Union Station was once a bustling spot, but as fewer people decided to "travel by train," as its neon sign advises, more and more businesses pulled out of the station. By the early '80s, the only refreshment options were a soda fountain in the lobby, the classic Caboose Lounge and, for two glorious years, the Union Station Restaurant, a Cajun/Creole place run by Sarah and Bill Morgan, who also managed the bar and a sparkly space behind the Caboose, the site of some legendary parties. But when the restaurant closed, the Caboose derailed and the party space was turned into sober offices.
In the early '90s, as the construction of Coors Field brought a spate of new restaurants to LoDo and the future Ballpark neighborhood, some of that enthusiasm spilled into the wings of Union Station. On the side above 17th Street was Flat Pennies, followed by Walker's Sports Grill, A Bar and Citrus. On the other, there was T.G.I. Friday's, which was replaced by Redfish Seafood Kitchen, then Lotus. But that spot poured its last drink years ago, and any business ventures inside the station dried up entirely early this year, when the building was closed in anticipation of becoming the hub of a multi-modal system that is transforming the Platte Valley.
With the redevelopment of Union Station by the Union Station Alliance finally getting the green light, though, look for plenty of new spots to hop on board by the time the building reopens in 2014.
Dana Crawford, the original developer of Larimer Square, is part of that team; she still has fond memories of the Union Station Restaurant, and occasionally has Sarah Morgan cook up some gumbo. Walter Eisenberg, whose Sage Hospitality runs the nearby Oxford Hotel as well as the JW Marriot in Cherry Creek and properties across the country, is another partner. And then there's Joe Vostrejs, COO of Larimer Associates, which revitalized Larimer Square, who'll be responsible for the retail/restaurant mix in the station. "It's a great old building," he says. "We're really not ready to announce anything, but we have a lot of ideas about what we want to do there."
The partners will spend the next few months on research, conducting focus groups with neighbors and transit riders alike, and also seeing what's worked -- and what hasn't -- at other facilities around the country. They'll even take a look at the market -- really more like a food hall -- that was part of the competing proposal by the Union Station Neighborhood Co., and featured the star power of the Frasca Food and Wine owners. The food hall idea is "pretty darn interesting," says Vostrejs. "There are a couple of groups around the country, some affiliated with famous chefs, who are doing food halls."
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USA is looking at a mix of restaurants, retail and services, playing off the approach that Larimer Associates took when it revamped Larimer Square, going from a "tourist-oriented mall mix" to more of a "chefs/boutique mix," Vostrejs says. "We want to get as many things in there as we can. We'd rather have twelve or fifteen small things than three big things. That's going to make it a lot more interesting and diverse."
And we can definitely get on board one of the things he's thinking about, which would fill a real void in LoDo. "I'd kind of like to see a really cool 24-hour diner there," he confesses. "We'll look at that, for sure."
A version of this story originally appeared in Cafe Bites, our every Wednesday e-mail newsletter devoted to food and drink in Denver. To subscribe, sign up here.