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Long ago, in a column far, far away -- July 18, 2002, to be exact, when Bite Me debuted -- I had pretty strong things to say on the topic of restaurant decor, service and all that pomp and stagecraft that goes along with the execution of a fine meal.
1450 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
"Since putting down my Henckels and picking up the pen two years ago, I've found that I no longer believe a restaurant should be judged on the weight of its silver, the art on its walls or the name hung above its door," I wrote. "I'm still just as much of a prick when it comes to things like overcooked garlic, people who misuse the word Œaioli' and celebrity chefs who forget that it's the food and not them up on stage when the plates hit the table. But then, I'm also less embarrassed to admit that on some nights, I feel like one more black-pepper-crusted ahi tuna steak might kill me. These days, I believe only in good food or bad food. Everything else is just window dressing."
While I can't blame the tongue-wagging solely on youth or naiveté (I already had nearly a decade and a half of chefdom behind me at that point and about a hundred thousand words of food writing), I can say that I was a different man back then. Not better or worse, just different. At the time, my view of the restaurant world was still colored by my experiences behind the scenes, on the lines and in the whites of more houses than I can comfortably admit to even now. I still had a cook's hands then, a cook's weltanschauung. I was still the guy who'd nearly gone to jail for drunkenly dropping trou in a packed food-service bar in New York, dangling my cornstarch-dusted tackle just to get some free drinks for me and my guys (most of whom also had their pants around their ankles in a show of solidarity); the same fella who once punched a produce vendor for bringing a flat of mushy strawberries too close to Friday-night service for me to send them back.
And although I understood in intimate detail the way pro kitchens worked, my education on the rest of the business was just beginning. Interior design, the magic of light, the weight of silver and the diamond-edged sparkle of fine crystal, the delicate interplay of service and bus -- even with a hundred-odd professional meals already under my belt, this was all new to me. So I talked to servers, got to know hosts and floormen, interviewed owners and -- while still espousing the dogma that it was all about the food, stupid -- began backing off that hard-line stance and really looking at what went on in the front of the house.
So now, with several hundred more meals behind me, I can confidently say that the little nut-waving scamp with the busted knuckles was exaggerating just a smidge when he wrote "Good food or bad food. Everything else is just window dressing." The food -- the ultimate expression of the soul, heart and talent that lives in a restaurant -- is still the most important thing, but that other junk? It matters, too.
All things being equal, two restaurants that do the same kind of food in the same kind of environment with equal measures of skill must finally be judged in terms of the overall dining experience. Denver's restaurant scene has a wealth of steakhouses, but when you're talking high-tone steak-and-potatoes meateries -- dark wood, leather, filet mignon, prime rib -- you're talking about a line all cut from pretty much the same cloth. What set Capital Grille (see review) apart from The Palm and everyone else were all those things that a younger, cockier me would have considered just so much window dressing. Little things like great steak knives, the color-coding of the napkins, the padded tables, the library of newspapers from the past two days. Slightly bigger things like the sherry tureen, and then the biggest thing of all: the service. I've never felt more competently handled or better treated with less apparent cause than I did during my visits to the Grille. And though I'm sure this restaurant has its moments of crisis and disconnect, I've rarely seen a staff operate so smoothly or so well.
This has a lot to do with the truckloads of money the good folks from RARE Hospitality Management, which runs the Capital Grille brand, backed up and dumped into what had been an empty lot at 1450 Larimer Street; it has even more to do with the amount of time, effort and expense that went into the training of the kitchen (both chef Paul Schuttand manager Charlie Stauter were sent to the hinterlands for three months to train at already operating Grille locations), the floor staff (which went through three test lunches and five test dinners before the doors ever opened) and even the valets who park your car. The right way to do everything, from opening a door to lifting a plate, was hammered into this crew long before the first paying customers arrived. But far from coming off smarmy and forced -- like the stapled-on smiles of a Papadeaux server or Jimmy the Waitron at your local T.G.I. Friday's -- the hospitality offered here was honest. The staff's attention to every detail of service was reminiscent of the crazed perfectionism of Charlie Trotter's, only without the image of an obsessive-compulsive maniac like Charlie hanging over everything like the face of a vengeful, nitpicky God.
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