An Ode to the Denver Diner and the City's Late-Night Life
If you're like me and have a late-night ritual that involves eating out in Denver, chances are you've got your favorite spot. I'm not talking about the after-midnight fourth-meal experience of shame-eating Taco Bell in your car — or a prideful trip to the Tacos Rapidos or Viva Burrito drive-thrus, for that matter. I'm talking about a spot where you go to commiserate with whomever you've convinced to join you after the bars close, the midnight movie lets out, the concert is over — or you've got a hankering to socialize at 2 a.m. over hash browns and spaghetti.
For some folks, it's Pete's Kitchen, the after-dark staple where you fight to get in the door on a wintery weekend night so that you can stay warm in its non-existent lobby while waiting for a table for what feels like forever — but the wait is always worth it. Maybe you're a Chubby's gal, and enjoy standing shoulder-to-shoulder inside the walk-up hole-in-the-wall that feels like the club just let out — and was dumped directly into said restaurant. But like Pete's, Chubby's craziness is worth the wait, if only to savor the experience of eating one of its breakfast burritos at 3 a.m. while sitting on the curb on Lipan Street. Other night owls enjoy the constant drama of Colfax embodied in a Tom's Diner meal, or people-watching drunk college kids while savoring a Combination "Super Dish" at Jerusalem, or taking in the unbelievably eclectic crowd and equally fascinating waitresses at a classic brown coffee mug and greasy spoon like McCoys.
Judging from the twenty-plus years I've been consuming food in public around the witching hour with friends, for most people the ultimate late-night spot in Denver is and always will be the Breakfast King — which I can almost agree with. I have nothing but love for this diner; at times, it feels like a truck stop in the middle of nowhere crammed full of bizarros from every end of the earth. Breakfast King's booths are the best for seating huge parties of drunkards, and this spot has the kind of never-ending menu that makes you wonder how, exactly, a tiny kitchen that never closes can prep so much food for so many discerning palates. The waitresses are really, really friendly, the coffee is always hot, and the bill is never too high. But as much as I adore Breakfast King, it doesn't hold a candle to my true love forever and ever: the Denver Diner.
I've been on good dates and bad dates that have taken place at the Denver Diner (there's an incriminating video of one of the worst times of my dating life floating around the Internet somewhere). In high school, my friends and I smoked pack after pack at "the Double D" — the diner was one of the few standing establishments that turned a blind eye to '90s teens with cigarettes stuck to their lips, even as Joe Camel was being ushered out of the mainstream without fanfare. I've had hard talks and huge, belly-full-of-breakfast laughs with my BFFs from every era of my life in the booths at the Denver Diner. I've also sunk down in shame in those booths, conveniently turning to look out the diner's big, beautiful windows in an attempt to avoid eye contact with an old acquaintance walking by to a seat.
Even when I lived in New York, as diversely populated, dimly lit and atmospherically superb as Yaffa Cafe (RIP) was, it was no Denver Diner. Neither was the odd-but-comforting Waverly Restaurant, an NYC diner I could never go back to anyway, because it received a devastating makeover in 2011. Hell, I was in Los Angeles two weeks ago, and as much as the 101 Coffee Shop is an incredible piece of throwback work, the apathetic tattooed man serving us only reminded me that there is nothing quite like the strictly ladies-only waitstaff at the Denver Diner of my dreams.
When the Denver Diner closed last October after a kitchen fire, my heart was broken. As you may assume of any establishment in Denver that is more than a decade or two old, I thought the Double D's White Spot-of-yore architecture was lost forever, probably left to be bulldozed and turned into some structural mess I would absolutely detest. But the goddesses smiled on me, and my sacred space reopened this week, all in one piece. I was given a sneak peek at the upgrades and whatnots added to the new and improved post-fire Denver Diner last week, and I wasn't impressed by the added flats-creen TVs, brushed-steel everything and coveted liquor license; they weren't for me, but for the neo-Denver customers who might wander into the DD now and give this "cool, retro brunch spot" a positive Yelp review. Still, for that, I am glad. I want this place to live forever. Like all classic diners that have survived modern times, the Denver Diner thrives on its wide array of customers throughout each 24-hour cycle.
Besides, beneath all the modern touches, the building looks great. The kitchen has gotten a complete rehab, which is also good news, because the food has always been the Diner's true strength. I have yet to consume a Texas toast and American cheese-food grilled cheese sandwich like the Triple Decker Grilled Cheese at the Double D, best enjoyed with a pool of ranch, a fountain Pepsi and a hefty side of pickles. During my sneak peek, I learned that my favorite platter had been taken off of the menu — but not to worry, because of course, it could still be made. They promised me. My other old standby, biscuits and gravy, was of course on the menu: A diner without biscuits or gravy on hand is not a diner. Another long-lost love, the "Mass Confusion A.K.A. Monica's Idea" — a piping hot plate of breakfast items piled on top of each other — still exists, but its name has been shortened to Mass Confusion, which, for marketing purposes, totally makes sense. There are also fresh takes on omelets and more artisanal-ish sandwiches and that fully stocked bar, which should bring in the crowds.
Not that the Denver Diner was hurting for customers before the fire — no matter the time of day, waitresses (and yes, they are waitresses, not servers) were always running figure eights around tables packed with suits, uniforms, prom dresses, scrubs, leather jackets and Broncos jerseys, filling cups, taking orders and smiling through it all. But the fact that the Double D was able to slightly reinvent itself for the hipper crowd thanks to a firey hardship may mean it's added another few decades to its life. It's not often that an older establishment gets a chance to become new again while keeping with its classic traditions. Denver Diner, you are an American beauty. One that belongs to Denver.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.