Josh Wolkon was only 25 when he took out a sizable loan to open an edgy restaurant called Vesta Dipping Grill in an up-and-coming part of downtown that people were calling LoDo. Twenty years later, those loan officers are looking pretty smart, as Wolkon has not only turned what's now known as Vesta into a quintessential Denver restaurant, but has built a popular family of eateries that includes Steuben's Uptown, Steuben's Arvada and Ace Eat Serve. This month, Wolkon threw a twentieth birthday party for the people who supported Vesta through the decades; we were so impressed with Wolkon's remarks about running a restaurant and the Denver dining scene that we asked if we could share them. Here they are:
How many people were in this room twenty years ago? I’ve done a lot of interviews and been asked a lot of questions about turning twenty as a restaurant. I can say this: While my dream and vision for Vesta were clear twenty years ago, I had absolutely no understanding of the power of community and family both inside and outside these four walls.
Some of you have worked with us, some of you have dined with us as loyal regulars, some of you have supported us from outside the walls with advice, service, creativity, art, charitable work and media support. Over twenty years, we have been blessed to know you all. We have experienced marriages, births, travel, breakups, funerals and countless celebrations with so many of you in this room.
I actually started an Oscar-type list of the all the people I wanted to single out and thank for your part in the success of Vesta, but it was just growing far too long, as so many of you have given your time, positive energy, leadership and personality to Vesta. I would be remiss, however, if I did not recognize some individuals who have been on this journey since before Vesta opened — Pat Miller, the Gabby Gourmet; John Imbergamo; the Rubins. My wife, Jen, who has been supporting me and Vesta from behind the scenes for twenty years; it’s not easy being married to this industry, and we do all right. And chef Matt Selby, who set the culinary foundation and reputation for Vesta. It’s been so rewarding to watch the journeys of so many of you over the years. We are connected through Vesta. It’s amazing.
As I’ve considered what it means to be twenty years old in this business, I have thought about those institutions that have been serving their communities for forty, fifty or even a hundred years. It speaks volumes that these restaurants have spanned generations and embedded themselves in their communities and the lives of their employees and guests over the decades. These restaurants have become far more than the hottest place to be seen at the moment or this year’s “Best New Restaurant.”
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Denver’s dining scene is incredibly exciting. It makes me proud to see so much talent, creativity and quality coming to life in revitalized neighborhoods that did not have hip names twenty years ago. It has almost become sport to try out a new restaurant each time we get a chance to dine out and be able to critique it at your next dinner out with friends. Jen and I just ate at three new restaurants last week, and I have five more on my list that I want to check out.
But I want to take a moment to remind everybody to think back to your “old favorite restaurant” or one of our homegrown establishments that have been here for more than twenty years that you have never experienced. Maybe it’s the Buckhorn Exchange, Pete’s Kitchen or, for me, the Columbine Steakhouse. Or maybe it’s one of your favorites from last decade, like Barolo, Jax or Vesta (if you have not checked out chef Nick Kayser’s food yet, it’s time). These restaurants have soul. They have hosted countless memorable occasions, and we revisit them to remind ourselves of those past memories and create new ones. They have history, and their story expands far further than the most recent “Best Restaurants” list. Chances are their roots and ownership are in Denver. Maybe they have evolved and stayed current with the trends, or maybe they have stayed true to the original formula that brought them success and longevity. Whatever the case may be, pick one of these restaurants and put them into your upcoming playlist of new restaurants, as they serve as a wonderful reminder of genuine hospitality, community presence, and how the soul and vibe of a restaurant can lead to longevity.
I always said I got into this business because of a love of throwing parties. It is with immense gratitude that I thank you all for helping me live this dream. As a restaurant owner, it's one of those incredible perks that every once in a while you can switch gears, do something different, party in your own house and at somebody else’s house, and celebrate the people that make it happen. I am so grateful to know you all, and for your love of Vesta. You have kept the eternal flame of Vesta’s hearth burning for twenty years. To all of you, and to Vesta.