The Bite

Taking a gamble on dinner in Black Hawk.

 Lots of Puck: The Black Hawk Casino, which bills itself as the largest casino in Colorado (even if the Hyatt's proposed hotel has yet to be built), offers eating options beyond Kitchens of the World Action Buffet (see story above). And those options may have shorter lines than the one that usually snakes past the Kitchens' waiting area and out into the casino.

Although a rumored Krispy Kreme outlet failed to appear, the casino boasts a Starbucks and a Wolfgang Puck Express, the same mini-Wolfgang operation that you can find at Denver International Airport. While the scaled-down Express lacks the sumptuous bar, hip atmosphere and complete menu (and service) of the full-sized Wolfgang Puck at the Denver Pavilions, this place could be your best bet for speed, consistency and taste -- not just in Black Hawk, but in any of Colorado's three gambling towns. And if you're a member of the Hyatt's Players Advantage Club -- or simply hint that you're thinking about becoming a member -- you get 25 percent off any eating tab. That means that a healthy slab of Puck's meatloaf with mashed potatoes, for example, clocked in at just $6; ditto for the spicy chicken pizza that a friendly helper delivered to our table in the cafeteria-style dining area.

For fancier dining, the casino boasts the Hickory Grill, open only at dinner, where the rustic-lodge ambience -- marked by antler light fixtures and peeled-log chairs, and not the bright lights (and bossy piped-in soundtrack) of the slot machines -- holds forth and the fare is meaty.

Not about a Restaurant

Meat your maker: For intense meatiness, of course, there was no beating last weekend's Blues & Bones Festival, the event's sixth incarnation and the first held on the south lawn outside Invesco Field at Mile High. Because the bones portion of the festival is now sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the rules for competitors -- both backyard and professional -- were strict. For example, all of the meat had be officially inspected before it could be rubbed, pounded, marinated and so forth -- and injections were out altogether. The inspection job fell to Pete Marczyk, whose Marczyk Fine Foods (770 East 17th Avenue) opened last month. And while Marczyk had to look closely at receipts, etc., to make sure everything was kosher -- so to speak -- he didn't dun contestants who failed to use Niman Ranch pork, the award-winning meat stocked at Marczyk. He did have to toss out a few pre-injected Butterball chickens, but he still gave high points to the ingenuity of the devices some people created to do the cooking, including an old icebox turned into a smoker. "The amateurs' area looked like the food court for Mad Max's Bartertown," Marczyk says.

If rules for competitors were tough, so were the guidelines for judges, who were kept in line -- and sober -- by the KCBS's Bunny Tuttle. And the winners this year?

Danny Q was named grand backyard champion at Saturday's event (Danny also placed first in chicken and second in pork ribs); Salt Lake City's Brews, Blues & BBQ won first place in both pork ribs and sauce. And at Sunday's Mile High BBQ Championship, Brews, Blues & BBQ took the grand prize, with Rini's Bar & Grill coming in second (Rini's got a gold star for its perfect first-place chicken).

Under KCBS rules, the people no longer get to pick their fave, but previous People's Choice winner Rini's Bar & Grill -- "Where every hour is happy hour!" -- did its best to uphold the tradition, welcoming folks to its festive red, white and blue tent (love those Bud beer-can lights!) and offering free samples. The only thing zestier than Rini's sauce is the attitude of its proprietors, Ken and Dawn Rini -- because Rini's Bar & Grill exists only in their imaginations...and their Aurora back yard.

Lucky neighbors.

Old friends: The passing of Sue Dire, the family matriarch who co-founded the Bonnie Brae Tavern (740 South University Boulevard) with her husband back in 1934, means there's no time like the present to visit some of Denver's more long-lived eateries.

Club 404, at 404 Broadway, is a relative newcomer compared to Bonnie Brae's seven decades; Jerry Feld opened his tavern a scant 51 years ago. It's still going strong, though: This modest hole in the wall serves up some of the town's best diner-style food, in friendly -- if slightly bizarre -- surroundings. The pool table, for example, serves not just as a storage area for salad dressing and desserts, but also as a merchandise rack for hats, T-shirts and jewelry offered for sale.

But the real bargains are the specials: Not only does the 404 offer a variety of lunch specials daily for just $4.04, but it also features prime-rib specials on Wednesdays and Thursdays, T-bone specials on Wednesday and Saturdays, even a Super Sunday Special. It also has a generous, if offbeat, happy hour: From 3 to 5 p.m. weekdays, selected draws are a buck, with a free feed to go with. Last Friday, the spread featured tacos -- with the standard fixings of ground meat, black beans, cheese and lettuce -- and hotdogs. (No buns.) One fan stuffed a litter of pups into his pocket.

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