By Jamie Swinnerton
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It would be so easy to make fun of the Royal Hilltop. It's just another theme restaurant, after all. A British pub theme restaurant. A non-smoking British pub theme restaurant, tucked away in the back of a strip-mall so far out in southeast Aurora that it might as well be in Kansas. I could mock it for the ridiculous English references on the menu -- calling an appetizer platter the Picadilly Circus, for example -- intended to make everything sound British. I could laugh over such abuses of the artes culinaire as loading down potato skins with cheese, corned beef and sauerkraut, or deep-frying dill-pickle spears (both far from your standard East End fare). I could snidely comment on the interior design, on the faux-coach-lamp-and-framed-rugby-jersey decor typical of all such joints from Provo to Jacksonville. I could easily make a joke about enterprising Brits who sell all the old clock faces and faded Oxford pennants they find in their attics to this one warehouse (probably located in the industrial slums of Decatur, Illinois), which then resells this junk to any American rube who wants to open an "authentic" British pub in his home town. Even worse, a non-smoking "authentic" British pub.
With a nudge and a wink, I could get very snarky and superior about it. Why, anytime I choose, I can drive into LoDo and pay forty dollars for fresh-strangled squab in a styrofoam demi-glace or a salad of warm frisee topped with olive oil cold-pressed by blind virgins in an Italian mountaintop nunnery. On any night of the week, I can get artisanal cheese made from the milk of artisanal goats, transported to Denver by artisanal truck drivers -- so why would I go to the Hilltop for a salad of pure iceberg lettuce topped by shredded yellow and white cheddar?
Because sometimes a salad like Mom used to make back in the days when iceberg lettuce was the only kind of lettuce that existed in America's culinary consciousness is exactly what you want.
Shepherd’s pie: $7.95
Fish and chips: $8.95
Bangers and mash: $7.45
Royal with cheese: $6.25
Because not every meal needs to be "challenging" or "intellectual." Not every plate needs to illustrate the fluctuating influence of forced colonization on the indigenous peoples of such-and-such. And an entree doesn't need to be made with heirloom this and barrel-aged that to be worth eating.
And most important, because James and Tina Pachorek, owners of the six-month-old Royal Hilltop, did something brilliant when they opened this place: They created a casual, laid-back, non-threatening restaurant that people want to return to again and again.
"A simple, comfortable, neighborhood place, that's what we wanted," James says, sitting at the bar. "We tried to bring just a little bit of the city out here, but not too much, because people don't always want to drive all the way into the city."
"Or drive back," adds one of the Hilltop's regulars.
Here's a tip for any would-be restaurateur thinking about having a go at a business that chews people up and spits them out worse than male modeling and pro football combined. If you want to make it, do what the Pachoreks did. For starters, that means research. Find a newish high-density residential area (and the Front Range has plenty -- this area sprouts tracts like kudzu); pick a shiny, fresh strip mall where the rents won't cripple you (also not tough, because they grow like Darwinian offshoots of every new housing development ever built); measure out five miles in every direction. If you find any chain restaurants -- the sort that serve booze and deep-fried appetizer platters, such as Bennigan's or Applebee's -- start over again at step one. If there are no chains, sign that lease immediately. Stock your bar with good liquor; weight your menu toward the cheeseburgers and chicken-fingers end of the culinary spectrum; hang a few TVs in the corners; buy the ESPN sports package, and start raking it in.
That's what James and Tina did -- more or less. They spent three years studying new developments and checking out potential locations. They visited every neighborhood bar and pub they'd ever heard anyone say anything good about, and they tried to figure out how they could make their place better. And after all their exploring and conceptualizing and scouting out the competition, they picked their spot. Now, on some Friday nights, it's standing-room-only at the Royal Hilltop, with eager suburbanites stacked three deep at the bar.
Hell, on a Monday night the Hilltop is so busy that by 7 p.m. the friendly waitresses are starting to get that glazed look, like they can't quite remember which table had the double order of artichoke dip (another just-like-Mom, Tupperware-party classic, made with chopped 'chokes, mayonnaise and melted cheese) and who had the Royal with cheese (a burger that tastes like it just came off the backyard grill, with your choice of cheddar, Swiss or provolone on a soft kaiser roll with fries or that iceberg salad on the side). The place has twenty tables -- including six high-backed booths with brass foot rails that look like the sort you'd find in a real British pub -- and fifteen seats at the bar overseen by three, four, sometimes five servers, plus a bartender or two, which still isn't nearly enough to handle the weekend crowds. There are families with toddlers in tow; office workers getting sauced on twenty-ounce royal pints from the well-stocked, Brit-heavy bar; old men sipping aged Scotch or Murphy's Stout (no Guinness here; it's a Murphy's bar, and thank God for that) from pewter steins with their names on them, and old friends knocking back stiff Beefeater martinis with names like The 007.