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Going Underground

Jesse Morreale's basement tapes.

The All-Inn -- that's what Jesse Morreale is calling his newest acquisition, at 3015 East Colfax Avenue, the former Executive Inn Motor Hotel. The All-Inn, as in his big bet, his best bluff, his largest pot to date.

The number being tossed around is $2.1 million to buy off the liens against the building and its three-quarters of an acre on Colfax, an investment that might make Morreale look like a genius as this stretch starts to gentrify -- a year from now, or maybe two or ten. There were complications with the deal, misfiled paperwork, nuisance complaints. It took Morreale (who already owns La Rumba, at 99 West Ninth Avenue; Mezcal, right down the street from the All-Inn; and Sketch, due to debut February 10 in the heart of Cherry Creek) better than a year of tap-dancing to close on the property, and there are still zoning issues being hashed out, hookers and dealers to be chased off, neighbors to appease. For the time being, the former owners of the place -- Jong Kim and his family -- are still running it, renting out the 56 upstairs rooms and keeping the money (such as it is) flowing.

But Morreale was buying much more than a hotel -- and he didn't even know it until after all the paperwork was done.

One day, as Denver City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth was hand-holding Morreale through one meeting or another, she asked if he knew that the Executive had once had a restaurant. A restaurant and bar that had been shuttered for close to thirty years, hidden away on the ground floor of the run-down hotel with its peeling paint and water-stained tile and extension cords Scotch-taped to the ceiling. Behind a door off the lobby and around a short curve was a restaurant that had been forgotten, as if one night there had been a last call and then the place called Perry's had simply vanished from the face of the earth.

"I had no idea," Morreale tells me. "Seriously, no idea until we went down there."

"We" means Morreale and friend/accomplice/partner-in-crime Sean Yontz. A few weeks ago, the two of them got to do what every Indiana Jones fan, every skulking, pimple-faced teenager who ever burned up a Friday night playing Dungeons & Dragons always dreamed of doing. They found a key, they opened a door, and behind it they found a lost city. Okay, a lost restaurant, but still -- how cool is that?

"There was a lot of shit in here," Morreale explains as we stand in the lobby, him fumbling with his keys, Yontz somewhere off in the wings. "Old mattresses and stacks of phone books and chairs. Bikes. Things people had left behind in the rooms. We had to get all that out of here. But it was all here, man. All we had to do was find the breakers and change some lightbulbs. I mean, look at this!"

And with that, he popped the door and led me out onto the floor of his new kingdom.

Now, I can't imagine how Howard Carter must have felt when he found the first step leading down to King Tut's tomb. I can't guess at the expression on the face of Robert Ballard when his little submarine thing shot him back the first pictures of the wreck of the Titanic lying broken on the ocean floor. But I know exactly how Morreale must've felt when he opened that door for the first time. He was thinking, Jackpot. He was thinking, Throw me the whip and I'll throw you the idol.

"I couldn't believe it," Morreale says. "You have to imagine it piled with stuff, but still..."

Perry's is a time capsule, a museum piece, a surprisingly well-preserved example of swinging-'70s swank before it was retro, brought almost whole from back when it was the hottest groove around. The carpets are orange, geometrically patterned and vaguely creepy, like the upholstery in your weird uncle's basement (the one who still collects Bee Gees vinyl and tries to throw key parties with the neighbors). The booths are quilted black leather, the dance floor tiled and backed by mirrors. The sconces are polished chrome and look like a railway signalman's lantern from the Acidville-Freaktown line, the chandeliers worked into post-art-deco tangles of metal vines and leaves. The bar is glassed-in and mirrored, with room enough for maybe ten stools facing a lounge area done in stone and dark wood. And at the far end of the room, there's a tiny stage where John Denver used to play.

"There were a couple places in the city where he played," Morreale says. "This was one of them."

There's also a DJ booth, a heated vestibule and separate entrance onto Colfax, a main dining floor with private rooms pocketed along the back wall, and mirrors, still in their original gilt frames, stacked to the side and still bearing readable production stamps dated 1959 -- the year Perry's opened for business.

Even trashed, the space is amazing -- a bar and restaurant that, in its day, would've been fit for Hef and the bunnies and all the blow they could haul.

"This isn't even the best part," Morreale says, pushing through a set of swinging doors at the back of the dining room and disappearing into the dark.

And maybe you've got to be a restaurant guy with some years behind you to go slack-jawed at the sight of a kitchen cold for more than a quarter-century. Maybe you have to have worked in places built in the '50s and '60s and still limping along decades later; have to be able to remember the smells, the jury-rigged repairs, the jostling of hips and elbows on a crowded hot line and the sepulchral funk of locker rooms in constant use since the Kennedy administration and never, ever cleaned.

Maybe you have to have some special knowledge to truly appreciate the scale of the kitchen that Perry's once had and to imagine what its guys must've been capable of in their heyday. I don't know. But I can tell you this: Just looking at it, I was struck dumb.

The kitchen is thousands of square feet, room enough for an army of cooks and chefs and runners and dishdogs, filled wall to wall and end to end with custom, stainless work stations and prep tables and salad cases and wells and lowboys and cooler/freezer combos. The hot line is capped with a massive hood, set with slant grills and salamanders and flat-tops -- room enough to work fifty plates simultaneously. The chalkboards for the night's specials and 86s still hang over everything. The dish room looks like it was fitted out yesterday. And the massive Hobart scale where once deliveries were weighed and portioned out to distant stations still works, even though the most recent tax and license stamp is dated 1977.

Morreale points out a dumbwaiter system built into the wall.

"Room service?" I ask.

"That's what we thought," he says, laughing. "But no. It goes down."

Then he opens another door, revealing stairs. He runs down into the dark with a flashlight, splashing through standing water on cement floors, and flips a couple of breakers to illuminate a space even bigger than the kitchen above, with a full bakery, offices, locker rooms, prep areas. There's a full rotisserie oven built right into the bricks of one wall, rusted and taller than me. Along another wall, brand-new equipment (brand-new almost thirty years ago, anyway) still sits in the box, never unpacked. This stuff alone is worth a few grand.

We could've explored for hours, days. Even Yontz and Morreale have yet to totally catalogue everything, and they're still overwhelmed every time they step into Perry's and back in time.

I ask Morreale what he's going to do with the place.

"Open it, " he says.

Open it, of course...but not right away. He's still got rooms rented upstairs, and he plans on turning part of the huge parking area into a pay lot for other nearby restaurants. According to his business plan, that will service the original debt. Then will come Perry's -- a turnkey operation, in his mind. Contractors have already been in, estimates taken for the work that's needed. And after that, a top-to-bottom renovation of the entire place, rooms and all. Hotelier Ian Schrager is one of Morreale's heroes, and this is his Ian Schrager project.

For now, though, he hits the breakers and the lights go out, Perry's lost in darkness one last time.

No-tell hotel:My principled shorting of our atrocious waitress at Panzano (see review) reminded me of a recent e-mail from Ben. "My question is about restaurant tipping," he wrote. "I am aware that some restaurants automatically charge a gratuity for large parties of diners. They usually declare the added charge on a sign, menu, etc. I realize that has been a standard practice for a long time. I don't have a problem with that. What I am concerned about is, first, is a gratuity the same thing as a tip? If not, then please define it for me. When I receive a bill with a Œgratuity' already added to the subtotal of the bill, and a blank space for a tip, and a blank space for a total, I am assuming the restaurant is expecting me to add a tip. Is this the way most restaurants present their bills to the customer? Is it legal/ethical for a restaurant to try and get a double tip from a customer?"

Short answer, yes. It's perfectly all right for any restaurant to set any gratuity amount it chooses, provided a customer is notified beforehand.

Long answer, no. It's not all right. It's stupid, it's presumptuous, it's insulting and it leaves you with one simple recourse: Don't ever eat there again. Slapping on the automatic "gratuity" is tantamount to a restaurant punishing you for having a lot of friends or, even worse, for being willing to take all those friends out for a night on the town and drop a bunch of money to see them nicely fed and watered. And while it's become a fairly standard practice (the automatic gratuity on parties of six or more seems to average about 6 percent at mid-range places but can climb as high as 15 or 18), that doesn't mean it's right. Considering that most reasonable people tip at least 15 percent and that most reasonable people don't like being forced into paying a hidden charge they weren't expecting, the whole practice seems rather counterproductive. If some restaurant were automatically extorting 5 to 8 percent of my bill right off the top, I might be tempted to leave the tip right there.

But you shouldn't do that, because your server was likely not part of the idiot committee that came up with this practice and so shouldn't be punished for its result. The simplest solution (although it involves some math) is to subtract the automatic gratuity from the amount you'd normally tip, then add the rest to the tip line, sign off on the bill and find somewhere else to take your friends. But you could also tip your usual amount, then steal some silverware to make up for the "gratuity."

As for deliberately shorting a server who deliberately gives bad service -- for me, 15 percent is an insult-level tip. Anything less than that and I start feeling guilty and cheap, since most servers are working for less than three bucks an hour to start, and jerks gotta pay the bills, too. Even when the food is terrible and the space a nightmare, I generally tip in the 20 percent range because none of that is your server's fault.

For the record, I tipped 16.67 percent at Panzano (and that's on the total tab, including liquor and tax), so the waitress may not even have known she'd been screwed -- but hey, what matters is that it was good for me.

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