By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
By the time the Best of Denver 2005 hit the streets last week -- the culmination of months of work and countless bloated, hung-over mornings suffered by myself and my faithful lackeys here at Bite Me World HQ -- over a hundred winners in the Food and Drink section alone had been tested and retested (and, in some cases, re-retested). While there's no doubt that some of our picks were controversial (giving Best Crew to Table 6 for surviving the kind of pressure and stress that comes from being voted one of the best restaurants in the nation by the big-money glossies; naming Zengo Best Seafood Restaurant for the small miracles its crew works with everything from sushi to ceviche to Mexi-Frenchy-Asian black cod and tuna; bestowing the big one, the gold medal, the biggest of the Best of Denver food awards -- Best New Restaurant -- to Frasca, a Boulder eatery), controversy is what we do best. As I write this, the first responses to our choices are just trickling in, so I'm using this moment of blessed calm before the storm to do something I don't usually do.
I'm saying thank you.
Not just to those who helped me out this year (although you all certainly deserve it). Not just to the winners. But to everyone. To every restaurant, every chef, every commis and grillman and burger-flipper and carnale. Every floorman. Every owner. Every white-jacket in town who's reading this hunched over the stainless with oven burns on his arms and a prep list in his pocket. And every diner -- from the snootiest foodie to the bona fide gastronauts to anyone else in town who's dropped a nickel into the coffers of a real restaurant in the last three-sixty-five.
Shortly after starting this gig in July 2002, I walked into Adega on a Friday night with a party of four and no reservation. I remember that the place was doing good trade -- a full bar, three-quarters committed on the floor, the whole place humming with a friction buzz between kitchen and customers, between old money and new. We were seated immediately in the main dining room, at a fine table, given excellent service, ate a meal that was one of the best I'd had anywhere (not the best, but certainly up there in the top ten), and got out the door for under $300 -- which, in my mind, was a bargain.
As we were leaving, I remember thinking to myself that I'd chosen well in taking this job. I'd been looking for a city on the verge, right on the cusp of exploding into a serious food town. I'd wanted a place with history, with a tradition of fine dining that would have created a backlog of young turks aching for their shot at the bigtime. And I'd wanted drama -- a war that could be observed from the front lines in the style of my journalistic heroes: Fisher, Bourdain, Herr and Thompson. I didn't care what the fight was. House-to-house combat, chains-versus-independents, old-guard scrapping with the new -- it didn't matter. I just wanted to find a battle and pitch in.
Denver was the best beat I could have hoped for. This city had almost everything: love and war, blood and guts, heroes and goats, a well of talent as deep as cities twice its size. The only thing missing was support from the public. Cash, in other words. The green stuff. And crowds willing to part with it.
That was where I would come in.
It didn't matter to me that, traditionally, a critic is supposed to be unbiased -- a remote mouthpiece, standing aloof and above the hurly-burly, simply reporting on the density of the crème brûlée or the sauce on the coq au vin. That's crap. Dining is a subjective thing, and any claim of impartiality is a dangerous lie. We love what we love, and we hate what we hate, and since eating is such an intimate and personal experience, I figured that just coming out and treating it like that would be the best way to do the job. So I started right in with begging and cajoling and threatening and screeching at the top of my lungs about everything that was good (and everything that was bad) in Denver, treating every meal I ate as the highly personal bit of food theater it was, and doing everything in my power to get people out of their houses and into the scene.
Over the past few years, I've demanded that the legislature pass a law requiring every restaurant open in the morning to serve breakfast burritos, just so I'd never have to go far for a good one. I've asked God to rain fire on Olive Garden and T.G.I. Friday's franchises, threatened to come into people's homes and drag them bodily out to certain restaurants in danger of closing, suggested authorizing a team of food-service ninjas to break into professional kitchens in the middle of the night and steal all their bottles of truffle oil. I've done what I consider to be my job: being the voice of the common man (or woman), and acting as the ambassador between the cooks in the galley and the customers in the dining room. Today I'm a little bit older, quite a bit larger, no wiser than the day I started -- and I'm still slugging.