By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
I walk into the Cherry Creek Grill, and it just feels right. From the outside, from the inside, from the heavy front doors to the exhibition line in the back, everything about this restaurant oozes comfort. The smell of smoke from the wood-fired rotisserie oven catches me in the chest, triggering a perfect cascade of sense memories touching on those primal human desires for heat and warmth and meat cooked over flames. The dim, intimate lighting is narcotic. The low ceilings straddled with arched beams of polished wood give me the feeling of being snugged in tight, claustrophobia averted by the dark spaces between, the recessed lights, the wide banks of windows. And the classical architecture of seats arranged on a riser around the central bar with the kitchen/stage straddling the open end of the large, smoothly curved U seems so complete, compact and efficient -- a closed circuit. I'm shown to my table, settle in amid the rough wood, the stone, the brick and shining base metals, and I want to stay. I want to come back again and again. I've been here two minutes, and it feels like home.
184 Steele St.
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
BBQ ribs: $19
House salad: $4
Dipping duo: $8
Grilled artichoke: $9
Chicken and spinach enchiladas: $12
Prime rib: $24
Even though I know the Cherry Greek Grill is part of a chain, even though I know I have been folded so very smoothly into the perfectly realized embrace of a corporate design scheme and am soon to be eating off of a corporate menu, I can't help but think that somewhere in Denver there's a feng shui designer who deserves a very large raise.
When stripped to their bones, there are essentially only two kinds of restaurants: those built to house people and those built to house food. There's no sliding scale, no spectrum on which a restaurant's one-ness or other-ness can be measured. Just two camps, diametrically opposed, and like sex -- boy or girl -- a restaurant's orientation is chosen long before birth. Conscious or no, a choice is made -- scribbled onto cocktail napkins or sketched into the borders of a designer's blueprints -- around the time of conception. That decision is written into a restaurant's genes before the first brick is laid, before the first fork is purchased, and it is replicated forever after in the proliferation of its DNA so that every table, every plate, every light fixture and butcher's block is imbued with the imprint and consequence of the choice. A place is and forever will be one or the other, impossible to be both.
Matt, one of my old partners, put it best: "There are restaurants built by cooks who want a place for their food to live, and there are restaurants built by customers for their friends." We were twenty-something when we got our first kitchen, free and clear, to do with as we wished. And what we wished for was a temple to the foods we loved. We'd both worked too long in the other kind of place, spent too many good years doing bad things to food in restaurants where more consideration was given to the color of the plates than the quality of what went on them. It was time to go the other way.
The ultimate food-centered restaurant, we thought, would be white and plain and designed with only the bare minimum of comfort in mind. No art on the walls, no show kitchen, just butcher-block tables with white linens and affectless silver. It would be as spartan as a monk's cell, as spare as an empty apartment, as without character as a school cafeteria. But the food...all sensual attention would be focused on that which issued forth from a kitchen staffed by cooks chosen for their singular dedication to cooking as religion, as the one true faith. We envisioned an army of obsessive-compulsives laboring as acolytes to this perfect standard of culinary absolutism, like Keller's French Laundry taken to ridiculous extremes of repentance for past sins. And we came close. The owners we worked for tempered our vision -- creating a nice dining room, installing a pleasant bar -- but still kept things low-key and gave us exactly what we asked for in the kitchen. It was beautiful while it lasted -- which wasn't long. But in the meantime, we got to pick our side, make a home for the food we loved, then work like maniacs to meet the ideal. We were the kids who'd gotten everything we wanted for Christmas.
That was the first kind of restaurant -- designed by cooks for their food, with the customers included only as an afterthought (and the bottom line considered not at all). The Cherry Creek Grill is the other kind, a restaurant genetically engineered to bring in the customers. I can feel it in the silver, heavy but not clunky, a knife and fork that mean business, and also in the curve of the low wall that runs around the outside edge of the seating area -- high enough to make every booth seem private, but low enough to see over, to lean against, so that you don't feel closed in. I imagine that wall being measured by a team of experts in human nature, ensuring that it's psychologically accurate to the millimeter. I can see it in the soft light that pools around the lamps on the bar, smell it in the wood smoke that flavors every breath but is never oppressive. I can hear it in the way the noise of happy conversations, the tink of forks on plates, the rush of servers and sounds from the kitchen all rise to the raftered ceiling, then hang there with a thrum like a pulse. The Cherry Creek Grill is never loud, even when the place is packed (and it's always packed), but it's never quiet, either. It's always exactly loud enough.
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