Wow -- it's not even the first of the year, and the restaurant fallout has already begun. I'll miss the St. Mark's Coffeehouse at 1416 Market Street, although the second St. Mark's location, at 2019 East 17th Avenue, is still going strong. The sign on St. Mark's Market Street door (which led to the legendary Cafe Nepenthes in the late '70s, when Westword's office was located on the same block) asks customers to patronize other "independent, locally owned coffee shops in the neighborhood," including Pablo's (1060 14th Street, with a second location now open at 630 East Sixth Avenue, in the old home of the Newsstand Cafe).
What you're not supposed to patronize is an outlet of the evil Starbucks empire, which recently opened a store at 16th and Market streets. "I think it's safe to say that certainly didn't help us," says a St. Mark's barista. "Business was noticeably down, but I guess the people have spoken about where they want to spend their money."
Yeah, well, people can be idiots.
Who knows if idiocy is responsible for the closing of Wild Willy's Capsicum Cantina (8251 South Holly Street, Littleton), but closed it is. I had given the kickass green chile created by Bill Miller, Wild Willy's owner, a Best of Denver award this past year; folks had also flocked to the little eatery to get Miller's fiery salsas. Miller isn't saying why the Wild Willy's store is no more; fortunately, you can still get your Willy's in a jar through his Web site: wildwillyssalsa.com.
Meanwhile, Mexican food is making a comeback in LoDo. Early on, Larimer Square was home to one of the town's worst Mexican restaurants; later, the much better Mexicali Cafe (1453 Larimer Street), which last year became Del Mar's Crab House, arrived on the scene. Better still, though, is Lime, which earlier this month debuted in the downstairs spot at 1424 Larimer where Cafe Promenade once ruled (followed by the much less regal Bibelot and Cafe Larimer). The remodeled space is cool-looking but spare; William Logan, a part owner who's made a name for himself as a local restaurant designer, says they plan to add some art. And while the decor may seem stark by some standards, according to Lime PR person John Imbergamo, the point of the hip "American cantina" is to look "clean and simple." So far, the favorite decor item seems to be the ice embedded in the bar, which is cooled by metal coils and designed to help drinkers keep their margaritas cold.
It goes without saying that those margaritas are one of the favorite comestibles. Another potential crowd-pleaser: the relatively inexpensive, Mexican-inspired entrees, all in the $10 range and the work of Pam Savage, the onetime chanteuse who's married to co-owner Curt Sims, who's owned assorted local nightclubs through the years and is currently part owner of the Denver Buffalo Company (1109 Lincoln Street). One of those ventures was the Betty Rose, a jazz club (Savage sang there) that took over the old home of Lafitte, at 1400 Larimer, in the '80s; that building later housed Cadillac Ranch and today is Tamayo. Whew. What's old is new again.
With Lime, the more upscale Tamayo just down the street, and the lower-brow Rio Grande (1525 Blake Street), Illegal Pete's (1530 16th Street), Qdoba Mexican Grill (1533 Market Street) and Wahoo's Fish Taco (1521 Blake Street) all within walking distance, I'd say that LoDo has the Mexican thing covered.
This town's always had the Italian thing pretty well covered, too, so it made sense for Larry Herz to take over an existing Italian restaurant rather than open a new one after his non-compete contract with Carmine's on Penn (92 South Pennsylvania Street) expired. Back in 1997, Herz sold Carmine's to Chris Linker, then moved on to open the popular (but a pain in the tuches for him) Uncle Sam's (at 5946 South Holly Street in Greenwood Village, now Swiss Haven Restaurant), which he closed late last year.
After a brief stint as manager at Sacre Bleu (410 East Seventh Avenue), Herz was looking around when opportunity knocked during a walk around the neighborhood. "Dan Shipp, who owns Bella Ristorante, lives right near me, and I was out walking my dog one day when we got to talking," Herz says. "He said Bella was looking for an operating manager. I had been dying to do family-style Italian again, and it seemed like the right move."
Herz has made some important changes in the month he's been at Bella (the second location, at 8770 East Arapahoe Road, Englewood; the LoDo Bella closed earlier this year). He's repainting the place, revamping the wine list, lightening the dishes and lowering their prices at lunch. "I kept looking at Macaroni Grill, which always has a wait at lunch," Herz says. "And so I had to ask, 'Why don't we?'"
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His biggest impact, though, has been on the dinner menu, where all of the dishes are now available in both individual portions and family-style (before, only the pasta could be ordered both ways, while meat and fish items were individual-only). He's also reworked some of the recipes so that they're more, um, like "similar dishes from previous experiences," Herz says. (He has to be careful, since Carmine's is still a popular restaurant and his former Carmine's chef, Sonny Rando, is using his own recipes at Santino's on Downing, at 2390 South Downing Street.) "I didn't change everything," Herz says. "I really like the marinara they've been doing here, so we left that alone. I guess I kept the bestsellers and went from there."
The head of Bella's kitchen, Daniel Orozca, has stayed on, and Herz himself can usually be found roaming the dining room, checking on things. "I get to see kids who came to Uncle Sam's and visit with them," Herz says. "This is a little easier than it was there, though. Here we have 200 seats, and the atmosphere is more comfortable for families. And, I'd say, for me."
Also back -- after a fourteen-month hiatus -- is Marrakesh Restaurant, with the same location (1951 South Havana Street in Aurora), same owners, and same bargain lunch. I love the $5.95 all-you-can-eat buffet, which features three or four of Marrakesh's Middle Eastern creations (with any luck, one of them is the heavenly chicken with olives and onions braised in lemon juice), as well as two vegetable sides, salad and delectable sticky buns for dessert. With good food and a delightful decor -- silky patterned fabrics hanging from the ceiling and imported brass everywhere -- this restaurant would be a delightful ethnic-food escape no matter where it was located, but in the culinary wasteland of Aurora, it's especially welcome.