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As an achievement in design, Steuben's is unparalleled. No hackneyed, cliched or sardonic architectural detail was spared in the construction of this physical love letter to a time not too long gone when wood-veneer paneling and vinyl-covered steel-tube chairs were the height of de mode fashion. Every angle in the front bar and dining room, every curvilinear jigsaw piece of the place, is evocative of the old East Coast family restaurants where so many of us transplants to Denver grew up.
In fact, Steuben's is named after a beloved Boston establishment opened by Josh Wolkon's great-uncles Max and Joe back in 1945. The 2006 Steuben's was brought to life over months and years by Wolkon, his wife, Jen, and chef Matt Selby, the same folks who brought us Vesta Dipping Grill -- and though it opened just a few months ago, from certain perspectives, the effect of the restaurant's architecture is so startling that it can cause a kind of whiplash nostalgia in those overly susceptible to flights of hometown melancholy. Like me, for example. And apparently Selby and Wolkon, as well.
I was standing out by the front door one Friday night having a cigarette between courses (exiled, along with the other smokers, from the side patio). I had my back to the building and was staring off down 17th Avenue, contemplating the heavy bowl of cioppino waiting for me. And when I turned to head back inside, I saw the way the low-slung roof hung over the door on brown posts set too close together, spotted the petal-backed aluminum lawn chairs set on the cement in front and, through the window, caught a glimpse of the counter with its boxes of Black Jack gum and Bit-O-Honeys, the elbow of the bar with the bottles ranked behind it -- and I instantly flashed back to a thousand nights at the Princess Diner, the All-Star, the Royal, the Olympic and Tom's; to the dinners I had at those places with my family when I still ordered off menus that doubled as placemats and colored pictures with those awful, cheap waxy crayons sold by the case to restaurant owners; to breakfasts eaten quickly before work, lunchtime burgers and hot ham sandwiches, and late-nights when the greasy onion rings and fries bathed in instant brown gravy were the only things standing between me and a date with a field sobriety test.
523 E. 17th Ave.
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
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Deviled eggs: $4< br>Gravy fries: $5
Fried chicken: $13
Crab dinner: $25
Lobster roll: $16
Cuban: $9< br>Green-chile cheeseburger: $6
Baby vegetables: $3
If the owners of Steuben's invested a lot of effort and (arguable) genius into the physical design of the space, they worked even harder and longer on the design of the menu. The idea was to provide the food not just of a single American gastronomic region, or even of a few, but of all of them. For almost a year, the staff and crew had meetings every Tuesday during which they would sample potential dishes -- multiple versions of chocolate truck-stop cake and fried chicken and Chicago hot dogs and green-chile cheeseburgers. Employees who'd ever been anywhere else -- or, better yet, lived there -- were brought in as expert witnesses, made to taste version after version of the foods that were native to their home towns, then aid in the refinement of those foods until a single, consensual version was reached. Selby and Wolkon took scouting trips, hunting for Monte Cristo sandwiches and lobster rolls and barbecue, eating their way through the most recognizable and renowned food regions of America, always on the lookout and trying to bag the ideal relleno, étouffée or lobster bisque.
And when they were done with all that, they wrote a menu.
And when they were done with the menu, they opened the doors.
And when they opened the doors, all of the flaws in their concept suddenly appeared.
For example: With this concept, the apex of talent and skill, the level to which they're ultimately striving, is to copycat to the molecule a cuisine, a style, a single dish that's already been perfected somewhere else over generations. And that's good. That's as noble a goal as any in this weird industry. But you know who else does the same trick? Every chain restaurant in the country. They make brownies just like Mom used to, then stick sparklers and American flags in them and charge you $7.99. They make toothless scampi and chemically altered french fries and iceberg-wedge salads that have been tested, fucked with and focus-grouped until they appeal to the broadest swath of eaters, echoing most truly their personal conceptions of what a scampi, a french fry or an iceberg salad ought to taste like. Conceptually, if everything worked right and everyone in the dining room was happy, Steuben's would become a very expensive, very over-managed urban Applebee's.
Luckily, Steuben's hasn't yet seen a single night where the kitchen hasn't pissed off someone. So far, it has managed to stay on the right side of the razor-thin line that separates honest, down-to-earth comfort from the unchallenging, anesthetizing drivel of riblets and fried cheese. But flirting along that comfort-food line invites a new set of problems. Make the food just right, and people will say things like, "Those deviled eggs taste just like the deviled eggs I make at home, so why would I pay someone else to make them for me?"