By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
The dining room at Cafe Berlin was empty when Laura and I walked past. Next door, Dario's had a few tables, and the smell of roasting meat, garlic and red sauce licking out onto the street would ensure that it soon had a few more. A couple of early drinkers were tucked in at the Thin Man's long bar, and at the end of the block, St. Mark's Coffeehouse was jumping, with crowds spilling out onto the patio.
We took a turn around the block, walking slow, stalling because I have this thing -- bordering almost on a phobia -- about sitting down in an empty restaurant. It's the same with empty movie theaters. I figure that if a place is dead quiet, there's probably a reason. The last time I was alone in a theater, it was for a prime-time showing of Battlefield Earth that did nothing but brutally reinforce a latent evolutionary survival skill. I should have followed my skittish animal instincts and gotten out, like an antelope seeing a still pool of murky water out on the savanna, untouched by any of the local critters, and walking away in search of a more heavily trafficked spot for a drink.
But the rule doesn't always hold true with restaurants. Sure, there was that lonely tamale stand in Albuquerque that looked like it hadn't served a customer in five years -- and for good reason, it turned out. I ate one half of one pork tamale there, and six hours later was begging Laura to call Smilin' Jack Kevorkian to put me out of my misery. But there was also Opal, which was empty but for my table when I was served one of the best meals of my life. There was the Denver Diner, quiet as the grave the first time I sat down for lunch. And I've almost never seen another customer at my favorite 24-hour doughnut shop, but the cream-filleds haven't killed me yet.
1600 Champa St., Unit 230
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
We completed our circuit of the block, waited around outside for a couple of minutes, then finally took the plunge. The owner and one of the servers were sitting in front of the bar polishing the silver when we stepped into the long, narrow space. On the left was the empty dining room -- cute and bright and nicely appointed, fully set for the weekend crowds that had yet to materialize -- and a small patio for those who prefer their bratwurst al fresco. On the right were the waiting area, a couple of overflow tables, a short bar (stubby but surprisingly well stocked) and, behind it, a kitchen that was already a riot of activity, with three guys in starched whites, their heads down, busy making good smells. Cabbage steam, the odor of citric bases that will always remind me of home, the acrid stab of sauerkraut and mustard, sweet caramelizing onions -- I felt better about the place already, and confidently told the server (who'd snapped to his post as soon as we'd walked in) that there would be two for dinner.
He asked if we had reservations and flipped open his book. I said no and asked if that was a problem, glancing again at the quiet dining room in case I'd somehow missed a party of thirty tucked away somewhere. He said no, it would probably be okay, provided we thought we could be finished before 7:30. I looked at my watch and laughed. It was 5:20. Yeah, I said, I thought we could manage that, assuming he was joking.
There is one rock-solid guarantee I can make for Cafe Berlin: You will not walk away hungry. Matter of fact, you probably won't walk at all. You'll waddle, maybe stumble, and if you avail yourself of the litre beers they serve -- four Paulaner varieties on tap, plus Warsteiner, brought out in a glass stein the size of a barrel, like something the evil giant would drink in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale -- then being carried out is a distinct possibility.
What looked like such a simple, three-course menu when we sat down, with appetizers, entrees and desserts all in their proper places, ballooned into a Teutonic feast of massive proportions. Soups and salads, breads and sides, all attended by drinks (the aforementioned tap beers, with Rhein, Mosel and Franken region wines dominating the list), came to the table in staggered flights that ended with schnapps and dessert.
The apps started with a traditional würstteller of beef and veal brats, paired with a vicious, house-cured sauerkraut about as subtle as a boot in the teeth; there was also a käseplatte of import cheeses whose lineup changes week to week, sometimes day by day. Laura and I chased down our brats with kartoffelpuffer -- two flat-grilled potato pancakes served with a bowl of chunky homemade applesauce mingled with icy sour cream that gets easier to pronounce in direct proportion to how much Munich lager you've poured down your gullet. Second only to the musical stylings of KMFDM and David Hasselhoff, potato pancakes are Germany's greatest contribution to world culture, and even though our puffers were a little burnt 'round the edges, we devoured them -- Dr. Atkins be damned.