By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
As Tommy gets up to help himself to some dessert, he notices another ballcap on the table next to him. "Is that a Yankees cap you've got there?" he asks.
Next thing you know, Tommy reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out a green folder. Sure enough, inside the folder is a picture of the young Yankees posing with a few other guys, one of whom is holding a toddler: Tommy when he was two years old. Tommy's dad was apparently acquainted with the Babe through some ranch, and the print is from a negative that his dad gave him decades ago. He's asking $35 for it — down from $70, because folks are struggling these days and Tommy doesn't need the money, he insists.
"If I can tell you one story," he says, "I've got a hundred." And he proceeds to prove it by spinning yarn after yarn: about how he once caddied for the Babe, who would make him play the last hole; about how he ended up in Denver in the '50s, leaving Winnebago, Nebraska, for a lucrative job as a cattleman — a job he later quit when his boss tried to rush him while he was eating breakfast. Before he finished eating that breakfast, a guy from another outfit that happened to have an office in the same building had offered him another job, a better job, and Tommy went on to make a nice life for himself and his family in the Mile High City. Oh, and then there's the story about how when he retired and moved to Phoenix, he started his own tamale delivery company. And how one of his best sales reps was a gal one of his managers recruited from a street known for harboring ladies of the evening. And how Tommy and his family used to dine with the parents of a man who became a famously reclusive Denver billionaire. "He's a workaholic," he remembers the man's mother saying.
Tommy could go on for hours — and he probably would, if he didn't have to rush off to catch his bus. "Glad to know you," he says, extending his hand. "If you want to buy that picture of Babe and Gehrig, give me a call." — Dave Herrera
It's high noon in Black Hawk, and Crook's Palace, the only non-casino restaurant in town and the oldest saloon in Colorado, according to a sign outside (although all claims in these gaming districts should be taken with a grain of salt, if not an entire saltshaker), has just two lunchtime diners: a couple of women, both hooked to oxygen tanks, talking loudly as they dip into cups of French onion soup. A few minutes later, two guys in fishing hats and cargo pants roll in and order Bud Lights.
The history of Crook's is considerably more colorful than its current incarnation. The heavy, dark-wood bar that anchors the place was originally part of a Missouri saloon, where Jesse James once bellied up to it. James Crook brought the bar in when he took over this spot in 1900, renaming the former Skylight Saloon after himself. He operated Crook's Palace for the next three decades, keeping it open through Prohibition by selling cigars and soda. After he died, in 1929, the joint went through a long cycle of struggles and ownership changes, passing through the hands of dozens of proprietors, few of whom managed to keep their bars and/or cafes open more than five years.
When gambling was legalized in Black Hawk, Crook's Palace became a casino, putting up an addition filled with machines and letting the whir of slots obliterate the convivial barroom ambience. But there was still a stool dedicated to miner Dow Blake, a regular at the bar (and the great-uncle of future mayor David Spellman). As bigger casinos opened up, though, the crowds left Crook's. And in the late 1990s, the now cash-flush town bought the structure, restoring the space, cleaning up the storied bar, polishing the hardwood floors and adding a pool table. For a while, it tried running its own restaurant 24/7, but that didn't work out. And in 2006, Black Hawk put the place up for lease as a turnkey property, offering it to any restaurateur who would preserve the general feeling of the space — and keep gambling out.
In 2008, it was snapped up by Mike and Matt Casarez, who reopened Crook's in its current incarnation. The brothers, both graduates of Johnson & Wales University, are originally from Pueblo; Matt had been chef de cuisine at Isle of Capri. They run a serious operation: no outlaws, no barroom scuffles, and Dow Blake's stool has disappeared. The biggest danger: spiking cholesterol. "See that menu?" asks the bartender. "You'll notice we don't serve dishes that have little hearts next to them."
The brothers' cooking shows deep culinary expertise, applied to such American classics as the Smokestack burger — a flat patty enriched with a little pork and topped with thick strips of house-cured kurobuta bacon, smoked cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and housemade barbecue sauce between two halves of a homemade bun.