Cafe Society

Year in review: Denver's ten biggest culinary stories of 2012

We had our mouths full in 2012 — so full, in fact, that we're still chewing on the culinary headlines that made news over the last twelve months. We witnessed the demise of a restaurant that had survived more than sixty years; applauded the soaring resurrection of another; dropped our jaws in shock when a certain big-name, beloved chef decided it was time to take his knives — and talent — elsewhere; followed the ongoing saga of two popular restaurants that, according to the City, are allegedly on the verge of collapsing (literally); and experienced the loss of two iconic watering holes (and an owner). Here's a look back at the biggest restaurant stories of 2012. 10) The Squeaky Bean reopens in LoDo — bigger and better than before The gush of anticipatory accolades began long before Johnny Ballen, Max MacKissock, Steven Gallic and the rest of the canny power squad behind the Squeaky Bean reopened their doors late last June in LoDo after a year-long hiatus, revealing an incredibly dynamic, remarkably resourceful and engaging restaurant that lives up to — and often exceeds — expectations. The hype was unreal, the demand from guests unapologetic and fierce, and the response from the Bean team? An exhilarating culinary adventure, combined with exemplary service, smashing cocktails...and a cheese cart that's worth its weight in cream. Bigger isn't always better, and it's a risky move when a restaurant closes and then reopens, but the crew took its time, rewarding our patience with near-perfection.

9) El Diablo and Sketch get slapped with "danger" signs from the City and County of Denver Oh, the woe. El Diablo and Sketch, the two restaurants that Jesse Morreale operates in the 106-year-old First Avenue Hotel on Broadway, were slapped with brothel-red signs last year, warning that the building was structurally unsafe for inhabitants. Morreale, who has gone back and forth with the city more times that we can count, eventually got a reprieve, and both restaurants reopened three weeks after the signs first went up. But the fight is far from over: Earlier this morning, "Danger" signs were again plastered on the building, warning, yet again, that the premises pose a structural threat. And while Morreale insisted that both restaurants would stay open — at least for today — a drive-by late this afternoon proved otherwise; the house was black. The saga continues.

8) Gabor's goes dark — and the neighborhood goes ballistic Exactly one year ago today, I broke the news that Gabor's, an iconic neighborhood watering hole that payed homage to Marilyn Monroe, music of every genre, the color red and stiff drinks, was shuttering after thirty years in Capitol Hill. And, OH, MY GOD, did the haters descend in droves when it was revealed that Sam Roots, the owner of the Providence Tavern in Edgewater, planned to make that bar his own, leaving the gritty remains of Gabor's in the dust. Since then, the bar has gone untouched — save for plenty of graffiti on the exterior — but Roots hasn't pulled the plug. Construction issues have led to numerous delays, but he has every intention of opening a new bar in that space — like it or not.

7) Lancer Lounge loses its lease — and, sadly, its owner Back in October, the Lancer Lounge — oh, the dazed and confused memories — abruptly shuttered when the neighborhood drunk tank was evicted for non-payment of back taxes. Tempers flared from regulars — and Cafe Society commenters — who asked, among other questions: "Is it me, or are there people who are Hell bent on destroying Denver and it's history?" The last night at the Lancer was celebratory, but sadly, just a few weeks after that final hurrah, owner Becky Conda was found dead at the home of a friend and colleague. The space is now Vesper Lounge, a spruced-up bar with beers, cocktails and Middle Eastern food from Frank Bonanno, who now oversees three spaces on that block, including Bones and Mizuna, as well as Luca d'Italia, which resides right around the corner.

6) Lance Barto is (shockingly) sent packing from Central Bistro & Bar Just hours before service on New Year's Eve, Lance Barto, the opening executive chef of Central Bistro & Bar, was handed his walking papers. As Barto pointed out in my interview with him just days after his departure, "It was my baby and I lost it, and the most heartbreaking part is that we've had nothing but super-positive feedback from guests and media, and it's so sad that I was pushed out of something that I helped create and was really proud of." There are quite a few chefs we can think of who don't deserve to run a kitchen, but Barto was turning out plate after plate of vibrant foodstuffs, bolstered by pristine ingredients rooted in the bounty of small farms, and his abrupt departure from what had blossomed into a favorite local hotspot leaves a hole in Central's kitchen — and our food-obsessed hearts.

5) Pagliacci's, Denver's oldest single-family-owned Italian restaurant, shutters In its heyday, north Denver, long a community of tight-knit Italian immigrants, was an expressive catch-all of red sauce mom-and-pops, but over the last generation the old-school joints that many of us grew up with (to this day, Little Pepina's remains my favorite Italian joint in Denver) started slipping into the abyss. And in August, we saw the end of Pagliacci's, a restaurant that had survived an unbelievable 66 years before darkening its hallowed hallways. Long live the steaming tureens of minestrone.

4) After fifteen years, Matt Selby says goodbye to the Vesta Group In one of the year's most shocking chef departures, Matt Selby (Matty to just about everyone) made the decision to pack his knives and hang up his whites after fifteen years as the beloved chef — and face — of Vesta Dipping Grill, the LoDo restaurant conceived by Josh and Jen Wolkon, who then went on, along with Selby, to open Steuben's and Ace. His exit made jaws drop — after all, the Wolkens are respected restaurateurs with a sterling reputation — but Selby was spending less and less time behind the burners, and this is a guy who was born to cook. And that's exactly what he'll be doing beginning January 11 at the Corner House, an intimate new restaurant in Jefferson Park.

3) Mark DeNittis hangs up his sausage — and ceases his salumi production at Il Mondo Vecchio Wait. Huh? Are you kidding me? What the sausage?! When we broke the news that Mark DeNittis, Denver's kingpin of killer artisan sausages, was closing Il Mondo Vecchio, the salumi plant he'd unleashed in 2009, this city became unhinged, especially when DeNittis pointed a finger at the USDA, claiming that the powers-that- be weren't satisfied with the ways in which he was killing the pathogens for salmonella in his products. There were questions raised about DeNittis's assertions — and his decision to cease production, including a crazy-long epistle from this guy — but the overriding sentiment was shock and despair. DeNittis, however, is still very much a part of the Denver dining scene, hosting whole-beast butchery classes around the city — and there's more news about DeNittis that we'll share shortly.

2) Daniel Kuhlman, owner of Wild Catch (and then, Roam) comes out swinging on the same day his restaurant sinks and shutters

The most bizarre story of the year, at least in the restaurant business, centers on Daniel Kuhlman, the former owner of Roam (and, before that, Wild Catch), who abruptly closed his first restaurant in 2011, after his opening chef, Justin Brunson, sauntered out the door once he realized (as did the rest of the staff) that the guy was a complete schmuck (and that's putting it kindly). Then in early January 2012, Kuhlman resurfaced, reopening Wild Catch as Roam, hiring Tony Clement, an alum of Mizuna, to cook and Clement's wife, Mandi, to oversee the front of the house. He screwed them over, too, closing his restaurant (again) without notice, locking them out of the place and calling the police to make sure they never came back. But the cops were called again, on the same day, by Tony, after Kuhlman decided to pick a fight — and came out swinging. Here's the good news: As far as we know, Kuhlman is no longer in Denver. Good riddance.

1) The rise of Upper Larimer Larimer Square has always been a neighborhood nucleus of Denver dining, its one-block stretch of restaurants and bars a destination for locals and tourists alike. But in 2012, Upper Larimer, in the grittier Ballpark 'hood, commanded attention. Chefs, restaurateurs, winemakers and pig farmers recognized the potential of this neighborhood — a long-dormant swatch of dilapidated and industrial buildings that had already given birth to the RiNo arts district — and suddenly, there was a surge of activity: Ben Parsons, the head monkey behind the Infinite Monkey Theorem, unveiled a 30,000-square-foot wine-making facility and tasting room, which he shares with Denver-based Tender Belly, the terrific pig-centric company that pimps some of the best pork (the hams are extraordinary) we've ever eaten; Noah Price and Jonathan Power, the duo behind Crema Coffee House, opened the Populist, easily one of the most exciting restaurants to emerge last year; and Iain Chisholm unveiled Amerigo, a wonderfully comfortable and cozy Italian restaurant that showcases homemade pastas and a wonderment of other scratch-made dishes that make us swoon. And there's plenty more on the horizon for Upper Larimer in 2013, including a 5,000-square-foot restaurant from one of Denver's most prolific chefs.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson