A ghost of a chance for Lala's
I'd heard about Transalpin, the groundbreaking restaurant that moved into 410 East Seventh Avenue (current home of Lala's) almost three decades ago, because Robert Tournier ran it, and Tournier, who's had Le Central for 23 years now, is still very much a part of the Denver scene.
And of course I'd heard about Sacre Bleu, favored watering hole of some of the city's hippest, richest and most blown-out show ponies. I didn't get to eat there, snort lines off the mirrored tables or cavort disreputably in the men's room, though; Sacre Blow (as it was colloquially known) opened in early 2000 and went dark during my first or second week on this job. But it lives on in raucous tales of Denver's seedy restaurant history, and has always seemed a place better loved in the recollection than it ever was while operating.
I actually got to experience Vega, the restaurant owned by Michael Payne (who'd sorta inherited Sacre Bleu from his wife, Julie, when she became his ex-wife, and hung on to the space after it was the ex-Sacre Bleu) and run by Sean Yontz in his pre-Jesse Morreale partnership days, when he was just out from under the thumb of Kevin Taylor at his places and Richard Sandoval at Tamayo and looking to make a name for himself with the town's first good Nuevo Latino restaurant. Vega had great albondigas, fantastic tamales, a lovely room with starched white tablecloths and gleaming glassware and frosty gold-and-white decor — but it closed after eighteen months. Today it represents a kind of high-water mark for Denver's fine dining in the early 2000s — a tideline, the point to which the waters had risen, then slowly started to roll back. Vega was an amazing restaurant in its time; in its death throes, it became almost legendary because it was the place that almost broke Yontz, which drove him very publicly out of fine dining and into the tacos-and-shots world of Mezcal, effectively capping this city's flirtation with high-end fusion that began (some might claim) two decades earlier at Transalpin, in this very same place. Full circle.
Except that the circle wasn't done yet, because the space itself — scene now of multiple closures — was too well-placed to stay dark for long. Sparrow came next, bought into by Nancy and Mark Scruggs, with the kitchen under the thumb of Josh Botsford, a respected veteran chef out of Boston. I remember Sparrow well because I loathed it more than almost any other restaurant in the city. No need to mince words: Sparrow was awful. Lazy, dumb and muddled cuisine, a floor staff so vapid that they all could've been killed like lemmings had I thrown a shiny ball of tin foil out in the street, and a vibe that was like forever showing up at the wrong after-party — a room full (almost always full...) of suckers and rubes and also-rans wanting badly to feel like they were somewhere when, truly, they were nowhere at all. And yet, somehow, Sparrow even managed to expand, opening a cafe/market a block away, at 701 Grant Street.
I remember Sparrow for so many reasons — for a half-dozen or more hateful visits; for the decor that I'd initially thought an improvement over the cold grandeur of Vega, with its open kitchen and rearranged floor, but quickly came to loathe for its generic rusticity (all bare tables and pea greens and dark woods) and frigid pseudo-warmth. I remember the clutching panic of sitting at the bar, surrounded by mobs of dimwit foodies who thought they'd really discovered something with Sparrow, all jawing and screeching at each other with delight, and thinking that this was what my city had been reduced to; that this swampy, retarded cross-section of Denver's dining public was all that was left.
It wasn't, thank God. It was just an anomaly, a freaky spike on the foodie radar. Both Sparrows closed early last year — first the restaurant, then the market — leaving two openings (one big, one teensy) in highly visible spots in a restaurant neighborhood that's never gotten as much respect as it ought to. I mean, think about it. Along this stretch of Seventh, we've got Mizuna and Luca d'Italia, Benny's, the Lancer Lounge, Racines, Govnr's Park, Lala's and now Bones, which took over the Sparrow Market space. That's eight joints, serving food that runs the gamut from gourmet pizza to high-tone Italian to smothered burritos to noodles. Taken all together, they provide a tiny culinary history of Denver being played out in the real world every night, from the thirty-year neighborhood veteran (Govnr's) to the stable grownup (Mizuna) to their kids (Lala's and Bones); from the complete non-dive (Racines) to the unapologetic Colorado-Mexican half-dive (Benny's) to a real dive like the Lancer (stiff drinks, dirt cheap and no bullshit — and no kitchen at the moment, either, since the Lancer is currently without a cook).
Denver has other strong restaurant neighborhoods — in Highland and on Broadway and along Sixth and 17th avenues — but none are this condensed and wide-ranging at the same time. None are as disparate. And none are quite so cool.
Leftovers: No sooner had I offered a half-dozen places in town to drink Guinness — an antidote to the January 8 Bite Me about Irish bars — than one of those places closed. Say so long — for now, at least — to the Auld Dubliner, which has closed its doors at 2796 South Broadway.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.