Chef Bill Taibe could have easily opened a fifth restaurant in Connecticut after 11 years of success there, but as a recent empty-nester, he wanted to start a new chapter.
On Thursday, he and his business partner Massimo Tullio are opening Kawa Ni, a Japanese pub, in a former fire station at 1900 W. 32nd Ave. in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood.
“I’ve moved here part-time with my dogs already, and I don’t know how I’m even thinking about going back,” Taibe said.
Taibe and Tullio started For the Food restaurant group in Westport, Connecticut, in 2012 with their first restaurant, The Whelk, an oyster bar. They’ve since opened Kawa Ni in 2014 and Don Memo, a Mexican cantina, in 2020. Taibe previously planned to open Don Memo in Denver, as well, but the Platt Park location he had in mind fell through, so he’s reset his focus to the Kawa Ni brand.
Tullio’s stepson and daughter both live in Denver, and Taibe has grown familiar with Colorado through his ski trips over the years, so they decided to venture out.
“Kawa Ni is the concept that everyone really loves back home, and it travels well,” Taibe said. “You can plop it anywhere and see where it goes. The goal here is to do multiple locations.”
Taibe was inspired to create Kawa Ni, which is Japanese for “on the river” since the Connecticut location overlooks the Saugatuck River, after a trip to Japan. He wanted to recreate the feeling of the quiet Japanese pubs with cedar walls and an izakaya-style menu with multiple small plates and plenty of sake.
The New York Times once called the restaurant “ a gem, unique in its creativity.”
The Denver location will have a similar menu, with Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese influences, including a long list of dumplings, ramen, sandoitchis, noodles and rice bowls. There’s a whole section dedicated to deconstructed temaki (hand rolls) that puts diners to work, and only a few raw sushi items, like hamachi, black truffle and tuna or scallop.
“Back home, which I think is similar to the LoHi neighborhood here, dining isn’t necessarily a luxury, it’s a part of your life,” Taibe said.
Hometown favorites include: cold tofu pockets stuffed with crab; crispy Korean-style chicken doused in creamy spicy sauce and served over a rice bowl; and cabbage salad, a classic izakaya dish, “like guacamole at a Mexican restaurant,” Taibe said.
“We don’t want to be a special occasion spot,” Taibe said. “This is an everyday eatery.”
The drink program highlights six flavors of sake bombs, which are accompanied by a bang of a gong, Japanese highballs and straight-forward cocktails with Japanese nods, like the Geisha Gimlet with wasabi, the Sake-It-Tumi with yuzu, and the Big Fat Old Fashioned with smoked bone marrow washed bourbon.
Taibe and Tullio transformed the old fire station into a traditional izakaya with cedar walls, a cedar bar and traditional Japanese artifacts and paintings. They hired Rocco Dileo, a New York-based architect who designed Bar Taco and Barelona’s restaurants, to complete the nearly $2 million renovation.
“There’s something about Kawa Ni, whether it’s the smell of the food or the wood, where you walk in and it feels like a warm hug,” Taibe said. “It feels good to be there, and I think anyone that experiences it or has fallen in love with it would say the same thing.”
LoHi’s dining scene has been beefing up over the past couple of months. Kawa Ni is joining three other new restaurants nearby, including Kumoya, another Japanese spot down the road; Wilde, a coastal brunch spot on Tejon Street; and Jacques, a swanky French bistro just across the street.