As the coronavirus pandemic continues to hasten restaurant closings across Denver, one part of the city in particular, long considered a top dining destination, could become a culinary wasteland.
“There’s no office traffic, no business travel, no tourism and no hotels, and most of local clientele unfortunately seems to be avoiding downtown,” said Josh Wolkon, who on Thursday announced the permanent closure of his restaurant Vesta, which opened in 1997 on Blake Street.
Vesta joins other recently shuttered restaurants nearby such as 20th Street Cafe, Morton’s, The Market and Euclid Hall, which have all closed their doors during the pandemic.
Previously known as Vesta Dipping Grill, over its 23 years, the restaurant had transformed from a concept centered around housemade dips and sauces into a 21st century farm-to-table occasion spot.
Some of Denver’s better-known chefs cut their teeth at Vesta, including the late Brandon Foster, who worked his way up to executive chef over more than a decade in the Blake Street space, before moving on to lead the kitchen at Project Angel Heart.
Foster died suddenly from a seizure earlier this month, a moment that Wolkon said was the lowest point for him and his shifting restaurants.
“To not be able to gather and hug and be together at Vesta in a situation like that was really difficult as well,” Wolkon said. “(Brandon) really helped transition between the Vesta of the past and the Vesta of the present.”
For more than the past few months, Wolkon has been wondering what to do with the future of his oldest concept.
Wolkon is the founder of Secret Sauce, a group that includes Steuben’s, Ace Eat Serve and Vesta. He said the decision to close the flagship was a matter of choosing where to dedicate his team’s resources now among their three concepts and four total restaurants.
“I, prior to COVID(-19), was already kind of wondering, ‘What am I gonna do?’ ” Wolkon said of Vesta’s future. “And then this happened… .”
“This” refers to the pandemic, the closure of Colorado restaurants to in-person dining for 10 weeks at the start of their busy season, followed by a rush to reopen with outdoor seating and reduced capacity last month.
Wolkon has continued running his neighboring 17th Avenue restaurants — Steuben’s and Ace — with their easy to-go menus and expansive outdoor patio, but decided to keep his downtown and Arvada restaurant locations closed.
He owns the real estate beneath Steuben’s Arvada, so that was an easier decision. With Vesta, Wolkon had two years left on his lease and was questioning the business’ viability beyond that.
“Prior to (the pandemic), full service, higher-end dining was sort of in jeopardy or being threatened,” he said. “We’re at this weird breaking point with costs where you just can’t charge enough.”
While the Uptown restaurants are doing OK now relying primarily on outdoor dining and takeout, Wolkon said he wants to remain hopeful for concepts like Vesta “on the other side” of coronavirus.
“Maybe, because of this (pandemic), people will appreciate just how special it is to go out to a restaurant like Vesta, how good it feels,” he said.
For now, to honor the restaurant and its late chef in a way that befits the times, Wolkon and team are holding a fundraiser for Foster’s family from Aug. 8-9. They’ll sell charcuterie (a menu component that Foster promoted while at Vesta) on keepsake cutting boards inscribed with the message “Be like Brandon.” They will also sell the restaurant’s remaining wine collection.
“We can’t throw a party, we can’t have everybody come to Vesta for one last meal,” Wolkon said. “In a small way … it just feels like an appropriate send-off.”
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