When you think of a deli, what comes to mind? Fresh bread and cold cuts.
A good deli is quintessential for a neighborhood and according to Andy Cushen, Leven Deli in Golden Triangle fits the mold. Plus, it has wine.
“It’s a local staple of the Golden Triangle,” Cushen said. “There’s not a ton of ‘nice’ food in the area. There’s Cuba Cuba and you can walk a bit further and then there’s City O’ City. But Leven is a ‘nice’ place to go after an exhibit. It’s a great spot to eat and get to know the people who work there.”
Leven is on West 12th Avenue between Bannock and Acoma streets. You can’t miss the brick facade, and the blue and white Greek lettering. The smell of fresh bread is also a good indicator.
Inside screams cafe or a bistro more than deli, but once you settle in between the cases of wine bottles and overgrowing plants, you can almost taste the in-house made pastrami and rye bread.
It’s less than a block away from the Denver Art Museum and the Clyfford Still Museum, where Cushen works and where his love of Leven began.
“When I started at the museum about two and a half years ago, everyone was telling me ‘Oh [Leven] is really new and they’re really good,’ ” Cushen said. “I used to live in the neighborhood, so I’d walk past Leven on my way to work, on my way home. I eat there often.”
So for two years, Leven has been Cushen’s go-to spot before, during and after work. It’s a place he’d recommend to museum attendees and anyone else who asked.
But that changed in March 2020. The museum shut its doors and Leven limited its services to delivery.
In time, both reopened with limited parameters, but as with all things amid the pandemic, it wasn’t the same.
“I figured when foot traffic and office workers didn’t return to museums, Leven wouldn’t be able to keep going,” Cushen said. “It always felt really precarious for them. It’s a good location but now we’re in a world where people are cautiously making plans.”
Those weary plans hurt Leven at first, according to owner Anthony Lygizos. But it was that “good location” and the neighborhood’s need for a deli that helped Leven survive and continue to thrive today.
We asked Denverites to celebrate businesses they cherish that made it through the mandatory closures and other challenges of the pandemic. Three readers, including Cushen, gave Leven a shoutout in our survey.
“My wife and I were very nervous about whether or not they would be around post-pandemic but what Anthony and his team at Leven’s did was nothing short of amazing,” said one reader. “They did such a good job and the neighborhood loves them for all they do.”
Lygizos said that’s why he got into the deli business, opening Leven in 2018, to create a welcoming spot for residents, museum neighbors and all patrons.
Because that’s what a deli is all about.
“We always try to build Leven to be a neighborhood gathering place,” Lygizos said. “That’s in the DNA of a deli from way back when in New York. There’s a lot of homemade products and something for the neighborhood. Everybody can find something here.”
Lygizos said the early days of the pandemic were tough financially, mentally and physically.
In early February, one of Leven’s chefs took a trip to Iowa and came back with a slight fever. There weren’t any known cases of COVID-19 in Colorado at the time, so Lygizos told the chef to give it a day.
“It was COVID and he got wiped off of his feet,” Lygizos said. “He was out for about eight weeks and it definitely sparked a lot of adrenaline out of our team, like not knowing what was going to happen with him and whether he was going to be OK.”
The chef made it through and Lygizos noted that the uncertainty brought the Leven team closer. He also said it motivated him to keep his team happy and employed.
“We would start every day with a group meeting and we would physically take everybody’s temperature and then mentally take everybody’s temperature to gauge where everyone was at,” Lygizos said. “We rolled with the punches every day and took on new roles, being delivery drivers and marketers. Teamwork got us through and we made sure we didn’t lose sight of how having fun is important.”
Besides boosting and maintaining morale, there were also the finances.
Leven is still in its beginning stage, having just celebrated its third birthday last month. Restaurants are a hard business to manage and statistically most close within five years of opening, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Now add a global pandemic. Yelp.com previously reported that 60 percent of temporarily closed restaurants would remain permanently closed.
“There were some close calls,” Lygizos said. “We weren’t just watching our cash flow by months or weeks but hour by hour, making sure the checks cleared.”
But Lygizos said he had a little help from his friends. Golden Triangle friends.
Golden Triangle is a growing neighborhood centered around the art museums. In 2017, Census data put the population at around 1,900 people but over the last 10 years, the area has seen the highest growth in available housing with new luxury apartments, though most of those units are vacant.
Lygizos said the museums are very supportive and the feeling seems mutual. Leven’s website boasts: “It’s always a smart move to add a little Leven to your Denver Art Museum visit.”
“The art museums are some of the best neighbors you could ever ask for,” Lygizos said. “All of the community was very supportive. They all used [Leven] as a refuge to get out of their apartments. Half the time, they were just walking over to check in on us. It was nurturing for both sides. We are firm believers of building those relationships, one interaction at a time.”
Lygizos said those interactions during the height of the pandemic became food deliveries and curb-side orders.
Leven also began serving “picnic at-home” meals, which were family style servings of lasagna or pot pies that people could reheat for a couple of days. Cushen particularly enjoyed the Florentine lasagna packed with veggies.
“We called them quarantine fever relievers,” Lygizos laughed.
He said at one point a patron ordered delivery five days in a row. He might’ve thrown them a few free bottles of wine.
That wasn’t Cushen, but he said he spent more money at Leven during the pandemic than before.
“If Leven closed, it would’ve been sad because it would have felt like the city wasn’t as resilient,” Cushen said. “I definitely spent more money there during the pandemic than I did pre-pandemic because I just felt like I don’t want them to close down without me trying this other thing on the menu. I wanted to keep the neighborhood alive.”
A mentor of Lygizos once said, “Denver needs more delis.” So Denver got Leven. And like the name, Leven continues to rise, and its neighbors are here for the ride.