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Saturday nights at Duo are loud and boisterous, a cacophony of sensualism that washes like crazy rogue waves back and forth across the floor and bar. The front door never stops swinging, releasing a blast of piano jazz out into the evening every time it opens, and the bar is standing-room only, with customers waiting for tables and slouching against every vertical surface, glasses of wine and menus in their hands.
2413 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
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Leek salad: $5
Cod fritters: $5
Cheese plate: $10/$12
Escolar (sea bass): $17
On these nights, the busy ones, service is a machine with a dozen hands and twice as many legs: efficient, quick, and committed in every sense of the word. The crew is in the weeds, turning and burning, rocking and rolling, slammed -- in the hinky patois of the service industry -- but keeps things together by will and constant motion, working beyond the factory pre-sets and above safe maximums, redlining a neighborhood restaurant that was already tuned high before it became one of the hottest addresses in town. Now the rough brick walls in the dining room sweat money, and the small, open kitchen at the back is a box of fire.
In the middle of it is chef John Broening, standing at the pass in white jacket and black cap, watching the room, assembling plates, calling checks, coordinating the twenty-table-plus-bar-plus-breeze dance of continuous service. And though you'd think he'd be happy -- his food is excellent, the service smooth, the floor crowded, the fiercely intelligent seasonal menu falling into that narrow, incredibly lucrative space between neighborhood-bistro simplicity and chef-driven, high-end swank -- he never seems to smile. He is calm, focused. Ten plates go to the rail, one after the other, and he sweeps them with his eyes. The service machine comes to collect, and those ten are followed by ten more. Then ten more.
Broening is a chef with a history. He was the guy behind the line at Brasserie Rouge when that place was young and brilliant and my favorite restaurant in the city. Unfortunately, Rouge never got the chance to grow old. It collapsed under the weight of a huge dining room and even heavier troubles behind the scenes, and when it did, Broening jumped out to work with Udi the Bread Man at his eponymous bakery. That ended when Udi brought his daughter in to run his kitchens, and Broening went sideways again, this time falling into the company of Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin, husband-and-wife owners of Duo.
Arnold and Bonin are restaurateurs with much less history. Several years ago they bought the fully formed and functioning Cafe Colore from the Momo family, and they've been running it quietly ever since. But Duo is the first place that's theirs from top to bottom; their first buildout, their first opening. When they took on the space, it was nowhere -- a completely gutted former video store with a location on the lower edge of Highland. It was high-risk, probably a little unwise, certainly one of the scariest things they'd ever done. They meant it to be a little neighborhood spot in a neighborhood that needed one -- which they knew because they live in the neighborhood themselves -- but then their quiet little neighborhood (a liminal area stuck between LoDo and the yuppie ground zero of 32nd Avenue and Lowell) started sprouting cafes, liquor-license applications and then Z Cuisine just a couple of blocks away. Along the way, they picked up one of the best chefs in the business almost by accident. An ad on Craigslist brought in Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, a pastry chef who'd worked at Udi's, and she mentioned that she had the perfect chef for Duo: her boyfriend, John Broening. Arnold and Bonin hired both of them.
And suddenly they were looking super-smart and almost prescient with their one-off rookie outing. When they opened the doors in mid-October, Duo became one of those near-miraculous collisions of location, talent and timing that everyone dreams of but almost never realizes. The customers came -- first a few, then a lot -- and because Arnold and Bonin wanted to keep the feel of the neighborhood restaurant they'd originally envisioned, they decided not to take reservations. Which means that on Thursdays and on weekends, the bar is as crowded as the dining room.
Two Saturdays ago -- which also happened to be the start of Denver Restaurant Week -- customers were lining up outside Duo's front door at 4:55 p.m. When I showed up at 5:30, I got one of the last two seats at the bar. The dining room was already full, with servers doing the extra-chair ballet: lifting unused seats from parties of three at four-top tables, moving them to give the fives and sevens of odd-numbered groups somewhere to sit.
The bartender was pouring pomegranate martinis three at a time. I ordered wine off a decent by-the-glass list (Oregon pinots and Aussie cab-shirazes that matched Broening's menu nicely), and before the glass had even left the tender's hand, I was overwhelmed by sensory information, my night fractured into snapshots, intense and rich with detail, into punctuation bereft of sentences. I heard corks popping and carbonated laughter bouncing around the vaulted ceiling, the shushing scrape of ice in a martini shaker and the sharp tick of silverware hitting plates. I smelled onions, saffron and leeks mixed with cologne and the astringency of whiskey, heard paper menus crinkle, smelled gorgonzola, tasted iron and old, dead fruits in my first sip of wine. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the open kitchen distorted through the panes of glass in the windows that had been hung in lieu of a wall to separate the bar from the dining room -- a flare of swirled flame, three cooks with their heads down, pinpoints of light from the antique heat lamps picked out in starbursts on the gleaming pass rail.
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