Cafe Society

Vesta Dipping Grill owner Josh Wolkon reflects on fifteen years of success

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But when the developer pulled the plug on the Stadium Walk in the spring on 1997, losing tenants to the Denver Pavilions, which later opened on the 16th Street Mall, Wolkon realized that if Vesta was going to be successful, he'd need to get it right. "I got a small business loan from a woman who was a foodie, and I begged and borrowed from family members to open this restaurant, and while I didn't have a clue about what I was doing, I knew that when I first walked into the space, I immediately saw Vesta — I saw my dream, and I was going to have a good time with it, " he recalls.

During one of pre-opening parties, however, Wolkon panicked. "The computer system crashed, so we had to give out a lot of gift cards, because a lot of people didn't get their food that night, and then the Denver Post wrote about it the next day, which sucked," recounts Wolkon, who also recollects meeting a pile of puke at the top of the stairs after a very long night. "This is what I asked for — the glamorous life of restaurant ownership," he remembers telling himself.

And then the reviews started to pour in — and they were mainly positive save, he says, for the review from former Wesword critic Kyle Wagner (now the travel editor at the Denver Post), who slammed, justifiably, notes Wolkon, the restaurant's original chairs, one of which he wrapped in a bow and sent to Wagner as a Christmas gift. The chairs are long gone, although Wolkon saved one as a memento, which now hangs by the bathrooms at Vesta.

When the reviews hit print, says Wolkon, "Vesta just exploded." The power of the press, he allows, "was really evident," and while there are some restaurants that generate accolades only to rest on their laurels, Wolkon and his team, which includes Matt Selby, a Denver native who was hired straight out of the gate as a sous chef and promoted to executive chef three months later (he's now the chef/partner of Vesta, Steuben's and Ace), insisted that it wasn't enough. "We were having a great time, but we had no idea how to run a business — we just knew that LoDo was beginning to take off and that we had to continue to get better and better," says Wolkon."

So while the original menu, which hustled skewers and dipping sauces, became Vesta's clever calling card, Selby wasn't content with being pigeonholed as the restaurant with skewers and dipping sauces. "We started with skewers," says Wolkon, "but Matty pushed to refine the menu, and we've continued to do that since the very beginning."

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson