Denver has lost Twelve for the second time. Chef/restaurateur Jeff Osaka won't reopen his Congress Park restaurant, 12@Madison, which has been closed since March 17 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Osaka came to Denver and opened the original Twelve in 2008 in a former dive bar in the then up-and-coming Ballpark neighborhood, earning a James Beard Award nomination in 2014 before closing the restaurant later that year. In December 2016, the intimate, eclectic eatery returned in a new form as 12@Madison at 1160 Madison Street, offering an evolving selection of small plates in a setting that felt as much like a place for close friends to gather as it did one to celebrate special occasions.
Osaka says the logistics of trying to reopen the tiny space while keeping it safe for customers and employees proved too difficult to overcome, since a considerable percentage of the interior seating is dedicated to bar and chef's counter seating, and the neighborhood setting doesn't lend itself well to expanded outdoor seating.
"It was a very difficult decision because it was my second time around; you put everything you have into a restaurant," Osaka explains. "We could have pivoted, to use the current catchphrase, but then you lose the vision of why you opened in the first place and why the community was coming in."
The restaurant won our Best New Restaurant award just a few months after opening, and Osaka continued to gain momentum as one of Denver's premier restaurateurs, expanding his group of Sushi-Rama eateries while continuing the success of Osaka Ramen, which debuted in 2015. Last year, he also took over operations at the Empire Lounge & Restaurant in Louisville.
Osaka's measured and thoughtful approach to cooking that has been his trademark since the days of the original Twelve will now guide his decision-making with his other restaurants.
All of Osaka's restaurants remain closed for now, and he's taking the new state regulations into account so as not to rush into reopening. "It's going to benefit us, and our customers, to wait — because we're showing that we're putting a lot of thought into this," he notes.
Serving sushi on dome-covered plates from a conveyor belt that minimizes contact between customer and staff seems like a model built for the coronavirus era, but Osaka adds that there are many considerations to account for before the four Sushi-Rama locations can reopen, including how to expand outdoors and how to remove seating around the conveyor belts. In the meantime, the Empire is expected to reopen on June 5, with Osaka Ramen to follow later in the month before the sushi starts rolling again.
12@Madison was the kind of neighborhood restaurant — small but lively, and with something new and intriguing always appearing on the menu — that felt like a discovery to those seeking something new, and a second home to residents of the surrounding blocks. The story is the same in many other Denver neighborhoods, where other restaurateurs struggle to find footing, adapt to new circumstances and earn the trust of customers emerging from months of stay-at-home orders.
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