Residents of the West University neighborhood took a hit a few weeks ago when Judge Anthony Vollack ruled that their beef with a proposed Hamburger Stand at the corner of South Franklin Street and East Evans Avenue wasn't grounded ("Food Fight," May 4, 2001). "The judge just didn't get it," says David Carroll, attorney for the neighbors, who had taken the city to court for what they saw as a clear zoning violation. "I don't know why, but he just didn't see it the way we do."
If the residents, led by Eileen Abbattista and Kyle Chism, had won legal points for passion, the dispute might have been over in about an hour. Instead the group has filed an appeal, which means another six months may pass before the issue is resolved. "The amount of pressure on our little neighborhood is tightening already," says Abbattista. "With the Franklin Street bridge closed and the rest of the development going on, traffic is already becoming noticeably more dense, and a place like the Hamburger Stand in there will only make it worse."
Back in 1956, the Continental Oil Company bought the corner, which was divided into two parcels: one zoned B-2, for business use, the other R-1, for residential. At the time, zoning regulations stipulated that the combined property could be used in either capacity as long as both parcels were under the same ownership; Continental used the space for a gas station. Although zoning-code changes in 1964 essentially relegated the station to "non-conforming" status, the city allowed it to continue operating, and the entire property remained zoned for commercial use through subsequent sales.
Last spring, Silco Oil finally closed the privately owned Conoco on the site and removed the underground gas tanks, the gas pumps and the pipes. And that, according to Carroll, is when the city should have withdrawn any okay for the property to be used commercially. Instead, Vollack ruled that in 1956, when the property owners chose to use the land for business, it became zoned for business use in perpetuity. "It has never been explained to us, however, why the 1964 amendment should be disregarded," says Carroll. "And that's why we're taking them to the court of appeals."
Zoning aside, neighbors have their reasons for not wanting to see a Hamburger Stand on that corner: increased traffic made worse by a drive-through, plus long hours in an area that has very little in the way of late-night activity. Where Hamburger Stand's parent, Galardi Company, stands is unknown, since general manager Rod Carstensen did not return my calls. But whether or not the neighbors are ultimately victorious, they've already postponed any burger-flipping for at least a year.
In the meantime, if hunger pains hit when you're in the University of Denver neighborhood, try Jerusalem (1890 East Evans) for wonderful Middle Eastern food (served around the clock on weekends); Spanky's Roadhouse (1800 East Evans) for burgers that will beat Hamburger Stand's any day; Piccolo's (1744 East Evans) for Italian and Mexican; Anthony's Pizza & Pasta (1628 East Evans) for great slices; the original Chipotle Mexican Grill (1644 East Evans) for those jumbo burritos; or relative newcomer Tokyo Joe's (1700 East Evans) -- like Chipotle, a link in another homegrown chain made good. All of these eateries are assets to the area.
Getting buffaloed: Billionaire media man and rancher Ted Turner has launched his own restaurant chain featuring 25 versions of bison burger. The first Ted's Montana Grill is now open in Columbus, Ohio; nine more eateries are expected to open by the end of the year, in cities ranging from Atlanta and Baltimore to Nashville and, yes, Denver.
In fact, Montana Grill execs are in the process of picking the right spot right now, according to Sue Sperry of Fleishman Hillard, the PR firm handling the account for Turner. "My understanding is that you are a priority out there," she says. "They just need to pin that location down, and then they want to open Denver pretty soon."
Each eatery -- described as "an authentic Montana bar and grill" with "Arts & Crafts architecture" (Turner obviously hasn't hung out in many Montana bars) -- will feature meat from the buffalo raised on Turner's ranches: He now has herds totaling 30,000 animals on 1.75 million acres of ranchland spread across the West. The bison burger will arrive on a trademarked Boudin sourdough bread (made from a 150-year-old recipe) and paired with fresh-cut fries or onion rings. Judging from a sample menu, the Montana Grill will also offer milkshakes starring housemade ice cream as well as "blue plate" specials such as pecan trout and pot roast.
Interestingly, Turner is careful to say that he's serving not buffalo, but bison. Of course, by now it's pretty widely known that the animal we have in this country is indeed the North American Plains bison -- there's a Woods Bison in Canada and a Wisent Bison in Europe -- that's a completely different species from the true buffalo, African Cape and Asian Water. In Europe, where water buffalo meat is also available, some bison producers make sure they call the meat bison. But here, the buffalo-laden lore of the Old West has always made it easier to market the meat as buffalo.
No matter what you call the meat, I know what to call Denver's bison-serving market: crowded.
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What does the Denver Buffalo Company (1109 Lincoln Street), considered Denver's main buffalo eatery (with the Buckhorn Exchange, at 1000 Osage Street, and The Fort in Morrison galloping close behind), have to say about another buffalo joint joining the herd? DBC owner Curt Sims says he's not concerned: "There's never such a thing as competition as long as our product is good. One of the biggest problems with buffalo is that it's still not mainstream enough, and I think adding more restaurants that offer buffalo will actually help us in the long run, not hurt us." Sims also rightly points out that most of the Montana Grill menu is lower-end; so far, nothing seems to cost more than $9.50.
Restaurant consultant John Imbergamo, who works with Sims, makes the same observation. "The menu is certainly a lot less ambitious than I thought, considering all the national press," he says. "They're serving mostly burgers and chicken sandwiches done 47 ways. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but you get the picture." Imbergamo adds that he's heard Turner's company is looking for a 3,000-square-foot site in LoDo, which would be pretty paltry compared to the DBC's 16,000 square feet.
A few months ago, Sims began renovating those 16,000 square feet -- gutting the market and renovating everything other than the dining room -- to increase and improve the bar space and turn a big chunk of the place into more of a lounge. What he really wants is for more of the thirty-and-over crowd that has begun to discover the DBC's great happy-hour snacks, good music and comfy digs to keep coming. "We have so much to offer the kind of crowd that doesn't really want to be at The Church or somewhere that attracts a lot of 22-year-olds," Sims explains. "And Lannie Garrett has become so popular here, we are really starting to see that people want to come in a lot to see her, and they also want to eat. At the same time, we have the kind of menu that is top-of-the-line stuff, and we need to charge $38 for a buffalo steak. But people who want to hang here and drink and eat can't be consistently paying that much." To fix that, Sims is also revamping the menu, lowering some prices and adding more value-conscious items that will go well with a brew and a little Lannie.
As for the distinction between buffalo and bison, "Why mess with success?" Sims asks. "We make it clear that this is bison meat, and one bite will tell you it isn't water buffalo. I don't think anyone's confused."