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Bite Me

Color Coded

Remember Colorforms? I do. They were those reusable sticker sets that came with a slick cardboard background and sheets of thin, flimsy vinyl with shapes, characters, scenery -- anything really -- printed on them. Say you liked Superman. You bought the Superman set, punched out all the characters and stuff like paper dolls, and they would stick to the background like magic. Superman could whoop vinyl ass on Lex Luthor and his cronies until you got bored, then you'd just peel everyone off and start all over again.

Is it all coming back to you now? Thought so. They made Colorforms sets out of almost anything -- The A-Team, Battlestar Galactica, cowboys and Indians (so un-PC), spaceships. But now that I'm (more or less) grown up, I want a new set of Colorforms, this time for restaurants. Mine would start with an empty downtown space as the background -- four walls, a ceiling and a floor -- and the sheets would have stick-on tables, stick-on chairs, a variety of styles for the bar, all the basic decor. The set would include art for the walls; several different vinyl server models in various poses, as well as customers and cooks; little pieces of adhesive food for the tables; and little pieces of adhesive silverware for people's hands.

For starters (maybe for Christmas), I'd ask for the basic set plus the Asian-fusion expansion, with a lot of brushed steel and lacquered wood fixtures to add to the walls, a bad wine list, and the rubbery representation of a clueless owner with a coke sniffle who can't figure out why his place is only half full on a Friday night. There'd be a stick-on sushi bar included, complete with two or three young stick-on Japanese guys and a couple of clean-cut culinary students in their perfect white jackets and tall toques to work out front in the show kitchen, then a dozen Mexican line cooks in rumpled, sauce-stained jackets with cigarettes tucked behind their ears to work in the back.

Bam. There's half the Denver dining scene taken care of right there.

Next I'd ask for the Cherry Creek add-on, which would include 500 tall, thin, blond adhesive yuppies, 250 men and 250 women who all look exactly the same and all come with tiny platinum cards in their hands and little sticks to poke up each of their rubbery little butts. This set would also have five-year-old Zagat reviews to hang on the walls, a lot of conceptual art by painters no one has ever heard of, and little word bubbles to put above each customer's head saying things like "I'll have the salad," "Can you drink martinis on Atkins?" and "I'll have the salad, too."

There'd be a Colfax-diner version complete with stick-on hookers to work the parking lot and pieces showing drunken hat boys passed out on the Formica; a funky Mexican-dive-bar kit with teensy chile-pepper lights to go behind the bar, little stick-on plates of green chile and neon Corona signs; and a LoDo sports-bar date-rape action playset. And while even with these sets you couldn't cover every Denver address, you'd get most of them.

But there are still some restaurants that would be un-buildable without their own special editions of Colorforms -- collections custom-made for the representation of spots that defy categorization. Bastien's (see review) is one of those. So is Clair de Lune. The newly opened Mao would require a special Communist Revolution upgrade to the standard Cherry Creek Asian-fusion mix. And Casa Bonita would have to come packaged with two hits of blotter acid and a small vial of live E. coli cultures.

Club 404is another spot that would need its own edition. Is it a dive? Sure, but a great one -- and cheap like you wouldn't believe. Although it also dates from the '50s era that birthed Bastien's, you could never mix and match existing Denver locations to approximate the look and feel of this place. Club 404 is unique to the local dining scene, irreducible and irreplaceable.

Walking through the front door is like sliding into an old, comfortable jacket that you thought you'd lost years ago. Settling onto a stool makes you think that you could maybe stay here forever. The whole joint is keyed to an easier tempo than the rest of the world -- slow jazz, maybe, or country blues -- and inside the windowless room, time is measured in drinks, not hours. "How long you been here, Bob?" "Oh, about five rounds..."

There are regulars who've been coming here since Nixon was in office, and one owner, Jerry Feld, who's had the 404 since the Eisenhower administration. There are twinkle lights behind the bar, as well as an albino frog in an aquarium, and souvenirs of fifty years' service are pinned up everywhere, like the fetishes of cargo cultists. The place feels lived in, real, and has acquired a fine, polished veneer of grime over the years that it wears well -- like an aging leading man going a little gray around the temples.

My waitress, Nonna, called me "dear" when she made it around to my table. I liked that. She had giant hair and a nice smile and a look like there was no rush, no need to hurry at all anymore, so why didn't I just settle in for a decade or so? She had a kind of lithium-drip smoothness to her. For that matter, all of the 404 did. At one end of the bar, the fellas were watching skiing on a muted TV while Johnny Cash sang on the radio; I got the feeling that they would have watched anything just to have something to stare at. At the other end, Jerry was greeting his guests -- almost all of his guests -- by name.

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