Food for thought: I've been on this job for a month now -- thirty days that have been a cyclone blur of restaurants and reservations, a juggling act with me trying to keep a fork, a keyboard and my appetite all up in the air at the same time, and really more fun than I've had with my pants on in a good, long time. According to figures provided by the National Restaurant Association, I've eaten out as much in thirty days as your statistically average American consumer does in five and a half months. That's a fairly large amount of digestion for the short time I've been on this beat, and I'm coming to find that -- contrary to the opinions expressed in some letters that have recently crossed my desk -- Denver isn't a bad food town. There's gold in these here hills, and while some of it may be hidden, that's no excuse not to go looking. So the next time you find yourself at some faux-gourmet Disney theme park masquerading as a restaurant and wince when you realize you've just pissed away a pocketful of your hard-earned nickels on a shoe-leather T-bone or a mushy, flash-frozen filet of Chilean sea bass slopped onto your plate by some nose-picking fuckup in the kitchen who couldn't tell caviar from Camembert if his life depended on it, I want you to think about this:
Restaurants, for the most part, appear in clusters. The hospitality business is one that absolutely lives and dies by location, and while a good one is money in the bank, a bad one almost always means a death warrant. Because of this, restaurants will tend to glom onto each other, with every successive wave of new development building outward from that magical center point where the first successful venture put down roots. Chain restaurants are particularly good at locating locations, having honed their research to such a fine point that virtually every area once pioneered by independent startups, mom-and-pop diners or brave entrepreneurs is now jammed with nationally recognized food factories screaming for your dollars and cents. Think of the nearest suburb, my friends. Think of LoDo.
What this means is that almost everywhere you see some neon-crusted Fun Burger drive-through or T.J. McDiggety's Olde Tyme Chicken and Waffles, crouching in its shadow will be a place struggling to survive the crushing pressure of competing against an opponent who likely spends more on bar pretzels each day than a mom-and-pop spends on advertising in a year. (For a prime example of an overlooked local venture, consider Maruti Narayan's, reviewed on page 71.) Am I saying that the restaurant-as-corporation trend toward brand expansion is all bad? No. Although my bias in favor of the true culinary professional should be pretty plain at this point, I admit to a secret guilty weakness for the Tuscan bread at Pizzeria Uno, and I think Chipotle (a homegrown chain, started right here in Denver) still makes one mean burrito. All I'm saying is that for every thousand mediocre meals eaten off the food-service assembly line, there's a real chef out there, not far away, trying to make just one that's perfect.
So the next time you find yourself pulling into the parking lot of an Olive Garden (or any of its ilk) out of simple habit, stop and think for a second. Is this what you really want, or are you just eating out of routine? I'll do what I can from here to point you in the direction of something good. I'll eat, I'll suffer food poisoning, I'll come to your homes in the dead of night and leave a trail of breadcrumbs if I have to. All you have to do is follow.
Old buffalo, new buffalo: It's been two years since rancher and restaurateur Will McFarlane sold his decade-old Denver Buffalo Company (1109 Lincoln Street) to Curt Sims and a group of partners who continued operating under the Denver Buffalo Company name. Meanwhile, McFarlane, now concentrating on the retail end of the buffalo business, changed the name of his company to New West Foods and continued supplying buffalo meat and products to the market.
After trying to make a go of buffalo, earlier this year Sims and company closed the main portion of the restaurant for a major renovation. Name, theme and menu changes are all in the works; the new incarnation will be an upscale Mexican joint, name of Cielo, which should be opening its doors sometime in September. (Last December, Sims and wife Pam Savage opened a slightly less upscale Mexican joint, name of Lime, at 1424 Larimer Street.)
Even more recently (like, in the last couple of weeks), McFarlane sold New West Foods, which had become the largest distributor of buffalo products in the world, to the North American Bison Co-Op -- a cooperative of more than 400 bison ranchers across the U.S., Canada and Europe. The terms of the deal weren't disclosed (which is just a fancy way for me to say no one's talking about how much green they spent), but both New West Foods and Buffalo Nickel (the Co-Op's retail brand) will keep their names and labels.
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Open-and-shut cases: The restaurant landscape deverloped some gaping holes in the last two weeks with the departures of Sacre Bleu (410 East Seventh Avenue) and Papillon Cafe (250 Josephine Street). And soon Basil Ristorante (846 Broadway) will be calling it quits, too -- at least in its current incarnation. In the late '90s, what had been Basil Pasta Bar moved ten blocks north from tiny storefront digs at 30 South Broadway to take over the former home of The Parlour, a favorite watering hole -- and hamburger maker -- of cops and media types alike. Meanwhile, a few brave Parlour staffers struck out on their own to open Norma Jean's at 102 South Broadway, where some of the Parlour's menu faves -- in particular, the infamous pizza soup -- live on. And Basil's original home, just a block away, became Cafe Evangeline, which serves up Cajun and Creole cuisine.
No word yet on what inspired Basil's impending changes, but owner Peter Wolfgang Schlicht and on-again/off-again chef David Oliveri (who also spent time in the kitchen of the Denver Buffalo Company) are restaurant veterans, so they're bound to pop up again.
The Irish Hound has hung out its banner at 575 St. Paul Street, in the former location of Fu Lin Cafe and just around the corner from Barolo Grill. Look for an opening sometime in October. Not far away, Thai in Cherry Creek (3000 East Third Avenue) has closed. Las Delicias (439 East 19th Avenue) is now a non-smoking joint at lunch; as soon as the sun goes down, however, you're free to light up. Braun's Bar and Grill, a combo sports bar/white-tablecloth joint, opened Monday at 1055 Auraria Parkway, in the shadow of the Pepsi Center. And City Kafe, which was open for about five minutes at 501 West 12th Avenue (in the former home of a Diane's Good-to-Go and, before that, Pony Express), will be replaced by Velvet, as promised by a sign that also says the spot is under "under new management." Frankly, I've no idea what's going on with this place, but you'll know just as soon as I do.