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It was the Christmas lights that messed me up. The tiny glass ornaments lit from within. The tinsel. The light-up motorized reindeer standing beneath the abbreviated spiral leading up to the rotunda -- unused these days except under special circumstances, dark, the chairs all stacked and set aside. The decorations were like paste diamonds, like whore's makeup on a beautiful corpse, and they pushed Bastien's over the edge, shoving it out of the realm of the merely quirky and into the land of the totally fucking surreal.
3501 E. Colfax
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
16 oz sugar steak: $21.95
Bite Me: $24.95
20-oz. T-bone: $20.95
Prime rib: $17.25/$19.25< br> Club steak: $11.50/$13.50
Pork chops: $11.75
Veal parmagiana: $14.50
No, it was more than just my irrational fear of lawn decorations displayed indoors. It was the carpet -- all orange and brown and swirly like a Vegas nightclub lounge back when Sammy and Dean and Debbie were still packing 'em in and all the strippers wore pasties. The pattern, like amoebas under a microscope, crawled along the edges of your peripheral vision after a couple too many Manhattans. And that orange -- that awful, pukey, terrible color like burned citrus fruit -- was pure 1973. The same shade as the shag your buddy had in the back of his van in high school, the same print as the carpeting in your weird uncle's rumpus room -- the uncle you found out years later was an actual swinger who hosted key parties and listened to way too much Bee Gees music on the hi-fi.
Maybe it was the Bee Gees that did it, the Muzak echoing in the high, empty space -- signal pulled down off some long-forgotten ghost transmitter in the Midwest where the engineer died at the board thirty years ago and no one noticed. A station you could never get at home or in your car, spectral modulations bouncing around the stratosphere until they wound up here: one long, continuous-loop tape playing the best of the brothers Gibb, Styx and the Beatles, forever. Baby, you're a rich man. Baby, you're a rich man, too. The ghosts of those beautiful people that John, Paul, George and Ringo were singing about back in the '60s still populate Bastien's. Girls in heavy eyeshadow and white plastic micro-minis, guys in Nehru jackets who ate here back in the restaurant's heyday. The air is thick with them, as well as with the shades of successful aluminum-siding salesmen in leatherette loafers knocking around the dark rotunda, out with their perfect nuclear families for a fancy Friday-night steak dinner circa 1958.
It was the brassy blinds on the windows, the twisted iron grating that separates one curl of sunken dining room from the next level on the ground floor. It was the corkscrew shape of the place, the old neon, the fish tank with one lonely fish. The quiet. It was the drinks menu, with a mix of beer and wine and cocktails that haven't existed since Ol' Blue Eyes hung up his martini glass: brandy Alexanders, Grasshoppers, Sidecars.
It was the guy with the bad suit and the comb-over sitting behind me who stopped a passing waitress and said, "Hey, I like this. Something's different, though. What's changed?"
It was the waitress's reply: "Oh, you probably mean the mirrors. We change things around once in a while still."
Those mirrored walls probably came down twenty years ago, and this guy -- waking from his coma and hungry for a steak dinner -- was just noticing now.
It wasn't one thing, but everything all together -- one room, perfectly preserved, absolutely authentic, like a time capsule made by strangers.
Bastien's isn't retro; the rest of the world is. The cocktail culture of the '50s? Bastien's has it. Early-'70s swinger swank? It has that, too. Put a waterfall and grotto down in the lower dining room, and a young, pipe-smoking Hef would feel totally at ease here, kicking it in his silk PJs, bunnies by his side. And if anything in this place has come around again into a third generation of recycled cool, that's only a happy accident. Bastien's doesn't change with the times; the times change around it. The world changes around it. Like they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and the batteries on Bastien's Timex ran down a long time ago.
But what a run it's had. The Bastien family bought the original model of this Colfax Avenue landmark -- the Moon Drive-In -- in 1937. It saw them through World War II, the baby boom, the rise of the car culture, the advent of American-style dining in all its weird, early permutations. In '58, the family tore down the Moon and built Bastien's in that grounded flying saucer, Hugo Gernsback, World of Tomorrow style that makes the whole place, even today, look ready to lift off and return the loyal faithful to the mothership for a journey back to Planet Funk. It opened on January 1, 1959, and was an instant hit, a destinationin a time when there weren't many. Truman Capote hung out here, ferchrissakes.
And forty years later, the trappings of Bastien's best years are still intact. The staff keeps everything polished, bright and clean, like tireless docents at some museum of forgotten cool. Nothing has changed -- except the crowds, of course. Most of them have gone. Or died. That's the trouble with golden ages: They all have to end sometime.
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