By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
After dark, this stretch of 22nd Street can be rough. The sidewalks are unlit, every open space is a parking lot, and the storefronts are shattered, boarded up. On the walls, the tags run together like tribal voodoo -- less artistic than furtive, a secret language spelled out in whispers of Krylon on cement.
Halfway between where we've parked and where we're headed is a van, rust over white, sagging against the curb on blown shocks. The side door is open, trash tumbling into the gutter. It's the kind of sight that makes all your urban survival skills scream "Avoid!" But I am a stubborn and lazy man. The restaurant I'm heading for is right there -- I can see its sign just past the hulking shoulder of the van -- so I plow on, trying not to look inside as I pass.
But I do look. I always look. That's my problem. And, of course, the scene is just as gross and tragic as you'd expect. The van appears to be both the home and traveling office of the world's least successful pimp, who's sitting in the front seat looking like some kind of low-rent Willie Nelson with long hair and gold rings, wearing what may be a bathrobe and what's definitely a cowboy hat with a rattlesnake head on it. He's barking at the two or three girls in the back, who're scrambling to get their working gear together. I really only see the one who leers at me: a rail-thin white lady standing barefoot, fluffed out in a cloud of crinoline like a child's tutu, hair teased, makeup that looks like it was applied by a crooked shotgun blast to the face. She looks at me and I look at her and she chuckles, and Willie the Pimp shouts something from inside the van and then I'm past it, fighting free of the wretched gravity of the scene.
2191 Arapahoe St.
Denver, CO 80205-2510
Region: Downtown Denver
Chicken soup: $3
Sweet potato fries: $3
Serrano ham with melon: $6
I turn around. Behind me, Laura is walking and talking with my parents, who've been in town for all of four hours, distracting them as all three hug the far edge of the sidewalk -- giving the van and Willie and Shotgun Face a wide berth. They're not looking when Willie reaches back and slaps one of the girls in the head, the sound flat and hollow like hitting a side of beef. I want to shout, "Welcome to Denver, Mom and Dad!" But I don't. I hiss it under my breath instead as the four of us step off the sidewalk, shining with broken glass like shards of diamond, and into the sudden cool and quiet of the courtyard of Buenos Aires Grill.
Paving stones and wrought-iron fencing, young trees and park benches and cafe tables tucked in among clean, open landscaping with Christmas lights twinkling in the trees -- this is an oasis, an island of light and calm. There are some great hidden places in this city, whiplash juxtapositions of swank and squalor. But Buenos Aires Grill is one of the most shocking. This garden spot feels like it should be invisible, accessible only after speaking magic words or stepping through a mirror. Even the air seems different here. It is heavy and alive, smelling of perfume, leaves and grill char instead of rot.
The first time I came to Buenos Aires Grill, shortly after its June opening in the old home of La Coupole (and Tiramisu and Saverino after that), it made me think of the grand ballroom on the Titanic. Not the actual Titanic, but James Cameron's version of it in the movie, in that scene where the camera swoops through the door and reveals all its sweeping splendor. This wasn't because the Buenos Aires Grill's dining room was huge or overwhelming or even outwardly decadent in any specific way -- it just looked too perfect to be real, like a Hollywood version of a restaurant set-dressed by obsessive-compulsives who got everything so right that everything looked fake. The wood was deeply, lovingly polished, the brass accents gleaming. The cloths on the tables were spotless, the plates all classic white, and nothing -- not the bar, not the silver, not the bound jackets on the menus nor the carefully chosen costumes on the servers -- gave away that it was actually 2006 outside. Buenos Aires Grill could have been a 1920s supper club, a '30s hotel bar and speakeasy, a roaring-'40s boîte, a perfectly preserved white-linen dining room from the dying days of European haute in the '50s. It was a timeless room, set as if for a comedy of manners, and so clean and bright and shining that sitting at one of the tables felt like intruding on a scene meant mainly for looking.
Which was strange, because Buenos Aires Grill is the second outpost of the American-Argentine empire slowly being built by the Carrera family, who already run the excellent Buenos Aires Pizzeria just a block away, at 22nd and Larimer Street. In style, Buenos Aires Pizzeria is the exact opposite of Buenos Aires Grill: a comfortable, broken-in and somewhat sparsely designed space where the food -- the surprisingly good, familiar-yet-foreign flavors of an immigrant cuisine from an immigrant quarter of an immigrant city -- take center stage. I'm suspicious when people do one thing well, then throw that over in an attempt to do something else entirely. I suspect the motives, the desire. I assume that the new thing will have none of the charm and excellence of the first thing.