Legendary Denver restaurateur Leo Goto, whose family emigrated to Denver from Japan in 1942, has died.
Former Colorado State University chancellor Joe Blake, a friend since elementary school, said Goto succumbed on March 3 in Sacred Journey Hospice in McDonough, Ga. He had moved to Georgia several months ago to be close to his daughter, Leilani Dobbins, after being diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer in 2012.
Goto's health had been in decline since the 2010 collapse of a restaurant and events center that he operated briefly in Littleton. He was 76.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Goto's career had a humble start: washing dishes in the Denver branch of Trader Vic's, located in the former Cosmopolitan Hotel. He quickly earned the trust and respect of owner Victor Bergeron, who promoted him to general manager and enlisted him to help open additional locations of the upscale eatery in London, Houston and Portland.
In 1969, with financial backing from longtime friends Larry Atler and Howard Torgove, Goto ventured into restaurant ownership with the opening Leo's Place at 16th and Broadway. Leo's Place became an instant hit, drawing nightly Who's Who crowds until the property was condemned to make way for an RTD station and high-rise buildings.
In 1976, the partners opened the Wellshire Inn on South Colorado Boulevard. Torgove bought out Goto's interest in 2008.
"He was a very unique and special human being, that's for sure," Torgove said, adding that they had met while serving in the Air National Guard at Buckley Air Force Base.
"I worked in supply and he was in the kitchen," Torgove recalled. "I noticed right away that the food was always better when Leo was cooking."
Atler and Goto became friends when they both were elected to the student council at East High School.
"Leo was a marvelous greeter with an incredible memory," Atler said. "He knew everyone's story; plus, he was a real sweet guy."
Goto was "the consumate host," adds restaurant consultant John Imbergamo. "He was the superstar face of restaurants long before restaurants started to be identified by their chefs."
Generous to a fault, Goto rarely said no to charities seeking donations of food or money. He was the youngest person to be inducted into the Colorado Restaurant Association's Foodservice Hall of Fame and in 1995 the University of Denver Alumni Association gave him its highest honor, the Evans Award.
"Leo was a mentor to many current restaurant owners and employees," said CRA president/CEO Peter Meersman. "He always put others first," added Holly Arnold Kinney, whose late father, Sam Arnold, owner of The Fort, had been one of Goto's best friends.
When his 5-year-old son, Mark, was killed in an accident in Detroit, Goto coped with his grief by volunteering at what is now Children's Hospital Colorado.
"He spent so much time there, and helped so many families, that the staff started calling him Dr. Goto," Atler said.
A former University of Denver trustee, Goto chaired the boards of the Colorado State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Colorado-Wyoming Chefs d'Cuisine Association and the Colorado Board of Environmental Health.
In addition to daughter Leilani and her husband, Kevin Dobbins, of McDonough, Goto is survived by his son Tim and daughter-in-law Jennifer Goto of Highlands Ranch; brothers Ben and Al Goto; sisters Lillian Sato and Rose Sakurai; and three grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Helen; his ex-wife, Linda died in November.
Joanne Davidson: 303-809-1314, email@example.com or twitter.com/getitwrite