What a long, strange trip it's been.
For more than twenty years, Vesta was the coolest kid on a block that the restaurant immediately made cool when it opened in 1997. There wasn't much happening in the 1800 block of Blake Street at the time; Coors Field had opened only two years earlier, and the energy of LoDo was just beginning to make its way up from Larimer Square. But Josh Wolkon, a 25-year-old University of Vermont alum who'd moved to Colorado from Boston — "I couldn't figure Denver out," he recalls, especially its uneven dining scene — had decided that he wanted to open a restaurant, and landed on this spot.
Wolkon knew that Stadium Walk — an Arnold Schwarzenegger-backed project that was to include a Planet Hollywood and twenty movie theaters — was being developed right across the street from 1822 Blake, and he figured it was a can't-miss location. "I remembered it being mostly deserted," he says. "But I loved the character and the soul of the buildings." And then there was Arnold.
By the time Vesta opened its doors, though, the Stadium Walk investors had taken a walk, and "the block was as dead as a doornail," remembers restaurant consultant John Imbergamo, who did the publicity for the opening of what was then known as Vesta Dipping Grill.
"If I could redo it, I'm not sure the block would have been my pick," Wolkon admits now. "But there was a feeling; you could see how it could come to life."
Wolkon turned the old brick building into a space that was urban, edgy, rustic and industrial all at the same time, with a long, thick bar (so thick the stools had to be fitted to match), enveloping booths and hip metal chairs made by a local artisan. The chairs weren't ready on opening day, though, so for a month, Vesta was outfitted with white chairs better suited for a wedding tent. The menu was hip, too, even if "it was incredibly difficult to explain what Vesta Dipping Grill was" to diners who could only think "fondue," Imbergamo recalls.
"It was a pioneer in the hip category, and certainly a completely different concept than what anyone had done," he adds. "No one had paired multiple housemade sauces with proteins and allowed people to make choices...most chefs wanted to make choices for you at the time."
"Vesta had such a great cosmopolitan feel," recalls Kyle Wagner, Westword's restaurant reviewer at the time. "That was a big part of the attraction."
Diners who found their way there marveled at the space, marveled at the menu. Wolkon marveled that it had opened at all. It helped that he had the support of Jen, a server he'd met in Boulder in 1995. "Within three weeks, I was breaking rule #1" of restaurant-running, Wolkon admits. "She eventually took over all the bookkeeping, which I was doing on graph paper by hand and she eventually started managing, as well. We just celebrated twenty years together."
But while Vesta was cool from the start, it wasn't an immediate hit. "It was fun and busy, and it felt like we were succeeding, but we weren't," Wolkon says. And there were some definite misses. Those chairs finally came in, and Wagner quickly dubbed the place "Vesta Tripping Grill" after watching servers and diners trip during her first review dinner there. "Women would get all dressed up, in heels, slam into a chair," Wolkon remembers. "Not only would they trip, but it would make a noise."
The restaurant itself was making more noise, though, and by the time new chairs were installed and Bill St. John, then with the Rocky Mountain News, gave it a rave, Vesta was on its way. The crew was working hard and playing hard, and along the way, "we grew up," Wolkon says.
Jen and Josh Wolkon weren't the only thing that made Vesta like a family. There was Matt Selby, who came on as opening chef at the age of 24 and stayed there for fifteen years; he was followed by Brandon Foster, who left five years ago for Project Angel Heart (and tragically passed away this summer), then Nick Kayser. "Vesta trained a demi-generation of Denver chefs in its time," recalls Jason Sheehan, who replaced Wagner as Westword critic. "It shaped the scene, in its own strange way, and that's just about the highest compliment any restaurant can be given."
Along with a growing group of loyal employees and alums, Wolkon's Secret Sauce Food & Beverage Group added sibling restaurants, too. Steuben's came first, ten years after Vesta debuted. By then, Wolkon was 35, with a house and kids. "I've got things to lose...it was more nerve-racking," he remembers. But his team was getting bored and ready to spread their wings, which they did at Steuben's, a spot in Uptown inspired by Wolkon's great-uncle's restaurant. Then came Ace Eat Serve, then a second Steuben's in Arvada.
As the family grew, Wolkon decided Vesta needed to freshen up. So about five years ago, right after Foster left, the restaurant got a new logo and dropped "Dipping Grill" from the name. It was an "evolution," Wolkon says, and it worked. "We were on a good run for casual fine dining."
"It maintained its hipness...without making monstrous changes to the physical plant," says Imbergamo. "It's wildly unusual to maintain that hipness."
But fine dining itself was getting tougher, and by late last year, with just two years left on Vesta's lease, Wolkon "came to the recognition that when the lease ran out, it could be the end," he explains. "Even as a relatively busy, well-received restaurant, the amount of effort and the amount of profit did not align. Fine dining was all but gone, and even casual fine dining is endangered. I could see that this was not the business model moving forward."
And then on March 17, Colorado's dining industry was stopped in its tracks altogether, as all restaurants were ordered closed while the state grappled with the coronavirus pandemic.
Although Steuben's Uptown reopened quickly and did a booming to-go business, that didn't seem possible at Vesta. And even once on-premises dining was allowed again, the lack of any kind of patio expansion on Blake Street made that impossible at Vesta. The cool kid was on ice. After working out a deal with his landlord, Wolkon decided to keep Vesta closed for good, ending its trip two years early. "You've got to pick your battles," he says.
But Vesta still has a little fight...and fun...left in her. Although there won't be the final throwdown that the Wolkons once envisioned giving Vesta, there will be a final fundraiser at 1822 Blake Street, the site of so many other fundraisers through the years. (Wolkon earned the Noel and Tammy Cunningham Award from the Colorado Restaurant Association last fall for the amazing good works — both philanthropic and for the immediate Secret Sauce family — that his generous group has done over the years.)
This one will be for the family of Brandon Foster, the former Vesta chef who passed away this summer. On August 8 and 9, Vesta will host "Boards for Brandon," selling the Full Monty: housemade charcuterie (Foster created the Vesta charcuterie room and program) and cheese on keepsake #BeLikeBrandon cutting boards. There will also be sales on wine, and a chance to celebrate the chef who was such an intrinsic part of the Vesta family.
After that, Secret Sauce will keep stirring things up. While Wolkon is in no rush to reopen Steuben's in Arvada, Steuben's Uptown and Ace are back in business, and the trucks are on a roll. "I just hope people will support them," says Wolkon. In fact, he just hopes that people will support all the hard-working restaurateurs right now.
They deserve it.
Thanks, Josh. It's been a great trip.
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In the weeks to come, Vesta will be collecting stories on its Facebook page. Here's mine:
Years ago, I arranged to meet then-critic Jason Sheehan at Vesta Dipping Grill. In our second review of the restaurant (in our first, Kyle Wagner had named it "Vesta Tripping Grill"), Sheehan had gone a little overboard in his description of an overly peppered dish: Yes, the food was great, but that sneeze of a sentence was what people remembered. I figured that a third time might be the charm for this praise-worthy restaurant, and while I knew Wolkon might recognize me, I’d prepared a cover story for Sheehan so that no one would suspect that the Westword reviewer was in the house. Except that Sheehan, while waiting for me, had used his own credit card to buy a drink at the bar. When Wolkon stopped by our table that night, he never interrupted when I kept yammering on about my dining companion, allegedly a writer new to Denver named “Adam.”
Wolkon never revealed that he knew he was talking to a table of nincompoops: a deluded editor, and a food writer who didn’t carry enough cash to buy a beer.