Best Of :: Food & Drink
There are only two ways to do mashed potatoes: the right way and the wrong way. Most people think theirs are done the right way, and -- sorry to say -- most people are wrong. Potatoes, butter, cream and salt: These are the only necessary elements in making proper mashers, and at Astoria Restaurant -- an unbelievably authentic Eastern Russian joint -- proper mashers are what's being served on nearly every plate of good, solid Russian comfort food. There may be a place for Maytag bleu, chives and bacon, but a mound of spuds sitting beside a simple rack of lamb or thick, meaty stroganoff is not that place. So in praise of simple pleasures, this year the Oscar goes to Astoria for its uncomplicated 'taters: thick, lumpy, warm and filling, folded in with cold butter and nothing else.
Cuba Cuba has the power to move you. No matter how gray the day or unpromising the night, the big Havana vibe at this little tropical oasis will transport you to more laid-back latitudes the minute you step through the door. The food is fun -- from Cuban picadillo and rum-painted snapper to plantain chips and cigar selections with dessert -- and the shoulder-to-shoulder weekend crowds of smart Denver diners out for a sophisticated mini-spring break give the whole place a humid, sexy edge that's sure to break anyone's ice. And hey, if the lively crowds, spicy Latin music and expertly casual floor staff orchestrated by Kristy Socarras Bigelow don't loosen things up, have the bar mix up a few of its killer mojitos. After a couple of these, luck will have nothing to do with getting lucky.
Wolfe's Barbeque, a jewel-box-sized restaurant on Colfax, feels like a Southern lunch place. But head cook and bottle washer Louis Wolfe is a Kansan by birth and a Denverite by choice. So much so that his walls are lined with collectible postcards of area buildings that date back to the 1900s -- and he can tell the story of each one. The Section 8 housing at Colfax and Grant used to be the Grand Argonaut Hotel, for example, and Temple Emmanuel was stunning in its early glory. As Wolfe gives his colorful and entertaining history lesson -- served up with a slice of great pecan pie -- you can stick your head out the door and still see the remains of what he's describing.
Hunter Thompson once said of Circus Circus in Las Vegas, "This is what the whole hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war." Well, that was then -- and today, Casa Bonita is the place to see what would really become of the world if the radical fun police ever had their way. Sure, we all know the food is, er, questionable. But that can be said of a lot of places where there aren't strolling mariachi bands and teenage cliff divers, so everyone just give Casa Bonita a break, okay? Will anyone who's ever been there soon forget the smell of the swampy, chlorinated backsplash that could grace your gooey tacos if you're lucky enough to get a seat behind the waterfall? For sheer "I can't believe this place is real" thrills, nothing beats Casa Bonita -- the closest thing in Denver to a Terry Gilliam film come to life. And hey, any place where you can buy Coronas by the bucket can't be all bad.
A true joint has a little funk, a little style hidden underneath whatever else it is. And while on most nights of the week the Skylark Lounge is simply a great bar -- and a neighborhood hangout for nearly sixty years -- on those evenings when they pull back the tables and wire up the mikes for some live rockabilly, the 'Lark really takes wing. Sure, its age is beginning to show in the scuffed bar top and the patched vinyl booths, but come the weekends, when the crowds are packed leather-on-leather tight, the Skylark proves that age really is nothing but a state of mind.
The Palm, the Denver link in a chain of classic steakhouses, is ground zero for watching the city's legal establishment (those members who don't mind being watched, at least). Attorneys from the city's top firms hold down reserved tables, where they entertain clients and keep tabs on their rivals. Seeing a legal eagle in an Armani suit make the rounds at the Palm is both fascinating and horrifying -- but always entertaining. Extra points to the Palm for good food, a well-stocked bar, and wall-hung sketches of Palm regulars, which give this place something lawyers aren't always known for: a sense of humor.
There are three qualifications for a true hole-in-the-wall: It has to be tiny, locals-only, and do something so surprisingly well that it earns the lifelong loyalty of its regulars. The 20th Street Cafe hits the mark on all three. First, it's definitely small -- a dozen or so tables and a six-seat counter in a luncheonette-style storefront. Second, no tourists are going to stumble across it while looking for a Denny's, and if they do, odds are they'll just turn up their noses and keep on walking. And third, the food -- from the chicken-fried steak to the meatloaf and mashed potatoes -- is solid, hearty American diner fare so stick-to-your-ribs good that after one taste, you'll never look at a California veggie plate the same way.
It could be the solid, never-gonna-wash-it-out blue of the collars; the funky, unnatural orange-colored trim around the windows; the acetylene glow of headlights through the front windows at 3 a.m.; or just the way those two long-haul drivers keep looking over at you. But at Breakfast King, there are definitely moments when, if Quentin Tarantino's cameras aren't already rolling, someone had better yell "Action!" Quick. Whether you're there with a whole crew planning your next big bank job or alone after leaving the woman what done you wrong, Breakfast King has atmosphere oozing from every cracked-vinyl seat and style to spare. Plus, the grub is exactly what you'd expect from a place just off the interstate: served hot, fast, and in trucker-friendly portions.
Hookers and junkies and bums, oh my! One night at Tom's is better than a whole week's worth of Cops on cable. True connoisseurs of dive culture will appreciate both the window seats looking onto one of the funkiest street corners in Denver -- the intersection of Colfax and Pearl -- and the sort of nightlife that creeps, crawls, slinks and stumbles right inside and sits down next to you. While the scenery is fantastic (in every sense of the word), the menu offers all your standard diner fare, with the classics done better than most. But even a cup of coffee will cover the price of admission. So grab a seat: No matter what time you wander into Tom's, the show is about to begin.