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Bite Me

Long Live the King

Breakfast King has finally completed its promised remodel -- but if you didn't know what to look for, you could miss it, easy. The 24-hour hash joint that's squatted for decades in the shadow of the old Gates Rubber plant still has the same funk -- that weird, one-two punch of old grease and fresh coffee that's always smelled like home to me. It still draws the same crowds (mostly older folk, friends of the house and dedicated diner junkies who know the real McCoy when they find it); it has that same lazy Sunday vibe whenever the sun is up and the same slightly creepy dead-ender's truck-stop feel after dark. The heart of the place has been left untouched by the recent rounds of facelift, nose job, tummy tuck and dermabrasion, and although I'll admit that I liked the King just fine in its previous, slightly worn and rumpled state, the cosmetic changes are simply that: purely cosmetic.

On a recent Monday, owner Terry Moore (one of three chiefs currently in command of the King) was working the floor at 300 West Mississippi Avenue, pressing the flesh and accepting compliments now that the dust has settled back into its proper place and things have returned more or less to normal. This is a man who knew how dangerous it could be to try and clean up a diner, who got that the life of a place sometimes exists in the scars and historic grime that it's picked up over long years of service. He understood that the temptation of the dark side -- that urge to clean an honest diner so much that it becomes a quasi-fern bar, or to remodel it straight into Gunther Toody's-land -- is powerful. We'd talked about this a couple of months back ("Travelin' Man," April 15), so I knew how carefully Moore was approaching the process.

And it shows in the finished product: The King now looks like a better, younger version of itself. The walls are still hung with that wonderfully awful 1970s rumpus-room paneling; the brown glass lights still dangle from the ceiling. There are new tabletops, and the booths have been recovered, but someone must've loaned Moore a time machine so he could go back and find just the right shade of Creamsicle Vegas orange vinyl, a color that hasn't existed since Debbie Reynolds packed it in at Caesars, since the last scrap of deep-pile shag was pulled out of the back of the last High Timesparty van. And while the King is now a little heavy on brushed aluminum -- with long, burnished sheets of it pinned up by the kitchen, the service area and all over the back-bar -- a good diner can wear its chrome and stainless like an old general wears his medals: proudly, knowing that every inch of decoration has been earned. Plus, this stuff ages well, and the constant grind of 'round-the-clock service will take the edge off the shiny newness of all that is shiny and new, wearing away a bit of that bright luster.

And then the King will be right back where it started. All it takes is time, and time is one thing this diner has plenty of.

Speaking of diners, one of my perennial guilty-pleasure faves, Johnny's Diner-- a pure outpost of Americana at 2323 South Havana Street, smack in the middle of Aurora's Little Asia, where I was hanging out for this week's review -- has jumped its class. What was once a straight-up, car-cult, fast-and-greasy breakfast bar, with service starting early in the morning and ending sometime around three in the afternoon, is now a full-fledged restaurant with hours extending until eight in the pee-em. And folks are lining up at the long counter for cheeseburgers and fries the same way they always have for ham-and-egg sandwiches and watery coffees-to-go.

For me, though, these new hours are a mixed blessing. Yes, I can now get cherry milkshakes on my way home from Bite Me HQ, provided I have a couple of bucks in my pocket. (It's cash on the barrelhead here, no credit, no excuses.) But Johnny's is no longer a breakfast bar, and being a breakfast bar is a noble thing -- cramming a full day's business into a few short hours guarantees that the service will be fast, the grub good and the menu narrowly focused on those things that the kitchen can do quickly and well. Denver has always been woefully short of these bastard diner-cafe hybrids, and now we've got one less.

Ask the critic, redux: In the August 5 Bite Me, I burned up a lot of space with my grumpy-old-man shtick about culinary schools and my distrust of the toqued and tassled graduates they keep pumping out, damn snot-nosed punks wearing the whites and blah blah blah.

And while I still feel that way (and grow grumpier about the situation with each passing minute), I did leave out an important part of the culinary school equation: What about an already blooded chef going back to school? That's what Michael, a pro with nearly twenty years in the galley behind him, e-mailed me about last week. "I had my first job at Mustard's Last Stand when I was 15," he wrote. "My next job was as breakfast cook/lunch prep at Green's. The chef there, a CIA grad, told me not to go to school but to work, that I would learn more in two years working and reading on my own than in two years at school."

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