On Monday, March 16, Mayor Michael Hancock announced that all Denver bars and restaurants must close the next day; Governor Jared Polis soon followed suit, extending the closures across Colorado. The exception? Restaurants that offered takeout, drive-thru or delivery services could stay open.
I vowed to patronize one every night, and to get in practice, I headed to Rioja, the flagship in the Crafted Concepts group that partners Jen Jasinski and Beth Gruitch opened more fifteen years ago. But Rioja was more than a flagship in a group of restaurants that would grow to five over the years; it also helped turn the boat around in Larimer Square, helping make it a true dining destination full of restaurants far more exotic than the Magic Pan that ruled on this block forty years ago.
Although restaurants could still serve this night, things were already changing. For starters, you could easily find a parking place on a street that's usually one of the bright spots in the city. The lights of Rioja beckoned, and soon after I grabbed a seat at the bar, I heard the voices of two friends at a table not far away. They'd just come from Euclid Hall, a Crafted Concepts restaurant that Jasinski and Gruitch had just shuttered, and were grabbing a final dinner out. "Where else would we have a last supper?" one asked.
Where else, indeed. I was soon joined by a friend who would shutter two of his own restaurants the next day — unlike Euclid Hall, they will be back; unlike Rioja, they are not serving in the interim — and we ate great food and drank great liquor and stored up as many memories as we could of a place that's given Denver so much of its flavor.
I returned to Rioja last night, for the debut of Feast on the Fly, its to-go/delivery service. Parking was even easier this time; the blizzard had hit full force, and the block was empty. So was Rioja, except for the three people manning the place, including Jaskinski herself, who packed up the hoisin braised Wagyu short ribs I'd ordered online, along with cauliflower gratin and crispy Brussels sprouts ($20), as well as an order of the clam, mussel and leek bisque ($6). "You'll love it," she promised.
I loved everything about that stop, along with the meal that followed. Even more important than the food (which was delicious) was the abundant good cheer these three were cooking up in a kitchen accustomed to serving many, many more people, in far more elegant ways, in much less frightening times.
It felt like home, or whatever passes for home these days.
Feast on the Fly runs from noon to 7 p.m. daily; offerings will change, so check out the possibilities and order here. And remember: plenty of free parking. How delicious!
See our list of Denver restaurants offering takeout, drive-thru and delivery here.
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