There's nothing like a first-date dinner. You probably picked a place with dim lighting, something that looked good on Yelp, with food that leans toward the sensual but doesn't belie any unsavory intentions. You might choose a place like Vesta Dipping Grill, which not coincidentally has been a regular Best of Denver pennant-holder — especially when it comes to the world of dating in Denver. Makes sense, because the decor is sexy and the central concept of "dipping" sounds at least a little naughty. My pal had to cancel on me though, leaving me solo in a restaurant where companionship and romance is almost an imperative. Can one man survive happy hour in this environment?
Vesta recently reopened after a few days of maintenance, reminding me of how I had never bothered to visit. With nearly two decades under its belt, Vesta has survived long enough to beget two other eateries — Steuben's and Ace — that have gone on to define Denver restaurant culture rather than fading from our collective memory. Even though my happy hour at Ace was brought down by problems in the kitchen, I knew that Vesta had a history of excellence that continues into the modern day. And it turns out I wasn't the only one alone at happy hour, which is served from 5 to 6:30 p.m. every day at the bar only. In the weekday twilight, the vibe at Vesta is more suited to casual hangout than marriage proposal.
Happy hour proffers a simple, menu, removed from the $30-plus entrees and the mammoth list of dipping sauces at dinner. Almost everything here appears on the small plates menu, only for a more digestible fee. There's a few bites of meat, a summer vegetable plate ($10), and a flatbread sampler ($5) that provides easy access to five of the namesake sauces. As at Ace, there's a heavy Asian-fusion hand at work here, but the prodigious liquor list is all about the classics, and with $3 beers and $5 cocktails, aperitifs and wines, maybe this is still 1998. But there are no apple-tinis or cosmos to be found, just solid tipples like the tart take on a French 75, the Vesta 75. With citrus-infused gin, cava and a sprig of rosemary, it's austere rather than flouncy. But that experience came after I tried to be hip and order a glass of fino sherry, which to my unlearned palate whiffed of soggy cardboard and Brazil nuts. Not the bar's fault, it was chilled perfectly, but now I know to take more care.
Caution isn't necessary when faced with the eats on offer, though. I dove into the pupu platter ($10), which collects three happy hour items on a single plate. The bites fit well together, with salt & vinegar duck wings, golden ponzu shrimp and two pieces of Chinese barbecue pork belly, accompanied by four monkey dishes of sauce. Chopsticks are appropriate for the little shrimp, as Vesta recommends you dip them in sambal aioli, surely one of the restaurant's finest creations. If being bathed in rich soy butter wasn't enough, these shrimp had the honor of being dipped in bright orange aioli with a creeping Scoville level. The kitchen also provides a jalapeño ponzu sauce which was actually better suited to the wings. Stick a drumstick in the ponzu or the dried apricot chutney and welcome yourself to the dark (meat) side. Not as meaty as their sports bar cousins, these duck wings had the necessary crunch and tenderness, even though the sauces provided much of the flavor. Now, I've eaten enough pork belly at happy hours in this city to start trading myself on the commodities market, but Vesta's samplings didn't hit me in the gut. They're pretty enough, with a slice of orange, a dollop of yuzu mayo (fantastic, as expected) and a halo of micro greens, but something's gone a bit wrong from farm to fork — fat, muscle and sauce turned to mealy mush.
Of course Vesta has had to evolve with and beyond its central concept, otherwise it would be in the restaurant graveyard along with the ruins of Café Odyssey, that old theme restaurant from the early days of the Denver Pavilions. The '90s are in fashion everywhere but here, where the menu has kept up with changing restaurant trends and happy hour is just one sign of the times.
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Perfect For: Every Monday night, Vesta creates a prix-fixe menu with three courses for $30. If you spend Monday nights hungry and unappreciated, take solace in the fact that this kitchen is making something special for you and anyone else looking for a hearty meal on a slow night.
Don't Miss: Chicken sausage is like a third nipple: unwanted and mostly flavorless. But leave it to Vesta to justify its existence with a smoked chicken sausage plate ($12, $10 at happy hour). The link is well-crafted and not choking with smoky flavor — and the crispy sweet onions are some of the best bites I've ever had out of a fryer. Flaky batter infused with a simple but tantalizing array of spices, clinging to juicy peels of onion — it's a spiritual experience.