By Jamie Swinnerton
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An ode, a lament: That's what it says on the menu, on the wall, on the chalkboards and on the website that City, O' City shares with WaterCourse Foods, the restaurant that used to be in this Capitol Hill space. An ode, a lament — to Denver and its people, to the architecture and the artifice of a city, to a neighborhood, a street, an address that has gone through shattering changes in the last year or two or three. It sounds like the first line of a poem and might be, but I am too lazy to look it up, to Google it for some clue as to what was going through the minds of owners Dan and Michelle Landes when they foisted such a clunky and strange moniker on this new place that used to be their old place before WaterCourse fled the changing neighborhood late last year for more respectable, much larger digs on 17th Avenue.
An ode, a lament. It sounds pretentious, affected, and it is. But oddly, the restaurant itself is not, and if there is some sort of sly social comment here — some secret, Da Vinci Code-style veiled critique hidden in the tangents of the walls, the bumps on the cement floor, the twining backs of the cafe chairs — I'm simply too dumb to catch it. When I walked through the door of City, O' City for the first time, late on a Saturday when the joint was in full hipster-utopian swing, I thought only of how comfortable I found its spare decor, with the widely spaced tables, high-backed booths and long bar, how buzzing and vital it felt, how much more I liked it than I had the old WaterCourse, with its anarchic vegan/ hippie militancy, fluttering handbills, perpetually wan and humorless staff and stink of wheat germ and patchouli.
This was, of course, before I'd tried to settle in behind a cold beer and my well-thumbed copy of World War Z and found myself too distracted by the crowd and their endlessly looping conversations about meatless nutrition, art, films I'd never heard of and what-the-fuck-is-seitan to appreciate Max Brooks's brilliant depiction of an underwater zombie attack on a Chinese submarine. Everything was laptops and nose rings, hummus and leg hair and Lou Reed on the stereo (which I loved) and twig-and-berry ascetics popping little gastro-chubbies over the fig pizzas and falafel.
837 E. 17th Ave.
Denver, CO 80218
Region: Central Denver
206 E. 13th Ave.
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
Brie plate: $9.95
Pesto plate: $9.95
BBQ tofu: $6.95
18" seitan pepperoni and cheese pizza: $17
18" La Michelle: $22.50
10" La Chagall: $9
It wasn't a full house, but it was a big crowd for a vegetarian restaurant. For a vegetarian restaurant and wine bar. For a vegetarian restaurant, wine bar and pizzeria. And coffeehouse. And bar. For a post-post-modern fusion of half a dozen business models that looked like what would result if a fast-moving coffeehouse and an airborne bistro collided in midair, dropped through the roof of a hippie pizza joint and tofu warehouse, and landed on top of a wine salesman.
I drank my beer, read my zombie book as best I could, nibbled a bit of brie with apricot jam, roasted garlic, sliced apples and flatbread, then got out. The bar at City, O' City is open until ten, but I couldn't imagine what last call among the gentle herbivores might look like and, frankly, didn't want to find out.
An ode, a lament. How appropriate, since I, too, have both praise and grief for City, O' City, an elegy of mixed feelings, bitterness, love and loathing.
Dan Landes is a successful restaurateur, having survived for better than ten years while shaping the palates of the leaf-eating elite, innovating a little, creating a little and finally rising to almost singularly define a not-insignificant swath of Denver's cuisine. What kills me is that the swath he chose is vegetarian food — not because he is a vegetarian (he's not; the man makes a mean rillette du porc), but because at the time that he was thinking of opening the first WaterCourse, he felt that vegetarians were a massively underserved part of the market just crying out for someone to take their money in trade for spelt, wheat flour and texturized vegetable protein.
He was right. For a decade, WaterCourse was a better-than-average vegetarian/vegan outpost that made a measurable attempt at improving on the insipid and flaccid grub most vegetarians are forced to tolerate day after day. And then, when he moved WaterCourse and opened City, O' City early this year, he stuck with the same plan, only now offering the meatless throngs a place for pizza, beer and seitan Buffalo wings. But while I applaud the man's business acumen and devotion to my herbivorous brethren, I can't help but imagine what Landes could've done if he was working on myside of the fence, what he and his crews (which are staffed by plenty of carnivores) could still do with a couple rashers of bacon in one hand and a ladle full of veal stock in the other. Lament, lament...
The menu at City is short and, at turns, either inspired or laughable. Tempeh bacon for breakfast? That just makes me sad. The very sight of the words "Carolina-style BBQ" tofu causes my barbecue-lovin' heart to stutter and jump in what I can only assume is an effort at panicked self-preservation — that passionate organ attempting to leap free of my body through the throat and run like hell for more rational climes.