By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
A brief list of stuff I don't like:
The musical stylings of the Grateful Dead or any of their legions of hippie imitators.
Veggie pizzas: $9.25/$14.50/$18.50
Meaty pizzas: $9.75/$15/$19
Dessert pizza: $5.50
Vegetarianism used as a social construct and/or political cudgel.
Restaurateurs who give their food cutesy names.
People who back into the restaurant business as a way to showcase some personal obsession that has nothing to do with food, be it 1940s movie memorabilia, the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Love Is... comics.
Open-mike nights of any description.
Every newsletter that goes out from the D Noteto its faithful fans either starts or ends with a snatch of poetry. The owners -- brothers Matthew, Adam and Jeremy DeGraff, along with Matthew's wife, Monica -- have been collectively described as "the Ben & Jerry's of pizza" for their earth-friendliness, overt vegetarian leanings, unabashed hippieness and fondness for jam bands. Also for the profusion of dreadlocks in their dining room. On the D Note menu, every pizza, some of the apps and almost everything else is named after a song, a band, a musician -- often with little apparent reason (why name a pizza "the Debaser," after a Pixies song about slicing up eyeballs?), at other times with pitch-perfect humor (the Liberace, a seasonal fruit salad). And the last time I dropped by, I walked into the middle of an open-mike night featuring some guy alone on stage, poking disconsolately and arhythmically at a keyboard. I thought maybe it was just a soundcheck. It wasn't.
So, keeping all that in mind, how do you think I feel about the D Note?
I friggin' loveit.
How is this possible? Easy. I can forgive anything -- pretension, goofiness, bad spaces, bad addresses, godawful service, high prices, terrifying emptiness, anything -- if the food is good enough. I would sit on a peach crate in an alley and take a slap from a waitress if the food was good enough. I'd happily amuse myself by finding shapes in the mold growing on the ceiling tiles if the food was good enough, would eat alone in a garage off a paper plate while listening to the owners fight in the kitchen and still come back for seconds if the food was good enough. As a matter of fact, I've done exactly that. Because the food was good enough.
And at the D Note, the food is more than good enough. On occasion, the food is so good it makes your eyes go wide and your mouth hang open, so good it makes you weak in the knees.
The D Note was never even supposed to be a restaurant. When it opened four years ago, it was a live-music venue tucked in among the bars, cafes and quaint shops along Grandview Avenue in Olde Town Arvada. According to legend (and Matthew, to whom I spoke at length last week), after a rousing game of disc golf in the park one afternoon, the brothers DeGraff spied the vacant space next to the Olde Town Pickin' Parlour, where Adam had stopped to buy a banjo. They thought it would be an ideal spot for a bar and music hall, but didn't make a move for months as they mulled things over, considered their options.
Finally, Monica pulled the trigger on her mulling husband and his brothers, and they opened the D Note in February 2003. It was a big, open room with hardwood floors, a good-sized stage, a raised sound booth and a short, serviceable bar in the back. And for two years, that's all it was. The brothers booked bands, poured beers, scraped by. The lineup was always heavy with jam bands, and eventually they realized this was a problem, because fans of the trippy, spacey, Grateful Dead-style music were showing up stoned -- and stoned hippies don't drink. At least, not enough.
Stoned hippies don't drink, but they do have the munchies. And what do stoned hippies with the munchies like to eat? Twinkies, of course. But also pizza. Lots and lots of pizza. So Matthew did what any sober, business-minded young entrepreneur would do when faced with such a situation: He went on vacation.
Okay, not vacation, exactly. He prefers to call it a pilgrimage, a pizza pilgrimage that took him all the way to Anchorage, Alaska, to visit the biggest pizza seller in the United States, a place that does $30,000 a day in pizza sales. This was the restaurant on which he wanted to base his food-service operation. And in May 2005, the D Note put in its kitchen -- work spaces, coolers, a bank of blazing stone ovens from the 1970s. The brothers had forgotten just one thing.
"We're very not restaurateurs," Matthew explained. They had no business experience, no kitchen experience, really no idea at all what they were doing. Matthew, who'd waited tables at the Morton's downtown and elsewhere, came the closest to being a pro.
I asked if that had given him any useful knowledge going in. "I've been a waiter for most of my life," he said, then paused. "So that means no."
It was at this point that the DeGraffs pulled the one smart move that made all the difference. Rather than try to go it alone -- the mistake most rookie restaurateurs make, almost always to the delight of bankruptcy courts and veteran owners looking to pick up spaces and equipment cheap at foreclosure auctions -- they brought in people who knew all the things they didn't. General manager Andy Andurlakis, for example, who comes from a restaurant family three generations deep. For the chef in that brand-new/used kitchen, they got someone with absolutely unimpeachable vegetarian/organic/earth-friendly hippie credentials: Amy Wroblewski, ex of Whole Foods and the Mercury Cafe.
And all of a sudden, the DeGraffs had a business model. They had the music to get the Deadheads in the door, something to feed them when they got peckish and started gnawing on the coasters, Wroblewski to make good and goddamn sure that what they were being fed was both well-sourced and delicious, and Andurlakis to stop the place from hemorrhaging cash -- as Matthew will be the first to admit the D Note was doing before the cavalry arrived.
Enter the pissy, opinionated and cynical restaurant critic. The DeGraffs had done everything possible to bias me against their joint short of hanging me in effigy over the front door, and yet ten minutes in -- after having been offered an invite to the D Note's community clothing swap by my waitress and free salsa lessons by a bored-looking instructor who otherwise sat alone in the corner talking to himself -- I was already having a good time. I'd gotten involved in a heavily liberal political debate with the ten-top of multiply pierced, dreadlocked and bespectacled proto-Marxists at the table behind me, which caused me to barely notice the twenty minutes it took for those old deck ovens in the back to fire up my small, classic, double-cheese-and-pepperoni and my choose-your-own-adventure-style pie of basil, pesto, oil, tomato and ricotta.
The minute those pizzas hit the table, I was blown away.
The mozzarella Wroblewski uses is vegetarian (meaning cured without rennet -- animal stomach juice) and comes all the way from Wisconsin. The handmade crusts are tossed thicker than a New York thin but thinner than a pan-fired thick-crust, occupying some enchanted, miraculous middle ground that makes them like a focaccia without all the aggressive Italian-ness, like bread in their complexity, like magic in their understated, perfect subtlety. And the toppings are stacked so high and so thick as to defy conventional pizza physics.
These pizzas are rustic masterpieces, mounded with balls of ricotta or mild goat cheese as big as a child's fist, dotted with roasted pine nuts, fat pieces of chicken, thick-cut pepperoni cupped by the heat of the ovens, green chiles and jalapeños roasted in-house, aged gouda, artichoke hearts, chicken, shrimp and chunks of ham. Everything is rough-cut, fresh, natural when possible, immaculately sourced. The garlic is used whole-clove, roasted under the intense heat of the pizza ovens, which makes for a nutty sweetness impossible to get out of a conventional oven -- like garlic peanut butter. The basil leaves are fresh off the stem, the pestos hand-ground and powerful. Every sauce is made by hand (and most of them are vegan), each uniquely calibrated to the pizza it is meant to attend. The red is sweet and thick, the roasted-chile pesto (paired with Italian sausage, capers and artichoke hearts on the XTC and with jalapeños, red onions and tomatoes on the Flaming Lips) as spicy as promised, the BBQ just weird -- but in a good way.
I went back to the D Note a couple of nights after my first visit, then again and again. I tried about half the available pizzas -- including one of the dessert pizzas, the Chocolate and Cheese, which pairs mascarpone with bittersweet chocolate and cinnamon, so that it tastes like Mexican hot chocolate smeared on a loaf of flat bread -- and several of my own mad invention. I loved the place more and more with each visit, despite the occasional open-mike night, the pounding salsa music, the poetry, the politics, the scent of patchouli drifting through the air. Not once did the kitchen disappoint me; not once did Wroblewski or her crew let me down.
And though the newsletter continues to spew poetry, the tables still circle 'round the big stage and the servers can be easily distracted by shiny beads or driven to dance while in the middle of taking an order -- none of that is going to stop me from coming back to the D Note whenever I'm in the mood for a little space music, some good conversation or a small vegetarian pizza named after the Artist Formerly Known As Prince.