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History Repeats on Old South Pearl Street

Session Kitchen features murals inside and out.

The Izakaya Den took over the spot where the Pearl Street Grill once stood.

The Sushi Den needs a counterpart on the block to the south, says Proprietor Yasu Kizaki.

Old South Pearl Street has the legacy of the streetcar.

Once a movie theater, The Vogue is now lofts.

Stores of all kinds line Old South Pearl Street.

In Platt Park, Old South Pearl Street is sporting a new look. The nine-block stretch between Buchtel Boulevard and Evans Avenue has been a commercial district since the streetcar era more than a century ago, and Sushi Den has been the catalyst for the last 25 years. Can another anchor eatery help the area emerge as a dining destination that rivals LoHi?
When the Pearl Street Grill shut down in 2011 after 28 years at 1477 S. Pearl St., the picture perfect pocket neighborhood was in flux. The landmark Sushi Den was still drawing in the crowds, but other eateries shut down in the wake of the Pearl Street Grill's closure.

Today it is a different picture, with new restaurants and stores up and down the nine-block stretch between Evans Avenue and Buchtel Boulevard, and some old faces in new places.

The game changer

When brothers Yasu and Toshi Kizaki first opened the Sushi Den on Dec. 24, 1984, the neighborhood was quite a bit different.

"It was the game changer," says Paul Kashmann, Publisher of the Washington Park Profile, the neighborhood newspaper which has occupied an office at Pearl Street and Jewell Avenue since 1978.

What was here in 1978? "Not a lot," says Kashmann ."It was a neighborhood shopping area from the turn of the century when the streetcar ran up and down Pearl Street."

From the late 1800s into the 1940s, streetcar #8 headed east from Broadway on First Avenue, then down Pennsylvania Street to Alameda Avenue where it meandered a block east to Pearl Street. From there, the streetcar had several stops on Pearl Street before again banking east on Evans Avenue, a little over two miles later.

As a result, commercial centers have been on South Pearl were established during the streetcar era. Then came "the age of the supermarket and the age of the automobile," as Kashmann puts it, and a number of businesses on South Pearl closed their doors.

As of 1978, there was a diner, an ice cream parlor, a pharmacy, a tile shop, and a gas station, all since shuttered, and no sushi.

"It used to be Gaylord Street was the sophisticated destination and South Pearl was the redheaded stepchild," Kashmann recalls.

But the Sushi Den catalyzed Pearl Street's ascendance, and continues to do so in 2013. "It's really starting to hop," says Kashmann. "It's one of the hottest restaurant and shopping areas in Denver."

In the early 1980s, The Vogue, a dinky movie theater that has since been converted to lofts, was an anchor, and there was also the Pearl Street Grill. The latter had a date with the wrecking ball to make room for Sushi Den sister restaurant Izakaya Den, which moved and reopened on the spot over the summer.

"We were catering to people coming to the movies," says Sushi Den's Yasu Kizaki of the restaurant's early days. "They slowly discovered us. But the rest of the street was dead. There was the Pearl Street Grill, an ice cream shop and the movie theater. That's all."

In 1990, the Kizakis moved the restaurant to its current location on the corner of Pearl Street and Florida Avenue. They also started sourcing fish directly from Japan -- they famously convinced a third brother to open a Sushi Den there so he could ship ingredients over daily -- and the move entrenched the eatery atop the short list of Denver's best sushi restaurants.

The Vogue closed by the end of the 1980s, so people weren't waiting for a movie anymore -- now they were waiting for a table. Other businesses opened to take advantage, says Kizaki. "A good example is Stella's," he says of the coffeehouse across Pearl Street from the Sushi Den. "They opened because they saw so many customers waiting for the Sushi Den."

Three expansions later, the Sushi Den has taken over the space once occupied by the Pearl Street Grill with a new and improved Izakaya Den.

It was on the opposite side of the street and on the next block south, in the building that is now Session Kitchen after a swap deal between the Kizakis and Pearl Street Grill owner Breckenridge-Wynkoop in 2010.

"We always wanted the Pearl Street Grill Building, but they weren't interested," says Yasu. "Three years ago, they were looking for another concept."

The Sushi Den jumped at the opportunity, closed the deal and knocked down the Pearl Street Grill for the new Izakaya Den.

"The further you are from your home base" -- in this case, the Sushi Den -- "the weaker you get," explains Yasu. "Even 100 yards is too far away."

Another anchor?

Beyond the Kizakis' establishments and Session Kitchen, such restaurants as Sexy Pizza, Uno Mas Taqueria and Cantina, and Steam Espresso Bar have all opened on South Pearl Street since 2012. Numerous boutiques and other stores have also set up shop here, following in the success of the two-location 5 Green Boxes.

"The good thing is it's still independent businesses," says Kashmann. "It's a lot more hip than it was for a lot of decades, but it's still small businesses."

The Sushi Den's Yasu Kizaki hopes Session or another restaurant can anchor the block to the south of the Sushi Den between Florida and Iowa avenues.

"Our block is very strong with restaurants," says Yasu. "If we had one more strong restaurant on the block to the south, it would become a major destination. Highlands has so many restaurants. We need one more restaurant, a strong restaurant."

Could Session Kitchen be that restaurant? General Manager John-Paul Larter says Breckenridge-Wynkoop was "excited to bring something new to South Pearl Street. It's representative of an evolution [from the Pearl Street Grill]."

Session Kitchen is indeed a striking reinvention of the Izakaya Den space, which was a new build that opened here in 2008. Larter says Breckenridge-Wynkoop Creative Concept Director Lisa Ruskaup's "vision is to have a restaurant that would appeal to all of the senses," with playlists that change depending on the time of day, lighting that shifts from natural to sculpted, colorful and artificial come sundown and pop-meets-psychedelic murals inside and out.

"It's really big," says Larter. "It's important to create spaces within the spaces."

Then there's the food -- the small and large plates range from golden beet salads to Cuban sandwiches on waffles, and the menu will change eight times a year -- and the drink. Taps pour numerous beers from the catalogs of Breckenridge and Wynkoop as well as local and regional standouts, and craft cocktails feature ice made with seasonal fruit juices.

Larter says Old South Pearl compares favorably with neighborhoods like LoHi and RiNo, and it has a leg up thanks to its history as a pocket commercial district."

"All of these neighborhoods have a great sense of place," he adds. "They have their own personality and their own pulse. That's what I like about Denver -- it continues to evolve. Some places have a great sense of history and some places are building it every day."

And Larter is very happy to be close to restaurateurs as renowned as the Kizakis. "Collaboration is the new competition," he says. "We want to be part of a great community."

Yasu agrees, and his business philosophy is reflective of a collaborative mindset. "It's not based on how much money we can make. Beyond profits, our priority has been our guests. Profit is slim bringing in fish from Japan, but it was the right thing to do."

"In Japan, it's a very different focus. Everything in Japan is long-term. In the U.S., it's short-term. It's a different vision."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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