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While the restaurant business is down across the country, eateries have reported that sales are up for two things: comfort foods and alcohol. "We've just been selling the heck out of mashed potatoes," says a server at the Buckhorn Exchange (1000 Osage Street), one of my many stops during Dine Out to Help Out, Colorado's version of the national Dine Out for America, on October 11. "People just want to fill their bellies with something warm and good like that."
1000 Osage St.
Denver, CO 80204
Region: Central Denver
And the Buckhorn, a 107-year-old eatery that still lays claim to Colorado Liquor License #1, dishes out some marvelous mashed potatoes, dense spuds with little slips of skin in the mix and a buttery flavor that goes well with the Buckhorn's rich brown gravy. That gravy is also good with the pot roast sandwich, a fat bundle of tender beef brisket that is forever spilling out of thin slices of pumpernickel. But the sloppiness is part of the appeal. Paired with more mashed potatoes and a bowl of the Buckhorn's legendary bean soup -- a thick, slightly peppery concoction that contains plenty of soft pintos and onions so cooked down they're practically ghosts -- the sandwich is exactly the kind of comfort food we're looking for right now.
In fact, the pot roast sandwich is the number-one reason so many people drop by the Buckhorn for lunch. "That's the biggest seller, no question," says Buckhorn spokeswoman Lynn Bronikowski. "And it's only going to get bigger, I think, in light of the way we're looking for those kinds of food. And with the Old West atmosphere and menu the Buckhorn has, it's just a natural place for American-style dining."
Not to mention you'll be eating under an impressive collection of animal trophies -- including a recently added whale's penis -- that covers the walls of the dining areas. Upstairs, a dimly lit bar with a couch setup on one end just begs for lounging. Mama, I'm comin' home.
Many of the other places I visited on Dine Out day seemed to be selling more alcohol than food. At Bistro Adde Brewster (250 Steele Street), Strings (1700 Humboldt Street), Mel's Restaurant and Bar (235 Fillmore Street), Dazzle (930 Lincoln Street), Radex (100 East Ninth Avenue) and Roy's of Cherry Creek (3000 East First Avenue), the atmosphere was almost party-like, with total strangers chatting among the tables and a lot of good cheer in the air. Of course, people had plenty of reason to be cheerful at those restaurants. At Adde Brewster, I snacked on the timbale of tuna tartare ($11), a stunning combination of impeccably fresh raw tuna, pieces of avocado, ripe mango and the sharp edge of wasabe balanced by sweet soy. At Strings, I simply drank wine and stole bites from my friend's dessert, an oh-my-God warm gingerbread pudding ($6) accompanied by a scoop of cinnamon-speckled pumpkin ice cream and a cajeta sauce (the Mexican version of caramel sauce, traditionally made with goat's milk).
By then I was feeling very comforted, but I still had to sample some things off of Mel's new menu, including foie gras ($12.95) and a shellish crème brûlée ($7.75), both of which made my tummy feel warm and welcome (and stuffed). Still, an hour later I managed to get hungry again at Dazzle, where the bar burger is reason to salute -- not just for the price ($4.50), but for the soft, warm focaccia the burger sits on and the gooey Stilton that you can get on top. I haven't managed to get a decent shrimp cake ($9.95) at Radex in ages -- the kitchen seems to continually reduce the amount of shrimp -- but at least the cake came with feather-light mashed potatoes napped by a balsamic beurre blanc. And an order of escargot ($8.95) smothered in Gorgonzola and butter really hit the spot -- several of them. When I got to Roy's, people were dancing at the bar, but I was still able to squeeze in an order for the luscious crabcakes ($11). I might have eaten more, but by the time I was done at Roy's, just about everyone else was closed.
By the way, Outback Steakhouse, the company that owns Roy's, reported raising $8.5 million for relief efforts that day at all of its eateries, while another heavy hitter, Lonestar Steakhouse and Saloon Inc.(which also owns Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, at 8100 East Orchard Avenue in Greenwood Village, and Sullivan's, at 1745 Wazee Street) raised more than $2 million. I raise my glass to those places, as well as the 500 others that joined in the effort.
And I had my share of vino that night, all the while marveling at the number of bottles coming out of the cellars. "I don't have any exact figures," says Adde Brewster owner Adde Bjorklund. "But you can tell people have been trying to drown their sorrows one way or another."
Although Bjorklund is worried about the downturn in business, he's trying to stay upbeat until the holidays. "That's when we'll really be able to tell," he says. "Then the first of the year will be when we're going to start seeing some fallout in our industry from all of this."