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"I still hate dining alone. That's probably the hardest part. Figuring out how to sit comfortably in a restaurant without a date by your side. Some restaurants are good for it, others are terrible. You adjust, I guess. But I avoid it if I can."
I'm sipping a Campari on the rocks at Rodney's in Cherry Creek with Lillian Wood, and we're talking about a less-than-cheery subject: divorce. This spot is conducive to our discussion. It's a dark, subterranean enclave that, most nights, finds a crowd of divorced men from the Baby Boomer generation huddled around the bar, sipping Scotch and talking shop while watching sports. Lunches see those same men entertaining clients around back tables while ex-wife counterparts, dripping with diamonds from the settlement, eat wedge salads in plush booths with friends.
At just over thirty, Wood's a little young for this crowd — but her six-year marriage dissolved a year ago, and she's still coping with the fallout, negotiating custody of her three-year-old daughter and determining whether she's allowed to move back to Louisiana to be closer to her family. "When you're in the midst of it, divorce consumes your life," she says.
7777 E. Hampden Ave.
Denver, CO 80231
Region: Southeast Denver
I nod. I've never been divorced (or married, for that matter), but I can relate: My parents split last year after 28 years of marriage, a classic case of two people who married too young (both were twenty) and survived because admitting failure while child-rearing wasn't an option for either of them. Once both kids were out of the house, though, the challenges of empty-nesting proved too great to overcome and, unsurprisingly, they decided to end things.
The actual divorce was the easy part. What I hadn't counted on was the inevitable lessons my parents would have to learn once the dust of separation settled. They hadn't been single for three decades, and neither was entirely sure how to proceed. My mom, especially, could have benefited from the website that Wood is helping bring from Manhattan to the West: DivorceCandy.com. Started by two divorcées, the website is similar to such online wedding hubs as The Knot, listing everything you could need to start over, including legal advice, dating tips and divorce registries for anything the ex might have gotten in the aftermath, amassed in one sassy spot on the Internet. Wood was inspired by the women's willingness to talk about life after failed marriage, and she jumped on board to help sell the concept here. Now she's scouring Denver, making lists of attorneys, babysitters, support groups and restaurants that are comfortable for single diners.
Cherry Creek is a good place to start. Wood ticks off a roster of restaurants in the area that attract divorcées, good spots for venturing back into the social world. Friendships emerge over weekly dinners, and bonds are formed when solo diners encounter each other at the same time and same place, making connections to fend off loneliness. There are different places for different age groups. Rodney's seems to cater to people my parents' age, searching for comfort and comfort foods.
Rodney Utz opened this basement spot 27 years ago, and since he planted himself in the neighborhood, he's watched 72 restaurants (by his count) come and go, along with the marriages of many of his patrons. Eighteen years ago, he expanded his empire to Tamarac Square; nine years ago, he opened a third Rodney's in Castle Pines. Utz has since sold the third branch, but the other two are going strong, serving nightly specials — which include a lot of all-you-can-eat deals on spaghetti and ribs — as well as country-club dishes of a past era paired with a heavily California wine list.
This flagship spot channels Utz's love for what he calls the old boys' bars of Chicago and New York, and it attracts the old boys of this city: Denver Country Club members, mostly men who are over forty and divorced, who come down so that they can get out of the house and get cocktails and burgers at better prices than they'll find at nearby restaurants. The restaurant's first regulars, men from the World War II generation, used to listen to Frank Sinatra and smoke in this cavernous spot, but all that's left from those days are burn marks on the bar. Utz doesn't mind the ban that forced him to disallow cigarettes and cigars; he says business went up 21 percent once Rodney's went non-smoking.
Rodney's is really a bar first and foremost, and the food is nothing to write home about — even if your home isn't broken. Over the course of three meals here, I had only one thing that I would characterize as good: a loaded baked potato, stuffed full of butter, sour cream, cheese and bacon. But then, it's tough to mess up a baked potato when it's laden with that many dairy products. The massive club sandwich wasn't bad, though, with layers of floppy bacon and turkey on triangles of toasted white bread, held together by long toothpicks. And the menu's Mexican offerings, Americanized versions of burritos and nachos and enchiladas with a little kick to them, would be sufficient if I were sitting at the bar, looking for basic nourishment while watching a big game.