This week's review of Rioja served a couple of purposes. One, it cleared up a bothersome bit of karmic dead weight. Two, it gave me a chance to see how a strong-starting restaurant with a solid crew and a talented chef can get so much better in four years, when other places (rhymes with Mopal...) just collapse. And three, it served as a perfect excuse to take the long view on Larimer Square itself, a micro-neighborhood (really, just a block or so when it comes to the restaurant world) that, in some ways, has come to define and describe Denver's reaching for foodie relevancy and pride over the past decade.
July 4th weekend, 2002. That's when I came to Denver, when I started this job. And in July 2002, Larimer Square was pretty much a wasteland — at least by today's standards. There was no Capital Grille, no Bistro Vendôme, obviously no TAG, no Rioja. In Rioja's space was Josephina's, which was never good and sometimes bordered on embarassingly bad. When Josephina's finally died the death it deserved, Rioja got better than half the real estate and Corridor 44 got the rest, including Josephina's old kitchen crew, who went from slapping and serving cheapjack Italian to popping the hinges on oysters and cooking a so-called crudo menu under the disastrous leadership of chef Eric Laslow. Corridor 44 has since shaken off the curse and come back (somewhat) strong.
Still, Josephina's wasn't the worst restaurant on the Square when I rolled into town. That distinction would have to go to Del Mar Crab House, which took over for the Mexicali Cafe in 2000 and whose owner, Michael Rios, somehow thought the people of Denver would really be into eating fish in a basement. Ugh.
But the upshot? When Del Mar finally gave up the ghost a couple of years back, what we got in trade was Frank Bonanno's Osteria Marco. That's a win all around.
One thing that Larimer Square did have back in the culinary Precambrian era of 2002 was Tamayo, Richard Sandoval's toehold in the American West, his flagship out-of-NYC property. And it was a major friggin' deal when it opened here. Sandoval might never have been the biggest of the Big Name chefs, but he was a certifiable New York Operator with a lot of money to burn and a lot of hope riding on his opening in little ol' Denver setting off a flood of New York and California talent coming into our small city and changing the culinary landscape forever.
Needless to say, that didn't happen. But in the intervening years, something else did. Denver's own guys began stepping up, creating restaurants that could give a run, talent-wise, to most of Manhattan's best and brightest. A lot of these restaurants landed in Larimer Square. And today, it truly is a destination — with (perhaps) more talent per square foot than any other neighborhood in the city. Hell, even the less successful restaurants here are better than some of the best in other neighborhoods, and after years of scraping and squeezing and a great deal of geometric funny business, virtually every square foot of available space in the Square has been occupied. Oh, except for about 11,000 square feet that opened up a few months ago in the former home of Z Gallerie. It's a big space that could easily be broken up. It's high-traffic, high-visibility. And right now? No one has it.
I called Larimer Square's Joe Vostrejs late last week and asked him about the Z Gallerie location. He told me that while there has been "a great deal of interest in both" the full space or just a portion of it, no deals have yet been made. "We're super-selective," he said. "This one has to be just right."
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Why? Because it really is the only space left in Larimer Square, and because Vostrejs knows exactly how much that is worth. He told me that his first choice for the space would be "a top-notch retailer" — something that Colorado doesn't have, something out of New York or L.A. — but that he's also looking at restaurant tenants, both local and national.
We got to talking about when he first brought Sandoval and Tamayo into Denver and how, at the time, he'd really thought that Sandoval would talk to his chef buddies back in New York and convince them to join him in the 303. And while we both agreed that we kinda liked the way things had shaken out in Denver over the years — with our own, private little thing going, our guys and our girls doing their own business with no interference from big outside players — I also cornered him: "If you could have anyone you wanted," I asked. "Any restaurant at all, and they'd be moving in tomorrow..."
"Spice Market," he told me, referencing the pan-Asian street-food concept by Jean-Georges Vongerichten with locations in Manhattan, Atlanta, Istanbul and Doha. Sure, he named a couple of other joints as well, but Spice Market? That was the one that really made him light up.
So you hear that, Jean-Georges? You've already got the East Coast and the Middle East covered. Now maybe it's time to start looking at the Midwest. Because while a move on Larimer Square by you and your group would be a coup for Denver, all I truly care about is the food — and I'd really like a plate of your lobster with butter-fried garlic, dried chiles and ginger right about now.