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A moment of silence, please, for Vega, the innovative (and really good) Nuevo Latino eatery run by Michael Payne and chef/partner Sean Yontz. After eighteen months, Vega served its final meal on Saturday, May 15, adding one more name to the long list of restaurants that have lived and died in that space at 410 East Seventh Avenue. Sacre Bleu. JV's the Cork. Fins. Transalpin.

And yet, no sooner had Vega gone dark than another contender stepped up. Sparrow is taking over the spot, with chef Josh Botsford in the galley, owner Nancy Scruggs handling the books, and a grand reopening set for sometime at the end of summer.

No word yet on where Yontz will land. But in the meantime, he's keeping his hand in the business, continuing his consulting gig with Mezcal.

Ask the critic: April 22, 2004, will go down as a red-letter day here at Bite Me World HQ, for that was the date of the issue carrying the first installment of the now world-famous "Ask the Critic" feature. Since then, literally tens of letters have flooded the mailroom, and the phones in the Critic's Bunker have been ringing off the hook with rich and powerful men trying to get a piece of the action. Regis Philbin wants a TV version: Who Wants to Be a Foie Gras Millionaire, with the winner taking home a million dollars worth of goose liver. George Lucas is interested in a full-length feature film with Eric Bogosian playing me -- the gruff but lovable restaurant critic -- discovering that Restaurant Kevin Taylor has been destroyed by a comical invasion of bumbling Rastafarian CGI space aliens. "Like Schindler's List meets Spaceballs," according to Mr. Lucas's people. So it's a heady time at Bite Me HQ. Now, about Kevin Taylor...

Q: Has Restaurant Kevin Taylor really been overrun by aliens?-- John

A: No. But Kevin Taylor did suffer a setback last week when his eponymous restaurant lost executive chef Chris Casson, who'd been with Taylor five years and worked as his exec for four. Casson's now back in the market, looking for a new kitchen to call home. (Sean Yontz is a Taylor veteran, too.) But there's good news for foodies in all of this: Taylor himself is stepping back onto the line and will be cooking not just until another warm body is found, but for the foreseeable future. After weathering a year's worth of bankruptcy arbitration, restaurant closures and other hurdles, Taylor is refocusing his energies on the five-year-old Hotel Teatro properties (Restaurant Kevin Taylor and Jou Jou). I can't wait to see what he's bringing to the table.

Q: I know it's been a rough season for independent restaurants, but are the chains suffering, too? And if not, why not? -- Jennifer

A: True, it's been a rough season. Matter of fact, it's been a rough three years for independent restaurant operators, and we've lost many good houses to the grosser inequities of a free-market economy. The big question: Is this problem endemic, or is it type-specific? Is it the Black Death, or more like a plague that only targets left-handed redheads?

For data, let's turn first to those restaurants that are making it despite the odds. The almost four-month-old Brix (see review) is doing a smashing business on nights when most restaurant dining rooms are crypts, and doing it on the back of an inexpensive menu served in a casual space with zero pretension. Brasserie Rouge is filling a big house by serving simple, non-threatening country French grub in a dining room carefully designed to feel comfortable, fun and boisterous no matter if it's a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon. The Painted Bench just celebrated five years in business, a birthday made possible by good food, great atmosphere and lotsa love. Cucina Colore? Packed on a Tuesday, with a wait out the door.

A few blocks away, though, Indigo has given up the New American glam it displayed for two years and is repositioning itself as a casual, basic fish house. And Sparrow is supposed to be a lot more relaxed than Vega, that elegant showplace it's replacing.

Are we seeing a trend here? In 2002 and 2003, Denver opened fine-dining restaurants at a per capita rate higher than that of New York City. The local industry absolutely fell in love with the idea of Denver as a hot new food town. Restaurateurs gambled -- hoping that the economy would turn around sooner rather than later -- and lost.

What we are seeing now is the shakeout. There's no way a town Denver's size could support every restaurant that opened during this time -- there simply aren't enough warm bodies and open wallets to fill those thousands of new seats -- and the stagnant economy doesn't help. What's working well today -- cheap, easy, uncomplicated -- isn't what we thought would work two years ago. It looks like the future's in cafes, brasseries and bistros with butcher's paper on the tables -- much to the consternation of all those linen companies that were making a mint laundering all those white tablecloths.

And as for the chains? Believe it or not, they're suffering too, just not as much or as publicly. The Big Bow Asian Kitchen brand from Brinker International (number-two player in the chain gang, just behind Darden Restaurants) is gone from Colorado, with Brinker shutting down four locations in this state (and wiping out our Best of Denver 2004 choice for Best Chain Restaurant for Families) and another 26 restaurants nationwide (out of 2,000-plus properties, most of them Chili's). Still, I don't think we're going to be tap dancing on the ashes of the Applebee's empire any time soon. That's the thing about selling your soul to the devil: You may have an eternity of hot pitchforks and Kenny G waiting for you in the great hereafter, but Ol' Nick really knows how to pay out on the mortal plane.

Q: Are you fat? From reading your reviews, I already know you're an idiot and like using bad language to make a point, but being a restaurant critic, I have to think that you're also pretty fat. That's sad. -- MaryKay

A: I follow a vigorous exercise regimen of pint-glass curls and obsessive-compulsive pacing, watch what I eat so that I don't accidentally swallow the fork, and am pretty sure that, while I sleep, my internal organs crawl out of my body and jog around the block just to keep in shape without my permission. So idiot, yes. Foul-mouthed? Absolutely. Am I going to be doing any J. Crew catalogue modeling in the near future? Not likely. But think about this: While you're sitting there in your stinking double-wide with your twelve cats, a peg leg and a mullet, scratching out your dim-witted screeds and cruising the personals for someone into mercy-fucking the crippled and dumb, I'll be out having a fine dinner in a nice suit with a pretty girl on my arm, not concerned one bit over the calories. How's that for sad?

Q: I have three days to plan a wedding reception for my daughter. Help! -- Wilford

A: With the restaurant economy the way it is, there's almost no house in town that wouldn't bend over backward for a large party and the chance to rip off a desperate father of the bride for fifty bucks a head and a cash bar. My first suggestion: Cross your fingers as you dial hotels that might have a rare vacancy. Adam's Mark, the Brown Palace, the Oxford, the JW Marriott in Cherry Creek when it opens June 1 -- any of the city's more tony addresses are more or less designed for this kind of thing. What's more, many of Denver's hotel-catering venues boast crack kitchen staffs: the crew from McCormick's cooking at the Oxford, Bryan Moscatello's guys from Table Six handling banquet service at the Marriott, and, at Adam's Mark, the kitchen behind Bravo! Ristorante, which got a 2002 Zagat award as one of the city's best restaurants (just tell them to hold the arias).

With only three days to do this, though, you may need to find a big restaurant that can handle a large party on short notice. In Larimer Square, the Capital Grille is a good bet, as are Tamayo and Bistro Vendome, both of which have side rooms that can be booked for private parties.

Now, can I kiss the bride?

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Q: What kind of wine goes best with Chinese takeout? -- Tom

A: A nice, crisp, fruity white. Failing that, Boone's Farm strawberry. The formaldehyde bouquet really complements the MSG, and it makes your teeth taste like furry SweeTarts.

Leftovers: The number-one (in revenues) company in the chain game has had a few setbacks of its own. Darden Restaurants, those lovable folks who are seeding every strip mall and boulevard on the planet with new Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters, shuttered six of its Bahama Breeze locations on May 11 in a move that sent absolutely no shockwaves whatsoever through the corridors of power. Darden owns roughly 1,300 restaurants; 38 of them are (or were) Bahama Breezes. And on the day that the closures and a concurrent $22.5 million "asset impairment" were announced, Darden's stock dropped exactly one penny. Locally, the Bahama Breeze at FlatIrons got the ax, leaving a 15,000-square-foot hole in the Big Mall consumer landscape.

Goose Sorenson and Brian Klinginsmith just picked up Robert McCarthy -- late of Mel's Restaurant & Bar, and one of my favorite pâtissières in town -- to do pastry and desserts at Solera and at their new Ivy Cafe. While he was still at Mel's, McCarthy made me my first vodka gelee and tangerine sorbet Cosmopolitan. But the time had come for him to move on, and lucky for him -- and for all us -- Solera was right there waiting for him. Finally, Nonna's Bistro is now open at 6603 Leetsdale Drive. It's family Italian served up by a real family, the Catalanos, who've been in the restaurant business since the mid-'50s. Want a taste of Chicago Italian here in Denver? Hurry over.

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