The 20th Street Cafe was one of Denver's most underappreciated restaurants before it closed last March in the wake of COVID-related, statewide dining-room shutdowns. Not only did the downtown diner represent the life's work of three generations of the Okuna family — Harry and Tsugi Okuno opened it in 1946 — but it captured a piece of Japanese-American history in both its origins and its menu. But the 20th Street Cafe was more than just a time capsule; it was one of the last downtown eateries where comfort and value superseded trendiness.
The New York Times recognized the importance of the 20th Street Cafe in its December 28 "The Restaurants We've Lost," which paid tribute its final owners, Rod and Karen Okuno, along with other chefs and restaurateurs who have shuttered restaurants across the U.S. over the past nine months. The story, which describes how Harry and Tsugi Okuno opened the cafe after being held at Camp Amache, the Japanese internment camp in southeastern Colorado during World War II, includes a photo taken by Danielle Lirette, who captured the homey qualities of the diner and its good food for our restaurant review in 2018.
Esquire Magazine chose a different way of highlighting Colorado, picking important restaurants that are still open to illustrate the difficulties the industry has faced since the pandemic began. In its December 29 feature titled "100 Restaurants America Can't Afford to Lose," three Colorado eateries get shout-outs, and they're all deserving — even if Denver itself goes oddly unrepresented. Of course, Frasca Food and Wine, the James Beard Award-winning Boulder Italian restaurant famous for its wine, hospitality and modern interpretations of Friulian cuisine, made the roster. But so did the Silver Grille Cafe in Fort Collins, which has been packing its multiple dining rooms with breakfast lovers since 1933. As Esquire points out, the cinnamon rolls really are a state treasure. Also earning a mention is Alpino Vino in Telluride, a cabin perched on the ski resort's See Forever run.
If the title of Esquire's list seems familiar, perhaps it's because we've been running our own list — Eat Here: 100 Denver Restaurants We Can't Live Without — for the past several years, the most recent of which came out on December 9. We would take Esquire to task for not including a single restaurant within Denver city limits, but we know how these things work: East Coast writers choose their favorites from the limited number of places they've eaten at while vacationing in our state. For the rest of us who live here year-round, we know that there are far more than just a handful of local restaurants fitting the description "If we lose them, we lose who we are," as the magazine so aptly states.
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