Four of Frank Bonanno's Restaurants Could Face Demolition

The property that houses Lou's Food Bar, Mizuna, Luca and Vesper Lounge could be sold and redeveloped.
The property that houses Lou's Food Bar, Mizuna, Luca and Vesper Lounge could be sold and redeveloped.
Joni Schrantz
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The low brick building on the northwest corner of Grant Street and East Seventh Avenue began life in the early 1900s as a grocery store; it was built to take advantage of a new streetcar line running along Seventh, straight through a neighborhood where the Colorado Governor's Mansion had also just been completed.

Over the decades, many businesses have come and gone from this corner, but for the past twenty years, it has been the site of restaurateur Frank Bonanno's growing group of restaurants and bars. Mizuna opened at the west end of the property in 2001, followed soon after by Luca (facing Grant Street), Bones (which became Lou's Food Bar in 2019) and Vesper Lounge (which took over the venerable Lancer Lounge). Although the four businesses have separate addresses, their spaces are all owned by one company, the Sherman Agency, which recently informed Bonanno that it was considering options for the future, including the possibility of demolishing the structure.

And then on February 25, 2021, the Sherman Agency filed with the city for a Certificate of Demolition Eligibility (also known as a certificate of non-historic status). The posting of the eligibility notice gives interested parties 21 days to notify the city that they plan to file for historic protection of the building. If no one does so by March 19, the certificate could be granted, making the property eligible for demolition any time over the next five years — and making it immediately more appealing to a potential buyer.

According to Hal Naiman, president of the Sherman Agency, the property — which the family and partners in the ownership group have had for sixty years — is not currently for sale; the Sherman Agency filed the application for non-historic status so that the company can explore its options.

The City of Denver's staff report on the request for the Certificate of Demolition Eligibility notes that the building could be eligible for historic status because it maintains its structural integrity, is more than thirty years old and "has a direct association with a significant historic event or with the historical development of the city, state, or nation; it embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style or type; and it represents an established and familiar feature of the neighborhood, community or contemporary city, due to its prominent location or physical characteristics."

Those qualifications could be used in a campaign to have the building declared historic — but only if would-be applicants tell the city they intend to push for that designation. And so far, no one's stepped forward.

"This is just about the last parcel in the neighborhood that's still available," Bonanno points out, adding that his landlord has been great over the past twenty years. "They didn't blindside me, and I told our staff the day after I found out, so there were no surprises. In fact, we made them an offer, but we just couldn't come to the right terms."

Mizuna is one of several Bonanno Concepts eateries in the Governor's Park neighborhood.EXPAND
Mizuna is one of several Bonanno Concepts eateries in the Governor's Park neighborhood.
Courtesy of Bonanno Concepts

Bonanno says he'd already attempted to buy the property several times over the years, but the Sherman Agency has never shown interest in selling. Now, with multi-story apartment complexes popping up all over the neighborhood, the property (which includes the parking lot on the north side of Luca), is worth far more than the revenue that four small but successful restaurants can bring in.

"It's disappointing, but that's all it is," Bonanno admits. "It's just business. Times are changing — Capitol Hill has changed."

Already the shadow of a new high-rise falls onto the intersection; it was shoehorned in behind Trader Joe's, across the street from Lou's. Just a couple of blocks west, Scripps Media, the owner of the Denver7 building at 123 East Speer Boulevard, filed for a Certificate of Demolition Eligibility; three Denver residents have objected and are now seeking landmark status for that circa 1969 building, a rare example of the Brutalist style of architecture. That campaign now goes to the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission.

Around town, other restaurants have seen similar battles. Tom's Diner, at 601 East Colfax Avenue, was the site of a fight between owner Tom Messina, who just wanted to sell his property and retire, and a group of concerned citizens trying to save the Googie-era diner; in this case, Historic Denver helped broker a deal with a new buyer, the GBX Group, which agreed to have the building put on the National Register of Historic Places, so that the structure will be worked into any new development on the property. (That deal done, Messina closed his place at the start of the pandemic.) On the same block of South University Boulevard, the owners of the Bonnie Brae Tavern and the landlords of the Saucy Noodle both filed for demolition eligibility for their properties; the certificates were granted. The two restaurants are still open, however.

If the Seventh Avenue property sells, Bonanno thinks he'll probably have about a year before he'll have to close his restaurants to make way for redevelopment, and he'll use that time to decide if he wants to reopen any of them elsewhere. "That makes our twentieth anniversary even more special, because it could be our last one," he says of his first restaurant, Mizuna, which is inviting guests in for a special menu from March 23 to March 27.

"With everything bad comes something good — that's the way you have to look at it, right?" Bonanno says, noting that this will give him a chance to really reflect on what's working now and what's worth continuing into the next decade. In addition to these businesses, he also owns Osteria Marco, Russell's Smokehouse and Green Russell in Larimer Square, Salt & Grinder in West Highland, and French 75 and the Denver Milk Market downtown.

This story has been updated to include comments from Hal Naiman, president of the Sherman Agency.

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