At the end of every year, we compile a list of all the restaurant and bar openings and closings over the previous twelve months. As 2021 approached, we expected our roster to be a devastating record of the toll that the coronavirus pandemic took on the industry.
And yes, there were many closings in 2020 — around 120 in all, including both longtime favorites like El Chapultepec, the 20th Street Cafe, Racines, Vesta and Zaidy's Deli, and newer starts such as Euclid Hall, Old Major, Julep and Biju's Little Curry Shop. (We did not count restaurants that have gone into hibernation, such as Coperta and Beast + Bottle, in our tally.) But surprisingly, the numbers weren't that different from previous years. In 2019, we recorded slightly more than 120 closings, while 2018 came in at nearly 100. In fact, predictions for the restaurant industry have been dire for the past three or four years, primarily because of oversaturation, the increase in labor costs and the high price of real estate and other overhead costs.
What the number of closings doesn't reflect is the lost revenue and the loss of jobs; if restaurants managed to survive in 2020, it was only because they were in survival mode for most of the year, operating with skeleton crews and finding news ways to sell food, whether through ghost kitchens (of which there were many), family meal kits or menu shifts to accommodate outdoor diners and takeout and delivery customers. According to the National Restaurant Association, based on the organization's monthly data, the total shortfall nationwide "likely reached $235 billion during the last nine months."
And the number of openings was significantly down compared to the previous five years, when metro Denver saw an average of about 250 new eateries each year. Part of the drop can be attributed to fewer planned restaurants going into the year, but openings also dwindled as summer passed, unlike in previous years, when restaurateurs pushed to get their doors open by the end of the year.
Trends were easy to spot, whether a growing number of Asian eateries or new choices in comfort food. Dumplings were big, with Bao Brewhouse, Seoul ManDoo, Baba & Pop's Pierogi (yes, we're counting pierogi as dumplings) and Mason's Dumplings all debuting, plus pop-ups like Oh Golly Dumplings adding to the street scene. Thai restaurants Beau Thai, Charm Thai, Hey Bangkok an Ponsawan Thai Cuisine all opened in 2020. And of course burgers and chicken were big, with Kickin Chicken, Lea Jane's Hot Chicken, Chook Charcoal Chicken and the Budlong Hot Chicken (which opened its first stand-alone after moving out of Zeppelin Station) representing the poultry side, and Kuma's Corner, Slater's 50/50, Knockabout Burgers, In-N-Out Burger and Graves Good Burger representing beef. Another trend was bakeries: Third Culture, Good Bread Bake Shop, House of Bread, the Doughnut Club, Berkeley Donuts, Pandemic Donuts and a second location of Moxie Bread Co. all rose up.
Hospitality is built into the DNA of many hopeful business owners, and there are already new places opening or planned for 2021, including Danger Zone Calzones (the first new restaurant of the new year), Knox Pizza & Tap (which will soon follow), Forget Me Not (an upcoming cocktail bar in Cherry Creek) and Cup Bop (a Korean food truck with a trio of brick-and-mortars in the works).
There's too much heart and soul in our restaurant scene to let a horrendous year signal the end of what has been a great decade of growth for the industry. Even now, seeds are being planted that will grow and flourish as conditions improve.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.