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Wide open spaces: Is downtown Denver experiencing a restaurant recession?

When Fogo de Chao opens at 1513 Wynkoop Street in mid-July, the Brazilian steakhouse chain will occupy -- wait for it -- 14,000 square feet, enough footage to house nearly 600 cows, at least by my mathematical calculations, where are based, more or less, on an average cow size of eight feet long and three feet wide.

In any case, while Fogo will soon swallow up half a block, there are three nearby restaurants with a whole lot of empty square footage, including Alto, which shut its doors over the weekend at 1320 15th Street, just three-and-a-half blocks from Fogo de Chao and a half block from Ruth's Chris, which went dark at 1445 Market Street the second week in May. And then there's Buca di Beppo, the abysmal Italian chain that closed, to the regret of no one, last June at 1400 Market Street, although the Broomfield (615 Flatiron MarketPlace Drive) and Littleton (7301 South Santa Fe Drive) locations are still, inexplicably, alive and kicking.

And then, just as we were mulling over the demise of of Alto, we learned that ESPN Zone, the (now former) sports shrine at 1187 16th Street, also shuttered its doors, on which hung a note from ESPN management faulting -- what else? -- the economy. That space, however, won't be vacant for long. As Jason Sheehan reported yesterday, a sizable parcel of ESPN Zone will morph into the Tilted Kilt, an Irish-themed sports pub.

But what about all those vacancies? Buca di Beppo has been on the selling block for just under a year, and while Ruth's Chris and Alto are new on the market, you gotta wonder if downtown Denver is heading toward a restaurant recession.

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"I don't see a trend toward downtown restaurants closing, and my sense is that it's not a restaurant recession until spaces aren't filled," said John Imbergamo, a local restaurant consultant. Buca, he says, is in a "tough location because you can pass it and not really see it, and the fact that half of it is underground makes it less appealing to some people."

There are, says Imbergamo, "virgin restaurant spaces" in the Sugarcube Building (16th and Blake), 1755 Blake Building and the EPA building at 15th and Wynkoop, although none of those edifices has never housed a restaurant. And while Imbergamo admits that there are vacancies around town, he's quick to point out that a third outpost of Earl's is taking up residence in Ocean's former waves at 210 Columbine Street and Katie Mullen's wasted no time taking over the Supreme Court acreage at the Sheraton Hotel at 1550 Court Place.

As for Alto, Imbergamo doesn't believe it'll be on the market for long: "Someone will snap up the space relatively shortly."

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