Denver foodbeasts who eat up the city's culinary scene had plenty to chew on in 2011: Big-name chefs who abruptly closed their restaurants; other chefs who walked out; a restaurant that burst into flames -- and rose from the ashes; a very public divorce; and sadly, unfathomably, a beloved restaurateur and chef who took his own life. Here's a look back at the biggest restaurant industry stories, closings, disappointments and gossip that had us wagging our tongues -- and sometimes sobbing -- in 2011.
Noel Cunningham's death
Nothing -- and I mean, nothing -- could have prepared any of us for the sudden death of Noel Cunningham, a husband, father, chef and selfless humanitarian who took his own life on Thursday, December 2. Shocked, grief-stricken and speechless, the community struggled with Noel's passing, but his funeral, which was attended by nearly 1,500 people, was a lovely tribute to the feisty Irishman who did more for others in the span of one day than most of us do in a lifetime. His wife, Tammy, whom Noel called the "greatest love of my life," continues to carry on his legacy -- both at Strings and in the non-profit work to which Noel and Tammy had committed their lives. In early February, numerous Denver chefs will pay tribute to Noel at a "Strings of Hope" charity event.
Troy Guard and Leigh Sullivan split
Ah, holy matrimony. The odds of staying married keep dwindling faster than the pool of formidable Republican presidential candidates, but some splits are more public than others, and when Leigh Sullivan and Troy Guard, who owns TAG, TAG RAW BAR and Madison Street, announced earlier this year that the honeymoon had ended after eight years of marriage, it made headlines -- here, there and everywhere, in part because a slew of employees left TAG as a result of the backlash. In case you're wondering, both parties are doing just fine, thank you very much, and we wish them all the best in 2012.
Restaurateur Mark Tarbell abruptly shutters Tarbell's and The Oven at the Streets at SouthGlenn
Phoenix-based chef and restaurateur Mark Tarbell has had his share of woes -- at least in Denver. He opened -- and quickly closed -- Mark & Isabella, an awful Italian restaurant that opened in Belmar in early 2009 and closed that same year, and last year, after unveiling two restaurants at the Streets at SouthGlenn-- a second The Oven Pizza e Vino (the original is in Belmar) and his namesake Tarbell's, he abruptly, very abruptly, shuttered those, too, leaving behind a posse of disgruntled employees.
Justin Brunson walks out on Wild Catch -- and so does the rest of the staff
To recap: Justin Brunson, the mastermind behind Masterpiece Deli, teamed up with Daniel Kuhlman, who owns Tastes Wine Bar and Bistro on Tennyson Street, to open a sustainable seafood restaurant in Uptown called Wild Catch. But after just a few months, Brunson and Kuhlman had a less than amicable parting of the ways: Brunson walked after accusing Kuhlman of secrecy, his followers joined in the escape, Kuhlman attempted (unsuccessfully) to change the locks and then, bereft of a staff, closed Wild Catch for several weeks. He reopened on December 14, hiring Tony Clement, an alum of Mizuna, to command the burners, and while Cafe Society readers were skeptical that Clement could pull it off, Brunson had heard enough: "I'm sure that he can keep up the same quality of food as I did -- the guy can really, really cook -- and there's no reason for all the negativity. Shut up and give the guy a fair chance. It's the right thing to do," he urged the cynics.
The city of Denver vs food trucks
Gourmet food trucks were a hot trend in 2011 (and still are), but five different city departments, each with their own set of rules and regulations, made Denver's food-truck operators go batshit-crazy with their outdated litany of dos and don'ts, making it difficult for our mobile meals on wheels food slingers to do business. Even former mayoral candidate Chris Romer stuck his fingers in the crumb jar, championing the Denver Cupcake Truck, which was pulled off the road because of zoning issues. "Bureaucracy and red tape in city government need to be cut when it's standing in the way of delicious treats. Whose day isn't better with a cupcake?" wrote Romer on his website. The city eventually drafted a guide for food truck entrepreneurs, which, unfortunately still includes a ridiculous amount of red tape...and no updated ordinances. When I did a Chef and Tell interview with Eric Chiappetta, the former chef of Pizza Republica, and asked him what he'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary perspective, his answer was this: "A loosening of the red tape and all the other crap that the city enforces on small restaurants. Ease the fuck up! We're trying to add more tax revenue to your busted government. I could open a medical marijuana store in a day if I wanted to -- really."
Squeaky Bean loses its lease -- and finds a new plot to sprout
When news came down that the Squeaky Bean, a Highland restaurant overseen by quirky owner Johnny Ballen, his superbly talented chef, Max MacKissock, and their equally accomplished caravan of bartenders, cooks and servers, was shutting its doors after lease negotiations with the Bean's landlord, which happens to own the next-door Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe -- had come to a halt, we were nothing short of crushed. But finally, after months of scouring for a new space, the Bean will reopen late this spring in the Saddlery Building at 1500 Wynkoop Street. "We're puttin' the Bean back together, man. We're on a mission from God," said Ballen when I interviewed him. Thank the food gods for small miracles.
Brown Dog Pizza vs the South Gaylord Neighborhood Association
Brown Dog Pizza, a Telluride-based pizzeria, had plans to open a second store on South Gaylord Street in the home of a former landscaping company. And the majority of us who live in the Wash Park 'hood, myself included, were pretty damn happy about that. But the South Gaylord Neighborhood Association wasn't remotely thrilled about a pizza joint pouring liquor, of all things. God forbid you want a pint with your pepperoni, so the association took it upon itself to battle the liquor license -- and won, leaving the rest of us lushes thirsty, fuming and unforgiving. Ironically, another pizza emporium -- Il Vicino, a New Mexico-based pizza chain -- is now attempting to open its third Denver store in the same location that bit Brown Dog. The hearing was on December 28; the license is still pending.
Steak 'n Shake finally greases Denver
"I've been waiting five years for this!" screeched a woman who couldn't stop trembling. "A woman who told me that she'd been waiting thirty years -- thirty years! -- for a Steak 'n Shake in Denver started crying as soon as she got here," said Mark Clark, a partner in the Steak 'n Shake empire that opened its first Colorado location in Centennial in November to hordes of crowds who clearly thought a Steak 'n Shake was the next best thing to immortality. Several more Steak 'n Shake outlets are planned for the Denver metro area, including one at Santa Fe and Belleview. The burgers are good, but waiting in the drive-thru queue for hours on end -- which hundreds of die-hards did on opening day -- is ludicrous. Imagine if it were In-N-Out (which I'll get to shortly).
Oak at 14th rises from the ashes
Back in March, at the start of spring when botanicals are blooming, a very different scenario was unfolding at Oak at Fourteenth, the Boulder restaurant owned by star bartender Bryan Dayton and exec chef Steve Redzikowski. A fire had erupted in the restaurant's attic, and thick billows of black smoke saturated the Boulder skyline. The damage was extensive -- so extensive, in fact, that it took nine months to gut and rebuild the space, which reopened on December 14.
South Pearl Street loses three restaurants in one fell swoop
They say that things happen in threes, and that was definitely the case this past weekend, when Pearl Street Grill, OTOTO and India's Pearl all shut their doors on South Pearl Street, one of the city's most vibrant restaurant rows. Pearl Street Grill will relocate to another space on the block (and while we know which one, we're keeping it a secret...for now); OTOTO is gone -- completely; and India's Pearl, which opened in 2008, is now just a ghost, too, leaving the block devoid of ethnic food, save for the Hungarian Budapest Bistro, which is eerily silent on most nights of the week. But while we're saddened by the closures, it gives South Pearl Street the opportunity to revamp its dining-out options. Taqueria! Taqueria! Taqueria! Just not another burger joint. Please!
Trader Joes and In-N-Out: Will they, or will they not, open in Denver?
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Oh, who the fuck knows? Rumors have been running rampant for years that soon! soon! Denver would get its very own In-N-Out Burger, along with its first Trader Joes. But recently, there's been a palpable shift in those rumors, one of them fueled by California native and District 8 Denver city councilman Albus Brooks, who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows someone else, which led him to post this on his Facebook page: "Had a great conversation with folks tied to in-n-out execs. How hungry are y'all to have them come to Denver?" Frankly, I'm not sure why the councilman is so damn eager for an In-N-out Burger to come to Denver at all. It's a chain -- a good one, yes -- but it's still a chain, and don't we already have enough burger shacks in this city? Still, it's on his agenda for 2012. As for Trader Joes, there's speculation that it will finally open a store in Denver -- on Colorado Boulevard -- within the next two years, but we've heard that before. In the meantime, it's only a five-hour drive to the Trader Joes in Santa Fe. And Bobcat Bite is there, too, which is better than any burger at In-N-Out.