By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Planned communities creep me out.
It's something about their zero-down homogeneity, the Stepford-ness of their razor-straight streets and perfectly manicured medians, their covenant controls and faux-utopian doubleplusgood Orwellian weirdness. It's the way they build their own parks, schools and churches on the same templates that govern the placement of their PF Chang's and Wal-Mart, and how everything appears sized differently than it does in the real world -- bigger or smaller depending on need, but always, always placed closer to everything than is necessary.
It's the kind of people such projects attract: people who have a real desire to live above a Pizza Hut, next door to a Noodles & Company, around the corner from a Claire's Boutique and across the parking lot from an Old Navy. They are like pod people, only worse because they crawled willingly into the cocoon, went out of their collective way to put down stakes here.
3489 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
Tempura prawns: $6
Spring rolls: $6
Tuna stack: $9
Lobster-and- shrimp cake: $10
Coconut curry: $13
Honey-soy chicken: $14.50
Pork chop: $16
Filet mignon: $24
While in the past I might have had some legitimate Levittown bitch about white flight or economic isolationism or creeping, gentrifying sprawl, that's not the case with Denver's new, United Colors of Benetton developments like Belmar and Lowry and Stapleton. Rather than segregate by race or class, these "neighborhoods" split populations along the demographics of consumption. Those on the inside are the people who want all of their options chosen for them: where they eat, where they shop, where they worship, socialize and entertain themselves. In a planned community, everything is right there; it's the next best thing to just moving into a mall. Dome these places over, throw in a few robots and some giant video screens, and you've got a ready-made set pulled straight out of the science-fiction fever dreams of Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Aldous Huxley or William Gibson -- the real modernist social visionaries, the guys who saw this shit coming over the far horizon and tried their best to warn us.
More than anything, it's the notion of planning in these planned communities that makes me itch -- the removal of the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest component from the consumer-retailer equation and the way simple convenience now supersedes quality or service or value or any other business modifier, allowing stores, restaurants, what-have-you to survive in an artificial microcosm, when in some cases they wouldn't stand a chance in hell of making it on the outside. Planned communities are the Galapagos Islands of the retail world -- a protected environment where the dim, the flawed and the strange can flourish without predation, safe from the market forces that might otherwise cripple and kill them. Such artificial survivability pollutes the gene pool, and that's never a good thing.
Unless, of course, you are one of those operations existing within the cordon. Then it's the greatest thing in the world. If you're a sea turtle or some kind of freak-ass flying monkey-lizard, then the Galapagos are exactly where you want to be. They're freak-ass flying monkey-lizard nirvana.
The six-month-old Coral Roomis the freak-ass flying monkey-lizard of the Stapleton development, itself the Galapagos of northeast Denver. The first Coral Room opened in the Highland neighborhood several years ago. This second Coral Room displays numerous genetic mutations adapting it to the specific environment. It's right around the corner from everyone -- a default neighborhood restaurant for a default neighborhood, designed for default yuppies.
As a locally owned and conceived restaurant, the Coral Room has little competition among the chains and fast-casual outfits that flock to these planned developments. The decor is sleek and modern, retro-urban and just a little bit Asian, with a lot of earthtones, organic curves and raw materials all coming together to create a feeling of hip comfort -- more LoDo than the 'burbs, more Dean & DeLuca than Williams-Sonoma. The hosts are chummy, the waitresses quick and smilingly obsequious. And to the staff's credit, this doesn't come off as forced. Dinner here is just one short step removed from the comfort of dinner in your own home -- provided, of course, your home is impeccably decorated, spotlessly clean and comes complete with a full bar, stocked gourmet kitchen, teams of high-priced caterers and scads of beautiful people draped over the furniture drinking flavored martinis.
The Coral Room doesn't serve lunch -- but why should it? The target demographic -- the people who live in Stapleton -- certainly don't work in Stapleton, and the people who do work in Stapleton (primarily service-industry employees of one type or another) aren't going to drop into a place like the Coral Room on their lunch breaks. They're more likely to hit up Chipotle (across the street) or Noodles & Company (in sight of the Coral Room's front door) for a fast midday repast. On the other hand, the Coral Room does do brunch on Sundays -- when all those potential customers are at home, just blocks or even feet away.
The biggest difference between the original Coral Room and this new, improved model is the accommodation of that one indispensable accessory of the 21st-century nuclear unit: children. Although kids can be the fine-dining kiss of death, it makes sense that a restaurant designed expressly for upwardly mobile thirty-something families would include space for pint-sized patrons. Here it's an entire room -- almost a third of the restaurant's real estate -- separated from the main dining floor and bar by a sliding, Japanese-style screen, set with grown-up tables all facing a padded, carpeted, vaguely piscine-themed play area called (annoyingly) "The Little Reef," which is filled with savaged books, broken toys, smudgy kid-sized furnishings and, most important, a TV.