The DIY community has come under scrutiny in recent months, ever since a fire at the Ghost Ship in Oakland, California, killed 36 people. Since then, Denver's own Rhinoceropolis has been shut down, and a wave of inspections has caused tension between city agencies and the DIY community. But so far, that same spotlight hasn't been turned on the food-service industry, primarily because opening a restaurant in Denver requires permits and licenses from multiple departments. That makes flying under the radar extremely unlikely.
Just over a year ago, though, chef Teri Font attached some reflective mailbox letters spelling out "Handy Diner" on the door at 2958 Downing Street and opened a new vegan eatery in the former home of a Middle Eastern joint called the D-Line Restaurant. She didn't have any permits, but she soon had a following of young counterculture customers looking for cheap and comforting plant-based eats in a non-corporate setting.
But on Thursday, March 2, the Handy Diner was closed by the Department of Environmental Health for several critical violations — after an inspection discovered that the restaurant had been operating without the knowledge, much less approval, of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses. Last week's inspection was the first the diner had undergone, because nobody at the city even knew of the eatery's existence until an inspector spotted the tiny Handy Diner sign while paying a routine visit to a corner market next door.
The primary violations, according to the DEH, were that the restaurant's kitchen did not have a hand sink for employees and did not have a dedicated food-prep sink for washing produce (so all dish washing, hand washing and food prep was taking place in a single sink). Operating without a license would not be enough to shut a restaurant down, the department noted, but it's definitely a red flag because it means that the kitchen equipment and setup had not been initially approved in terms of overall health and safety.
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Dan Roland, spokesman for the Department of Excise and Licenses, says he hasn't seen much in the way of DIY food vendors attempting to operate in the city; when they do, they're generally street hawkers or other temporary setups. "In terms of brick-and-mortar, that's rare — really, really rare," he notes.
Even so, he says, when the city find eateries that have gone under the radar, both departments generally attempt to work with owners to come into compliance, unless the situation presents an immediate public health or safety threat.
Font, who told Westword last week that the Handy Diner would not reopen, did not return our calls for a follow-up interview.