By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
This is important, so pay attention. I'm going to tell you the secret of eternal happiness -- and it won't cost you a dime. You're getting it in a free paper and from a restaurant critic, which just goes to show that you never can tell where or when enlightenment might catch you.
Of course, I'm not going to give it to you right away. No, there's a journey involved, albeit a short one. But at the end of the page, there's the secret -- simple, yet true as anything. So if you're busy -- if you're one of those go-getting grubniks without time in your already over-scheduled day to slog through all these words -- feel free to skip ahead to the last couple of paragraphs. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. Do not waste even a moment of that valuable temporal real estate salivating over the homemade quiche at the Walnut Cafe, over fat omelettes served steaming hot with sides of fresh bread and apple butter, over black coffee and handmade guacamole and huevos rancheros blistering under a red-chile sauce. Time is money. I get that. Just go straight for the payoff.
But know that this little restaurant wasn't built on speed. Since 1984, the Walnut Cafe has held court on the corner of Colfax and Logan, slinging hash for capacity crowds and giving a serene, smirking, one-fingered salute to all those who find their comfort in corporate menus and corporate style, in shiny plastic dining rooms where the chairs all match the tables and the servers match the decor and the cooks exist only as warming automatons, preparing canned and bagged and vac-sealed food analogs for the endless Stepford masses. The Walnut specializes in old-fashioned food (meaning eggs, waffles, sandwiches and the like, with no sushi, no microgreens, no artisan this-or-that, and not a single stalk of lemongrass anywhere on the premises) in an old-fashioned, eclectic setting (meaning cheap but functional, like a Yugo, and comfortable like an old pair of sneakers).
Daily quiche: $7.75
Daily sandwich: $7.25
Eggs Marcos: $7.75
Breakfast burrito: $7.25
Stuffed French toast: $7.50
Although it was once associated with Boulder's Walnut Cafe (having some partners and, obviously, a name in common), for a long time Denver's Walnut has been a wholly independent joint. The owners have been here from the start. Some employees have been here for ten, fifteen, eighteen years, and that's nothing to sneeze at in an industry where the average life expectancy of a cook on any line is eighteen months. And over all that time, not much has changed at the Walnut. As a matter of fact, when I get Chris -- one of those longtime owners -- on the phone, he's hard-pressed to come up with anything that's changed. Finally, he remembers something: the breakfast burrito. That was added to the menu later, a couple of years after the cafe opened, once the kitchen had gotten a top-broiler to melt the cheese.
"We are small," Chris says. "It would be difficult to offer too many options. And confusing, I think. People will sense that in a menu. If we were bigger...I don't know. We're trying."
Chris speaks slowly and carefully, picking every word like he's unsure of the language -- but actually, it's me he's unsure of. At first, he thinks I'm trying to sell him something. I tell him I'm a food writer who's eaten a couple of recent meals at his place, and I want to know more about it.
That shuts him down entirely.
"Call me prudish," he says. "But I don't like to, you know, get up on a soapbox or anything. I don't want to talk...about myself, or...." Long silence. "Anything."
Like Chris, the Walnut Cafe is quiet. Or rather, it exists quietly. It doesn't advertise, doesn't employ any PR machinery, does absolutely nothing to draw attention to itself beyond being there and being open every day for the last twenty years. And for most of those days, it's been busy. Sometimes line-out-the-door busy, sometimes just-regular busy, as a diverse and faithful Capitol Hill gang of punks and pols come for the daily quiche special (a huge slice of fluffed eggs and what-have-you baked in a pastry shell), the daily sandwich special, the daily muffin special, then linger over coffee and conversation. Wellington and Wilma Webb used to make a point of stopping in for breakfast at the Walnut. Lawmakers and lobbyists still sit here handicapping the elections (currently running 5:1 for Bush, as long as he has Karl Rove's fist up his ass, working him like a ventriloquist's dummy), debating policy (as evidenced by a long, looping discussion on Hickenlooper's plan for the homeless being discussed in one of the corner booths last week) and talking about their favorite American Idol contestants (Denver's political power elite think Clay Aiken was robbed).
In the limited space available, the kitchen makes from scratch everything it serves (except the bread, which comes from Rudi's Bakery). Always has, always will. And that's not easy, considering the number of customers who move through every day. But still, making everything yourself is the best way to run a kitchen, so every morning the Walnut's cooks cut seasonal fresh fruit for the cream-cheese-stuffed French toast, for the fruit waffles and as a side available with any plate on the menu. Every morning they cook down a fresh-fruit glaze -- a sort of vegetarian glace de viande of apples and cinnamon or strawberries or whatever's good, each sweetly redolent of its constituent parts -- and make their own apple butter. They bake their own dark banana bread and muffins (which too often lean toward that brick-heavy, gritty, whole-grain hippie-muffin model of torturous good health) and quiche. They stir up fresh batches of green chile that's mild by Colorado standards but tasty, thick and dimly fruity. They buy organic when they can, buy locally whenever possible and work with the best ingredients they can get. As a result, every dish tastes distinctly of this kitchen, this crew and twenty years of practice.