Josh Wolkon is a warm and generous restaurateur and chef. He is driven by unwavering principles of respect, balance, genuine hospitality, and community. Twenty years ago, he opened Vesta Dipping Grill, a LoDo staple that recently dropped the “Dipping Grill” out of its name and over the years showed undeniable staying power in our ever-changing city.
The Early Years:
Wolkon hails from the South Shore of Boston. Coming from a family of great cooks and entertainers, hospitality is in his blood. Josh’s commitment to bold flavors and dining experiences roots from some of his earliest food memories. Josh reminisces about going out weekly for Chinese food with his family. He dreamed one day he’d own a restaurant and could eat Chinese food every day.
The restaurateur, who also owns (two locations of) Steuben’s and Ace, cites East Coast Grill in Cambridge, MA, owned by chef Chris Schlessinger, as another culinary inspiration. “It was one of the first times I recognized that you could pull off ‘casual fine dining’. Great food, great drinks, upbeat music, energy and personable service without the stuffiness and pretension of most of the best restaurants at that time. When I met Chris Schlessinger for the first time, he pulled up in his Jeep Wrangler with his wind surfer strapped to the top, shorts and flip flops. I said to myself, this guy has got it figured out.’’
Ending up in Boulder after a couple of years in the restaurant and hotel industry in Boston, he spent time in the back-of-the-house and the front-of-the-house and always thought he’d go back to Boston to open a restaurant, but he fell in love with the Colorado lifestyle and sunshine. “I love leisure time and the outdoors of Colorado. That’s why I stayed here.”
At age 25, Wolkon opened Vesta in LoDo, before LoDo itself became a destination. Named for the Roman goddess of the Hearth, Vesta has always been about serving big, bold flavors with a commitment to providing memorable social dining experiences.
The Vesta Vibe:
The restaurateur believes in the Vesta Vibe, as it has been coined, a combination of warm lighting, the character of the original brick and wood of the building, the music, the scents, and the genuine hospitality of the staff.
From first dates to marriage proposals, birthdays to anniversaries, Vesta has had a part in countless celebrations and holds a special place in many hearts. Wolkon thinks laughter between friends, family, or whomever your dining companions are is vital in creating the perfect dining experience.
It’s important to him that Vesta be “accessible and genuine, never pretentious with staff and guests alike. All are welcome whether in shorts and flip flops or dressed to the nines.”
The philosophy around food at the LoDo restaurant has been simple: Food should taste good. “Ideally, you should taste something so memorable that it makes you want to come back. You crave it. You dream about it. Each bite of food is visually stimulating, but more importantly delicious, so that you savor each bite.”
The kitchen places an emphasis on seasonal, fresh ingredients supplied by trusted purveyors that align with Vesta’s philosophy. “We pay close attention to how they run their companies and of course their practices in responsible sourcing. Vesta has the greatest ability to work closely with local farmers and seasonal products.”
Striving to constantly exceed guests’ expectations, Vesta has gained a reputation as being one of the most allergy-friendly kitchens in Denver.
The Beverage Program
A former Social Chairman at his fraternity at UVM in Burlington, Vermont, Wolkon is a seasoned party thrower. On opening day, twenty years ago, he just wanted to “throw a party night after night and hoped people would come to his party, enjoy themselves, get to know each other, and come back and do it again.”
Vesta’s beverage program is a far cry from a fraternity bash. It’s been ahead of trends for years. There was a barrel-aged cocktail program there before it was a thing. Vesta was (most likely) the first restaurant in Denver to offer them and has worked closely with Leopold Brothers for several years to create its own whisky blend. It has been aging for five years and will be released on Vesta’s twentieth anniversary.
The wine program is also celebrated and boasts annual wine spectator awards. “The most impressive thing about our beverage program and especially our bartenders is the level of knowledge and professionalism. Any higher end restaurant today should be able to mix high quality craft cocktails like any cocktail bar. That is a given. But to be able to combine that skill with immense wine knowledge is a rarity in this town.”
Building a Restaurant Family
The staff at Vesta treat the eatery like they own it. The pride of ownership translates into a culture of community. They work together and play together in an environment that encourages fun, parties, creativity, dancing, philanthropy, and connecting with people. Vesta has a core of long-term staff members who carry the culture and pass it on to the next generation of leaders. Wolkon credits the consistency and dependability of his staff as a key to Vesta’s longevity.
“It’s fulfilling to observe employees work their way up the ladder. The majority of our restaurant team has been grown from within, often coming up the ranks from buser or food runner and now holding high-level management positions. Our current GM, Pat Fitzgibbon, is a great example of a passionate restaurant person working his way up the ranks and now leading Vesta with dedication and passion.”
“Hospitality starts with the hospitality you show your staff,” Wolkon, who committed to creating a place that never felt like work, explained. “It comes down to treating people well and providing a sense of family and welcome in a place deeply embedded in the Denver community.”
Wolkon balances his life between home and work and encourages the same for his staff. “I have worked hard to keep priorities straight and not be one of those restaurateurs that regret not seeing his children grow up.” He shares this journey with his wife Jen, who has been with him since day one of Vesta, and their two sons Zach and Ezra.
Evolution over two decades
When Josh opened Vesta twenty years ago he hoped it would stay open. He was living his dream, young and blinded by naïve ambition with nothing to lose. That ambition, and a lot of hard work, led to Vesta becoming a cornerstone of Denver’s dining scene, with repeat appearances on many best of lists, including the Essential 38.
Over the years, slight changes to the interior and also to the music were made, which was mix tapes when they started. Vesta has moved away from the original sauce concept, though the sauces are still available to order. The restaurant has updated long-lasting menu favorites and has put a greater emphasis on sourcing ingredients. The bar program gained more taps, tweaked barrel aged program, and constantly fueled the wine knowledge of the staff.
The palates of Denver diners are constantly evolving and restaurants too must evolve. “Executive chef, Nick Kayser, who is classically trained and world travelled, was brought on board and has done an amazing job of bridging old school Vesta with the future.”
While times change, some things hold steadfast. “Today when you enter Vesta, you still experience outstanding hospitality, and you can still order your favorite Vesta dipping sauces, but you can also order cutting edge, high concept food with thrilling flavors and beautiful plating.”
The Secret to Vesta’s Longevity
Vesta has remained relevant for twenty years, not an easy feat in a market constantly growing and becoming more competitive. “Never rest on laurels. Always try to improve every aspect. Don’t be afraid to change and grow with the times,” Wolkon says. The restaurateur attributes the staying power of his flagship spot to the cultivated core values: respect, balance, genuine hospitality, fun and community, which continue to resonate with employees and diners alike even after twenty years.
The goal has been and continues to be to transcend trends by innovating. “Once everybody is doing it, you better be searching for other ways to separate yourself.”
“We [in Denver] are in the midst of a restaurant explosion touching on over-saturation. The strong and the best will continue to survive.”
Josh shares that executive chef, Nick Kayser, is hitting his stride both at Vesta and out in the community, especially his efforts with No Kid Hungry, a non-profit organization that is working to end childhood hunger in America.
As for remaining relevant in the future, “we will continue to grow, adapt, evolve, and exceed our staff and guest’s expectations. Most importantly, we will continue to have fun because that’s what it is all about,” Wolkon says.