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I have not always been a good guy, and I have not always lived a good life. I have committed sins venial, carnal and culinary, have knowingly done wrong and sometimes enjoyed it quite a bit. I have vices, secret shames, public hatreds, a checkered past -- and remain, in large part, unrepentant. But I no longer have any fear of death, because I have been to hell.
700 Water St.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
“Shiver Me Timbers” cocktail: $8
Draft Fat Tire: $5.25
Shrimp-and-crab dip: $9.99
Lettuce wraps: $12.99
Sea bass: $20.99
Captain’s Platter: $23.99
Mixed grill: $26.99
Grilled chicken pasta: $15.99
And had dinner there.
It wasn't the classical hell of fire and brimstone and lakes of burning oil, but I was a cook for nearly fifteen years, so that stuff ceased to scare me long ago. I've also worked for Frenchmen, so Old Man Splitfoot holds no horror for me. In all the time I spent in Sunday school, I don't remember anyone describing tortures of which the Devil was capable that weren't visited tenfold upon my delicate, tender self by the chefs for whom I've labored. Trust me: A flaming pitchfork in the ass would be a walk in the park compared to a red-hot spatula laid with violence across the back of the neck.
No, hell to me is seeing something you love destroyed, debased, tarted up and repackaged for the lowest common denominator. Hell is corporate menus and soulless cookery and any dining room with a gift shop attached. It's those little buzzy pager things you're given in chain restaurants when the wait is going to be long. It's robotic waitrons who stare over your head while mumbling their way through some memorized company spiel about the "dining experience" at their corporate crab shack/steakhouse/trattoria/taqueria, and "house specials" that are exactly the same as the "house specials" served in Houston, Kemah and Nashville.
Hell is having to wait for the privilege of eating in such a place, while you watch mobs of people eagerly lining up to lay down good money to enter the pit -- conclusively proving that there's an endless supply of customers who would gladly crap on everything you love for a plate of popcorn shrimp and an eight-dollar cocktail called the "Shiver Me Timbers."
Hell is the Aquarium, a restaurant so generic it doesn't even warrant a proper name. It's in the former home of Colorado's Ocean Journey (that high-priced and very public failure that was left high and dry when Denverites showed themselves unwilling to pay twenty bucks just to see some trout), which was purchased last year by Landry's Restaurants Inc., a Texas-based multi-brand conglomerate that owns such charming bastions of culinary innovation as the Joe's Crab Shack, Rainforest Cafe and Landry's Seafood House chains, as well as three other Aquarium restaurants. When Ocean Journey came on the block, Landry's got locked into a bidding war with Ripley's Entertainment, of Ripley's Believe It or Notfame -- the only stranger owner I could possibly imagine -- and finally won the place for a staggering $13.6 million. After evicting most of the fish and tigers and otters and whatnot that couldn't be used to drive profits, Landry's put another $15 million into a renovation that involved cramming a restaurant, a bar and -- no joke -- a ballroom (which is available for weddings, in case you're so inclined) into the first floor. The Downtown Aquarium opened in July this year; this month, I finally took the plunge and ventured there for dinner.
We went at 7 p.m. on a Saturday -- prime time for any real restaurant, and an hour when I figured any themed fish restaurant in an aquarium would be as empty as a themed barbecue restaurant in a pork-processing plant. I'd laughed when Laura suggested we make reservations, but she made them anyway. And they weren't even real reservations, but something called "priority seating" that allegedly moves your name to the top of the wait list, above all the walk-in traffic, provided you showed up at the appointed time.
Parking was six dollars in the lot across the street -- and you have no choice but to pay it unless you fancy a several-block jaunt, which we didn't. We rushed the doors to get out of the cold and then had to walk, Disneyland-style, through the gift shop to reach the hostess stand. There seemed to be an awful lot of people wandering through aisles full of Aquarium-centric gewgaws and commemorative shot glasses -- children and parents, old folks, huge groups of giggling teenagers. The hostess apologized when she couldn't find our priority-seating request, promised it would be no more than fifteen minutes or so before a table opened, and handed me one of those buzzy pager things I so loathe.
It was sticky.
I dodged around the knot of hostesses, seaters and greeters clotted up around the entrance to the dining room, and realized I had misjudged my fellow man. The place was packed; every booth, every table, every chair was full.
We immediately retreated (through the gift shop again) to the bar, the Dive Lounge. There we snagged the last available table and paid fifteen bucks for an Aqua Martini and a draft Fat Tire served in one of those cheater's pilsner glasses made of thick glass and tapered to the bottom, holding a half-pint maybe. But I was thankful for whatever tiny oblivion the booze might buy.
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