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Spirit of '96

I was at City Spirit Cafe to feed my soul as well as my stomach. The menu of options for my tarot reading were as follows: I could ask a specific question, such as, "Will I get that big raise I've been asking for?" I could ask about some part of my life, such as a relationship, or I could request information about an upcoming time period. Or I could just let the cards tell me what I needed to know.

Deal me in.
It turned out the cards thought that I should do something creative, like writing (nah), and that right now I felt confined in my life, but that that should change sometime around the end of the year (maybe I'll pay off the house, the two cars and the kids' college funds by then). Just about the only thing the cards didn't predict was that I was about to have several really good meals at City Spirit.

This quintessential urban hangout celebrated its tenth birthday last month. Such amenities as tarot readings (offered by three readers nightly) help explain City Spirit's continued popularity--but so do the excellent food and the hours when that food is served. The kitchen is open from lunchtime until the wee hours every day but Sunday, making City Spirit one of Denver's few late-night spots where you can grab a decent meal. In fact, that shortage was one of the reasons owners Susan Wick and Mickey Zeppelin opened the restaurant in 1986.

"At that time, I think there was only the Wazee and Josephina's down here," Wick says. "You know, this was LoDo when there were bums in all the doorways. And we really felt like it needed some kind of a community place, where it didn't matter if you woke up at noon or at ten at night, there would be a place you could go to get something to eat. And we also wanted to offer something for everyone, whether they wanted to drink and celebrate or grab a quick bite or have a full meal."

Wick and Zeppelin were already running a coffeeshop above the Blake Street bookstore they owned with buddy Michael Fagan. Now they decided to give the space a complete makeover, in keeping with its new mission not just as a restaurant but as a neighborhood headquarters. Such community involvement was something they'd been grooming themselves for, however subconsciously, since the two met as teens in a summer leadership camp in California's Santa Lucia mountains. (Their current crusade involves transforming an old church in the Golden Triangle into the Acoma City Center, where they hope to stage a variety of art and theater endeavors.) A real estate developer by day, Zeppelin had been intimately involved with LoDo's evolution; an artist all the time (she recently ended six years on the Mayor's Commission on Art, Culture and Film), Wick gave the project an aesthetic edge, designing and hand-painting everything in the long, narrow dining area--the booths, the walls, the tiles, the signs.

But the ebullient art wasn't Wick's only contribution to City Spirit. The restaurant also reflects her longtime commitment to vegetarianism. Not that the kitchen is vegan city, although non-dairy soy cheese is always available and many menu items are meatless. The emphasis is more on health than on the environment or politics, and that focus, seasoned with a sense of fun and proportion, makes for some out-of-the-ordinary eating.

In keeping with the owners' philosophy of offering something for everyone, City Spirit has several menus from which to choose. First, there's the bar food/small food/share food roster of munchies, all priced at $6.50 or less. On one visit we attempted to eat our way through the complete list--a tough task, since each item was more than enough for a family to share. Two of us made it halfway through the urbanachos ($6.50), a huge mound made up of layers of soft black beans, cheddar cheese, fresh salsa and a vegetarian green chile that had more flavor than most non-vegetarian green chiles I've worked through my system. This addictive mess was served with blue-corn chips and a blob of sour cream (which we chose over the healthy yogurt blend: 1-percent-fat cottage cheese mixed with low-fat yogurt). Perhaps healthier but no less filling was the Middle Eastern plate ($6.25), which held lemony hummus, light-on-the-garlic baba-ghanouj and parsley-heavy tabouli with fresh pitas for scooping. And while the Greek spinach and feta dip ($5.75) was serviceable (jalapenos added some zip to the cream-cheese-and-feta-based mix), the Brie with roasted garlic ($5.95) was something special. A wedge of the cheese had been heated until the insides ran out; the gooey Brie was served with a whole loaf of sliced French bread, a bowl of pungent onion relish and a bulb of garlic. In a perfect world, that garlic would have been roasted into mush; unfortunately, it had been broiled so that only the top third was cooked and the rest was raw, which meant it wouldn't spread on the bread.

The second time around, we hit the menu of urban entrees. The City quesadilla ($5.95) of roasted eggplant and red peppers with pesto, goat cheese and a side of oniony salsa had been toasted between two whole-wheat tortillas; although it resembled one of those vegetarian sandwiches that are so popular these days, this preparation had a better texture and much more flavor. An order of the pasta number one ($6.50) brought another flavor overload, thanks to an excellent ragu of roasted tomatoes and wild mushrooms, and more goat cheese than I've ever seen doled out by a restaurant for any price. There was more than enough of this glorious cheese to cover the also generous amount of penne. Actually, there was probably enough left over for the lamb souvlaki ($6.25), which could have used some distraction. While the portion was hefty and accompanied by the same delicious items we'd found on the Middle Eastern plate, the meat itself was dry. Either the house-roasted lamb had been overcooked or it had been nuked on its way out of the kitchen.

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