The Year That Was
This has been a helluva year for restaurants, full of adventures and tragedies, good times and bad. Although the rest of the economy continued to bump along, the restaurant economy picked up in a big way -- and for reasons that no one has yet been able to adequately explain to me. Some guys who made no money in 2005 suddenly started seeing a little green. And some guys who were already making a little money started making a lot. But many of my personal bests -- from a midwinter hunt for an illegal house restaurant to a big dinner at the Palace Arms -- were simply priceless.
What follows is a month-by-month recap, my highlight reel -- like one of those videotapes they advertise for sale on TV at three in the morning: World's Greatest Car Chases, World's Bloodiest Circus Accidents. Only in this case, we're talking about restaurants: Denver's Most Notable Industry Moments, 2006. But that doesn't preclude a good car chase, of course...;
January kicked off with the closure of Mao, the Sullivan Restaurant Group's big bid to dominate Cherry Creek, which later resurfaced as Ocean. Around the corner, at 250 Josephine Street, Chris and Keri Douglas opened Tula -- a good restaurant at an address that has swallowed many other concepts. One was Larry Herz's Go Fish Grille; Herz, who'd vowed to "never open another restaurant again," started the year by leaving the gig he'd taken with the Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group. Another Cherry Creek venture, Steak au Poivre, failed to get traction during the holiday season and went belly-up, setting off a schizoid series of name changes and space divisions. It became Euro, split off half its square footage for Bar Luxe, brought on Olav Peterson as chef de cuisine -- and kept right on losing gobs of money.
My year began with an epic quest for Ghanaian goat-nipple soup as photographer Mark Manger and I wandered the stranger quarters of Aurora's African immigrant neighborhoods, looking for a secret house restaurant on its last night of service ("Mama's House," January 5). This snowblind adventure had everything: danger, new friends, unusual hairdos, strange foods, plus hours and hours spent driving in circles, lost. Many cigarettes were smoked, many wrong turns taken. But it was one of my favorite stories from 2006 and one of the best nights of the year. It's so like me to peak early.
February began with another sort of quest, this one led by Sean Yontz and Jesse Morreale, who took me into the bowels of the All-Inn, the hotel that Morreale had bought on East Colfax Avenue. Perry's had occupied the main floor and basement of the place when it was the Executive Inn Motor Hotel, then been sealed off for three decades, pretty much forgotten until Yontz and Morreale opened a door one day and found the perfectly preserved spot waiting. Morreale has since resurrected the space as RockBar.
Later that month, Lola closed its location on South Pearl Street (it's now occupied by BB's Bistro) in preparation for a move to north Denver. Meanwhile, owner Dave Query got into a legal slap flight with a coffee shop on 15th Street over rights to the Lola name. Query won, and Lola (the coffee shop), went on to become Leela, then disappeared altogether before the year ended.
By March, the edge of Highland was becoming a very hot restaurant neighborhood, as I discovered when I managed to blow my cover in something like eight different ways during just one dinner at the excellent Duo ("Busted!" March 9). Over in Aurora, a new tenant -- Boudreaux's Bayou Buffet -- opened in a space at 12200 East Cornell that had already seen three restaurants come and go just in the time I'd lived in the neighborhood.
In April, Super Star Asian blew my fucking mind over and over again with the best dim sum I've ever had outside of a proper, big-city Chinatown ("Sum More, Please," April 6). I fell totally, completely head over heels in love with this place (an emotion that has not slacked one bit over the intervening months), and even went so far as to order my first bowl of shark fin soup there. It cost $46 and was sadly bland, so it will probably be my last bowl of shark fin soup as well.
Back in Cherry Creek, Euro was still going through rough times. But they weren't nearly as bad as they were on the east side of town, where Chapter One Bar-B-Que was sold, became Chapter Two Bar-B-Que and suddenly started sucking. And Boudreaux's closed after less than a month in business. But Lola got open at 1575 Boulder Street, and at least Query wasn't involved in the next name fight -- this one between Chris Douglas at Tula and lawyers representing Tamayo, who claimed that owner Richard Sandoval had invented the term "Modern Mexican" and that by calling his place "Tula Modern Mexican," Douglas was violating trademark. By my count, there were 117,998 Google hits for the phrase "Modern Mexican" -- and only two of them led to Sandoval's website, www.modernmexican.com -- but Douglas went ahead and dropped "Modern Mexican" from Tula's name.
And I had my own brush with the law: While dining at the wonderful Istanbul Grill at 10009 East Hampden Avenue, my dinner was interrupted by a robbery ("True Crime," April 27).
May saw Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch from Rioja taking over Bistro Vendôme across the street in Larimer Square, Francis Carrera from Buenos Aires Pizzeria picking up the former home of Saverino at 2191 Arapahoe Street and opening Bueno Aires Grill, Kevin Taylor adding to his rapidly expanding empire with Prima Boulder, and Michel Wahaltere (ex-consultant from Euro) opening Seven Eurobar, also in Boulder. And in Manhattan, I got to talk sex and haute cuisine with Gael Greene.
In June, I ate pounds of chicken-fried steak and sausage gravy at Rosie's Diner and Davies Chuck Wagon Diner ("Nothing Could Be Finer," June 8). But I still showed more sense than Morreale and Yontz, who got involved in the best low-speed car chase since OJ and the white Bronco while trying to get their taco truck, El Mariachi, back from some less-than-honest mechanics. The idea was to steal the truck back from the mechanics and bring it home -- and at twelve miles an hour, while being chased by said mechanics and their friends, that's exactly what they did, towing it all the way back from Brighton to East Colfax.
In July, other restaurateurs had all the adventure they needed just getting their new ventures up and running. After years of planning, Josh Wolkon and Matt Selby from Vesta Dipping Grill opened Steuben's at 523 East 17th Avenue, and it's been busy ever since. Alex Gurevich from Cafe Bisque got his second restaurant open, too: Limon, a Peruvian Novoandino place at 1618 East 17th. And over at 2991 West Evans, I discovered Cowbobas -- which quickly became one of my favorite little neighborhood restaurants in the city ("Stranger Than Fiction," December 7). Anywhere I can get a T-bone, a salad, a baked potato and two Vietnamese coffees for under fifteen bucks is my kind of place.
While we made gains in July, August was marked by losses. Monkey Bean was driven out of business by a landlord who jacked up the rent. Los Troncos, Yummy Yummy Tasty Thai and Wolfgang Puck Express closed, as did the Pinnacle Club, for all but special events. But Larry Herz took advantage of this lull in the action to announce that despite his earlier pronouncement, he was getting back in the restaurant game as the new owner of Seven 30 South.
In September, I spent a night at the Vietnam House nightclub-slash-restaurant that was almost as weird as my trip to Mama's house, full of gangsters, cops, club kids and hard boys, top-shelf cognac, great soup and, on stage, the Southeast Asian Elvis belting out love ballads to a crowded house ("Elvis Lives," September 28). But Vietnam House died a few months later. Back in Cherry Creek, Bob's Steak and Chop House -- where fifty-dollar prime tenderloins were the norm and everything got served with a gigantic carrot -- was replaced by Prime 121. A couple of blocks away, Greg Goldfogel announced that his Ristorante Amore would eventually be leaving the neighborhood; in the meantime, he picked up the 15th Street space that Sambuca will vacate New Year's Day -- even though those folks spent much of the fall denying that they were closing. And at 12200 East Cornell, yet another restaurant moved in: Windows Cafe, an all-vegetarian pan-Asian eatery that, remarkably, remains open today.
October brought a slew of announcements. WaterCourse Foods was leaving its longtime digs on 13th Avenue and moving into the former home of New York on 17th. Mel and Jane Master revealed that they'd be taking over the 1120 East Sixth Avenue space occupied by Piscos, which had once held Dudley's, one of the Masters' original restaurants. The new place would be called Montecito and would feature a modern take on the Italian-influenced California cuisine that the Masters had helped to spread during the glory days of the revolution. And then came the news that Sean Kelly was pulling out of Somethin' Else at 1313 East Sixth, where Alex Seidel and Paul Attardi would open Fruition after the new year.
By November, Olav Peterson had left Euro -- which should have been a death knell for the place but wasn't. The kitchen went to sous chef Marc Carmean, and the restaurant still struggled along, trying to find its legs. We lost Duffy's Shamrock but gained the new WaterCourse.
And finally, in mid-December, when most restaurateurs are just trying to survive the season, there were two restaurant openings: Vita, at 1575 Boulder Street, and the aforementioned Montecito. That, if nothing else, shows what a promising year it's been for restaurants, particularly if they're in the hot neighborhoods of Sixth Avenue, the edge of Highland or 17th Avenue.
What else have we learned this year? We've learned that simplicity sells, that Americana and regional cuisines are both hot, and that no one has to call their restaurants "New American" just to get foodies through the doors anymore. Places like Steuben's and Montecito, the continued success of Cafe Star and Mel's, and even Cowbobas (which I count as American because it's so kinked for its melting-pot neighborhood) have proven that. Also, places that are most definitely not American -- like Super Star and Limon and Parallel Seventeen, the nouvelle Vietnamese small-plates restaurant right next door -- have worked brilliantly and seen staggering success based almost entirely on word of mouth. Smaller has also proven to be better. A sixty-seat restaurant like Duo is easier to keep a handle on than a 200-seat operation. And a twenty-seat house, like the simplicity-incarnate Tables at 2267 Kearney Street, is even better -- provided the rent is low enough.
We've also learned what doesn't work: drama, uproar, concepts that look better on paper than they taste on the plate, basement locations, restaurants that have more people in their PR department than in their kitchen, fusion restaurants that aren't based -- at least loosely -- on culinary history. And Euro.
All things considered, it's been a pretty wild year. I can't wait for 2007.
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