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Bite Me

Dean was the son of a wino, one of the most tottering bums on Larimer Street, and Dean had in fact been brought up generally on Larimer Street and thereabouts. He used to plead in court at the age of six to have his father set free. He used to beg in front of Larimer alleys and sneak money back to his father, who waited among the broken bottles with an old buddy. -- Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Ah, the good ol' days. Neal Cassady (Dean) stealing cars and banging high school girls. Jack Kerouac stumbling along with the whiskey leg, a head full of benzedrine and "the most wicked grin of joy in the world." Back fifty, sixty years ago, grand-theft auto, statutory rape and alcoholism were all part of a fine Saturday night in Denver, especially among the "old bums and beat cowboys of Larimer Street." It was one of Denver's earliest commercial areas, later became the heart of skid row, and today remains the site of some of the city's most memorable landmarks. The elegant Manhattan Restaurant survived fifty years at 1635 Larimer, and the Citizen's Mission, where young Cassady ate most of his meals, had a space right down the street, at 1617.

But time will change a place as surely as it will change a person, and unless Neal was back in town looking for a Vespa or Kerouac for a cucumber salt-scrub facial mask at the Body Shop, there isn't much left for the boys in their old stamping ground.

That there's anything left at all is thanks to visionary urban developer Dana Crawford, who in the 1960s saved an entire block of Victorian buildings in the 1400 block of Larimer that otherwise would have been demolished, just like the buildings in the blocks to the east. She turned what had been skid row into Larimer Square, a tourist destination that boasted such exotic eateries as the now-long-gone Magic Pan and Bratskellar, as well as Josephina's. By the time the block became the property of a group of partners headed by Jeff Hermanson, it was catering to tourists and locals alike with a mix of retail shops like Ann Taylor and Talbot's, along with restaurants like Mexicali Cafe, the Market, Cadillac Ranch and, yes, Josephina's. Joe Vostrejs, who in 1996 became general manager of Larimer Square Management, launched the next attempt to revitalize this block -- and eight years later, what a block it is.

Larimer Square on a Saturday night is now the city that Denver really wants to be in its deepest heart of hearts: a dense commercial stretch of big-name restaurants, bars and retail shops packed with happy locals and a smattering of tourists, all stumbling around with their wallets open, glare-blind from the bright lights of commerce. With lines out the door at Ted's Montana Grill, music drifting out of the Samba Room, passersby stopping to peek through the windows of Tamayo and valets chatting amiably with parties waiting on tables at the Capital Grille, Larimer Square seems one-half Parisian boulevard and one-half idealized Woody Allen Manhattan street scene played against a backdrop of old Denver made new again.

At least, that's how it felt one Saturday in April after I finished my meal at Bistro Vendome and wandered, full and happy, down a block alive with light and noise, surprised at how much of Denver's nightlife had become so concentrated in such a small place. The week before, Larimer Square was different. Next week, it'll be different again.

"The thing is, it's always a work in progress," Vostrejs says. "You're never done. And just when I think, 'Okay, that's it,' David will come to me with this great new idea, and I'll see that Larimer Square will never be done."

"David" is David Levine of Real Estate FX, a Dallas-based firm specializing in pedestrian malls, shopping plazas and the like, who was brought into the Larimer Square project as a consultant in 1999 and has been here ever since. "In some ways, Larimer Square was having a little bit of a heyday," Vostrejs remembers. "It was kind of a little oasis in downtown. But then restaurants started opening at an alarming rate in LoDo. We really suffered because of the hundreds and hundreds of seats that were suddenly available." And not only were there new restaurants in LoDo and by Coors Field, but at the Denver Pavilions. Meanwhile, suburban strip and shopping malls started opening outlets of retail shops once unique to Larimer. Says Vostrejs: "We had to ask ourselves, 'How are we going to make it?' Suddenly our restaurants were the oldest restaurants around, and our retail business was being duplicated everywhere. So we started in on this plan."

First, he says, "David started off by telling the owner that all his restaurants have to go." So all those places -- restaurants and retail businesses alike -- that Hermanson and his company had a stake in? Gone. Levine told the owners that not just locals, but tourists were becoming more savvy. They no longer wanted to see just another mall, just another Cheesecake Factory, but something unique. "David would say, 'Everything's the same no matter where you go,'" Vostrejs says. "So when tourists go to a city, they now want to find the place that's really different, that says ŒThis is Denver.'" And if the tourists were looking for something with a local flavor and the locals were looking for something with a local flavor, Levine told them, then shouldn't that be the primary goal in any revitalization?

The owners agreed, and Vostrejs began courting new tenants for the block. "We were looking for things that were outside the market, but not too many chains," he explains. "Also, we realized how important it would be to have owner-operators, places where the owners are in the building every night. So we went from a kind of Soviet style of management -- strong head, weak satellite states -- to the owner-operator style. And sometimes to get what you want, you have to be willing to put your money where your mouth is." Which is how deals were made on Larimer Street during the first years of this revitalization. Hermanson and his partners bought into several of the new places that were opening, with "the partners putting up equity to get owners over the hump," according to Vostrejs. "You know, sometimes they come in and they don't have quite enough money to make it work, to do the kind of things that they want to do."

This happened with the Samba Room -- the first restaurant Vostrejs loved up and brought to town -- as well as Tamayo, which replaced the old Cadillac Ranch. It happened with Bistro Vendome, although Hermanson later sold much of his share in the restaurant to Scott Tallman, who bought in, became GM and now works as floor man and foil to chef/owner Eric Roeder. And Vostrejs himself recently got into the act, putting up a chunk of change for the Tom Tom Room, which replaced Tommy Tsunami's on the back side of the block on Market Street. "I really believed in the robata concept," he says. "And eventually it just became one of those things where people were saying, 'Yeah? You like this so much? Why don't you put up the money?'"

So he did. "Really, it was like a dare," Vostrejs recalls. "I'm not a restaurant guy, though. And I don't know what I was thinking."

The changes just keep coming. "We've traded out almost all the old tenants on Larimer," Vostrejs says. "We only kept the best ones." And to make a place for the Capital Grille, Larimer's owners had to fill in the last bit of open space on the block. "I received more than a little criticism for choosing to do a steakhouse, of all things, on that site," he adds. "But David kept raving about it, so we went to Dallas to check it out." They were so impressed that they did the deal almost immediately.

With Ted's, it was a matter of Larimer Square not having a space that really catered to families, and with Bistro Vendome, Vostrejs's sudden realization that it didn't have a French restaurant. "I couldn't believe there wasn't already one," he says. "Someplace like the little bistros in Europe. I must've called every French bistro in the country, and none of them were interested in Denver." Finding a hometown guy like Roeder, who'd recently sold his award-winning Micole (that space on South Pearl Street is now filled by Lola), was luck -- and good timing.

"Look," says Vostrejs. "We're opportunistic down here, and I've bragged and said that I challenge anyone to come up with another block that has such a good mix of retail, of food and beverage. I've been relentless. It's a no-holds-barred approach to creating not just one of the best blocks in Denver, but the best block in the country. And believe it or not, there's a whole bunch of stuff still coming."

One thing that's coming is Jennifer Jasinski's new restaurant. Formerly the chef at Panzano, Jasinski will put an eatery at 1431 Larimer, taking over all of the old Looms building, as well as expanding into part of, yes, Josephina's -- still holding on from its glory days in the '70s. "I've always thought that Josephina's was just awful," Vostrejs says. "And I think there's a couple reviews out there that will back me up. But Josephina's is an institution, it has a lot of regulars at the bar, and it still does some pretty good business, so how do you change it without just killing the place? Well, for one thing, Josephina's has way more space than it needs. So that's taken care of. Next, we'll have to figure out what the concept is. Figure out exactly what to do. But Jennifer's coming here adds a huge amount of credibility to the restaurant scene."

Vostrejs promises "another significant restaurant deal" within six months, but won't spill more details. He'll also be announcing a deal for the old Champion Brewing spot, another for a "food and beverage concept" that'll appeal to the late-night crowds still crawling the Square when most of its restaurants have closed. The Martini Ranch out of Scottsdale is moving into the old home of Soapy Smith's on 14th Street, and a new nightclub is being planned for the Lucky Star space once that lease comes to a close.

And though Neal and Jack would never recognize the place today, that's five new bars that'll be opening in the next six months, so I think the boys would like it just fine.

Leftovers: Bistro Vendome isn't the only place in town that's decided to dump lunch in favor of focusing on those night-crawling neighborhood crowds. In Cherry Creek, Mao realized that twenty-dollar sandwiches and Communist whorehouse decor weren't drawing the quick-lunch bunch, so it stopped serving that meal altogether. Which is good news, because the overpriced, poorly considered lobster club sandwich that was the lunch board's centerpiece was a real embarrassment ("Liar's Club," April 1).

In another hot restaurant neighborhood, Brasserie Rouge has added Sunday-brunch service. If anything can get the legions of Denver foodies downtown on a Sunday, it might be the custom Bloody Marys, peach mimosas, espresso martinis and a half-dozen royales (Massenez triple-cream liqueurs and champagne) being poured by Rouge barman Oran Feild. If those don't do it, how about scrambled eggs with crème fraîche and brioche toast points, oeufs done three ways, or applewood-smoked bacon? Rouge's kitchen is also rolling savory, saffron-spiked crepes with rock-shrimp ragout and sweet crepes with butter and sugar -- or done the way the King preferred, with roasted bananas and Nutella.

Now occupying the former home of Cafe Evangeline at 30 South Broadway is Deluxe, brought to you by Dylan Moore and Kristen Tait, the husband-and-wife team behind Decade, the vintage boutique just down the street. Moore, the chef in the family, worked under Jeremiah Tower (of Stars and Chez Panisse fame) while in the Bay Area, and Deluxe's first menu reads like the kind of border-crossing, fusiony California cuisine I thought we had seen the end of: masa-fried oyster shooters with salsa fresca, Chinese ribs and dumplings, Thai shrimp curry, Colorado lamb chops with Tuscan white beans. Still, it's a small space, with just forty-some seats for the kitchen to worry about, so while this sort of globe-trotting fusion can be dangerous in the hands of most chefs, Moore just might pull it off. After all, he trained with the guy who invented California Cuisine.

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