His long, lanky body clad in a T-shirt, knee-length shorts and Converse tennis shoes, Josh Wolkon slips into a booth at Steuben's, orders a Pimms cocktail and stretches his arms. The last few months have been a whirlwind for the owner of Steuben's, which he unleashed in Uptown in 2007. Next month, he'll open Ace Eat Serve, a 9,000-square-foot ping pong-themed playground that pimps Asian cuisine.
But before any of that, there was Vesta Dipping Grill, one of the first restaurants to open in LoDo, long before the downtown enclave became a breeding ground for fashionable restaurants, cocktail bars and nightclubs -- long before Wolkon, who opened Vesta in 1997, along with his wife, Jen, would become a respected household name in the restaurant industry. Next month marks Vesta's fifteen-year anniversary.
"My dream in high school and throughout college was to own my own restaurant," says the Boston native, who managed a Westin hotel in his native city, before moving to Boulder post-college in 1993, where he was a cook at the now defunct Oasis Brewery, part of the opening team of the Foundry, which had a thirteen-year run in Boulder until it closed in 2009, and a staff member at A Spice of Life Catering, which is still going strong since its inception in 1987.
But that was just prep work for the restaurant he would eventually open at the age of 26. "I'd been working on a business plan for Vesta, and to be honest, I thought I'd be opening it in Boston," says Wolkon, but his real estate agent convinced him to look in Denver, specifically LoDo. "I remember thinking that I knew nothing about downtown Denver, except the 16th Street Mall -- I didn't understand what Denver was," he admits.
His real estate agent, however, sold him on the idea -- and the price per square foot, which was way less than anything in Boulder, was appealing to Wolkon. But it was the promise of a proposed new Stadium Walk, a big-name tenant development and movie theater that had Arnold Schwarzenegger's name attached to it, that sealed the deal. Wolken signed a lease on the space in 1996, figuring that if the concept of Vesta failed, he "could always do burgers. Either way, I couldn't lose," he reasons.
But when the developer pulled the plug on the Stadium Walk in the spring on 1997, losing tenants to the Denver Pavilions, which later opened on the 16th Street Mall, Wolkon realized that if Vesta was going to be successful, he'd need to get it right. "I got a small business loan from a woman who was a foodie, and I begged and borrowed from family members to open this restaurant, and while I didn't have a clue about what I was doing, I knew that when I first walked into the space, I immediately saw Vesta -- I saw my dream, and I was going to have a good time with it, " he recalls.
During one of pre-opening parties, however, Wolkon panicked. "The computer system crashed, so we had to give out a lot of gift cards, because a lot of people didn't get their food that night, and then the Denver Post wrote about it the next day, which sucked," recounts Wolkon, who also recollects meeting a pile of puke at the top of the stairs after a very long night. "This is what I asked for -- the glamorous life of restaurant ownership," he remembers telling himself.
And then the reviews started to pour in -- and they were mainly positive save, he says, for the review from former Wesword critic Kyle Wagner (now the travel editor at the Denver Post), who slammed, justifiably, notes Wolkon, the restaurant's original chairs, one of which he wrapped in a bow and sent to Wagner as a Christmas gift. The chairs are long gone, although Wolkon saved one as a memento, which now hangs by the bathrooms at Vesta.
When the reviews hit print, says Wolkon, "Vesta just exploded." The power of the press, he allows, "was really evident," and while there are some restaurants that generate accolades only to rest on their laurels, Wolkon and his team, which includes Matt Selby, a Denver native who was hired straight out of the gate as a sous chef and promoted to executive chef three months later (he's now the chef/partner of Vesta, Steuben's and Ace), insisted that it wasn't enough. "We were having a great time, but we had no idea how to run a business -- we just knew that LoDo was beginning to take off and that we had to continue to get better and better," says Wolkon."
So while the original menu, which hustled skewers and dipping sauces, became Vesta's clever calling card, Selby wasn't content with being pigeonholed as the restaurant with skewers and dipping sauces. "We started with skewers," says Wolkon, "but Matty pushed to refine the menu, and we've continued to do that since the very beginning."
They've pushed, too, for a presence in the community and for Denver chefs to have each other's backs, especially given the city's increasingly competitive culinary scene. "We've definitely striven to create a community around the restaurant, and when you look at today's generation of chefs, these guys have a great sense of brotherhood," explains Wolkon, adding that "we've always tried to help a lot of the younger restaurants find their way."
But for all of Vesta's success, it's easy for a restaurant that's witnessed a proliferation of bright, new wunderkinds behind the line and splashy over-budget dining rooms with bathrooms that cost as much as some houses to fade away, either because fickle diners embrace the Next Big Thing, or the restaurant itself simply loses its vitality.
Wolkon is well aware of the dining public's waywardness, but he insists that remaining "relevant" has always been at the forefront of his mind. "We know that we still have to stay on our feet fifteen years later, and we pay very close attention to what's going on in other cities, but more important, we're staying relevant by giving our regulars consistency. We just need to continue to be Vesta, to deliver a fun, casual fine-dining experience, because that's what differentiates us," notes Wolkon, adding, too, that hundreds of guests, in Denver and elsewhere, have chosen Vesta for their celebratory occasions.
And those celebrations, he says, motivated him and his staff to give away twenty free seats to Vesta's upcoming fifteenth anniversary party on July 19, which is now sold out (except for the seats that will be given away on Facebook). The dinner, which starts at 6 p.m., is a six-course feast cooked by Selby; Kenny Turk, Vesta's executive chef; Brandon Biederman, a former Vesta cook who's now the executive chef of Steuben's; and five more Vesta line alumni, including Tyler Skrivanek (Duo); James Rugile (Mizuna); Wade Kirwan (Adrift); Dillon Maddox (Solera); and Drew Hardin (Lola).
"We were all talking about the Vesta anniversary party, and since we've had hundreds of celebrations here -- marriage proposals, proms, birthdays, bachelorette parties -- we wanted to hear about people's visits over the years and invite those people, some of whom we know, some of whom have flown under the radar, to have a great time with all of us," says Wolkon. "We're all really grateful for Denver, and we're thankful that this city has given us kids the opportunity to stay around as long as we have."
If you still want to submit your celebratory story, you can do so at https://www.facebook.com/events/474705429210973/. Eight couples and one party of four will be chosen from the submissions, and while the dinner is free, donations will be accepted on behalf of LoDo Cares, a non-profit that supports the Barth Hotel, managed by Senior Housing Options (SHO), along with beautification projects such as river sweeps and tree planting programs and homelessness efforts.
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