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FARE WARS

Destination: Denver International Airport. Fasten your seat belts tight across your stomachs--this could be a bumpy ride.

Traditionally, the only people who eat at airports are either (a) so hungry they don't mind paying $27 for two rubbery eggs, bacon that looks like it was torn from a running pig and bread that's been toasted with a cigarette lighter; or (b) terrified of what kind of alleged meal might lie in wait for them once they're held captive on the plane. To these two categories can now be added (c) reviewers and the people they sucker into coming along with the promise of free food--in this case Les and Lew, a couple whose culinary background is extensive: They eat a lot.

Since none of us expected to want to consume a lot at DIA, we were pleasantly surprised to find that most of the food there was at least adequate. But the big news for the captive audience that finds itself stuck 23 miles from Denver and culinary civilization is that airport prices are reasonable. For that, travelers can thank a stipulation in the city's concession contracts that prohibits vendors from charging more than 10 percent over "street" price. "So you won't pay ten bucks for a Big Mac like at other airports," says Pete Gingras, the airport's property officer. "That was something built into the original policy for DIA in 1991. That's a direct reflection of the city's policy from the start."

Besides, once you've shelled out forty bucks for a cab ride, who's got the money--or the patience--left for a ten-buck burger?

We saved some dough by driving out to the airport. The tent roof of the Jeppesen Terminal--supposedly reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains, those white peaks have inspired more than a few people to refer to DIA as "Titty City"--were barely visible as we approached. The sky was so overcast that I could have stayed home and simply pretended I was at the airport, since I live in that section of Elbert County where hens no longer lay eggs because of airplane traffic rerouted during bad weather. But then I would have had to cook my own food--and without any eggs. Instead, we started our culinary trip in Concourse C and ate our way back to the main terminal, using the maps in our handy Visitor's Guide.

Concourse C houses the majority of the airlines that aren't United. Still, the restaurant pickings are slim, with Lefty's Front Range Grille the only sit-down spot. DIA actually boasts three varieties of Lefty's; they're all owned by CA-1, which changed its name from Concessionaire--obviously to protect the guilty. Concessionaire owned all the food purveyors at Stapleton--and let's face it, the food at Stapleton sucked.

A little competition never hurts, though, and we weren't surprised to find that the food at Lefty's blew CA-1's previous endeavors away. We hit the Front Range Lefty's in the morning for a hefty breakfast tortilla ($3.95), a burrito (hey, why not just call it that?) filled with scrambled eggs, red peppers (classy!) and salty ham, with a side of salsa. Even more tasty was Lefty's decor: blow-ups of black-and-white photos from the Denver Public Library's Western History department.

But we soon left old-time Colorado for contemporary New York, as the smell of Cozzoli's Pizza drew us into the sterile little food court that contains the rest of Concourse C's culinary offerings. We bypassed the TCBY Yogurt (especially since there are six yogurt concessions at DIA) and McDonald's (three, one in each concourse) to get to this Big Apple chain. And it didn't disappoint us. Cozzoli's slice ($2.19) was better than most of the pizza in Denver, just the right size for folding in half so the cheese melted over the side and the spicy, oregano-heavy tomato sauce dripped into the cracks in the floor as we continued walking. That we were eating the pizza at 9:40 a.m. didn't make it one bit less delicious. In fact, for pregnant women and anyone else craving, say, a full Chinese meal first thing in the morning, the new airport certainly delivers. "We have people flying in from all over--flight attendants, foreign travel, even DIA employees--who are on different schedules from the rest of us," says Gingras. "We've also found that people perceive Chinese food, like that served at Panda Express, is healthy, so they want to eat that instead of an Egg McMuffin or something like that."

Health nuts will want to pick carefully at The Grove, however. The sign promises "natural," but in reality, only three of the three dozen Grove snacks are truly natural--and they look like something a Sherpa would eat, all banana chips and dried prunes. The rest of them are chocolate-covered, Red Dye No. 2-tinted and sodium-dioxide-preserved. Of course, that didn't stop us from taking a free sample of praline (read: sugar-coated) walnuts. DIA now has two Grove outlets; a third closed for lack of business, as did a second Creative Croissant after Continental jumped ship and left Concourse A echoing with the ghosts of Federico Pena's past.

But Concourse B--more accurately Concourse United--is alive and well. We again stopped at Lefty's, this time Lefty's Mile High Grille, for a tuna steak sandwich ($7.95). The 5- by 6-inch piece of half-inch-thick tuna (Lew, for some inexplicable reason, had brought along a measuring tape) was a tad overcooked and dry but soaked with the juices of 40,000 jalapenos, or so it seemed. "Eat that and then get on the plane and tell the guy next to you you're an insurance salesman," Lew said. The bun was fresh, and so were the just-cut potato chips, but while we picked through them, we noticed the food was on a plastic plate. Thick plastic, expensive-picnic-plate plastic, to match the plastic utensils. And we were expected to throw everything away. We later learned that everything at DIA, with the exception of the meals at the Concourse B Pour La France!, is served on plastic, but Gingras says they've addressed the environmental issue. "We have a contract with a waste company that is committed to recycling," he says. "They sort through all the garbage and recycle all the plastic." Mmmm, give me that job.

We encountered ceramic plates at Pour La France!, which a waitress elsewhere called the "closest thing there is to a real restaurant at DIA." The menu at this Pour La France! is downsized from the ones in Aspen, Denver and Boulder, and we found that the taste of the Brie and tomato pie ($6.95) had been similarly diminished. What had brought tears to my eyes at Bonnie Brae here left me cold--the crust was soggy, the tomatoes not soggy enough and the Brie unmelted. Still, it was better than the cheesesteak sandwich ($3.55) at the Steak Escape. The sign claims that this Columbus, Ohio, chain serves "America's favorite cheesesteak." Yeah, and DIA didn't cost the public a dime. This purported cheese-steak (which measured in at one inch more than the promised seven inches) contained tasteless beef, warm mayonnaise, a few pathetic onions and about a tablespoon of provolone cheese. Oh, and one mild pepper in the middle. A similar-sized Italian meatball hero ($4.75) at the Colorado Sports Bar--the blandest, most boring sports bar I've ever seen--at least offered some flavor courtesy of the three fat meatballs stuffed with onions and slicked down with a mellow red sauce. We might have enjoyed the cup of cold pasta in vinegar more had we not spotted the display case next to the cash register, where dead carnations garnished Saran-Wrapped bowls of limp-looking side salads.

After that, Concourse B dissolved into more Quarter Pounders and yogurt, with two notable exceptions. One was Auntie Anne's Soft Pretzels, where, as one flight attendant confessed, most flight attendants eat because the pretzels ($1.55) are "filling, cheap and low-fat." They're also hand-rolled in plain sight and come to you warm from the oven. The other noteworthy spot was the Aviator's Club, a comfy bar that, along with its sibling in the terminal building, is the only place at DIA to welcome smokers. The catch, though, is that there's a one-drink minimum just to sit in the place. (You can order a soda, but they don't like people to know that.) "Market research found that people who smoke also like to enjoy some kind of alcoholic beverage," Gingras says. "Believe me, we wouldn't have done it that way if the research hadn't pointed to it."

Too bad research couldn't predict the futures of eateries unlucky enough to wind up in Concourse A. Although Gingras says negotiations continue for the gates left vacant by Continental, that doesn't help Brother's Gourmet Coffee Bar, a beautiful place where you'll encounter no wait for the espresso and pizza, or Lefty's Colorado Trails Bar and Grill, which we found as empty as a Colorado trail in 10-degree weather.

The terminal, on the other hand, was spilling over with people crammed onto the balcony patios, where an express version of Pour La France! jostles for elbow room with the likes of Burger King and Domino's Pizza (which serves a morning doughnut and cup of coffee for 99 cents). The Creative Croissant is the place to go for breakfast, though--we tried the brownie masquerading as a chocolate muffin ($1.85) and one of the fruit-filled croissants ($2.32) and pretended we were flying to France. And we soon wished we were anywhere but sitting at CA-1's Red Rocks Bar when our combination platter ($7.95) arrived. The beans and coleslaw were mediocre, but the tough ribs and ketchup-slathered meat were no better than airplane food. Fortunately, we were able to wash everything down with tall glasses of Boulder's Amber, a Colorado microbrew.

Recent figures show that concession sales at DIA are unexpectedly high--more than double the sales at Stapleton--and may offset diminished revenues from airline leases. But for the taste-conscious traveler, DIA could be going nowhere fast.

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