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THE TRAIN GANG

In one evening, we saw two biker chicks in leather bras, a gaggle of businessmen bearing briefcases, four polyester-clad women double-checking their just-done hair, and two families celebrating birthdays.

All aboard for the Denver ChopHouse & Brewery.
The Rock Bottom Restaurants corporation--which counts among its holdings five Rock Bottom Breweries and sixteen Old Chicagos--spent $2.3 million turning the old Union Pacific Railroad headhouse into the ChopHouse. It was money well spent. Although the building sits a mere block away from Coors Field in a burgeoning section of LoDo, these shrewd restaurateurs wisely avoided the sports bar/burger route. Instead, they stayed on track with the train theme, but they didn't let it run away with them. True, the long lines of booths are reminiscent of Pullmans, and black-and-white photos of Thirties-era dining cars and their passengers decorate the hallways and bathroom walls. But no train could offer an exposition kitchen, a wood-fired brick oven or a 35-foot-long bar.

The Art-Deco-crossed-with-mahogany-drawing-room decor is stylish but comfortable, so that diners don't have to don their Sunday best but still feel they're someplace special. And while the tables are dressed in white linen, upon them sits beer--the ChopHouse's own microbrews, of course--and good, solid comfort food jazzed up with a trendy portabella here, some pancetta there. Nothing at the ChopHouse is so expensive that the restaurant becomes a once-a-year treat, but it's not so inexpensive that large numbers of the unwashed sully the plush upholstery.

Rich or poor, they all receive the same attentive treatment. "All kinds of people used trains for travel back then," says Carol Schauer, the ChopHouse's general manager. "You had celebrities sitting with door-to-door salesmen, but they all got the same service. Trains were really known for their exceptional service." To help duplicate that experience, the ChopHouse has a policy of hiring "people who are naturally nice," Schauer says.

Well, there's naturally nice--and then there's cheerleader-on-uppers, which is what we encountered on our lunch visit. Granted, the service was flawless (with the exception of a charge for cheese we didn't order). But during our meal this person asked "How are we doing here?" more times than a doctor on rounds in a 200-bed hospital. Thank heavens our food was good, because I wouldn't have had the heart to tell her otherwise.

The waitress had steered us toward the spinach-and-artichoke dip ($5.95), one of the many can't-miss items on the ChopHouse menu. Still, it was completely blown away by the grilled portabellos ($6.95): two mushrooms marinated in a tastebud-boggling sauce that was sweet and tangy in equal proportions. The burger ($6.50) seemed quite austere in comparison, but what the ChopHouse's version lacked in ornament it made up for in size and flavor--nearly a half-pound of incredibly lean, juicy beef filled the chewy baguette. The burger came with a slaw of summer squashes and red peppers tossed with not enough vinaigrette and a lot of black pepper. (At that lunch, we also sampled a $9.95 mixed grill that has since been taken off the menu. Too bad--the rabbit, elk and venison sausages were wonderful, and the braised cabbage and white-cheddar mashed potatoes the perfect complements.)

To wash down such hearty fare, only a brew would do, so we split a sampler ($5.60) of seven three-ounce tasters from the ChopHouse's current crop. The restaurant makes about eighty barrels of beer a week in its glassed-in brewery (visible from the bar and the back row of booths). Two of the biggest sellers are the Honey Wheat, an unfiltered little number that went down easy but was a bit tame for my tastes, and the Nut Brown Ale, which offered rounder flavor from its roasty depths. The Premium Mild wasn't as malty as the waitress had promised, but the oatmeal stout was more than we bargained for, with big tones and a creamy finish.

On our second visit we were able to order with confidence--one stout and one nut brown, please--and the appetizers we chose turned out to be ideal matches for the beer. The excellent onion rings ($4.50) looked like huge doughnuts stacked on a marble paper-towel holder. The soft-cooked onions had been trapped inside a thick, greasy-but-good batter that miraculously held firm when you bit into it. Our order of mussels ($7.95) was mammoth, too; the bowl contained a surprisingly generous number of applewood-roasted mollusks in a wonderful vermouth-flavored tomato sauce. The pancetta-wrapped shrimp ($8.95) also was a keeper: five large shrimp wrapped in Italian bacon, sitting on a caper vinaigrette and strips of marinated tomatoes.

The entrees brought still more astute combinations. An Iowa pork chop ($16.95) married fontina with sage inside a thick piece of meat; our only complaint was that the cheese had melted right out the sides of the chops, leaving only traces of its nuttiness. The pungent apple-cranberry chutney, however, more than made up for that flaw. And had I known that the "sourdough crust" on the lobster pot pie was basically a sourdough bread bowl, I might have thought twice about ordering it--but then I would have missed out on the wonderful warm lobster salad inside, with lots of intact claw meat and big pieces of root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. Maybe growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country skewed my understanding of pot pie--I remember it as a pot filled with meat and vegetables and topped with a pie crust--but Schauer says she's had no complaints about the presentation.

You'd have to travel to Italy to find a more authentic pizza crust, though. The airy, oblong disk of dough, which hangs over the platter it's served on, is cooked to a delicate crisp, then covered with innovative toppings. After considerable discussion, we ordered the bourbon and beef ($10.95), an inspired matchup of grilled sirloin, Maker's Mark steak sauce, grilled onions, Roma slices and white cheddar cheese.

After all that, we somehow still had room for dessert--and ordered three of them. The sour-cream apple pie ($3.95) looked innocent enough, but a dense pocket of cheeselike sour cream made it deliciously deadly. The pecan pie ($3.95) was a gooey deep-dish take on the old recipe, studded with tons of nuts. The clear winner, though, was the "really stout" sundae ($4.95): a large triangle of fudgy brownie made with stout, topped with stout ice cream and slashed with stout chocolate sauce, for the truly stout of stomach.

On our way out, we could barely fit those stomachs through the bar crowd that now spilled out the door and onto the walkway leading to the warehouse-sized room in back, where the ChopHouse spreads out a tailgate picnic of barbecue and brews on game nights and days. Even when the Rockies are on the road, though, the restaurant is packed with an amazing cross-section of Denverites.

The people-watching helps the wait go quickly. Of course, so does the fact that your destination is so delicious.

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