have all the hard stuff out of the way," he told me — all the plumbing, the electric, the inspections. The rest is just "finishing work" — little things like walls and furniture.

And Vostrejs promises he has still more projects in the works — he just can't talk about them yet.

Leftovers: The last few days have seen a couple of big openings. Argyll, Robert Thompson's gastropub, opened in the former home of the Squealing Pig, at 2700 East Third Avenue, on April 30. Both Otto's Grill and Pho on 6th opened May 1. And Olivea made its debut May 4 at 719 East 17th Avenue, the space previously occupied by Aix. Duo owners Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin and Duo back-of-the-house team John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom paired on the Olivea project, turning the restaurant around in just two months.

And finally, Jet Entertainment Group has Pizza Republica slated to open in the Landmark project in Greenwood Village on May 8.

 
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