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Jon Schlegel is standing outside the door of his restaurant, Snooze, wondering where the people are. I'm sitting at the counter inside, sipping my coffee and filling in all the little boxes of the Saturday crossword puzzle with dirty words. And I'm wondering the same thing.
2262 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80205
Region: Downtown Denver
700 N. Colorado Blvd.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
144 W. Mountain Ave.
Fort Collins, CO 80524
Region: Northern Colorado
6781 S. York St.
Littleton, CO 80122
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Oatmeal brûlée: $5
Breakfast tacos w/bacon: $7
Pancake flight: $8
Breakfast burrito w/ sausage: $9
It's two in the morning on Sunday: Let Out all over downtown, and prime time for stumbling drunks looking for pancakes and a safe harbor. On the short stroll from my car to Schlegel's front door, I'd already witnessed the entire panoply of Denver after dark. I'd been offered drugs in trade for one of the very few free and semi-legal parking spaces in the LoDo/Ballpark neighborhoods (where every single street space becomes a tow-away zone after 2 a.m., ostensibly so the city can sweep, forcing hundreds of stupid-drunk bar-hoppers and club kids into doing some highly personal last-call math: Do I drive drunk and pray, or do I do the responsible thing, call a cab, and spend my Monday at car jail, negotiating a ransom on my 1992 Honda Civic?). I'd seen (well, mostly heard) a girl fight outside Kokopelli's, watched seven twenty-somethings try to cram into a four-seater convertible, and caught the world's shortest high-speed police chase -- a carful of kids going the wrong way up Larimer Street with the pedal to the floor, two cop cars in pursuit, starting at 22nd Street and wrecking at the corner of 24th, just two short blocks away.
This was all in about five minutes, all within a few hundred yards of Snooze. It wasn't exactly Vice City, but it was Denver, and sometimes Denver is enough.
Snooze is a little like paradise at 2 a.m., but mostly just because it's there. Remember the movie Omega Man? The one where Charlton Heston is living in some end-of-the-world version of Cleveland or Detroit, surrounded by freak-ass albino zombies? The albino zombies can't stand the light, and Chuck's pad -- complete with machine guns, muscle cars, armored garage doors, a laboratory where we're supposed to believe he's trying to find a cure for albino zombie-ism better than three slugs to the chest, and some Hugh Hefner-style, post-apocalyptic red-velvet love nest -- is like an island of light. He's got generator-driven floodlights and street lights and security lights, and anytime he (or anyone else) is running from the albino zombies, they're running toward Chuck's place because, well, there simply aren't a lot of other options.
The same goes for last call on Larimer, when nervous yuppies and disheveled hipsters, scooter kids and all manner of Saturday-night survivors come running for Schlegel's island of light like they have zombies on their tail.
Which is why Schlegel is standing there, right on the edge of the glow cast by Snooze, just one bad-ass sneer and a grease gun short of Heston in his prime, shouting across Larimer at a crowd of girls pulled together into a shuffling, defensive knot and asking if they want some pancakes. At 2 a.m., pancakes sound good to almost everyone. And Schlegel is the only pusher working the area at this hour, offering pineapple-studded and syrup-drenched goodness (as opposed to, say, weed or crack or a twenty-dollar stand-up quickie in an alley), so it's Snooze or nothing. It's Snooze or you take your chances with the zombies. And at 2 a.m., as the crowds start to arrive and the tables begin to fill, Schlegel starts looking like a genius.
He comes back inside, party of six in tow, handing them off to a hostess who seats them deep in Snooze's aggressively cool dining room. The space is sharp and seductive as anything, a Motor City moderne design that's like a head-on collision between a classic Impala and a fast-moving New American bistro, all sexy curves and chrome accents -- overdone minimalism or underdone maximalism, depending on your eye. There are tables, banquettes, a counter that looks like no counter that's ever existed before in an all-night diner but, with its perfect, smooth formica and gleaming chrome lip, like one you've always wantedto exist somewhere. Everywhere you look, there's something: a pretty light fixture, a sensuously curved newspaper rack, an intersection of color -- pale green, soft purple or warm orange, the season's hottest shades. Everywhere, that is, that's not crowded with waiters or friends of the house or beautiful people with interesting tattoos or just Schlegel, who, until the crowds begin to come, sometimes acts as if he's trying to fill the place all on his own.
"Watch this," he says to the girl working the counter, slapping a hand down on the high-grade formica, then pointing out through the windows at another group of wastrels who look like they accidentally slipped out of the J.Crew catalogue and landed on Larimer, dodging cops and puddles of puke. "I'm going to get those people in here."
And then he's off again, out the door, standing in the light and doing his "Hey, buddy" best to hook the kids on flapjacks.
But even if his restaurant looks great, it isn't a great restaurant. Snooze's service is competent only when business is slow, turning clumsy and bumbling and occasionally downright snotty when the house is anything more than half full. I've seen the kitchen overwhelmed to the point of temporary paralysis when just three or four orders go in at the same time. And the menu is as boring and functional as it gets -- not quirky enough to fit the space and location, nor stripped-down for high-volume efficiency, but simply bland, combining maybe a dozen breakfast offerings of the dullest, whitest, most plain-Jane variety, dumbed down even from simple authenticity into an up-from-frozen, pre-pack, steam-table simulacrum of breakfast just a few steps shy of presenting pictures of bacon and eggs or oatmeal or hash browns printed on edible paper and laid on the plate.
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