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At the Palace Arms, I could easily spend two, maybe three thousand dollars on dinner without feeling cheated. A thousand dollars on the appetizer course alone. Another twelve hundred on a bottle of vintage bubbly wine. A couple hundred on soup, an entree and dessert. If I really wanted to shoot for the stars, I could order up a glass of the house's circa-1870 cognac at $575 a pop, just to settle my stomach.
The Palace Arms specializes in excess. Not just plain excess. Not cheap, tawdry, modern excess, but classy, well-aged and dignified excess. The kind of excess that almost demands you don an ascot and monocle before partaking in it. I love the very possibility of dropping three grand on a dinner and knowing that were I to do so, I would not have a quibble when the final bill arrived. Knowing that such an option exists in Denver cheers me to no end. I love the fantasy.
Because I'm not a guy who's going to drop that three grand. I'm not going to be choosing from the rare-vintage pages of the formidable wine bible or ordering the beluga caviar and traditional garniture -- and neither is anyone I know. Neither is anyone I've ever likely met. I know a lot of people with some money at their disposal. I know some people with a lot of money at their disposal. But I don't know anyone who's going to step into the cloistered estate of the most formidable restaurant in Denver and unload the price of a used Camry on dinner and drinks.
321 17th St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
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Short rib: $15
And admitting this just makes the fantasy of the Palace Arms even sweeter. As a blue-collar kid, a Rust Belt punk raised by working-class parents who never let me know when we were broke, this is not my native habitat, not my biological niche. And yet there's nothing to prevent me from coming here. There is no credit check at the door, no top-hat-and-tails requirement (in fact, even the long-standing jacket rule has been ditched), no sign that reads YOU MUST BE THIS RICH TO RIDE THIS RIDE. I may not be able to eat the caviar or drink the forty-year-old tawny port, but I know it's here. I know it'll alwaysbe here, waiting, cellared like a promise, a goad reminding me that someday it might be nice to get obscenely fucking rich.
Right now, though, it's enough that someone like me can have a favorite table at the Palace Arms: in the corner by the maître d' stand, between the two display boxes holding the stiletto and matched dueling pistols once owned by Napoleon and his wife. I like a place that keeps firearms around just in case some matter of honor should need to be settled in the dining room. Such behavior wouldn't be entirely foreign inside the walls of the Brown Palace, either. A duel over the proper temperature at which a consommé ought to be served? Those would not be the first shots fired here.
The Brown has been around since 1892, and the hotel's highest-end restaurant since 1950 (when it opened with a head waiter who'd flown with the Red Baron). The Palace Arms is elegant in a way that isn't considered elegant anymore, only old and tired. Yet there's energy here, a vitality fueled by reputation, offering sophistication without arrogance, history without (too much) stodginess, excellence without compromise or thought of cost. The dining room is decorated in early snobbish: cloth wallpaper and art glass; rich red-leather upholstery and reproduction revolutionary flags. On the floor, the waiters are in tuxedos. They move silently, never hovering, and their timing is immaculate.
My holiday meal was a treat to myself, an early gift as I headed into the long stretch of the season, taken alone and at my favorite table. It began with water -- artesian, taken from the hotel's own well -- and a glass of cold sancerre served in appropriate stemware. Bread, a choice of brioche, sourdough or a boule of some description, came on a silver salver, transferred from tray to side plate by a man trained in the esoteric serving art of using two heavy forks like chopsticks -- a French trick that I've always found slightly ridiculous. Here it was charming, even if he fumbled a bit trying to cut a pat of butter. The bread was warm, the butter soft, the wine ice-cold. Dinner was starting off quite nicely.
"An amuse from the kitchen," my waiter said, appearing at my shoulder like a ninja. I expected to see a puff of smoke where he'd materialized. On my liner plate bearing the Brown's crest, he set a tall, thin cordial glass of something red topped by something gray that smelled faintly of meat.
Seeing my puzzlement, he helpfully explained, "Cranberry cider topped with a foie gras foam. Please enjoy."
My first thought: That is going to be impossible.
My second thought, after I'd raised the glass to my lips and shot its contents like cheap whiskey: Sweet Jesus, I'm going to choke.
The amuse wasn't just disagreeable, it was foul. It was a cranberry-and-liver smoothie and tasted exactly as nasty as it sounds -- although it was flawlessly executed. The fatty foam was light and aerated, floating delicately atop the bittersweet and dark-red cranberry cider, sharply separated and unmingled like a good pastis. It was pretty to look at, but vile in both concept and flavor. It was also free, and I trusted that things would get better once money was involved.