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Over the course of its 23 years in business, Vesta welcomed its fair share of celebrities. Harrison Ford and Neil Diamond have dined there; so has Jason Mewes, much to owner Josh Wolkon’s delight. “I had just watched Clerks, and I’m working the host stand, and who walks in but Jay of Jay and Silent Bob in a [an undershirt], just like his character,” he recalls. “I’ve never really gotten star-struck, but I totally acted like a little kid.” Danny Glover, Tom Skerritt, and Bryan Brown all showed up in the midst of the infamous 1997 blizzard for a Denver Film Festival afterparty so wild that the restaurant’s manager at the time ran away with a guest and never came back. Peyton Manning wore an Elvis costume to the Broncos’ Halloween bash a few years ago, but it was the players who came dressed as cheerleaders that Wolkon won’t soon forget: “These 300-pound guys in tiny little skirts—I couldn’t even look.”
Still, it’s not the brushes with stardom that he and wife-partner Jen Wolkon are reliving as they close the doors to an icon of the contemporary Denver dining scene—it’s the relationships they’ve built with locals. “You try not to have any regrets,” admits Wolkon, “but in retrospect, you see these restaurants that put photos of celebrities on the wall—I wish we’d had a Wall of Fame for all the [couples] who got engaged here. There’ve been hundreds. We wanted Vesta to be fun and sexy, but it never once crossed our minds that people would choose it for engagements. And we were always part of it, working out the details: ‘Do you want us to bring the ring with dessert or in a glass of Champagne?’ [Then they’d] come back year after year: ‘We had our first date here, we got engaged here, we come every year for our anniversary.’”
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Had the restaurant been open for business as usual, the son of longtime regulars Kim and Mark Savit might have done the same just this past weekend when he asked his girlfriend to marry him; as it was, the Savits in turn asked 17-year Vesta veteran Kari Cummings, who’s also a photographer, to take his engagement pictures right on Larimer Square. Kim explains that she and her husband became fixtures in the dining room not long after moving from Washington, D.C., to LoDo in the mid-aughts: As a home-kitchen renovation stretched from two months to six, she says, “We decided Vesta would be our kitchen.” Since then, they’ve shared everything with the team from Thanksgiving dinners to annual fundraisers, with the Savits supporting the Wolkons’ many philanthropic causes and vice-versa. “We would give to them and they would give back to us—it’s been such a wonderful, loving exchange,” Kim enthuses. Adds Mark, “It’s not about the food at that point. It’s about the community.”
That sentiment seems to be echoed by everyone who’s ever worked at Vesta. After all, as onetime “maître’d-slash-manager” Kerry Pastine points out, it was named for the Roman goddess of home and hearth, symbolized by a flame, in part to celebrate the communal nature of dining. “So it makes sense that [the staff] became a community as well,” the musician and life coach says, nurtured by the free collaborative spirit of the Wolkons themselves. “I remember when I interviewed with Josh, my head was shaved and I had these psychedelic pants on, and he was like, ‘What are we gonna do with you? We’re gonna do all these cool things.’ I told him, ‘I have this whole vintage collection, I have wigs,’ and he said, ‘Go for it.’…[His attitude was,] ‘How can you contribute creatively?’ We wanted people who were tapping into their creative side, who really had the internal flame, like the Vesta flame”—including a number of alums who have gone to achieve wide acclaim as artists, such as New York furniture designer Mark de la Vega and California jeweler Amy Nordström.
Former server Rob Bowman agrees. Now a teacher in California, Bowman was the mastermind behind Vesta’s Mustache Festival, which would eventually become an annual benefit for Make-a-Wish Colorado. “It was right at the beginning of the trend when mustaches ironically became cool again,” he explains. “I had just gotten the job, and I came in and said, ‘We’re going to have a mustache festival. Everyone stop shaving.’ Then Josh came in and was like, ‘Why does everyone look so bad?’ But to his credit, he got behind it all the way,” especially upon recognizing its charity potential. “He was always looking for ways to do public service, and it speaks to the madness of working there. Everyone was fully allowed to be crazy, which created this atmosphere of joy.”
To those enveloped in it, it’s known as the “Vesta vibe,” which Jen Wolkon attributes to Josh’s work hard, play hard philosophy. “When we first opened, he had a way of bringing everyone together through shift drinks: ‘Don’t leave—hang out here and get to know your coworkers,’” she quotes him as saying. “And they’ve been some of each other’s best friends for 20 years.” Ex-staffer Kit Shupe, now a civil engineer, describes the Wolkons’ “culture of warmth and generosity” in terms of family meals, estimating “at least a total of 207,000…[and] it would be difficult to quantify the libations.”
Granted, the crew’s bonding often took the form of pranks, whether they were duct-taping a server’s bicycle to a balcony railing or dispatching a young rookie on a wild-goose chase. “We would send people on completely stupid missions,” says Cummings, recalling the time inaugural executive chef Matt Selby “got a can of paint from the basement, put a stripe down the top with a Sharpie or something, and said [to a new cook], ‘I need you to take this to Jax. It’s very important that you keep it steady, because it’s striped paint, and if you [slosh] it around you’ll ruin it.’ Then we just laughed watching him walk down the street very, very slowly.”
But far more than shenanigans, the crew poured its abundant energy into serious culinary innovation. The dipping sauces around which Vesta’s menu originally revolved helped put the city on the map as a dining destination, prompting out-of-towners to acknowledge, “Oh, look, Denver’s real—here’s a concept we’ve never experienced in San Francisco or Boston or New York,” according to Wolkon; at the same time, he acknowledges with a laugh, “We were doing foie gras and bone marrow and stuff like that early on—too early. I remember a lobster ice cream Matty made that was as far out as you could go. Our charcuterie program—we were doing it behind closed doors in the basement. If the health department came, they couldn’t get in; we said it was landlord storage.”
Along with its reputation for community-building, that kind of risk-taking was why “Vesta for many years managed to attract the best people in the city—the best chefs, the best bartenders, the best servers,” says Bowman. “It was an amazing nucleus of people who did exceptional work together with a real kind of warmth and intelligence. Everyone took food and food education really seriously, [which made working there] a get-in-free card for anything food-related in the state. I called a creamery once and said I worked at Vesta, and I got to spend a whole day with them learning about goat cheese. I did the same thing with Seattle Fish.”
He adds that the staff’s ability to “pass that knowledge on to the diner…and say, ‘If you trust me, I’ll give you the best meal of your life’” served as the hook for all those aforementioned regulars. “There’ve been nights when I knew every single person at the bar—I knew their first name, I knew what they drank,” says Cummings. “I had this little black book and if someone came to the bar who I knew would be back, I would write something to remember them by: ‘reminds me of my second-grade teacher’ or ‘the pirate guy.’” Now, she says, “I look at my Facebook connections and I’m like, ‘I know all of these people because of Vesta.’ I don’t know if there’s ever gonna be another place like that.”
Certainly Wolkon doesn’t think so. “I was 26 when we opened, and [so were] a lot of the people we hired,” he says. “And we were all doing this together—partying, having a good time, slowly growing up, seeing some level of success, [watching] couples happen and babies happen and tragedies happen. The word ‘family’ gets thrown around a lot, but that’s really what you get when you go from age 25 to age 35 with more or less the same group of people, all with the same kind of purpose.”
For Vesta’s most recent executive chef, Nicholas Kayser, joining that family in 2016 was a dream come true. As a culinary student, he says, “I idolized [Vesta] as something groundbreaking and boundary-pushing”—all the more once he left Denver to cook in New York, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. But “after learning all this technique and working alongside world-renowned chefs,” he asserts, “Josh and Jen’s open-arms approach was a life balance; it put things into humbling perspective. Vesta taught me so much I know that’s good and helped me throw out a lot of the bad. Now the flame has burnt out—but the legacy will continue on.”