When restaurateurs can't stand the heat, they get out of the kitchen -- often by closing it altogether. And in the past month, the competition for Denver's diners has left several entrepreneurs feeling burned. After just over three months in business, the ambitious Chloe's (1201 East Colfax Avenue) recently bit the dust. The quick closing is not just a surprise; it's also a real loss, since chef Jim Begbie -- who'd opened, and shut, the elegant Anastasia Vieux Carré at Holly and Orchard and later revamped the menu at the now-defunct The Pub at Nordstrom in Park Meadows -- is a very good cook. In fact, Chloe's food was on par with the fare found across Marion Street at janleone, which has managed to survive, if not always thrive, on East Colfax for three years now.
Only slightly more surprising is the loss of the four-month-old Ombra (300 Fillmore Street), which had a less chancy Cherry Creek location (it took over the space formerly occupied by Starfish) but still couldn't make the same meal twice ("Casting a Long Shadow," October 5). Some people loved the place, some people hated it; my meals there simply didn't justify the hefty price of admission. A branch of the popular Campo de Fiori, which is based in Aspen (205 South Mill Street), has taken over the spot and should open within the next two months. Hmm, more Italian -- just what Cherry Creek needs.
Chao Praya Thai (5411 Quebec Street in Commerce City) also closed its doors this past weekend, and owner Nita Chittivej isn't sure what she'll do next. "It was getting to the point where we were completely empty for lunch, and dinner wasn't much better," Nita says.
Nita's mother-in-law, La-Iad "Lily" Chittivej, had the distinction of running the first officially recognized Thai restaurant in the country when she opened the Chada Room at 20th and Logan streets in Denver in 1961. In 1975, a few years before Lily passed away, her son, Pop, opened Chao Praya Thai; he ran it with his wife until he died two years ago. But now, Nita says, keeping the place going is just too much. "My kids have helped me, but they are getting fed up with me," she laughs. "They say, 'Mom, when are you going to get some rest?'"
Nita says she'd like to do just that, but she also wants to continue catering (call 303-985-1162 if you need some killer tom ka gai at your next party) and teaching private cooking classes. "I thought I could keep up the restaurant, too, but it just wasn't meant to be," Nita says. "Who knows, though? Maybe I'll reopen in Denver in a better location."
Location is what I'll bet did in the not-quite-year-old Rue Cler (5575 East Third Avenue), where the fabulous, fanciful cooking of former Tante Louise chef Michael Degenhart was wasted on a neighborhood better suited to simpler fare ("Easy Does It," February 17). And, in fact, that's just what the area has now that Rue Cler part-owner Dave Nommensen has reopened the space as the Cherry Tomato Two, a second outpost of the other eatery (the first is at 4645 East 23rd Avenue) that Nommensen has a piece of.
"Rue Cler just didn't attract enough people," Nommensen says. "In the beginning, I had a certain projection of how we needed to do, and in the first quarter, we surpassed it. But then summer came and business dropped 30 percent, and although it was starting to creep back up again, a new restaurant can kill you pretty quick. We didn't want to let that happen."
The ultra-talented Degenhart has moved on to John's (2328 Pearl Street in Boulder), where his eclectic cooking style should fit right in, and Nommensen brought in Christian Delle Fave, a chef from Rome, to translate the original Tomato's menu at the second location, although Nommensen says Delle Fave and original Tomato chef Tom Felese will switch back and forth between the two places. "Christian has also expanded it a bit, adding some fish dishes and other specials," Nommensen says. "We've been closed for a couple of weeks repainting and doing some color changes, and it's like a totally different place."
One restaurant that most definitely isn't closed, despite reports to the contrary earlier this fall, is Hugh's New American Bistro (1429 South Pearl Street). The confusing thing is that the restaurant is indeed for sale, but not to just anyone and probably not anytime soon. In the meantime, the wonderful eatery, whose focus on regional foods won it a much-deserved Best of Denver award this year, is very much open.
But Hugh O'Neill and his life- and business-partner, wife Ionah de Freitas, have also leased space at 3600 West 32nd Avenue, next to Mondo Vino, where, at some point, they hope to open a cheese shop. That will be quite a lifestyle change for O'Neill. "The whole problem is, I've become rather attached to fly-fishing," the 47-year-old admits. "I'm starting to say that there's more to life than cooking, and since we've had a restaurant in Denver now for fifteen years, I think Ionah and I have earned a break."
The couple lives near 32nd Avenue, and O'Neill says they're looking forward to walking to work and taking things a bit easier. "I want the shop to reflect what I think Americans should be focusing on," he adds. "We've now surpassed Japan in terms of the work week, and that's just not healthy. I've been getting very much into picnics with this fly-fishing thing, and I'd like for the cheese shop to be a place where people can get the main ingredients, and then go next door for some wine, and then go down the street to the Denver Bread Company and buy some bread. Then they can go over to Golden Gate park and have a lovely, relaxed meal in the outdoors."
Until Hugh's is sold, though, the couple says they're committed to staying put on South Pearl Street. "We've told our regulars what's going on, and we're saying, 'We don't know when, we don't even know for sure if,'" O'Neill says. "But we're definitely not closed, and when we do close, it will be with plenty of warning, so we can say a proper goodbye to our friends."
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Another previous Best of Denver award winner, the Plaza Delicatessen (2456 South Colorado Boulevard), has new owners -- and although Karen and Michael Weiss, who took over the 45-year-old space this past May (they're its fifth owners), still offer the town's Best Chopped Liver, they're planning to switch over to their own recipe soon. And that's not the only change they've made at the Plaza, which already has upgraded its salads and soups and added kosher meats and other products. In addition to corned beef and pastrami, for example, the Weisses also offer their own rare roast beef and turkey, along with lox, whitefish, sable and cod. "This is our first time in the food business," says Karen. "But things are going so well that we're thinking of expanding into Highlands Ranch and Boulder." The Plaza Deli is now open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and it also offers breakfast on Saturdays starting at 7 a.m.
Tommy's Terrific Subs (14011 West Quincy Road, at Quincy Road off C-470 in Morrison) has new owners, too; the former proprietors sold the place and moved to Costa Rica. While the new folks are serving the same Pennsylvania-style subs, they're not as friendly as Tommy and Susan Hill, and the little diner just doesn't have the same feel that made it such a pleasant place to stop.
Gold Hill Inn (401 Main Street, Gold Hill), a funky eatery in an old mining town outside Boulder, closed for the season last Sunday. Closed altogether is Saigon Bowl (333 South Federal Boulevard), which had made pho (beef and rice-noodle soup) worthy of a Best of Denver award in 1999.
And a big welcome back to Bang!, which reopened last month in a new, and bigger location at 3472 West 32nd Avenue.