The Bite

Med alert! D Diamond is fighting for the life of her four-year-old restaurant, Ilios (1201 Broadway). The owner/manager of this Mediterranean eatery has seen trouble before -- first, she had to wrest the place from her ex-husband, Bobby Rifkin, and not long after that, she lost her chef, Sean Brasel, a loyalist who's now working at Rifkin's Touch, a popular restaurant in South Beach, Florida. (Rifkin's also the fellow who brought us the Diamond Cabaret, among other more local ventures.) But now Diamond is battling a bigger opponent: The City of Denver, which wants to free up the block on which Ilios sits for a $150 million parking garage and housing project connected to the $62.5 million Denver Art Museum expansion approved by voters three years ago.

"This is just horrible, horrible," Diamond says. "I have worked my ass off for four years to make this place happen, and now they can just come in and pull it right out from under me."

That's because she only leases the space that houses Ilios, and last week a Denver City Council committee voted to start condemnation proceedings on the building if the structure's owner, Landie Family LLLP, can't come to terms with the property's would-be developer, Mile High Development.

Neither Landie nor Mile High officials returned my calls. Who did call back? City councilmembers Ed Thomas, who represents the district in which Ilios sits, and Debbie Ortega, one of the more vocal opponents of the condemnation. For his part, Thomas swears that Mile High president Bill Mosher -- former head of Downtown Denver Inc. -- will make good on a pledge to include Ilios in the new development, which will feature not only parking and "affordable housing" (28 units costing $150,000 to $200,000 each out of a total 140 units, many of which will be priced close to a cool million), but also retail and restaurants.

That's all well and good, says Diamond, but what is she supposed to do between next January, when her building is scheduled to disappear, and several years from then, when the project is expected to be completed? "So I close my restaurant and I allegedly get my bills paid for now, but then how do I earn money in the meantime?" she asks. "I suppose they think I should just go get a job as a secretary or something until this all works out. So far, no one is saying anything that makes this feasible."

Which is why Diamond has hired a lawyer to negotiate a deal with city officials -- people the attorney knows well, since she's Stephanie O'Malley, daughter of Mayor Wellington Webb. The complete council city is expected to vote on the condemnation issue by the end of June; I hope O'Malley has a good hard hat.

Meanwhile, the art museum is wasting no time trying to determine what its patrons might require in terms of eating opportunities should the development go through. Last Friday afternoon, a museum volunteer stopped a Westword staffer by the coffee counter and asked him to answer a five-page questionnaire regarding what restaurants he might like to see in the expanded museum, quizzing him about such specific operations as Wolfgang Puck, California Pizza Kitchen, Chili's, Applebee's and Macaroni Grill -- chains all.

She then asked him how often he ate at restaurants around the museum, including Ilios, Pint's Pub (221 West 13th Avenue) and Dozens (236 West 13th Avenue), and what he thought of their service and prices; the questionnaire also went into considerable detail regarding Palette's, Kevin Taylor's full-service restaurant in the museum itself. From the extensive quizzing, it seems like the museum plans to get into the restaurant biz in a big way. But according to Janet Meredith, DAM's marketing director, the restaurant survey was just a one-weekend deal supplementing the museum's regular, ongoing exit survey that usually addresses non-food-related DAM issues. "In early March, we met with a restaurant consultant who specializes in museums and told him that we think we could be doing better with our in-house cafe," Meredith explains. "Palettes has worked extremely well for us here, but all of us -- and Kevin Taylor, too -- agree that the cafe just doesn't work. In other cities, the museum cafes are really well used, and ours isn't. So we thought we'd ask people what they would like to see, so we can see where we've been going wrong." The questionnaire applies only to the interior space, she adds, and technically doesn't address the issue of whether Ilios, or any restaurant, will occupy other buildings proposed in the DAM expansion plans.

"We realized the restaurant industry is one thing that we don't know much about," Meredith says. "If we got the 200 people this survey needed to get a clearer picture of where we want to go with this, then it's over. And then, hopefully, we'll be able to think it through smarter when we try a cafe again."

The museum's expansionist plans aside, it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood on Monday, May 14, when ink! Coffee opened at 970 Lincoln Street, right next to the Spicy Pickle and just five blocks from the museum. In case neighbors had missed the previous week's fliers, they were reminded of the new coffeeshop's debut by clever, sidewalk-chalk graffiti pointing them in the right direction for a hefty helping of caffeine. (Unlike a similar, if doomed, IBM campaign in California, ink! was smart enough not to use permanent paint.) Ink! brews excellent coffee -- it purchases its beans through, and you can, too -- and also stocks tasty baked items (try the pretzels covered with chocolate and caramel for 75 cents each). While the space is a little too overstuffed-chair chainlike for my taste, the atmosphere is inviting, and the people who work there are truly friendly (for now -- and in this town, that could change by the time you read this sentence).

The Colorado company that owns ink! has had an Aspen coffee shop since 1996 and one in Louisville since 1998; it plans to open a fourth at Denver's RiverFront Park in the spring of 2002.

As happy as Highland residents are to see an expanded Bang! (see review previous page), another new kid on the block, Three Dogs Tavern (3390 West 32nd Avenue), is in the middle of a neighborhood catfight over closing times. "Right now we're open until 2 a.m.," says bartender Adam Rose. "They want us to close at 11 p.m., which is a little unrealistic for a bar."

The bar's very vocal opponents have been talking to their city councilman, Dennis Gallagher, whose administrative worker bee, Lisa Ferreira, has been trying to work out a solution. "The first thing we have to do is sort out parking issues," says Ferreira, who expects new signs restricting late-night parking to go up around the neighborhood by the first of next month. "That area, especially at 32nd and Julian, has a lot of residential parking that ends at 6 p.m.," she points out. "Three Dogs has a parking lot, but when it's full, people park all over the streets, and then they're noisy when they come out."

Three Dogs owner Mark Berzins is no stranger to neighborhood disputes: A former part owner of the now-defunct Firehouse Bar and Grill (at 1525 Blake Street, in the space that's now Rio Grande), he also had a bit of a battle on his hands when he opened the Spot Bar and Grill at 98 South Pennsylvania three years ago. At the time, some residents complained about another liquor license being granted so close to a school (the Spot is just down the street from Carmine's on Penn, at 92 South Pennsylvania), but Berzins made friends with area residents, and his establishment continues to be popular with the 'hood.

At Three Dogs, Berzins is doing his best to tame the situation by posting a sign on the door that asks customers to keep quiet as they exit the bar and head to their cars. "That's the kind of thing we want to see from an establishment," says Ferreira. "The variable here is the patrons, and if we can enlist their help, I think things will be okay. The important thing to note here is that dialogue between the neighbors and Three Dogs hasn't broken down. Everyone's still willing to talk."

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner