Friday is catfish day at Caro's Corner (see review, page 71), where five bucks will net you a dozen nuggets. Besides burgers and the odd order of fries, catfish is the only thing that Jeffrey and Linda Patterson -- Caro's cooks, owners and sole employees -- offer on their menu. And while that's more than enough when the burgers and catfish are good, it got me thinking that Denver is otherwise sadly deficient in the Southern-fried-catfish department. There's Pierre's Supper Club (2157 Downing Street) and Cafe Evangeline (30 South Broadway). There used to be Shead's Fish and BBQ Heaven at 15320 East Hampden Avenue in Aurora, but that closed to make way for a coffee bar, leaving only the original Shead's, at 1685 Peoria Street -- where the whiting and perch are better than the catfish, anyway.
And what of M&D's Bar-B-Que & Fish Palace (2004 East 28th Avenue)? The 26-year-old institution run by Mack and Daisy Shead (yes, they're related to the Aurora Sheads) has been closed for renovations for months -- but just last week, I learned that a new and improved M&D's will be open for business within the next two weeks.
New and improved? You can bet your last short rib on it. Thanks to the deep pockets of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, M&D's has received a whopping $1,093,000 worth of loans over the past twelve months for debt consolidation, renovation and expansion. And if that sounds like an awful lot of scratch, you're right. Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street), one of the most luxe joints in town, fixed up its LoDo space for less money than that. Indigo (250 Josephine Street), Vega (410 East Seventh Avenue) -- same thing. Most places -- even some very swank, white-tablecloth-and-custom-chairs kind of spots -- manage to decorate for less than $100,000. According to Bill Lysaught, MOED deputy director, the loan "was on the high end, but we've had others, and we've had bigger."
MOED has been approving loans for independent Denver businesses since 1978. It averages around thirty transactions a year, using federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development earmarked "specifically for low- and moderate-income neighborhoods," says Lysaught. "A lot of what we do is help create businesses that make neighborhoods more livable and attractive." These loans fund projects that are designed to eliminate urban blight (while a BBQ joint may not do that, exactly, BBQ certainly makes blight smell better), create jobs and expand existing businesses or attract new ones. "I have a lot of restaurants on my books," he adds, "because they are a big part of making neighborhoods more beautiful and livable."
Which is great, but that million-dollar loan still sounds like a big chunk of change.
"The condition of the building drove the size of this loan," Lysaught responds. "It was the complete renovation of 6,000 square feet." M&D's also purchased the former liquor store next door to double its number of seats, gutted and modernized the kitchen, added a deck and paid off six figures' worth of debt.
Again, that's great, but is it a million bucks' worth of great?
You have to look at MOED's history, Lysaught says. The agency loaned money to Imperial Chinese Restaurant (now at 431 South Broadway), helping to inspire the rebirth of that stretch of Broadway. It aided the expansion of El Noa Noa's 1920 Federal Boulevard location after its flagship restaurant, at 722 Santa Fe Drive, was such a success. And way back when, MOED even gave a six-figure boost to a young entrepreneur named John Hickenlooper when he needed some hard cash to start his first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Co. (1634 18th Street), in the days before the streets of LoDo were paved with gold (and frat-boy vomit).
While MOED's revolving-loan fund and neighborhood business revitalization program works like a bank -- requiring small-business owners to go through an application process that includes the approval of a business plan and the registering of land and property as collateral -- it actually prohibits MOED from making any loan that a bank might make on its own. "We run the program like a bank but lend to higher-risk clients," Lysaught says. "We say to the banks, 'Before you turn down Joe or Sally Doe, send them to us.'" And, of course, MOED's clients are "expected to repay the loans," he adds. "We actively pursue collections. And all that money goes back into the revolving loan fund."
Hey buddy, can you spare $25,000? Across town, a few of the businesses in the Platte Valley would like the loan fund to revolve their way, and also see the finish of the Millennium Bridge link between Platte Street and the 16th Street Mall. Construction delays have discouraged potential customers from visiting the area, they say. In fact, things got so rough that Regina Chavez y Sanchez, owner of La Taza Cafe and Market, 1550 Platte Street, turned to the Internet for help. She's soliciting donations on her Web site, www.savemybusiness.net, to keep her small coffee shop going. "I'm still praying that things will turn around," she says. "Things are still tough, but will we be staying open? Absolutely."
Chavez y Sanchez started the site as "a desperate plea for help" a couple of months ago, when things at the cafe were looking very grim. Rent was due, employees were working without pay, equipment needed replacing, and there simply wasn't enough money coming in.
"I didn't put my whole life savings into this to fail," says Chavez y Sanchez. "I did my research. There was supposed to be a lot more development here along Platte Street with the Millennium Bridge and walkway. That's never happened." The project, originally scheduled for completion in 2002, now won't be finished until 2006, at the earliest. "A lot of the things that have been promised to this area haven't been delivered," she continues, citing disagreements between the city and property managers over acceptable signage for businesses and the fact that meter rates in her neighborhood are the same as they are in Lodo: 25 cents for ten minutes.
While Chavez y Sanchez has considered selling (and has actively solicited potential buyers by e-mail), she insists that anyone who wanted to take over La Taza would have to be the right kind of person. "They would have to be dedicated to having an independent business," she says, and not just cruising for a spot to open another Starbucks or Capri Coffee Break.
In the meantime, employees are keeping the doors open, bringing in local theater groups and poetry readings to keep the customers coming, and trying to stay positive. While Chavez y Sanchez says she hasn't gotten the kind of response she'd hoped for from the Web site, an anonymous donor did give $5,500 to help cover back rent. "And we have been receiving a lot of help from our friends and neighbors," she adds. "We have been really blessed so far, and we're not giving up."
Leftovers: This past year has been a wild ride for local icon Kevin Taylor. His restaurant empire took some hits -- Dandelion went belly-up in November, and Nicois closed just after the clock struck midnight on January 1 -- but it's also earned some points, with the flagship Restaurant Kevin Taylor (1106 14th Street in the Hotel Teatro) listed in Food & Wine magazine's list of the top fifty hotel restaurants. Taylor also attracted a nice piece of the dwindling restaurant dollar with a bottomless-wine-glass promotion that I'm surprised wasn't picked up by more of the boutique cafes in town. (At least he didn't add a buffet or sundae bar, the kind of bizarre move a less experienced restaurateur might make when times are bad.)
"Things have been tough," Taylor tells me. "In 2006, this is going to be a great town, but right now..."
Right now, there's more trouble right around the corner. After filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January in an attempt to buy time so that his company, Kevin Taylor Consultants LLC, could pay back debts in excess of $325,000, Taylor filed for Chapter 7 in Denver bankruptcy court on September 12. While the papers list all of Taylor's restaurant holdings, he insists that no more closures are imminent. "This was expected," Taylor explains. "We saw this coming. All our suppliers know about it. We planned for it."
They had to, because Taylor has always signed personally for everything related to his restaurants -- leases, loans, contracts, the whole megillah. "And when you personally sign on everything," he says, "people come after you."
The people coming after him this time are the owners of the 17th Street space that had housed Nicois (and, before that, Taylor's resurrected Zenith). With ten years left on that lease, they've been after him ever since the abrupt New Year's walkout -- and recently received "a massive judgment," says Taylor. "We lost this huge lawsuit." And that's what prompted the recent Chapter 7 filing.
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A creditors' meeting -- where the terms of Taylor's bankruptcy settlement will be hashed out with a court trustee -- is scheduled for October 20, and while nothing will be certain until then, Taylor is confident that his remaining restaurants will emerge just fine. So Restaurant Kevin Taylor, jou jou (also in the Hotel Teatro) and Palettes in the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway) are open for business?
"Absolutely," he responds. "Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere."
Going somewhere is chef Duy Pham (formerly of Tante Louise, formerly of Opal, formerly of Flow), now back again at Opal (100 East Ninth Avenue), doing special reservation-only dinners every Sunday. The price is eighty bucks a head, dinner starts promptly at 7 p.m., and you can expect anywhere from five to a thousand courses, depending on how frisky the chef is feeling that night.
Oliveto Cucina Italiana opened this summer in the Mission Trace Shopping Center, 3355 South Yarrow Street in Lakewood. It's a Southern Italian joint helmed by Italian-born chef Salvatore Calo, who spent decades practicing his trade on both coasts before packing up his family and coming to Denver. The menu is big and covers the entire Italian canon, from schiacciata to puttanesca, with Salvatore keeping an eye on things in the back while his wife, Barbara, handles the front.