I have mixed feelings over the recent closure of Sparrow at 410 East Seventh Avenue. On the one hand, I was never a big fan of the place — having beaten it down once in a review ("Cry Fowl," March 17, 2005) and then returning for a Second Helping last June that found Sparrow improved, but only enough so that it no longer ranked among my least favorite restaurants in the city.
But on the other hand, it was a restaurant that always tried. It didn't succeed, necessarily, but it was certainly a place that was striving to do better — a compliment I am unable to give to many worse restaurants and many chefs who, unlike Sparrow chef Josh Botsford, seem content to let their houses run on autopilot straight into the ground. Sparrow had high standards and wanted very badly to serve interesting, comforting food in a beautiful, half-casual location. And in that, it was worthy of respect and had earned itself a neighborhood following.
True, the neighbors' standards were not my standards, and their ideas of beauty and comfort were not my ideas of beauty and comfort, but Sparrow did good trade and was much loved by its regulars — until the last Saturday in January, when, quite suddenly, Sparrow put out the lights, locked the doors and just walked away.
This is a location that has swallowed up a lot of big names — everything from Transalpin to JV's the Cork to Sacre Bleu to Sean Yontz's white-tablecloth nuevo Latino experiment Vega. Those restaurants were all killed off by different maladies, and when I got owner Nancy Scruggs on the phone early this week, she told me that what got Sparrow was the oldest story in the business: a battle with the landlord. "It was a personal issue that's been going on for years," she said, and though she was unwilling to discuss specific details, she did say that the bulk of the problems dated from the wicked storms of last winter that put so many of Denver's restaurants in the red.
"That's when the situation went bad," she said. "We thought we might be able to renegotiate and reopen without anyone noticing, but I guess not. We are done at that space."
But the news is not all bad for the Sparrow faithful. Scruggs told me that she and her husband, Mark, and partners Josh and Jen Botsford are all still together and looking for a new space either downtown or in Cherry Creek: something slightly smaller and more easily managed, a place with enough traffic to drive both lunch and dinner service. And there's also the Sparrow Market and Cafe, which opened in the old 7th Avenue Cafe space at 701 Grant Street at the beginning of January and has been doing much better business than even Scruggs expected. "Sales are doubling every week," she told me. "And now that we have all this downtime, we're going to be able to ramp it up."
She'd also been planning to open another Sparrow in the new Landmark development in Greenwood Village, as well as a market — deals that were made before the closure of the Denver Sparrow and all the complications of trying to find it a new home. Now the partners may not go forward with opening another Sparrow Market down south (which the Landmark developers "wanted quick," Scruggs said), but the Landmark Sparrow, which still has at least an eighteen-month lead, is definitely on, according to Scruggs.
Double play: There's this quote, attributable now to Robin Williams but actually an old chestnut from back in the Tin Pan Alley days.
"Hey, kid. How do you get to the Met?"
"Money. Lots of money."
I like it because it's useful in many circumstances, descriptive of so many situations. And it fits perfectly with the James Beard House in New York, one of those destinations that young chefs dream about. All the big names have had their night there, and because there seem to be more and more "big names" in the United States every year, the Beard House now hosts about 200 dinners a year. This month, for example, it has eighteen dinners scheduled, covering everything from Jason McClure's Sazerac in Seattle to Mark Dommen doing a California farm-to-table dinner to a bunch of guys from Colorado Springs doing (of all things) a lobster degustation.
Provided you don't burn the place to the ground, a Beard dinner is an excellent showcase for your talents and the kind of thing that goes right on the top of the resumé. But it's also a logistical nightmare, a black hole of money (all that travel, the shipping of specialty ingredients — and the food-allowance reimbursement, based on a maximum guest count of 74, never even comes close to covering the cost of the dinner and is traditionally given back as a "donation," anyway) and, at best, a long-shot chance at culinary immortality. Still, Colorado keeps trying.
A May 2005 Taste of Denver dinner sponsored by the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau went so well that the Beard House called Jennifer Jasinski from Rioja, one of the chefs at that event, and asked her to put a group together. The result, the "Gems of Denver" dinner on March 11, will feature Matt Anderson of Bistro Vendôme, John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom from Duo, Max Mackissok from Vita, Alex Seidel from Fruition and Jasinski — a heavy-hitting lineup with a serious, professional take on the best that Denver has to offer. "Essentially, it's Jen leading a team of Denver chefs who are new to the Beard House," says John Imbergamo, who did the lion's share of the organizational work in 2005 and is working on this dinner, too, with an assist from the Bureau.
Then last week, I heard that Leigh Sullivan-Guard has organized a separate Beard House dinner, "Denver's Five," which she sees as a "branded event" that will continue every year. The five for 2008: Troy Guard (Leigh's husband, currently between kitchens), Tyler Wiard from Elway's, Goose Sorensen from Solera, Matt Selby of Vesta and Steuben's, and pastry chef and Food Network hosting machine Keegan Gerhard — who ain't exactly local, but apparently counts now because he's in the process of opening his dessert bar, D Bar Desserts, at 1475 East 17th Avenue.
Leigh first discussed the idea during Troy's Beard House dinner last February. "I was sitting with the program director," she says, "and I asked her why isn't Denver more, you know..."
More what, exactly?
"Why we don't get more respect, more notice. And she basically told me, 'You feel this way, why don't you do something about it?'"
So Leigh did. She found her chefs (all save Gerhard) hanging out at Vesta's tenth-anniversary party, and though she's still trying to find local sponsors for the May 14 dinner (which would save her five a whole ton of green), the menu has been formalized, with each chef doing a course.
So at two, big, blow-out dinners in Manhattan just two months apart, the cream of the foodie elite will get to experience eleven of Denver's best chefs. And while there are certainly important names that aren't on either list, I don't consider that a problem so much as a compliment to this city. It just means Denver is deep with talent — and that the next time Denver has dueling Beard dinners, we'll have a strong pool to choose from.
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Leftovers: Another notorious black hole — the Victorian bungalow at 2637 East 26th Avenue that decades ago was the original home of La Loma — has claimed another victim: Shooting Star Cafe. But there's good news at the LoDo Common Grounds (1601 17th Street), which has just added wine and beer to its offerings. Drink up!
Finally, some housekeeping: The Best of Denver 2008 hits the streets on March 27, so for the next few weeks, I'll be eating and writing pretty much non-stop. How does this affect you, the dining public? It means that if you've got suggestions for the best burger, the greatest gelato, the coolest bathrooms or the hottest bartender, either speak now (via e-mail, preferably) or forever hold your peace.
You can also send an e-mail if you'd like to subscribe to Cafe Bites, the Westword dining newsletter that offers a Tuesday-night sneak preview of some of the news in the next Bite Me, as well as information on upcoming foodie events around town. And for still more dining news, I post a couple of items a week on From the Gut, my food blog. Right now, you can read a very long-winded account inspired by my visit to Tibet's Restaurant and a recent e-mail from my friend Sean. For all — and I mean all — the details, go to blogs.westword.com/thelatestword.