Agave Underground never really had a chance. It was simply the wrong place in the wrong space at the wrong time. And what a wrong space: This spot at 250 Steele Street was briefly Agave, and before that, Bistro 250, a place so short-lived it closed almost before it opened, and before that Bistro Adde Brewster, which somehow managed to overcome Denver's prejudice against subterranean spaces and survive for more than a decade. All around this wrong space were restaurants that never had that location handicap, from destination dives (the Cherry Cricket) to high-end hangouts ranging from Mel's Restaurant and Bar to Mao Asian Bistro.
As for wrong time, Agave opened right when a number of high-low Mexican/Latino/ Nuevo-what-have-you restaurants debuted, and whenever such overlap occurs, the market makes its own corrections. Which generally means that some place -- usually the weakest of the herd -- gets taken down.
But this wrong place had a reasonably soft landing. Two months after the address went dark, it already has a new name, Jack's on Steele, a new look, and a new partner joining backers Scott Holtzer and Ron Girardi (of Seven 30 South). The new guy is Jack Duffy, whose great-uncle Bernard Duffy founded downtown institution Duffy's Shamrock as well as the aforementioned Cricket, which makes for some heavyweight restaurant genetics.
"I look around, and this is a classy neighborhood, you know?" Duffy said when I got him on the phone last week. "So what we wanted was a place more conducive to that neighborhood. A nice, warm-feeling bar. Just a comfortable, neighborhood place."
I'd called expecting an answering machine. What I got was Duffy and the whole story, over the sounds of construction (and Led Zeppelin's Black Dog) grumbling in the background. The problem with Agave, he theorized, "was that it didn't have the allure to bring people back, what? Once a week? And as a destination, I don't know if Latino food was, I don't know...too confusing? You go to a place like Cuba Cuba and you know what you're getting, right? I don't know if that worked here."
It did, sometimes (I loved Agave's hazelnut snapper over lobster, corn and potato hash), but not well enough to set it apart from Zengo's ultra-swank Latino-Asian fusion, from Mezcal's zero-swank Chihuahuan street grub, and so on. So the partners decided to let the concept go.
As a result, Jack's on Steele will retain almost nothing of Agave beyond the fish tacos. According to Duffy, the menu will feature "American cuisine" -- fried calamari (which is Italian, but who's quibbling), steaks, burgers and potato skins (most definitely American), lobster and shrimp wontons (Asian), sweet onion soup (French, but from Jack's own recipe) and a veal meatloaf just like mom used to make if your mom happened to be more Julia Child than Betty Crocker. As for the space, entire walls have been removed (in particular, the short ones separating the bar from the dining room, and the right half of the dining room from the left) in order to open up the space and clear some of the floor. The bar has been paneled with new maple, the dining room given a wainscoting of the same, plus a coat of sage-green paint. (Green, in its many variations, seems to be the fashionable shade of this year's restaurant season -- witness the exterior of Sparrow.) With the dining room's new configuration, it will now seat about a hundred during peak hours; those waiting can watch one of five small, flat-panel TVs in the bar. Fair warning, though: From front to back, Jack's will be entirely non-smoking.
All of the changes are scheduled for completion around October 1, which prompted me -- accustomed to the usual breakneck pace of openings -- to ask Duffy if this meant Jack's would host a grand opening sometime that first week. He surprised me by saying no, he didn't anticipate the place opening until maybe early November, which would give the staff time to test the menu, organize the bar and work out all the kinks before the first paying customer sets foot inside. "I come from a business like you do where everything is about deadlines," explains Duffy, an ex-computer guy, late of Sun Microsystems -- but with restaurants in his past, and now in his future. "But you have to ask yourself, is the goal the deadline? Or is the goal to get everything right?"
In this case, the goal is getting it right -- finally. Right place, right space, right time.
Market watch: In the September 16 Bite Me, I waxed long about the joys of the autumn season. Now you can celebrate, too -- and where better than Marczyk Fine Foods? The market at 770 East 17th Avenue promises the best of the season, gathering goods and produce grown everywhere from Maine to California, and offering gooseberry jam, market-made beef, pork and veal meatloaf, crimini mushrooms and, of course, apples. Marczyk's is stocking the shelves with fruit from Ela Family Farms, including Jonathan pie apples, Golden Supreme, Jona Gold (a dark red and green sweet-sweet snack apple that's a perfect taste of the season) and hearty Gala, all grown on the Western Slope.
Leftovers: Granby's had a tough year, but at least that town's Captain Spongefoot Trading Company (and no, I'm not making that up) took home two trophies from the third annual Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo, New York. The company's Captain Spongefoot Original Sauce took first place in the hotly contested "out of town original wing sauce" category, and its chipotle sauce placed second in the "creative original sauce" field.
Bringing a foreign wing sauce to a locals-only scene like Buffalo takes the steel of a fortified 'dozer, and to come away with a prize? That's really saying something. So congratulations, Captain.
Back in the days when Paris on the Platte first colonized Platte Street, the area around Confluence Park was a real no-man's land, with My Brother's Bar the only other oasis in the desert. But now that neighborhood is upscale enough for the coffeehouse to open a sibling Paris Wine Bar next door at 1549 Platte Street; it's serving over thirty international wines by the glass and has several local beers on tap. Across town, the Soleil Mediterranean Grill and Wine Bar just opened at 2817 East Third Avenue in Cherry Creek, in the former home of Guzel Coffee and Spirits and, before that, the Mediterranean Health Cafe. All we need is one more wine bar to open, and we'll have ourselves a trend -- albeit a repeat of one I thought comfortably in the grave back in 1995.
Finally, a Chef Watch update on Chris Casson, one of the recent casualties of the shrinking Kevin Taylor restaurant empire (with the closing of Palettes at the Denver Art Museum to accommodate the museum's expansion, that empire now consists of just Jou Jou and Restaurant Kevin Taylor). Casson has landed at Mexico Restaurant in Dillon, of all places; he'd designed the menu and helped get the place in shape for its opening before he stepped in as chef. If I ever find myself in Dillon, I just might have to drop in and say hi.
1610 Little Raven St.
Denver, CO 80202
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.