So it's over. The political circus has folded the big top, loaded all the donkeys and elephants, packed up the clown cars and skipped town. Was it fun? Hell, yeah. I wish it was still going on, would go on forever, if only for the sudden injection of action and fun and buzz that it gave the city for a few days in August, for the overwhelming sense of being in the middle of something important, even in those moments when I wasn't sure what that something was.
Was it worth it from a business standpoint? That's somewhat more debatable.
There were events all over town, parties — both official and not — that drew down the swells like moths to a kerosene lamp. Some of them kicked ass — wild times in the Mile High. And others fizzled: Cinemocracy barely filled a quarter of Red Rocks; the Rock the Vote Ballot Bash couldn't even fill the floor. But Larimer Square and all the restaurants in it were flooded day and night. I talked with Jean-Philippe Failyau, a partner at Osteria Marco, late last week, and he said they were getting "crushed at lunch" — 210 covers during a service when they usually top out at 100 — and that abbreviated dinners (from 8 to 10 p.m.) were pulling 300, easy, when on a normal, busy night, Marco will do 400 during a full five-hour shift.
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John Imbergamo told me that Rioja's business was over the top: "Those guys are about to fall over dead." At sibling restaurant Bistro Vendôme, the kitchen ran out of food on Tuesday at 11:30 p.m. On Wednesday, Rioja was still seating tables at midnight. "And I'm thinking, 'This isn't like Denver at all...,'" Imbergamo said.
A couple of blocks away at Dixons (1610 16th Street), another Imbergamo client, it was like New Year's Eve five nights in a row. "It's been amazing," he said, with people crowding the corners of the 16th Street Mall like it was Times Square, rubbing elbows with celebrities who were willing to actually go places, talk to people, hang out and eat.
Outside of downtown, Jesse Morreale threw a bunch of big parties full of stars from the Creative Coalition, who filled (but did not pack) his venues of Mezcal, La Rumba, Rockbar and Tambien. He poured plenty of drinks and served a lot of risotto puffs with white truffle, but was doing most of it gratis, donating the space and the labor, with purveyors and suppliers donating a shit-ton of booze and other items. It was a zero-sum game, with everyone just trying to break even.
And for those restaurants outside the charmed circle that didn't offer special promotions? Business ranged from average to awful. Over at Racines, Dixons' sibling restaurant at 650 Sherman Street, business was off 20 percent. Most of Cherry Creek was like a graveyard, occupied by just a few unquiet spirits walking the streets and looking for beer and nachos. Even Elway's was affected. "Yeah, we were pretty slow these past couple of days," said the girl at the front, answering the phones, telling folks that no, getting a table at the last minute would be no trouble at all. "We kind of expected to get something, but it was no more than usual," said manager Andrew Chapman, who moved up when Tom Moxcey moved out in March. Maybe Elway's got a little late-night pop from the hotels, but that was about it. Along South Broadway, friends reported that they managed to get seats at bars where usually there are none. And much of northwest Denver was as quiet as Indulge (reviewed this week) — or just doing a normal load. I talked to chef/owner John Broening, and he said that it was just like any other week at Duo (2413 West 32nd Avenue). The restaurant had one private event that brought in Richard Dreyfuss, but otherwise Broening saw lots of neighbors. "I think they were afraid to venture downtown, across I-25," he said.
Which was too bad, because if you ignored the rumors of chaos, weirdness, rains of frogs and mass hysteria and simply went downtown, it was just plain fun. Armed with nothing more than a few friends' phone numbers and a reporter's notebook (no passes, no credentials, no special parking permits or anything else), I spent most of the week seeing this and going to that. I ate, drank, partied until very late at night, met some famous people, made an ass out of myself on any number of occasions and had a grand old time — ending the week sore, overheated, hung over and exhausted, but happy. And never once did I feel threatened. Never once did I want for a beer, a place to put my car or a cheeseburger when I needed it. I only wish that more people in this city had ignored the cautioning voice of better judgment and come down to hang out with me.
And I'm pretty sure some of the restaurateurs and bar owners outside the heart of downtown would've been happier had you done so, too.
And now for something completely different: Before Indulge moved into 4140 West 38th Avenue, it was home to a widely loved Italian joint named Mikey's Italian Bistro. Run by chef/owner Alaya Ouerfelli, it was a place where a man of little means could pick up a cheap, off-menu chicken parm sandwich and eat it walking or a fella of slightly finer tastes could go for a serious plate of red-gravy neighborhood grub.
But then Ouerfelli decided that this neighborhood just wasn't for him, so he packed up and headed for the 'burbs, where he ditched the Mikey's name (confusing, since it was run by a guy named Alaya) and opened Cucina Roma Roma at 12363 West 64th Avenue in Arvada. Like the name, the menu is very traditional, street-corner Italian with a slightly upscale bent — sausage and peppers, homemade spaghetti, tortellini carbonara, baked gnocchi smothered under a layer of melted cheese, a half-dozen different piccatas and pizzas.
Roma Roma has been open for just a few months but has already found a following in its new hood. Let's hope that's because of the quality of Ouerfelli's food rather than the limited options available as Arvada scrambles to play restaurant catch-up with its growing population.
Leftovers: I finally caught up with Darren Minich of Premier Ventures — owners of places like Marlowe's, Govnr's Park Tavern and Caldonia's — which, by the time you read this, will have opened its newest property, Lala's Wine Bar & Pizzeria, at 410 East Seventh Avenue.
That address sound familiar? It should. It's the old home of Sparrow — one of my least favorite restaurants in the city — and before that, Vega, where Sean Yontz crashed and burned before finding redemption with dollar tacos and PBRs on Colfax Avenue. This time around, Minich said, "It's a pizzeria concept rather than having the menu. Does that make sense?"
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"We went to Italy," he continued. And while in Italy, the Premier folks saw a lot of pizzerias. And what they wanted to bring back to Denver was that Italian pizzeria vibe, but not necessarily the pizzeria menu. "The kind of place where, you're sitting there, and within a half-hour, you're dragging another table over," Minich explained.
And while Lala's didn't go for a straight pizzeria menu, it did go Italian (though Minich insists it's not an Italian restaurant), with antipasti, open-face Italian sandwiches, housemade mozzarella, burrata and pastas (for two daily pasta specials) and, well, pizza. "Eclectic pizzas," Minich insisted, put up on the daily special sheet.
The chef, Eric Rivera, was brought in from Marlowe's, and his sous, Victor Leal, from Osteria Marco. These are the guys who are executing the not-an-Italian-restaurant concept. Behind the bar, the partners have stocked up with an off-market selection of bottles — meaning no Ketel One, no Jack Daniel's, but rather vodkas made by organic farmers in Minnesota and gins from around the world.
Strange concept and weird booze aside, though, it's still gotta be better than Sparrow. "This has been our pet project," Minich told me, saying how the partners had been looking at doing something smaller, more intimate and more food-focused for quite some time. The menu sounds interesting (a lot of daily specials and greenmarket influences), and the space, which has had a complete makeover, will certainly be a better fit for the neighborhood and the temper of the times.