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The More Things Change

Under normal circumstances, news that a diner -- a good diner, one with some age and enough funk and grunge to gladden my blackened little Rust Belt heart -- had redecorated would really piss me off. Why? Because "redecorating" is often a code word for repackaging or repurposing, a polite way to say that the ownership has decided to kick out the bums, install track lighting and potted ferns, and basically dress the place up in borrowed finery in order to attract a more cosmopolitan crowd. Redecorating has been the death knell of many a fine all-night dive, because once the pockmarked counters, cigarette-blistered Formica and patched vinyl go, the cheap steaks, 24-hour breakfasts and bloody burgers are soon to follow. And when the place that's doing the redecorating is one that's near and dear to my heart? That makes me very, very nervous.

So I watched carefully as the Denver Diner at the corner of Speer and Colfax went through an autumnal molting. From the relative seclusion of my favorite booth in the corner, I observed them gutting the joint -- tearing up the floor, ripping out tables, decapitating the counter stools. The stainless steel and aluminum were stripped of a decade's worth of smut and nicotine stains, then buffed back up to a mirror shine. This worried me, because a diner isn't the kind of place where you want a lot of reflective surfaces. There, the only time you should ever see yourself is in a cracked bathroom mirror or a chance reflection in a window, the lights of passing traffic smudging through your blurry face.

I scrutinized every change that was wrought at the Denver Diner over the course of two weeks, stopping in every couple of days to check on the progress, always in fear that the cleaning and scrubbing and retrofitting of new elements into the old, comfortable space would go too far, would cross an invisible threshold and unbalance some vital ratio of gloss to grunge and tip the place over into the realm of the faux-'50s diners that now exist everywhere like gleaming, neon-lit shrines to some god of $6 milkshakes. I didn't know where the tipping point would be; there's no formula for calculating what makes a good diner, just a visceral thrum you get somewhere behind your heart when you walk into a place and know you've hit a main nerve of midnight Americana. The flip side of that is when you walk into a Gunther Toody's, a Denny's recast into its new, cookie-cutter Happy Days mold, a Hard Rock Cafe, even, and feel nothing but the chill of something exhumed from the grave.

But while this redecorating came close, it stopped blessedly short of that point where it would tumble the Denver Diner over into cutesy pop-culture copycat-ism. It gazed right down into that abyss, but it did not cross the line. The look was sharpened -- giving a new edge to a dining room gone a little blunt over its years of constant service -- but the big change was the color scheme. Someone somewhere must have gotten a very good deal on purple vinyl, because now every stool and every seat is covered in the stuff -- the seat backs accented by sharp triangles of silver -- and each booth looks like the front seat of a showroom-condition purple Chevy Impala headed fast for the mountains.

Over at 13160 East Mississippi, Cafe Paprika has gotten in on the redecorating game, too. In the charmingly Middle Eastern-themed dining room, with its gauzy curtains and murals, the foreign vibe has been amped up with couches replacing all of the chairs. I already liked this place for the brief, quiet sense of culinary escapism it provided amid all the McNuggets and Riblets of Aurora's fast-food jungle, but the couches make it seem even more tempting -- the perfect spot for relaxing over a shared plate of bastilla or just sipping sweet mint tea and watching the world go by.

Lincoln's Road House at 1201 South Pearl Street has undergone a more drastic image change. Its dining room is now known as Poirrier's Cajun Cafe, and it serves a menu about as straight-up Acadian as anything I've seen this side of the Mississippi. We're talking five kinds of po' boy, sausage with rémoulade, fried pickles, Cajun popcorn (actually a big plate of peeled N'awlins crayfish, corn-floured, batter-dipped and deep-fried), gumbo, blackened catfish and crawfish tail étoufée. That's roadhouse grub I can really appreciate. Someday I'll tell you the story about the swamp party I stumbled into while driving through Louisiana and how I ended up at a crawdad-and-crab boil with Elvis. Laissez les bon temps rouler, mis amis.

Leftovers: My research staff here at Bite Me World Holiday Headquarters has been making a list and checking it twice to find restaurant news both seasonal and not so.

First, Adega has added Monday-night dinners to its schedule. With all the press this place has been getting (including some nice bumps in recent issues of Gourmet and Food & Wine), I don't think it will have much trouble carrying the house on what's generally a deadly slow night in LoDo -- and with the recent troubles surrounding the opening of Table 6, my guess is that Adega will have plenty of staff on hand for the extra night.

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