For two years, Holly Hartnett worked the floor as a manager at Table 6 (609 Corona Street) and dreamed of a place of her own. She'd inspected space after space after space, but there were problems with all of them. Actually, there was the same problem with all of them: They needed to be built out or so seriously rehabbed that they were out of her price range.
She was at a meeting with contractors talking about yet another space when her broker told her about an address that had just come open: 3609 West 32nd Avenue, the spot that Scott Durrah was leaving in order to open 8 Rivers at 1550 Blake Street in LoDo (see this week's Second Helping). It was small, which was ideal for a first restaurant. It was a sublet, with Durrah basically walking away from a going operation. The kitchen was there, as was a small dining room. And it was in Highland — a neighborhood that Hartnett loved. She was ready to sign.
Then, of course, one of her investors walked away (he didn't like the space that she already loved), and Hartnett needed some green. Fast. "I was scrambling," she remembers. "Obviously, I got the money, but..."
But it wasn't fun and it wasn't easy, and even once she got the deal done and signed on the dotted line on October 6, the next part wasn't easy, either. She had to turn the space in just over a month, opening up the kitchen and giving the dining room (a tiny thing, capable of seating maybe thirty people) a makeover. "A lot of cosmetics," Hartnett explains. Or, more to the point, taking off a lot of the cosmetics. She wanted a room that was clean and pure — something that 8 Rivers definitely was not. "The most interesting things should be the person across the table from you and the food on the plate," she says. "We're not here to entertain anybody."
Hearing that, I melt just a little, because Hartnett is a chef after my own heart — one who understands that the most important thing is what's on the table, not what's on the walls or on the floors or in the bathrooms. I mean, I can be charmed by decor as much as the next guy (I fell head over heels for Beatrice & Woodsley, for example), but I truly love a chef who is brave enough to serve with no cover, nothing to hide behind. Wayne Conwell is like that at Sushi Sasa, where his room is a blank canvas. Super Star Asian is like that — just a big box with tables and chairs and food in it. And now Holly Hartnett is like that at Venue, which I review this week.
So after two years of searching, one stroke of good luck in finding Durrah's now-ex space and one stroke of bad in losing the money she needed to make it her own, she finally had her spot. Hartnett opened Venue's doors on November 12.
And no one showed up.
"It was tough," she admits. "Word wasn't getting out."
Hartnett knew tough: When she was younger, she'd fallen in love and run off to Florence, Italy, where she taught English and washed dishes in a local restaurant, working her way up from the pit to pastry and from pastry to the floor (once she finally mastered the language). After three years, though, the romance fell apart and she came back to the States. Her first gig after landing in Denver (excepting two training shifts at a local Italian restaurant that she won't even name) was at Restaurant Kevin Taylor, one of the best restaurants in this city. While there, she enrolled in culinary school, even though she didn't particularly want to learn how to cook. Or, at least, not only how to cook. "I never wanted to be a chef," Hartnett says. "I just wanted to know how to do everything. I've known so many owners who didn't even know how to work the coffeemaker."
From there, she moved to a floor manager's job at the Beehive, a little spot at 609 Corona Street. When the guys from Adega bought the Beehive, she didn't feel like leaving; she came with the building, she says. While the new owners were making the changeover to Table 6 (and battling over liquor licenses and the delineation of who owned what), Hartnett killed time working the floor at Adega. But when Table 6 finally opened, it was busy from the start.
Not so Venue. Hartnett had wanted to open quiet — to just unlock the doors and see what happened. When nothing happened, she got worried and did something she swore she'd never do: She hired a PR person. This helped, but didn't really work magic (I don't remember seeing a single press release), and Venue didn't really find its crowd until Tucker Shaw, my compadre at the Denver Post, heaped on the love in a review a couple weeks back. "It was like a switch flipping," Hartnett tells me.
The day I visited was the first Sunday that Venue had opened its doors at 11 a.m. and been crowded straight through to close, no break, no breathers. The kitchen started running out of food that night; it was that unexpected. And when I called Venue to talk to Hartnett last Thursday, I called at noon, thinking she'd just be starting to ramp up, handling a couple of tables. But no. She chased me off the phone in about five seconds, proclaiming, "I'm in the middle of my lunch rush here!" I waited three hours and caught her pre-dinner. And even then she was busy. "I'm sorry," she told me. "I'm just so overwhelmed here."
She's got good help, though. Her kitchen crew is solid: James Rugile at exec (ex of Black Pearl and getting his Big Hat shot at just twenty-fucking-four years old), June Grant (also from Black Pearl) as sous, and Katie Doxtater, whom Hartnett met while at Adega, on pastry and the floor when needed. Hartnett herself is always on the floor. Always. Day and night, six of them every week.
Talking about hours is easy. When we try talking about concept and inspiration, though, Hartnett has the same problem describing her style as I did in my review. It ain't New American. It ain't Italian. It ain't Continental. "I never wanted to get pigeonholed into one type of cuisine," she explains, then hems and haws. "I don't know what to say here. We change the menu weekly, all the time, because we get bored. We do everything. We do grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for lunch. We do chicken. You can come in here for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for all I care. We just wanted to be that neighborhood restaurant, you know?"
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That neighborhood restaurant with perfect bacon grits and beautiful buttered leek risotto and clams with fennel sausage. "That neighborhood restaurant," the way Fruition is "that neighborhood restaurant" or Table 6 is "that neighborhood restaurant," in that they're all restaurants and exist in definable neighborhoods.
Hartnett pauses. "I'm just shocked that we're here," she says.
Leftovers: Speaking of Table 6, it's now doing brunch. And not just any brunch, but a very cool, very appropriate brunch with cheese and fruit plates, breakfast charcuterie (tasso, lamb bacon and duck ham), waffled French toast with Plugra and vanilla ice cream, a Benedict with tasso, crumpets, 147-degree eggs (thank you, Wylie Dufresne) and hollandaise, and a steak sandwich with fromage D'Affinois. In addition, Table 6 is offering Sunday Suppers (the first was on February 8), with a three-course menu for $29 a head and kids under twelve paying their age. Not a bad deal for one of the best restaurants in the city.
A couple of brand-new restaurants have appeared in recent days: Organixx (1520 Blake Street, in the old Egg Shell address) opened its doors on Monday, February 16 — even though when I poked my nose in on Friday afternoon after leaving 8 Rivers, I would've sworn it would never make the promised date. Dave Query's Happy Noodle House (835 Walnut Street in Boulder) made its debut on Friday, February 13, opening (more or less) on schedule; it's serving up a full board of pork gyoza, Happy Ramen, kimchi and fried Brussels sprout leaves. And on the blog, you'll find a story on Katie Mullen's, the enormous Irish pub that went into the former Supreme Court space, at 1550 Court Place. I spent some time inside before it opened on Monday to get a feel for how things were coming together, and I have to confess, I'm thrilled. Not only did the owners call my bluff about serving Irish food (boxty, bangers-and-champ, bacon and cabbage), but they also built themselves one hell of a four-sided bar, with space enough to hold just about every transplanted Mick in the city.