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The Super Bowl

If you've lived in Denver at any time over the past 25 years, chances are pretty good that you've eaten at one of the Broker restaurants.

Maybe it was for prom, or a tenth wedding anniversary, or a big business meeting, or a nooner. Maybe grandma took you there when you got your braces off, or your granddaughter treated before you had hip-replacement surgery. Or maybe you're one of the dozen or so loyal (and likely wealthy) diners who have eaten at the Broker nearly every week since it opened.

Whatever the occasion, the Broker has been ready to help you celebrate since Ed Novak and a partner opened the original restaurant in 1972, in the old Denver National Bank (circa 1903) building on 17th Street, the first concrete skyscraper west of the Mississippi. The occupant just prior to the Broker, also called the Broker and owned by the guy who did all the "Hungry" eateries, had already set the stage, but Novak turned the scenery up a few notches, adding Japanese cherry wood and ornate knickknacks, rich fabrics and black-and-white photos of Denver in the old days, all of which underscore the Wall-Street-in-the-1900s feel. Stalls in the vault that once offered privacy for bank customers examining the contents of their safe-deposit boxes were transformed into private booths--complete with phones for those last-minute negotiations--and strategically placed tables throughout the rest of the dining areas were as conducive to pursuing pleasure as they were to doing business.

But what made the Broker different from the other fish in the growing sea of Denver restaurants was the shrimp bowl, Novak's twist on the Seventies tradition of complimentary relish trays. People still love the shrimp bowl--all one and a half pounds of shell-on, iced Gulf crustaceans--which is second only to the servers in speedy arrival at the table.

As the free-shrimp deal bowled Denver over, Novak opened five other Brokers, three of which are still alive: the Boulder Broker (1976), the Airport Broker over by Stapleton (1976) and the DTC Broker (1991). To promote his restaurants, he resorted to bold stunts that industry insiders deemed expensive risks but which Novak considers part of a long-term customer-relations program. For example, he's twice taken out ads in the dailies that cost him big bucks. The first presented an anonymous coupon for $10 that diners were to take to their "favorite restaurant," a ploy that garnered Novak a few phone calls from competitors who demanded ten bucks back from him. ("Hey, if you don't want to be their favorite restaurant, we sure will," Novak claims he told those restaurateurs.) The second, and also anonymous, ad was a poll on what diners were looking for in Denver restaurants; in exchange for filling out the questionnaire, they received a $20 gift certificate--this one good only at the Broker. Novak received 24,000 replies, which meant he was out up to $480,000. Then there's the Broker's birthday club (membership totals more than 70,000), which offers an annual voucher for the celebrant and includes a follow-up thank-you note from the server who takes the voucher, and the gifts, such as etched wineglasses, that are given to diners on each Broker's anniversary date.

Obviously, the Brokers have made a few friends. But how have four locations managed to survive the decline of fine dining in a town suffering from a bad case of national chains? The answer is not a promotion, not a pair of wineglasses, not even a bowl of free shrimp. It's the food.

Quite simply, the Broker's food works. It's fat-packed, heart-choking, Everyman fare, the kind that became popular in the Fifties and has hardly waned in appeal since, the kind that doesn't need much more than the bloody juice from the beef or a metal bowl of warm clarified butter to enhance it. Of course, the gracious, efficient, unbelievably knowledgeable staff--career waiters! I love them!--hasn't hurt, either.

The menu is the same at every Broker, but the original has the best ambience. At lunch one day, I settled into a leather-covered banquette with a co-worker who used to come to the Broker in the Seventies when he was just a wee lad. The two things he remembered, the shrimp bowl and the French onion soup, were both still on the menu, and at least the price of the free shrimp hadn't gone up (onion soup is now $4.95). We tore into the crustaceans--to heck with our colleagues who would have to suffer the smell later--and then I wrapped a few yards of Gruyere cheese around a soup spoon wet with salty, strong beef broth. Our other starter wasn't on the menu in 1972, but the respectable Caesar salad ($6.95) proved that the Broker not only has staying power, it also has the ability to bend (somewhat) with the times. The bread back then probably wasn't an herb-flecked focaccia, either, and if an early-Seventies server had brought a bowl of olive oil with a blob of balsamic floating in it, the average businessman would have wanted to know what the hell it was.

Our server had worked at the Broker for only ten years, but the guy was a gem, seemingly one in a million (at least until our second visit, during which a second waiter was just as exceptional--what are the odds of that?). He could intelligently discuss wines and the lack of decent Moroccan restaurants in Denver. He also brought me a better, more expensive glass of wine than the one I'd ordered when he discovered that they were out of my choice, then charged me the price of the cheaper one.

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