Chris Rock said it perfectly when talking about age: “Ya know, he’s like the ol’ dude at da club. Ain’t really dat old, just a liiiitttle too ol’ to be at da club.”
As I approach the 30 year mark of owning restaurants along the Front Range, I find my own self looking back on an old club—that is finally throwing some big punches.
The Denver/Boulder/Front Range dining scene has made an incredible leap into the national spotlight of late. But chances are, in classic Denver respect history, it will take a bit longer for the rest of the nation to give us the nod. “Cow Town” and “Dentucky”—among other tags—are some of the many names used when describing the Denver-Front Range dining scene.
In 1989, I was the executive chef at Cliff Young’s on 17th Avenue. Cliff’s was one of a very few bastions of fine dining in Denver at that time. Younger chefs were taking over older kitchens and we were “lightening” things up from the heavy hands of the ’70s and ’80s. Names like Corky Douglass (Tante Louise), Pierre Wolfe (The Normandy), Noel Cunningham (Strings), and Kevin Taylor (Zenith) were always in the press and the talk about town those days. John Imbergamo (Dudley’s) had recently closed, and Mel Masters (Mel’s) had not yet opened his Cherry Creek hot spot. All of these restaurants have closed, leaving only memories and folklore.
Denver did get the full attention of some highly acclaimed national chefs with Jimmy Schmidt (Rattle Snake Club), Roy Yamaguchi (Roy’s), Wolfgang Puck (Puck’s), and, most recently, Charlie Palmer’s (Palmer’s)—a restaurant that was gonna “light Denver up and finally bring some sophisticated and intelligent food to town.” That joint closed almost as fast as it opened and all the others are gone as well.
A vital restaurant community can be a real fundamental building platform for a great city, and Denver has got one of the very best happening in America right now.
What we are left with, and what we are blessed with, is a collection of the most original, soulful, and incredibly unique restaurants that now make up the Front Range roster of restaurants.
We have James Beard Award winners, Top Chef winners, a bevy of successful master sommeliers, award-winning beer and spirits makers, and a collection of younger chefs and seasoned veterans putting food so delicious on tables each night, somebody needs to slap somebody—and it can’t be your grandma.
The Denver dining scene has gotten fiercely competitive. We have restaurants in our own group, like LOLA in LoHi, that have 4,000 new dining seats within a quarter mile that did not exist when we opened 10 years ago. Jax Fish House in LoDo was one of three dining spots when it opened a block from Union Station 20 years ago, now there are over 50 restaurants within four blocks in any direction. The problem for fellow operators is, almost all of these restaurants in RiNo, Stapleton, LoDo, Lowry, The Highlands, Larimer, Baker, Sunnyside, Uptown, Cherry Creek, Boulder, and all the outliers along the Front Range are really, really good. Some, exceptionally outstanding on a national level. And therein lies Denver’s challenge and opportunity.
Compared to a lot of restaurant communities I am familiar with, Denver has a much tighter culinary community. The media isn’t divisive like in other metro areas, but brings restaurants and chefs/owners together. Eat Denver, Eater, Westword, DiningOut, and 5280—among other publications—work towards unity rather than subversion, but not at the expense of not calling someone out for putting shit on a plate, if shit is what’s being put on a plate. Everyone in the industry from beverage distributors to food purveyors, our great farmers to our own Colorado Governor and Denver restaurant pioneer are working hard on creating community. And when like-minded, smart people in any industry embrace those common goals, great things happen. A vital restaurant community can be a real fundamental building platform for a great city, and Denver has got one of the very best happening in America right now.
The truth is, we’re not fueled by glam-celebs coming to town and building palaces to dine in, but by hard-working and incredibly talented chefs, kitchen, floor, and bar crews putting it together nightly and making an undeniable statement.
The Denver and Front Range dining scene is no longer a stop through on the way to go skiing. We are killing it, and it seems that more amazingness is on the way. So a toast to all of you—from our best chefs to our very best customers and everyone along the way, as we are all instrumental in giving Denver its long-overdue raising of the glass to an undeniable culinary community. We’re going to do great things and achieve great success over the next 30 years, in honor of the last 30 years.
Chef/Owner Big Red F Restaurant Group