Over the last few years, East 17th Avenue has seen some remarkable restaurant successes. The street has become one of Denver's food hubs — a restaurant row on par with East Sixth Avenue and Larimer Street. Concepts that failed everywhere else in the city (dessert bars, upscale Vietnamese) or are so ridiculous that they've been attempted nowhere else (Novoandino cuisine, anyone?) have taken root along this fertile stretch of blacktop and become not just successful, but virtually indispensable benchmarks of Denver's growth as a food town.
One thing that 17th Avenue hasn't seen a lot of over the past five years? High-profile closures. Maybe it's something in the water. More likely, it's what's in the wallets of the neighbors. But by my count, there have been precisely two big-time restaurant failures along the most densely populated stretch of 17th. The most recent was Aix, which tanked during the downturn and made way (at near-record speed) for Olivea, the restaurant I review this week. The other was Milagro Taco Bar, the legendary taco bar/cantina under the command of Frank Bonanno that is legendary mostly for the 800 different ways that it sucked by the time it finally, mercifully shut the doors.
While they didn't move as quickly as Olivea's owners, the folks behind Boulder's Mountain and Southern Sun pubs recognized that their concept might work on 17th, too. So in May 2008, they resuscitated an address that had some serious bad mojo (before Milagro, it was the Rhino Room and Sky Diner and Juanita's and God knows what else) and opened their first Denver outlet: the Vine Street Pub.
Vine Street has three things going for it. First, it's on 17th Avenue — and that address seems to work as vitamin C for keeping restaurants healthy. Second, it has a bunch of good microbrews hauled around by a very friendly staff who honestly appear to know they're there to serve the needs of their customers (something that's all too rare in restaurants that play as much Dave Matthews Band as this one does). And third, the menu offers build-your-own grilled cheese sandwiches, an idea that sounds great on paper. But no matter how DIY an item is, there still has to be someone in the back of the house capable of taking orders and building something to a customer's specifications. And that's where Vine Street disappointed me.
I stopped in at Vine Street when I was touring 17th last week, and hungry, and asked for a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and avocado and french fries — a fairly simple request. But while the basic elements of the grilled cheese sandwich experience were solid (good bread, grilled but not burnt, with plenty of melted cheese inside), the avocados were cut way too thick and were bitter, chalky and underripe besides, and the fries were just...rustic. Hand-cut, which was nice. But overcooked bordering on burnt, and unsalted, too.
Nothing on the plate was bad enough to make me want to steer clear of Vine Street Pub next time I'm on 17th. And even though I was disappointed by my first grilled cheese experience, the rest of the menu (bar food, primarily, leaning in a hippie/Mexican direction) appeared well thought out and worth my consideration. Hell, I'd go back just for another pint of Mountain Sun's Quinn's Golden Ale.
Besides, 17th Avenue — so rich in high-end culinary diversity and European translations — needs a place like Vine Street, a simple pub for serious beer fans. And in terms of food, just about anything would be an improvement over Milagro.