The deluge of vibrant new independent restaurants in Denver is high and high.
Here is a partial list of the new Denver locations that bowed in 2011: Bittersweet. Row 14. Street Kitchen Asian Bistro. Linger. Charcoal. Wild catch. Le Grand Bistro. Jelly. Ale House at Amato. DAY Raw Bar. Spuntino. Pinche tacos. Russell’s smokehouse. Axios Estatorio.
The list goes on and on, and many more will be launched in the next few months: Trillium, District Meats, Phat Thai, Crave Dessert Bar … and so on and so forth. It’s enough to make your taste buds spin.
Denver – upbeat, ambitious, hungry in Denver – is full of new restaurants, and they just keep coming. What gives?
The National Restaurant Association reported a slight increase in nationwide restaurant performance in September (the last month that was recorded for at press time), and most indicators suggest that 2011 was slightly better for the hospitality industry overall than the three previous years . But the Denver dining scene isn’t all boiling. It’s burning.
“Denver is in a good place,” says veteran Denver chef Sean Kelly. Kelly, currently at the Lohi Steak Bar (and fresh from a consulting stint with Frank Bonanno’s newest company, Russell’s Smokehouse), says he is “more optimistic than ever. I see more stores, more street revenue than I can ever remember. This is a city where something is happening. “
Local food blogger (and Boston transplant) Ruth Tobias agrees. “I’ve never seen a city with so many openings. You’d think Boston would be moving at least as soon as Denver. I do not think so. Things just explode here. “
The restaurant consultant John Imbergamo, whose history in the Denver restaurant business goes back three decades, believes. “We seem to be driving in cycles,” he says, citing previous new restaurant flashes in the 80s and 90s. “Maybe people are making more noise now.”
Chalk it down to Denver Exceptionalism, Kelly says. “The coasts are slower than we are,” says Kelly. “People are escaping from Vegas and escaping from the coasts. Established chefs come to Denver and open restaurants. That hadn’t happened a decade ago. Ten or twelve years ago, every time a new restaurant opened, I knew who the chef was. Everyone knew everyone. But now you’ve started chefs from other cities. People want to move to Colorado. “
One of those well-known transplants is Tom Coohill, whose Ciboulette restaurant in Atlanta has long been considered one of the best in the country. His eponymous restaurant, Coohills, opens this week in LoDo. “We saw real opportunities in Denver,” he says. “It’s a bustling city and there are so many really good restaurants here already, but I don’t think it’s nearly full.”
“We’ve never had so much buzz,” says Diane Coohill, Tom’s wife and business partner.
Imbergamo suggests that the weak economy itself could be a positive factor. “In economically difficult times, real estate prices tend to fall and there is more space available. Building contractors are cheaper, architects are hungrier, there is more used equipment. And it’s a lot easier to hire in 2011. “
“I think the most important population group on this topic is the youth,” says Tobias. “It seems like everyone who opens a new restaurant these days is around 30 years old. You seem to have limitless energy to open up more and more places. It’s almost a nervous energy – do more! Do more! “
Kelly also sees the culinary audience as younger. “Part of it is cross-generational. People in their twenties and thirties grew up in families where they went to dinner four or five times a week – not just on special occasions. That’s how they live. “
But the urge for something new has its pitfalls, says Tobias. “Now that everyone has a restaurant, everyone must have a farm. And a beer brewed on site. And sausages from our own production. It seems like everyone needs to have the next toy, the next trick. This can be great for guests – if it’s good. I just wish everything didn’t have to follow a trend. “
Tobias agrees, however, that there is still plenty of room for more. “There are holes in the market. I would love to see a great Portuguese or Turkish place. “
Imbergamo points to a changing neighborhood landscape as another factor. “It’s not that we never had booms, but they were concentrated downtown. Ten years ago you wouldn’t open a restaurant in Highland. Now there are new restaurants spread across the city. It’s Denver’s middle-aged spread, ”he says.
According to Kelly, the media is helping to fuel the hype. “The entire media landscape has changed in the last five years. Audiences are so much better informed – you can now google ingredients or reviews right from your table. This is having a dramatic impact on the dining scene. “
Can Denver keep this pace? “Nobody has a crystal ball,” says Kelly. “But I believe that it is more sustainable than ever. It’s amazing to me. “
“I think Denver loves that,” says Tobias. “It certainly doesn’t seem to be easing.”
Tucker Shaw: 303-954-1958, [email protected], twitter.com/tucker_shaw