Cafe Society

Update: Mark Berzins talks about Icehouse Tavern

If you read yesterday's post about chef James Mazzio's exit from Icehouse Tavern and the uh...unusual changes taking place there, you already have the background for this story. But for those of you who might've missed it (and are too lazy to click on the link above), here are the basics.

Over the weekend, Icehouse Tavern owner Venanzio Momo did a sudden about-face and turned what had been a half-breed fine-dining restaurant-slash-LoDo bar into the uncomplicated tavern that he'd always wanted it to be. On the surface, this involved a fast paint job, the installation of a bunch of pool tables and video games, the exit of his fine dining chef, James Mazzio, and the drastic lobotomization of the menu. On the surface, this was a drastic and unexpected shift in emphasis. Behind the scenes, it was...well, behind the scenes it was pretty much the same thing.

Venanzio Momo's "vision of the thing was that it would be a tavern," explains Mark Berzins, the man behind Little Pub Company and his new partner. "I mean, he even has it in the name: Tavern." But Momo wasn't able able to realize his vision, because "he's a restaurant guy," Berzins says. "He's got that mindset -- letting the kitchen run the show. [So] Venanzio and I are creating a little partnership to see what we can do with this place."

The way that partnership came together? History. Mark Berzins' father, Vilis Berzins, designed some of the early Momo restaurants. So Venanzio knew the name, knew the family. He also knew that Berzins is one of Denver's go-to guys for running solid and uncomplicated neighborhood bars -- places where the kitchen most assuredly does not run the show.

Venanzio was a restaurant guy who needed a bar guy. Berzins was a bar guy who thought he might be able to help. So the two of them sat down and had a meeting. And last Sunday at around 10 p.m., Icehouse Tavern closed the doors, Berzins and some of his guys came in the back door, and the next day the space re-opened as Icehouse Tavern. The turn-around took less than twelve hours. "I brought my painting crew, my vending crew, my furnishings crew," Berzins says, and together, they had the place changed before the sun was up.

According to Berzins, they did the work before the ink was dry on the deal. It was just one of those things: Berzins knew what needed to be done and had the guys to do it. And together they changed Icehouse "in a way that will probably bug Venanzio every day for the rest of his life," he says, then laughs. "Sometimes you need a guy like me."

A guy who has turned Icehouse from a mutant, kinda-fine-dining-sorta-modern-Italian-y-restaurant-with-a-bar-inside into a real tavern, nothing more, with late hours and a simple menu, designed (again, overnight) by chef Tim Shelly, ex of the Nine75 location up in Westminster and the man that Sean Kelly brought in to replace himself when he left Little Pub to run the kitchen at LoHi SteakBar.

Icehouse had to be "open late, every night, no matter what," Berzins says, in order to capture the after-dinner drinkers in LoDo, the restaurant crews looking for a place to unwind, and the crowds that normally jam the neighborhood on the weekends. It also needed much simpler (and cheaper) food -- a hybrid board, he explains, which is a little bit Pioneer (one of his newest pubs, at 2401 South University) in its dependence on chips, tacos and rellenos to keep the hungry drinkers fed, and a little bit Icehouse, with burgers and sandwiches for those looking for something more substantial.

What it doesn't have? Anything on the menu over $10. Or Mazzio in the kitchen.

"I told him that he was just way too high-power a guy for what I needed," Berzins explains. And he was probably right, though it must've come as something of a shock to Mazzio himself. Berzins says he kept most of the rest of the staffers: "One thing about restaurant guys: they usually hire really good crews."

Stay tuned for Mazzio's version of the events of the past week.