Baby, You're a Rich Man
It was the Christmas lights that messed me up. The tiny glass ornaments lit from within. The tinsel. The light-up motorized reindeer standing beneath the abbreviated spiral leading up to the rotunda -- unused these days except under special circumstances, dark, the chairs all stacked and set aside. The decorations were like paste diamonds, like whore's makeup on a beautiful corpse, and they pushed Bastien's over the edge, shoving it out of the realm of the merely quirky and into the land of the totally fucking surreal.
No, it was more than just my irrational fear of lawn decorations displayed indoors. It was the carpet -- all orange and brown and swirly like a Vegas nightclub lounge back when Sammy and Dean and Debbie were still packing 'em in and all the strippers wore pasties. The pattern, like amoebas under a microscope, crawled along the edges of your peripheral vision after a couple too many Manhattans. And that orange -- that awful, pukey, terrible color like burned citrus fruit -- was pure 1973. The same shade as the shag your buddy had in the back of his van in high school, the same print as the carpeting in your weird uncle's rumpus room -- the uncle you found out years later was an actual swinger who hosted key parties and listened to way too much Bee Gees music on the hi-fi.
Maybe it was the Bee Gees that did it, the Muzak echoing in the high, empty space -- signal pulled down off some long-forgotten ghost transmitter in the Midwest where the engineer died at the board thirty years ago and no one noticed. A station you could never get at home or in your car, spectral modulations bouncing around the stratosphere until they wound up here: one long, continuous-loop tape playing the best of the brothers Gibb, Styx and the Beatles, forever. Baby, you're a rich man. Baby, you're a rich man, too. The ghosts of those beautiful people that John, Paul, George and Ringo were singing about back in the '60s still populate Bastien's. Girls in heavy eyeshadow and white plastic micro-minis, guys in Nehru jackets who ate here back in the restaurant's heyday. The air is thick with them, as well as with the shades of successful aluminum-siding salesmen in leatherette loafers knocking around the dark rotunda, out with their perfect nuclear families for a fancy Friday-night steak dinner circa 1958.
It was the brassy blinds on the windows, the twisted iron grating that separates one curl of sunken dining room from the next level on the ground floor. It was the corkscrew shape of the place, the old neon, the fish tank with one lonely fish. The quiet. It was the drinks menu, with a mix of beer and wine and cocktails that haven't existed since Ol' Blue Eyes hung up his martini glass: brandy Alexanders, Grasshoppers, Sidecars.
It was the guy with the bad suit and the comb-over sitting behind me who stopped a passing waitress and said, "Hey, I like this. Something's different, though. What's changed?"
It was the waitress's reply: "Oh, you probably mean the mirrors. We change things around once in a while still."
Those mirrored walls probably came down twenty years ago, and this guy -- waking from his coma and hungry for a steak dinner -- was just noticing now.
It wasn't one thing, but everything all together -- one room, perfectly preserved, absolutely authentic, like a time capsule made by strangers.
Bastien's isn't retro; the rest of the world is. The cocktail culture of the '50s? Bastien's has it. Early-'70s swinger swank? It has that, too. Put a waterfall and grotto down in the lower dining room, and a young, pipe-smoking Hef would feel totally at ease here, kicking it in his silk PJs, bunnies by his side. And if anything in this place has come around again into a third generation of recycled cool, that's only a happy accident. Bastien's doesn't change with the times; the times change around it. The world changes around it. Like they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and the batteries on Bastien's Timex ran down a long time ago.
But what a run it's had. The Bastien family bought the original model of this Colfax Avenue landmark -- the Moon Drive-In -- in 1937. It saw them through World War II, the baby boom, the rise of the car culture, the advent of American-style dining in all its weird, early permutations. In '58, the family tore down the Moon and built Bastien's in that grounded flying saucer, Hugo Gernsback, World of Tomorrow style that makes the whole place, even today, look ready to lift off and return the loyal faithful to the mothership for a journey back to Planet Funk. It opened on January 1, 1959, and was an instant hit, a destination in a time when there weren't many. Truman Capote hung out here, ferchrissakes.
And forty years later, the trappings of Bastien's best years are still intact. The staff keeps everything polished, bright and clean, like tireless docents at some museum of forgotten cool. Nothing has changed -- except the crowds, of course. Most of them have gone. Or died. That's the trouble with golden ages: They all have to end sometime.
And so on Saturday night, it's me, two friends, two tables in the lower dining room, one on the ground floor, a couple of drinkers at the bar older than their hair, and the ghosts. Outside, the sign tells you all you need to know about the menu:
BE T S EAK IN TOWN
Meat is what's for dinner here. American prime. Selections from back in the day when cholesterol was part of the food pyramid and blood and bone immunized you against the baser influences of Communism, dope and homosexuality. The kitchen does tenderloin, strip, monster twenty-ounce T-bones blanketed in mushrooms and grilled onions, filet mignon wrapped in smoked bacon, eight- and twelve-ounce cuts of roasted prime bathing in beef jus, and a big whack of top sirloin that the house still calls a Club Steak. In a bold finger to the modern horror of steaks cooked no less than medium, Bastien's menu suggests that you eat them rare. Demands, really: Some aren't allowed to go beyond mid-rare, and a note reminds diners that the kitchen can't guarantee the quality of anything cooked medium or beyond. Which is just a polite way of telling certain folks that they'll be eating shoe leather if they don't pay attention to the rules, and the servers -- all of whom are sweet, attentive and honest in their assessment of what's good and what's not on any given night -- nod happily when you order accordingly.
Ask for the house special sugar steak and you get sixteen ounces of choice New York Strip cut an inch thick, cool and the color of a fresh bruise on the inside, grill-marked and shining on the outside, sweet with caramelized sugar, salty with blood.
And with it, potatoes. With everything, potatoes -- because what is meat without? The choices are baked (big, but dry if you order late), mashed with gravy (both chunky, both made by hand), mashed with cheese and garlic (heavy on both), or fried like a pancake in a skillet and chunked with onions and bits of bell pepper.
Vegetables are served on the side of every plate, and they are uniquely awful, the way vegetables can only be at a steakhouse. Steam-table green beans limp from the heat, a tiny pile of boiled carrots and cauliflower dusted with black pepper -- all sops to the ideal nutritional three-way of green, protein and starch, and easily ignored once the meat and potatoes are in front of you.
Salads are the only proper green to eat with steak, but they must be dull, kept humble so as not steal any thunder from the main course. Bastien's provides the ideal plate with every meal, combining iceberg lettuce, shaved carrots, radishes, box croutons and a couple of cucumber slices, just like Mom used to make. Nothing fancy, nothing flashy, no ingredient that alone could even really be considered food -- not until it's combined with all the others. Once I found a piece of plastic wrap in my salad; it was the most exciting thing on the plate. At Bastien's, you can always swap salad for soup. The soup's homemade, changes daily, and runs the gamut from solid, creamy goodness to frightening combinations most likely concocted out of pure, screaming boredom in the kitchen. Cream of potato? Not bad. Mexican potato and cheese soup with peppers? Not a good idea. Not anywhere, not anytime.
But what matters is the meat, and every steak I've had at Bastien's -- from a delicate tenderloin in a mushroom sauce like virgin Marsala to all-American pork chops with applesauce to the Bite Me (nice name, by the way) that covers a ten-ounce strip in a masochist's au poivre of crushed red-pepper flakes and grilled shrimp in a smoky-hot barbecue sauce -- has been high-quality, handled with care and cooked precisely to order every time.
Bastien's also offers seafood, but I feel uncomfortable ordering fish at a place this quiet -- makes me wonder when the last delivery came in. The pork chops, pork tenderloin and fried chicken are all good. The veal parmagiana isn't -- cooked through, but mushy with breading that hides the flavor of the veal, topped with a forgettable red sauce and mounted on a bed of fettuccine boiled until it tastes like Elmer's glue extruded into noodle form.
Besides meat and potatoes, the only other thing a steakhouse needs to do well is dessert, and Bastien's dessert menu is a killer -- grinning, sticky-fingered death on a plate. Think classic, think cruise-ship and old-school before there was any such thing. Think skillet-cooked pies topped with sizzling brandy and pecan butter sauce -- a flambé without the fire -- or the Cocoban, a coconut and banana cream pie with midnight at the Copacabana written all over it. Bastien's also serves the ultimate in guilty-pleasure desserts, the supreme delivery vehicle of heat and sweet and sugar and fat and butter and cheese and everything bad for you in the world: deep-fried cheesecake. The kitchen takes a slice of good New York-style, wraps it in pastry dough, fries it until the crust is brown and the cheesecake melted, then serves it hot with a side of whipped cream, a side of cherries, a side of vanilla ice cream and a fork. Make peace with your god while you allow it to cool briefly, then dig in. The first bite is enough to stop my heart.
And maybe that's what happened to Bastien's fans from the glory days -- an entire generation sped like dinosaurs toward extinction by one too many Club Steaks, one too many pieces of fried cheesecake -- but that's not all that cut back the crowds. There were years -- okay, decades -- when Bastien's looked tired, dated, not hip at all. It lost some of its charm to the natural attrition of the times, to capricious fads and the cannibalism of fashion du jour. But the family was patient. Now a third generation of owners (sisters Jeannine Bastien, Colette Bowdish and Mary Paula Vigil) and a fourth generation of employees (Jessica Vigil on the floor and Ryan Bastien in the kitchen) have managed to wait out the clock. Today there are places that hire designers to copycat the brand of cool Bastien's has naturally; scenesters and scooter kids and armies of the retro-hip are content to hang out and sip whiskey at places based on the model of supper-club swank that Bastien's invented for Denver almost fifty years ago.
The world has moved on, but Bastien's did not. And now its time has come again.
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