Bite Me

After my disastrous meals at Del Mar Crab House (see review), I started feeling nostalgic for the simple, rookie mistakes of Go Fish Grille, a seafood restaurant that I'd given a mixed review back in December. In comparison to the terrible, terrible things done to my dinner at Del Mar, Go Fish's mistakes (a burned spring roll, some gummy risotto) seemed positively charming. And after my last meal at Del Mar, a nice round of appetizers and a couple dozen cold Coronas at Go Fish would have gone a long way toward erasing the pain.

But Go Fish closed without warning late last month (Bite Me, August 4).

Last week, I finally reached owner/operator Larry Herz, who'd replaced his New American restaurant, Indigo, at 250 Josephine Street, with Go Fish back in 2004. Turns out Herz has a new gig -- as general manager and front-of-the-house guy for Kevin Taylor at Prima, the venture that replaced Taylor's jou jou in the Hotel Teatro. "It's weird," Herz said of working for someone else for the first time in five years -- and back then, it was doing a front-of-the-house stint for Julie Payne at the late Sacre Bleu. "Can it really have been that long ago? Yeah, I guess it really has. That was back in 2000, so…"

But Taylor's offer wasn't so weird that Herz turned it down. "It's nice to be somewhere where quality matters, you know?" he explained. "This is a small town. Kevin and I have known each other for a long time. He can certainly handle the back of the house himself, but he needed a front-of-the-house guy, and I needed him. It was an opportunity for growth."

And why, exactly, did Herz need Taylor? Was Go Fish about to go belly up?

Not at all, he replied, then laughed. "On our last night, Wednesday night, we did a hundred covers," he said. "That's pretty good, right? I mean, I was doing okay, but you know, I got a better deal."

Which is a nice way of saying that collecting a steady paycheck at a restaurant where none of his own money was on the line eventually got to sounding like a pretty attractive deal. After all, Taylor has a well-staffed operation, with people to handle PR, people to watch over the books, people to do just about everything that gets in the way of an independent restaurant owner doing what he does best -- an independent owner like Herz was until last week. Today, all he has to do is shake hands, work the floor and make sure everyone at Prima is having a wonderful night.

And for that, he's collecting a paycheck.

Herz laughed again. "Yeah, so far I'm enjoying it," he told me. "It was a no-brainer."

End of an era: The day has finally come. Josephina's will close its doors for good on Saturday, August 20, capping off a historic 31-year run in Larimer Square.

Josephina's evolve-or-die melodrama played out over three decades, three-million-odd plates, countless managers and cooks and several owners before the last one finally recognized the bedrock truth: The joint just wasn't very good anymore. Beloved for its past, when it was one of the few places to eat in the area that would later come to be known as LoDo? Sure. Fondly remembered for its wild youth? Absolutely -- by those still capable of remembering their own wild youths. But over the past few years, the place had grown old and tattered. Last year it got an update when it gave up half of its real estate to Rioja, which opened at 1431 Larimer in November 2004. But the update wasn't enough to up its earnings, and now it's going down for the big sleep with what's left of its dignity.

If Josephina's ever had a golden era, it started in 1988, when Jeff Hermanson (who would later become Big Chief of the informal gang of Indians known as the Larimer Group) bought the simple Italian joint and turned it into the linchpin in a ring of properties around Larimer. Before he was done, the group would consist of Josephina's, Cadillac Ranch, the Mexicali Cafe (in the basement beneath The Market), Champion Brewing Company, Tommy Tsunami's (which was actually around the corner on Market Street) and the Starlight Cantina (which really doesn't count because it wasn't even downtown). As if that weren't enough, Hermanson then went on to buy up all of Larimer Square from the Hahn Company, which had bought it from Larimer Square's original owner, visionary developer Dana Crawford, back in 1986.

Josephina's is the last in that group to go. The Cadillac Ranch space is now Tamayo. Mexicali became Del Mar's. Tommy Tsunami's turned into the Tom Tom Room, which tanked and was recently replaced by the second location of Bara Sushi. Champion Brewing became (in part) an industrial kitchen where Jennifer Jasinski spent a lot of time working out the menu she would introduce at Rioja. Her restaurant, along with such relative newcomers as Bistro Vendome and the Capitol Grille, helped solidify Larimer Square's current reputation as a dining hot spot.

What might the future hold for the space formerly known as Josephina's? I talked to Margaret Ebeling of Larimer Square Management last week, and she told me that she had a pretty good idea of what would be going in, but had absolutely no intention of telling me what it was. For one thing, she didn't want to say anything until everyone had signed on the dotted line. For another, the concept going into 1433 Larimer doesn't actually have a name. "And that's going to be one of the challenges," she said. "Finding a name for the thing that isn't a reference to a color or a number."

Here's what we do know: The "thing" isn't a chain, but is a "food and beverage operator" -- which is just fancy office talk for a restaurant. The "operators" are local, not national or some bunch of tourists. And, she added, not more than four to six weeks will elapse from the August 20 close of Josephina's to the opening of whatever takes its place.

Which leaves only one loose end, and that's Eric Laslow -- the chef brought in to take over the kitchen at Josephina's after the departure of Randy Rutherford. For more on that, see the July 14 Bite Me.

Leftovers: Josephina's isn't the only Italian joint to pull a disappearing act. Vita Bella, a spot in Superior where you could get authentic strip-mall Italian food done the way it's supposed to be, shut down last month and has already been replaced by a sports bar. And the odds of getting a decent plate of spaghetti and meatballs there are long indeed.

But here's good news: Via, a traditional Italian restaurant and bar brought to us by owners Anthony and Venanzio Momo and chef Andrea Frizzi (all veterans of Cherry Creek's Cucina Colore), should open mid-month in the Icehouse at 1801 Wynkoop Street. Most recently, this spot was occupied by Brasserie Rouge, which died an inglorious death last November. Before that, the address had swallowed up Anita's Crab Shack and its initial occupant, Cucina Cucina.

Now it's returning to its Italian origins, and if I had to lay money on someone making a go of this spot, the crew from Cucina Colore would be high on my list of bettin' ponies. For starters, Via will be a casual, moderately priced destination -- always a good way to go. The menu will feature Italian tapas called assaggini (a guaranteed money-maker), simple pastas (excellent for the bottom line) and a board of authentic, wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas that should (if nothing else) make the neighborhood smell a lot better than it does today. And finally, the new place will be open smart hours: starting at 3 p.m. daily, with a very Italian, three-hour-long happy hour and a late-night menu served until 11 p.m. on weekends.

On August 15, the former home of Lucca Lucca, at 1601 Pearl Street in Boulder, will officially become Aji -- a straight Latin American restaurant (no fusion, no cross-cultural weirdness) named after a fiery little bastard of a chile traditionally found along the west coast of South America. Aji is being brought to life by partners Sara and Lenny Martinelli (of the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, the Huckleberry and Naropa Cafe), Sue DiPaolo (also of the Dushanbe Teahouse) and Gerald Manning (of Q's). Last week, when I caught DiPaolo on the phone at the new digs, I asked what she was doing there ten days out from Aji's opening.

"Working my ass off," she said, laughing.

Although Aji didn't yet have a menu, DiPaolo said it would be based on the cuisines of Central and South America, augmented by a ceviche bar, a South American wine list and a full liquor license. "Lenny, my partner, always had a dream of opening a Latin American restaurant," she explained. "And also, there's no other place like this in town."

The partners do have a chef: Nick Roberts, formerly of Bloom. And no matter that he's never cooked a Central/South American menu before. "This is new for all of us," DiPaolo said. "But we'll get there."

Quickly, I hope.

Down south, there are changes at the Manor House, with exec chef Justin Wills -- who'd been standing the post since the hasty exit of Michael Degenhart last year -- bailing out just last week for a gig up in Oregon. Wills has been replaced by his former sous, John Sebring. "He came from Oregon," Manor House manager Diane McCarty said of Wills, "and he'd been looking for a job back up there for some time."

The transition has been smooth. "Since Justin's sous chef is now in the higher position, the kitchen is continuing on as always," McCarty added, promising the same service, the same hospitality, and no more than the usual number of menu shakeups that occur when a galley and a crew change hands.

Finally, in the July 28 Bite Me, I said that patissière and gelato-pusher John Hinman -- who's opened the Gelato Spot at 1439 South Pearl Street -- had done time in the kitchen at Mel's. Come to find out, he never worked there (but he did work at Vesta Dipping Grill for several years, at Roy's, and most recently at Jax and Lola). But that didn't stop Hinman from heading over to Cherry Creek to demand some back pay from Tyler Wiard at Mel's. "I was in there for dinner," Hinman told me, "and I told Tyler that I didn't remember working there, but that it looked like he owed me a check."

And I owe Hinman an apology.


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