Best of Denver

The Seven Best Restaurant Comeback Stories of 2015

We all love the shiny and new, but sometimes the patina of nostalgia adds value to what might otherwise seem like just a trendy novelty. Restaurants are no different: If we recognize the name of the chef or if one of our old favorites finds new life in a new location, we're more likely to gravitate there than to the upstarts or the unfamiliar. That, combined with our love of the underdog, the down-but-not-out, gives comeback stories added poignancy. Here's our list of the seven best chef and restaurant comeback stories of 2015, in the chronological order in which the eateries opened. 

7. Jeff Osaka's Osaka Ramen and Two Others
2611 Walnut Street
When Twelve closed in August 2014, it left a gap in the Ballpark neighborhood's fine-dining scene — and even presaged the eventual closures of Trillium and Lower48 Kitchen in the same neighborhood. At the time, chef-owner Jeff Osaka told Westword that he planned to reopen his critically acclaimed eatery elsewhere, but it quickly became apparent that he had other goals in mind. In less than a year, he resurfaced a few blocks north with Osaka Ramen, bringing his fine-dining approach to Japanese noodle bowls and small plates. While we still miss the lovely and subtle dishes of his original Denver restaurant, we're delighted that Osaka returned to the scene with renewed vigor, pouring passion that can be tasted into every bowl of tonkotsu and shoyu ramen served. Just a few months later, a second Osaka Ramen opened in Cherry Creek, but the chef wasn't finished with his comeback. His vibrant new conveyor-belt sushi bar, Sushi-Rama, opened just last week, and he's also putting his stamp on the Central Market on the same block, curating a list of more than a dozen food vendors inside the vintage warehouse space set to open this spring or summer.

6. Ototo
1501 South Pearl Street
There's no real comeback story for Yasu and Toshi Kizaki, owners of Sushi Den and Isakaya Den on South Pearl Street: They never left that dining district, and their flagship sushi restaurant and its lavish younger sibling continue to fill their dining rooms and fish counters every day of the week. But across the street from their bustling mini-empire, success has been elusive in a spot they originally opened as Den Deli in 2009 and then converted to Ototo Den, which had a short run before shuttering at the beginning of 2012. The brothers held onto the space, though, certain that they could eventually make something work. And in August this year — more than three years after the original went dark — a new version of Ototo was unveiled featuring a simplified menu concept and an updated dining room. While diners may have been confused by the Euro-Japanese fusion of the old version, the new Ototo sticks almost entirely with traditional Japanese cookery, centered around a roster of robatayaki: meats and vegetables grilled over white-hot oak (and in Ototo's case, mesquite) coals. Small plates, raw-bar items and noodle bowls round out the menu, giving Denver a distinct slice of Japanese bar-food culture that balances elegance with a casual, neighborhood vibe. Despite the eatery's original strikeout, Ototo's comeback feels like a home run for Platt Park.

5. The Denver Diner
740 West Colfax Avenue
The Denver Diner had been a hangout for Colfax Avenue denizens for more than twenty years, staying open all hours to court the night owls, swing-shift veterans and last-call lingerers. On any given night, you could find sequin-bedazzled cowboys, scowling truckers and coffee-amped kids packed into the retro booths and onto the bar stools, conversing over cheap diner food. But a kitchen fire in October 2014 seemed to signal the end of the line for the place, and even though owner George Skordos promised a return, the chances of a reopening seemed slimmer and slimmer as the months passed. After all, the damage had looked minor, and a quick turnaround is the norm for restaurants that need to get customers back in seats. But a full year later, the Denver Diner was finally back in business, with a shiny new dining room, a new liquor license and a battery of flat-screen TVs. The updated diner still sports a '50s vibe, and the menu will be familiar to returning regulars, but the place now pops with a little more spirit than the previous incarnation, where the wear and tear of time had definitely taken its toll. Colfax needs its all-night haunts, so it's great to see the Denver Diner's neon lit up once again.

4. Rise & Shine Biscuit Kitchen & Cafe
5126 West 29th Avenue
Rise & Shine never had its own space, but residents of the West Highland and Hilltop neighborhoods knew to follow the aroma of fresh-baked biscuits to two locations of Basil Doc's Pizza if they wanted to find warming breakfast sandwiches in the morning before returning for equally tasty New Haven-style pies in the evening. But the biscuit and pizza operations were actually run by separate owners, and last December Basil Doc's implemented its own breakfast program at the Hilltop location (and closed the Highland location shortly thereafter), leaving Rise & Shine without a kitchen. Head biscuit baker Seth Rubin had a plan, though, and he soon scooped up the building that had been home to the Rustic Tavern for decades. Several months of renovations ensued, and the new Rise & Shine was unveiled on November 1, bringing flaky biscuits and steaming coffee back to West Highland and Sloan's Lake. Good Southern-style biscuits are hard to come by in Denver, so the return of this little breakfast joint means good things for the city's Southern transplants.

3. Sean Kelly's Desmond
2230 Oneida Street
When last we saw chef Sean Kelly, he was at the helm of LoHi Steakbar, where his tenure lasted from the restaurant's opening in 2009 until new proprietors took over in the fall of 2014. Kelly has been in and out of the Denver dining scene over the years, initially drawing folks with his penchant for high-end cuisine in Barolo Grill's early days before finding success on his own in the 1990s and early 2000s with Aubergine, Claire de Lune and Somethin' Else. He also spent time as the corporate chef for the Little Pub Company before LoHi Steakbar, so after his departure there, it seemed like only a matter of time before we'd be enjoying his culinary skills once again — even if his career to date meant that an accurate prediction of exactly when and where would be difficult. A vacant space in Park Hill (formerly home to Tabletop) turned out to be the bait that lured Kelly back. At the beginning of November, he opened Desmond (named after jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond) there, serving a menu of small plates colored with Moroccan and other Mediterranean influences. It's the kind of place where we first got to know the chef's food — small, neighborhood joints that became destinations through word of mouth alone. We're looking forward to seeing Desmond become a quintessential Park Hill restaurant in the coming year. 

2. Latke Love
699 West Littleton Boulevard
If potato pancakes don't exactly seem the stuff of comeback legend, it's only because you never tried the crunchy creations of the original Latke Love in Park Hill, the little joint that served latkes topped with all manner of traditional and irreverent toppings, from applesauce to smoked salmon to Carolina barbecue pork. But in July 2014, Latke Love lost its lease on East 28th Avenue. What was a long, latke-less stretch for many of us ended on December 1, when the eatery re-emerged in Littleton in a converted cottage that had previously been home to a string of local watering holes. This iteration features the same menu we loved before (who else in town ladles pork green chile over latkes?), but also included a full bar and three outdoor patios. Littleton is lucky to now have a whole lotta latke love.

1. The Rackhouse Pub
2875 Blake Street
Regulars at the original Rackhouse Pub on South Kalamath Street could purchase their own bottles of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey to keep at the bar for discount sipping; after all, the Rackhouse shared its warehouse space with the fast-growing distillery that soon grew so big it squeezed out the restaurant. Owner Chris Rippe first thought to move across the street to another vacant warehouse on South Kalamath, but problems at that location forced a change of plans. Rippe teamed with C Squared Ciders and Bierstadt Lagerhaus to concoct a new version of a collaborative craft-beverage and gastropub-style space, and the result is the new, two-level Rackhouse Pub inside the Bindery on Blake, which features a brewery and cider house on the main floor and a bar and dining room on the upper level. It's been a year and a half since the first Rackhouse closed, and the concept has morphed beyond its original theme. Ciders are already flowing from the tap handles, and local beers are also on draught until Bierstadt is fully up and running, at which point the majority of beer sold will be made within a hop's toss of the bar top. The menu has also evolved to include German-influenced fare and ingredients from the beer-brewing process: yeast, wort, barley, hops and spent grain. It's an ambitious project, but one that's novel enough to attract the trend-spotting crowds of the River North and Ballpark neighborhoods.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation