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MOUTHING OFF

Chain gang: No fewer than 36 restaurant chains plan to add Denver links within the next year. With the number of recent local eatery additions and the sizable dining community already in place, something has to give--and I'm betting it ain't gonna be the big-money corporations.

Of the impending arrivals, the majority seem to be from California. I've visited a few of them there and elsewhere. Cracker Barrel, for instance, was immensely popular when I lived in Florida, especially because of its Southern-fried mentality, cozy fireplaces and cutesy country store that's always attached to the restaurant. The Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood aren't restaurants, they're happenings (particularly when Planet Hollywood co-owner Arnold Schwarzenegger is in town looking over his LoDo properties, as he was last week), and the California Pizza Kitchen is just another California pizza joint. Juicy Lucy is looking to expand (there's one on East Evans now), but the burger operation should pose no threat to Good Times. In Pittsburgh, Studebaker's went through several incarnations because it serves up dance as well as food and thus had to adapt from disco to alternative. They always had a great happy hour, though, and the place was hopping--but then again, so was Ruth's Chris. (Denver's Ruth's Chris, on the other hand, is hopping mad--over Bill St. John's recent review in the Rocky Mountain News. In a hot-off-the-presses release, PR guy Pete Webb sets the record straight on such burning issues as whether the remoulade sauce is authentic. Steak wars forever!)

If I had to let one chain in to Colorado, it would be the Lettuce Entertain You group out of Chicago. Owned by Richard Melman, this versatile company runs twenty or so quality concepts in Chicago (until two years ago they owned Ed Debevic's, and Pub City, the Pump Room and Tucci Benucch are still among their biggies). Rumor has it that a few Lettuce leaves were scouting around town recently, mostly in Cherry Creek.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Denver's premier restaurant promoter, Sam Arnold, hates to lose press space to DIA--so he's added helicopter rides to his lineup at The Fort. A mere $400 gets you and your six closest friends to the restaurant and then out for a spin around the Front Range. Another heavy in town, nice guy Johnny Hsu, just opened his new and improved Imperial Chinese Seafood Restaurant in the Broadway Marketplace, at 431 South Broadway. Down the street at number 675, the Colorado Institute of Art's School of Culinary Arts just opened the student-operated Assignments for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The recently reviewed Penthouse Grille has closed its doors; despite its name, this place was never the tops.

In case there isn't enough food for you in the Denver area, the fifth annual Taste of Vail starts April 6 at The Westin and the Lodge at Vail. Last year's was an absolute orgy of food and wine, with seminars and cooking classes in between so people had time to digest. If you can't make it up there for the whole three days, the mountaintop picnic Friday at noon or the Grand Tasting Saturday night are the best parts, since 26 Vail restaurants and about 80 international wineries will bring potluck. Cost for the whole deal is $250, but each component has its own price tag if you want to go a la carte. Friends tell me I had a great time last year.

 
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