Uptown's restaurant street is headed for change

What's happening on 'Restaurant Row?'

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Two buildings tower on either side of the 700 block of East 17th Avenue, their empty windows gathering dust as the space waits to be filled, a reminder that several longstanding businesses on the Uptown street known locally as Restaurant Row have gone dark, one for more than a year.

But new restaurants also are flocking to the 12-block stretch, from a vegan eatery to a hipster diner, signs that despite high rates of turnover and some difficult challenges in finding new tenants the pedestrian-friendly street remains a popular dining destination.

In January, a sign on the purple-painted building at 777 E. 17th Ave. announced that Uptown pizzeria Tony P's had closed after seven years. Owner Tony Pasquini said at the time that his lease was up and the landlord planned on redeveloping the property, according to news reports.

Since then, the 6,800-square-foot building has sat empty. Pasquini, who did not respond for comment on the building, still owns a Tony P's restaurant in the Highlands.

Denver property records show the building is owned by Dome Development. The company also did not respond to a request for comment from Life on Capitol Hill.

Building size can be an obstacle

Nearly one mile of East 17th Avenue, between Pennsylvania and North Williams streets, gained the name “Restaurant Row” over the years as restaurants set up shop on the street, including Ace Eat Serve, Steuben's and Watercourse Foods. The eateries have unique flairs that not only give diners diverse choices of cuisine, but bring a lively flavor to the street.

Ace Eat Serve, for instance, offers Asian-inspired dishes and is known for its late-night ping pong games. The newly reopened Hamburger Mary's is a gay sports bar. Watercourse has a vegan menu and Steuben's focuses on American regional classics.

Anong the recent new restaurants is Shanty Supper Club, which Tim Doherty, owner of the breakfast restaurant Syrup, opened last month at 1033 E. 17th Ave, offering Wisconsin comfort food. Stoney's Uptown Joint, a neighborhood sports bar, also opened a spot there earlier this year. It took over the former Argyll space at East 17th Avenue and Downing Street.

But some empty spaces have been more difficult to fill

Across from the former Tony P's is another vacant building, formerly home to M Uptown, a burger restaurant that closed in January 2017. The building, at 700 E. 17th Ave., is another restaurant with a large footprint to fill. Jennifer Kustok, whose family owns the building as well as M-Uptown, estimated the space sits at 22,000 square feet, including the patio.

The size of the building has made it difficult for Kustok to fill. She said it's all or nothing when it comes to getting a liquor permit for the building. So far, she and her husband have interviewed 40 entities, but she believes they may be close to finding the right one.

“That's been a difficult situation all together," she said. "We wanted to get the right person in there.”

Because of the building's business history, Kustok said she's hoping it will stay a restaurant for years to come.

“I think it's meant for it," she said. "It's really always been in the restaurant industry.”

Kustok's family has owned the building since it was the Cliff Young's steak restaurant in the mid-1980s. Over the years, different restaurants filled the space. It was a coffee shop in the 1960s. Cliff Young's moved into a portion of the building after its namesake moved to France. Stewart Jackson took over the restaurant and added Vino Vino, which would later become Dante and Stew's Vino Vino Ristorante Italiano when he partnered with former Colorado Rockies player Dante Bichette in the late `90s.

In 2005, Kustok and her husband Jeff decided to try their hand in the industry and opened the first Denver franchise of San Francisco-based Hamburger Mary's, an LGBTQ-friendly burger restaurant.

History of area important

Before it was known as Restaurant Row, East 17th was also known as Lavender Row, said Annie Levinsky, executive director at Historic Denver. The strip gained the name for having a large number of businesses friendly to the LGBTQ community. Before becoming Tony P's, the space at 777 E. 17th Ave. was home to gay bar JR's Bar and Grill for 11 years. It closed in 2011. Hamburger Mary's in Denver became home to drag shows and drag bingo nights. It also offered karaoke.

In late 2015, the Kustoks decided not to renew their franchise agreement with Hamburger Mary's. The same month the pair had rebranded the restaurant space as M Uptown. The drag shows continued, and the décor and menu stayed much the same.

In 2016, a new group decided to reopen Hamburger Mary's as a gay sports bar at 1336 E. 17th Ave. M Uptown continued to operate for two years. In January 2017, Kustok and her husband thought they would close and renovate the location. But in the end, they decided it was time to call it quits.

“It just seemed to have an expiration date. We gave it our all, and it was just time," Kustok said. "I think that happens to a lot of businesses. It was a good run, it definitely was. It was definitely some of the best years of my life.”

Redevelopment in the area nearly led to the neighborhood losing another long-standing restaurant. After Southern Land Co., a developer from Tennessee, bought the property at 538 E. 17th Ave., Tavern Uptown, a popular neighborhood bar, was almost torn down for construction of new apartment buildings. In the winter of 2015, the neighborhood worked with Historic Denver to create a petition to save the building, which was constructed in 1901.

Southern Land worked with Historic Denver to keep the building, incorporating it into its design for an apartment complex. Levinsky from Historic Denver said people really cared about the history of the Tavern Uptown building, which also used to be an LGBTQ-friendly hangout. She added that Southern Land was helpful in the process.

“They were actually really receptive to the idea of saving it,” she said. “A lot of our best preservations stories are ones that are win-win, that bring together the old and new.”

Tavern Uptown will remain closed during construction of the apartment buildings. Helen Wood, director of marketing with the Tavern Hospitality Group, which owns the bar, said it can start renovation work once Southern Land finishes construction. Michael McNally, senior vice president of multifamily developments with Southern Land, said they hoping to have the apartments open in the fall of 2019.

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