Top Chefs Discover Denver's Fast-Growing Restaurant Scene : The Salt Thanks in part to the nearby oil and gas boom, Denver is seeing a flood of affluent professionals with a hunger for good food. In one month this summer, for example, 40 restaurants opened.

Top Chefs Discover Denver's Fast-Growing Restaurant Scene

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Next, we'll go to a city where there are plenty of American jobs. Denver is the economic center of Colorado, where oil and other industries have hired so many people, the unemployment rate is close to 4 percent.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People who are working go out to eat. And as we learned while reporting in the city this past fall, you can eat well in Denver. Some top chefs have seen an opportunity in that growing city. Colorado Public Radio's Ben Markus reports.

BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: It's a Thursday night, and chef Keegan Gerhard's restaurant, D Bar, is getting packed. He just opened in a new location three times the size of his old one. Gerhard's an award-winning pastry chef often featured on Food Network, so of course his chef buddies wonder why he's in Denver.

KEEGAN GERHARD: Listen, everybody in my industry - certainly all of my TV colleagues - like, really, Keegan? Really? Denver? What are you, afraid to compete? Is your food not good? Like, I've heard it all.

MARKUS: New York, Chicago, San Francisco. These are the cities where top chefs tend to land.

GERHARD: But, you know what? If we're going to work hard, and we're going to work all the time, then at least we can be in places we love.

MARKUS: Gerhard's part of a massive influx of people here, making it the number-two fastest-growing big city in the country behind only Austin. And all those transplants need somewhere to eat. In one month this summer, 40 restaurants opened.

JEN JASINSKI: You know, sometimes it takes a while for the groundswell to get here. And it's finally gotten here.

MARKUS: That's James Beard award winner and "Top Chef Masters" star Jen Jasinski sitting at a table in her new restaurant, Stoic and Genuine. She's noticed that tastes have changed in her adopted city. Customers have more money and become more adventurous and sophisticated.

JASINSKI: You know, buffalo tongue stroganoff in 2000 was going nowhere. So I definitely think the customers have - and I think it's TV and everything on the Internet and all the blogs that are out there. They're interested in these new techniques and trying something new and inventive.

FRANK BONANNO: The Denver base doesn't just want meat and potatoes anymore. We're so far beyond that.

MARKUS: That's longtime Denver restaurateur Frank Bonanno sitting in his noodle bar, Bones. He says there wasn't even a restaurant scene here 20 years ago.

BONANNO: Nothing. There was nothing.

MARKUS: Now, he says, so many have opened it's hard to keep track. The boom in restaurants in Denver even surprises longtime restaurant analyst Bonnie Riggs.

BONNIE RIGGS: What is normal in the restaurant industry these days is not normal.

MARKUS: She says coming out of the recession, restaurant traffic has been flat across the country. But in fast-growing cities like Austin, Nashville and Denver, food is taking off.

B. RIGGS: It depends on the market. And it depends on the affluence of the market.

MARKUS: The tower cranes hanging all around downtown are a constant reminder of the city's new affluence. Dozens of shiny, new apartment and commercial buildings are sprouting up to relieve the pressure of falling vacancies. About $5 billion in development money has poured into downtown Denver since 2008.

SONIA RIGGS: So that impacts the rest of the city in a lot of ways.

MARKUS: Sonia Riggs, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association, nibbles on appetizers at a restaurant in the newly developed Union Station.

S. RIGGS: We've really arrived, I think, in a lot of ways as a cultural city. And we're getting recognition throughout the United States in that way. So restaurants is certainly a part of that.

MARKUS: Restaurant sales in Denver have doubled in the last 10 years. But restaurant profit margins are usually thin, and most fail within five years. Despite that, many would-be restaurateurs are betting that the evolution in Denver's culture and economy and a nearby oil and gas boom will be lasting. For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Denver.

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