Why these local Denver restaurants are opening on the 16th Street Mall

Mary Nguyen remembers the 16th Street Mall’s glory days, when she would ride the tram up and down the block as an 8-year-old child with her relatives. The streets were buzzing and full of people from all over, the granite tile pavers lining the pedestrian-only street were bright and clean, and there were new stores and restaurants that Nguyen had never seen before.

“The 16th Street Mall is the main stretch that represents our city. It’s iconic,” said Nguyen, who opened Little Finch in February at 1490 16th St. Mall. The café is the little sister to Olive & Finch, Nguyen’s popular restaurant on 17th Avenue in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood and another in Cherry Creek.

“From my perspective, being on the 16th Street Mall was an opportunity to be able to introduce people to the good things in Denver … as a tourist or a newbie,” Nguyen said. “You’re going to go check out the different scenes, and 16th Street Mall is always going to be at the top of the list, and I felt like with the revitalization it made sense for us to open up the first Little Finch here.”

It’s not an opinion that everyone would agree with.

When the 16th Street Mall first made its debut in downtown Denver in 1982, it was one of the first pedestrian malls in existence, and one of the first to see success in the country. National chains, as well as local businesses, opened storefronts all along its tree-lined blocks, which extends from Broadway to Union Station. But as the downtown core grew outward into Lower Downtown and the River North Art District, the mall began to suffer. By 2016, it had fallen into physical disrepair and a poor perception. The pandemic sped up the mall’s decline until it became known more for its empty spaces, crime, homelessness and drug problems.

Today, the mall is in the midst of a three-year, $149 million renovation project, giving it a much-needed facelift. The work kicked off in April last year, with plans to wrap up at the end of 2024.

While city officials hope that will be enough to bring office workers, diners, shoppers and tourists back to the 16th Street Mall, its continuing problems — mixed with the ongoing construction project — make it a tough sell for some. But not for Nguyen and other restaurateurs, who aren’t afraid of the challenges and who want to be part of the effort to restore it to its previous glory.

Since the start of 2023, five businesses — including Little Finch and Sofia’s Roman Pizza — have opened on the mall, and another 11 have signed contracts to fill vacancies, like Evergreen-based Casa Tequilas, an Mexican food restaurant that is replacing the former Rialto Cafe, according to Kourtny Garrett, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership.

“These businesses see the vision for the future in the fact that there’s a $150 million public investment in the signature spine of our city and what that means for the future of downtown,” Garrett said, adding that when it’s done, the mall will include playscapes, public art, more trees and outdoor cafes. “So we can look back at what it meant to this community in 1982 and bring it back as relevant today as it was at this time.”

Localizing the 16th Street Mall

Edwin Zoe opened Dragonfly Noodle’s second location at 1350 16th St. Mall in October 2022, in part because he believes in its future. Zoe, who has lived in Colorado for 40 years, feared that the mall would head into a state of decay after multiple businesses shuttered during the pandemic.

“It was very concerning to me and somewhat heartbreaking because 16th Street Mall used to be one of the most vibrant sections in the state, and when all the stores shuttered during the pandemic, I thought that something has to change or else it will just decay,” said Zoe, who also owns the Chinese street food restaurant Zoe Ma Ma next to Union Station and in Boulder.

“Growing up in the ‘70s, I remember when the city centers were in a state of decay, and people were leaving the urban centers, and it kind of reminded me of that,” he added.

While he agrees that a physical update to the mall is long overdue, Zoe, who is a 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist, also said he thinks it is time for local businesses to “walk the walk” and step up for the community. “I felt that if we want downtown to be vibrant again, we can’t just say it, we actually have to give reasons to people to go downtown.”

But he found other things to like as well. Part of his reasoning for opening Dragonfly Noodle on the mall was the lower build-out cost for a second-generation space.

The construction project — right outside his store — has been difficult, he acknowledged, by limiting Dragonfly Noodle’s visibility to potential customers, but the Downtown Denver Partnership has helped him apply for an initial $2,000 mitigation grant with the city. Zoe said he wasn’t aware of the project before he signed the lease. Small businesses in the construction zone that can demonstrate revenue loss can also apply for stabilization grants, ranging from $7,500 to $15,000, 45 days after the start date of construction on their block.

There are nearly 300 businesses, 60 percent of which are locally owned, along the 1.25-mile-long pedestrian mall, 190 of which are eligible for the mitigation and stabilization grants. Garrett said 54 of them have applied for money and that a total of $34,000 has been awarded so far.

“I’m proud that Dragonfly Noodle was, if not the first, one of the first new stores to open on 16th Street Mall, and that couple of others have followed since,” Zoe said. “To me that’s a good sign.”

New and old faces

Local restaurateurs aren’t the only ones stepping up to bring the pedestrian mall back to life. Denver-based Urban Villages owns the historic Sugar Building at 1530 16th St. Mall, and decided to invest in a new local business to fill the ground-floor restaurant space. In March, Urban Villages teamed up with Work + Shop, a small Denver-based restaurant concept company, to open Sofia’s Roman Pizza in the building.

“Urban Villages wants to utilize the spaces that they already own and also put local businesses in rather than bringing in more chains down here,” said Work + Shop’s program manager Claire Nafziger. The building owner is also considering new landscaping and string lighting, as well as a night market, that would add curb appeal and attract more foot traffic, she said.

Other new restaurants in the mall include CAVA, which opened at 1460 16th St. Mall in December, and a second location for Chopstickers, a Fort Collins dumplings and noodle restaurant, that’s set to open this summer at 1617 California St., just off the 16th Street Mall. Others: Rush Bowls, 801 Fish, Forte and Insomnia Cookies.

Chopstickers owner Zhijian Liu told The Denver Post he had originally signed a lease on the 16th Street Mall based on his impression of the mall years ago, and was initially concerned when he saw all the vacancies for the first time after visiting from Fort Collins. But the city’s investment in the landmark has boosted his confidence.

“There is always risk involved when starting a new business, considering the high rent and the construction,” Liu said. “But there is still a higher volume of passenger flow on 16th Street Mall than most of the other Denver commercial centers. The 16th Street Mall is the heart of Mile High city, and I am very confident our business will be very successful here.”

But there is more along the mall than just new faces. Longtime residents, like ChoLon and Liang’s Thai Food, have stuck around through good times and bad. Jaepop Pagdee, whose mom opened Liang’s in the mall as a metal food cart in 2007, said he could never leave his loyal downtown Denver customers, even though he recently opened a second location in Broomfield.

“People have bought our food in the mall for a decade,” Pagdee said. “I’m used to the ups and downs here, and I still feel really good about the future of the 16th Street Mall. I get to sell food to my friends here, which is what I love about it.”

Pagdee added that construction has slowed down his business a bit, and he’s applied for a mitigation grant, but “it’s not as bad as COVID.”

The pandemic’s start saw average daily users of downtown Denver fall by more than half, with more than 264,000 in April 2019 and about 49,000 one year later, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership’s High Frequency Economic Update. In 2021, the number climbed back to an average of about 145,000 daily users, with a jump to 183,000 in 2022. And as of March 31 this year, the number of average daily users has increased to 195,869.

Still, only 59 percent of workers have returned to office, according to the 2023 report.

“Nights and weekends have been outpacing pre-pandemic levels for well over six months,” Garrett said. “We’re seeing a steady climb month-over-month of a return to downtown across all user types, which is being primarily driven by visitor traffic and destination travel.”

Little Finch, she continued, “is a great example of bringing something local that is highly attractive, always has a line, and really helps to build a brand for the city.”

Garrett believes the pandemic sentiment that “downtown Denver is dead” might just be put to death once the city completes its $149 million 16th Street Mall renovation.

Little Finch’s Nguyen said that her business has been almost non-stop since she opened, with a clientele that includes downtown residents, out-of-state visitors and office workers, and that she has yet to feel a lull in traffic. And when she hears people question the vibrancy of the city’s historic pedestrian mall, she just asks, “Well, have you been to Little Finch?”

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