Alto and ESPN Zone leave empty spaces downtown

It's been one helluva week for the Denver dining scene, with a rash of surprise closings. The saddest loss was Alto, the restaurant that Greg Goldfogel opened at 1320 15th Street (in the old Sambuca space) after he closed his beloved Cherry Creek institution, Ristorante Amore, which went down to make way for another link in the Houston's chain. That restaurant, at 303 Josephine, opened in April.

Houston's is part of the Hillstone Restaurant Group, which boasts ten brands and outposts scattered in top real-estate markets across the country; Houston's alone has outposts in fourteen cities. And Denver's Houston's opened just a few blocks away from one of the most perennially (and maddeningly) successful of Cherry Creek's neighborhood restaurants: the Cherry Creek Grill, which also happens to be owned by Hillstone. At the time, it had seemed like an unusual move, to open one restaurant so close to another property; the cannibalizing of one dining room's numbers for the benefit of the other should have been an immediate red flag. And yet, today both Houston's and the Cherry Creek Grill are going strong. And Goldfogel? Left without any restaurant at all.

Which seriously sucks. Though Goldfogel was never able to recapture the kind of magic he had at Ristorante Amore (and was deviled by staff changes and kitchen issues after the move), Alto should have done better than it did. It had a good location just off the shoulder of Larimer Square, a nice room, an approachable menu. But things just never came together well enough for Goldfogel and his crew to make a go of it. The website, in lovely simplicity, summed it all up when the space went dark last week: "Alto is closed. Sorry for any inconvenience." No word yet on whether Goldfogel has another restaurant up his sleeve or who might be sniffing around the now-vacant space.

Alto wasn't the only joint to shut its doors recently, though. Denver also lost the ESPN Zone in the Tabor Center, San Lorenzo Ristorante in Greenwood Village, Grilled Skewer Vietnamese in that international stretch along Leetsdale Boulevard, then suffered a double hit at the Beauvallon complex, where both Brandon's Pub and Mr. Coco's went dark. The former is promising to reopen — though as of Monday, July 6, it was still locked up — but Mr. Coco's is definitely gone for good. This half-Mexican restaurant was so fly-by-night that, rather than taking down the awning erected by a former occupant (Marni's Steakhouse, which lasted, if I remember correctly, about 45 minutes before closing), it just stenciled the MR. COCO'S name right over the Marni's logo. Oh, and also? Mr. Coco's is a great name for a monkey, bad name for a restaurant.

Some of these spaces won't stay empty for long. The Tilted Kilt, part of an Arizona-based chain that began in (big surprise) Las Vegas, is moving in on some of that massive space left empty by the failure of ESPN Zone. It's a sports bar that runs with a weird kind of dirty Catholic-schoolgirl theme — all its servers dressed in plaid skirts, kneesocks and halter tops. Think a Celtic Hooters and you're in the ballpark. I have no doubt that the place is going to make a goddamn fortune in this town, since already lonely, lonely men sound like they're ready to camp out for months in advance, just waiting for the moment the doors are unlocked so they can get their fill of this boobs-and-beer fantasy land.

There's also finally some movement in the 250 Steele Street space abandoned last year by French 250. Signs are up now announcing the imminent arrival of Ondo's, a tapas bar that might — might — finally be the tapas bar that Denver has been waiting for. The owners, chefs Curt and Deicy Steinbecker, seem to actually know what they're doing when it comes to Spanish small plates. Both were trained at the Escuela de Cocina Luis Irizar and bring to the line a "passion for Spanish and Basque country cuisine" — at least according to the wonderfully unfinished website for Ondo's that's already online. Right now, the Steinbeckers are looking at a fall opening, and I'm getting hungry just thinking about what they could do in that space. Croquetas de jamón, albóndigas, bacalao, patatas bravas...

And one more piece of news: Biker Jim Pittenger, a regular in this column, announced that he has signed a one-year lease on an actual brick-and-mortar space at the Southlands development, way the fuck out in the 'burbs. Sure, he'll still have his Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs carts. He (or his minions) will still be pushing Red Hots and elk sausage and white veal brats on the office crowds downtown. But for Jim, the best part about picking up the new space (which came with an entire kitchen, more or less intact) is that he now has a fryer to play with. "I've never had a fryer before," he told me, "and I've always wanted one."

The best idea he's come up with so far? "Fry Everything Fridays," when he will either offer everything on his menu fried, or offer to fry anything a customer brings to him. Weird? Hell, yes. But then, so is Jim — and that's one of the reasons I like him. While most chefs or owners would be worrying about things like inspections and staffing and menu design, all Jim really seems to care about is whether or not he could fit a whole ham into his new Frialator.

That's my kind of guy.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan