Remember Colorforms? I do. They were those reusable sticker sets that came with a slick cardboard background and sheets of thin, flimsy vinyl with shapes, characters, scenery -- anything really -- printed on them. Say you liked Superman. You bought the Superman set, punched out all the characters and stuff like paper dolls, and they would stick to the background like magic. Superman could whoop vinyl ass on Lex Luthor and his cronies until you got bored, then you'd just peel everyone off and start all over again.
Is it all coming back to you now? Thought so. They made Colorforms sets out of almost anything -- The A-Team, Battlestar Galactica, cowboys and Indians (so un-PC), spaceships. But now that I'm (more or less) grown up, I want a new set of Colorforms, this time for restaurants. Mine would start with an empty downtown space as the background -- four walls, a ceiling and a floor -- and the sheets would have stick-on tables, stick-on chairs, a variety of styles for the bar, all the basic decor. The set would include art for the walls; several different vinyl server models in various poses, as well as customers and cooks; little pieces of adhesive food for the tables; and little pieces of adhesive silverware for people's hands.
For starters (maybe for Christmas), I'd ask for the basic set plus the Asian-fusion expansion, with a lot of brushed steel and lacquered wood fixtures to add to the walls, a bad wine list, and the rubbery representation of a clueless owner with a coke sniffle who can't figure out why his place is only half full on a Friday night. There'd be a stick-on sushi bar included, complete with two or three young stick-on Japanese guys and a couple of clean-cut culinary students in their perfect white jackets and tall toques to work out front in the show kitchen, then a dozen Mexican line cooks in rumpled, sauce-stained jackets with cigarettes tucked behind their ears to work in the back.
Bam. There's half the Denver dining scene taken care of right there.
Next I'd ask for the Cherry Creek add-on, which would include 500 tall, thin, blond adhesive yuppies, 250 men and 250 women who all look exactly the same and all come with tiny platinum cards in their hands and little sticks to poke up each of their rubbery little butts. This set would also have five-year-old Zagat reviews to hang on the walls, a lot of conceptual art by painters no one has ever heard of, and little word bubbles to put above each customer's head saying things like "I'll have the salad," "Can you drink martinis on Atkins?" and "I'll have the salad, too."
There'd be a Colfax-diner version complete with stick-on hookers to work the parking lot and pieces showing drunken hat boys passed out on the Formica; a funky Mexican-dive-bar kit with teensy chile-pepper lights to go behind the bar, little stick-on plates of green chile and neon Corona signs; and a LoDo sports-bar date-rape action playset. And while even with these sets you couldn't cover every Denver address, you'd get most of them.
But there are still some restaurants that would be un-buildable without their own special editions of Colorforms -- collections custom-made for the representation of spots that defy categorization. Bastien's (see review) is one of those. So is Clair de Lune. The newly opened Mao would require a special Communist Revolution upgrade to the standard Cherry Creek Asian-fusion mix. And Casa Bonita would have to come packaged with two hits of blotter acid and a small vial of live E. coli cultures.
Club 404 is another spot that would need its own edition. Is it a dive? Sure, but a great one -- and cheap like you wouldn't believe. Although it also dates from the '50s era that birthed Bastien's, you could never mix and match existing Denver locations to approximate the look and feel of this place. Club 404 is unique to the local dining scene, irreducible and irreplaceable.
Walking through the front door is like sliding into an old, comfortable jacket that you thought you'd lost years ago. Settling onto a stool makes you think that you could maybe stay here forever. The whole joint is keyed to an easier tempo than the rest of the world -- slow jazz, maybe, or country blues -- and inside the windowless room, time is measured in drinks, not hours. "How long you been here, Bob?" "Oh, about five rounds..."
There are regulars who've been coming here since Nixon was in office, and one owner, Jerry Feld, who's had the 404 since the Eisenhower administration. There are twinkle lights behind the bar, as well as an albino frog in an aquarium, and souvenirs of fifty years' service are pinned up everywhere, like the fetishes of cargo cultists. The place feels lived in, real, and has acquired a fine, polished veneer of grime over the years that it wears well -- like an aging leading man going a little gray around the temples.
My waitress, Nonna, called me "dear" when she made it around to my table. I liked that. She had giant hair and a nice smile and a look like there was no rush, no need to hurry at all anymore, so why didn't I just settle in for a decade or so? She had a kind of lithium-drip smoothness to her. For that matter, all of the 404 did. At one end of the bar, the fellas were watching skiing on a muted TV while Johnny Cash sang on the radio; I got the feeling that they would have watched anything just to have something to stare at. At the other end, Jerry was greeting his guests -- almost all of his guests -- by name.
I ordered a steak, the 404 T-bone. It was preceded by a salad in a plastic bowl, dressing in a giant syrup jug, two cold Coronas with limes jammed thumb-deep down their necks. When Nonna came around again to clear the salads, she pulled the fork out of the bowl and dropped it back on my paper placemat. When she brought the steak, it was accompanied by out-of-the-box mashers and gravy from a can. I'd asked for the steak rare, and that's the way it came -- bloody, tender, meaty but not too thick, a rind of grill-crisped fat running all the way down the edges. It was a good steak. In short, my meal was exactly what I was expecting, nothing less and nothing more. And it cost me $8.95. I've been to steakhouses where it cost me twice that just to park.
On another visit, I tried the prime-rib dinner and found it tough and chewy, and I walked out worried about that tinny, bad-blood bite it had -- earthy but sharp, like foil on the tongue. But the fries were good, I'll give Club 404 that. And on the entire menu (which is broad and as esoteric as anything in town, with linguine and clams, sliders, enchiladas and prime rib sharing space on the cramped dry-erase board), there's nothing more pricey than thirteen bucks. On most days there are dinner specials, lunch specials, holiday specials and specials for no damn reason at all that knock the price of a full meal down to around five bucks. To encompass everything, my Club 404 Colorforms set would have to span foods of every description -- from greasy-spoon Mexican to diner-style pie to big whacks of steakhouse beef to Italian classics -- and patrons of every stripe. It would have to include waitresses with beehive hair and polo-shirted bartenders, problem drinkers and just plain guys. It would need a set of construction workers having a six-beer liquid lunch, another of Baker neighborhood twenty-somethings out for some cheap grub and strong drinks on a Thursday evening, another just to cover tattoos, and yet another for the booths, high-backed and padded out like old, battered couches.
It would need too much, and in the end, no static picture -- no matter how detailed -- could ever do the place justice. If you haven't already been to Club 404, you've got to check it out for yourself. And if you've been there and don't dig the scene, that's fine: Next time I make a run over to 404 Broadway for a long lunch, you can borrow my new Colorforms and create whatever kind of restaurant you like.
The perfect storm: It was an onslaught of ink, a wave of words washing over just one place, Brasserie Rouge. In the space of just one week (six days, actually), this single restaurant was reviewed by me ("Total Recall," November 27) and both of my comrades-in-arms at the dailies, got the usual Channel 9 rehash of Kyle Wagner's Denver Post column on the morning and afternoon broadcasts, and rated a mention in the new 5280 dining-out guide. It was completely serendipitous -- and overwhelming.
"We definitely felt the reviews, no doubt about that," Rouge assistant general manager Catherine Meek told me. Then she laughed -- the kind of high, weird giggle that comes out of someone who's just walked away from a plane crash or a car accident completely unscathed. "I couldn't even count how many people we had coming in here, and I'd say 70 percent of them came in talking about the reviews."
Rouge may have been the only busy restaurant on Saturday, November 22, the day after the News and Post reviews ran. That was the weekend of our first real snow. But the accident alerts, highway closures and SUVs catapulting off highway off-ramps in the ice didn't stop Denver's loyal foodie crowd from packing the steamy brasserie and running its staff ragged.
"And it continued through the week," Meek said. "It's been just remarkable."
By the time the snow melted, my review -- another rave -- had come out. After that, it must have just been a blur.
"Yes," Meeks agreed. "We had a wait on the next Saturday night for about an hour, and in a space this big, that was a nice change. And the items that were written about? We were definitely prepared, but..."
But what? The kitchen caught fire? Your dishwashers went on strike for more loot?
"But we weren't expecting this."
The kitchen was down to its last scraps of duck confit, and people were complaining on Saturday, Wednesday, Thursday that they couldn't get bouillabaisse -- a Friday-night special. And finally, when the worst of the rush was over, Brasserie Rouge's owners -- Leigh and Robert Thompson -- opened up B-52 Billiards, which they also own, for an after-hours party for the staff.
"We're like a big family here, so we were all patting each other on the back," said Meeks. "This kind of thing is definitely good for morale."
Sure, but what if that same synchronicity had resulted in three bad reviews?
Meeks laughs again, confident this time: "Oh, that was never going to happen."
Leftovers: Just as restaurant critics do not collude on the timing of their reviews, they do not announce themselves when they show up at eating establishments. Would someone please tell that to Wise Guys Pizza? The new thin-crust, New York-style pie joint owned by Gabe Reid (ex of Anthony's) recently opened its doors at 2740 South Wadsworth in Lakewood, and their grand opening was attended by another faux Jason Sheehan demanding free food and claiming to be me. He wasn't. Once again, all you restaurant folk out there should keep this in mind: I'll never come up to you looking for free grub. I'll never come up to you asking for free anything. As a matter of fact, I'll never come up to you period, because I am an anonymous critic -- which means that if I'm doing my job right, you'll never know I'm there.
Apparently the guy got stellar service and a couple of great slices courtesy of Gabe and crew. But for everyone else, just remember that the next time you get some punk-ass loser in the joint claiming to be me and using my good name to extort free drinks and chili dogs from the help, just kick him in the nuts and 86 the prick.
Peet's Coffee and Tea -- the coffee-shop group that grew up in Berkeley's so-called gourmet ghetto, which spawned everything from The Cheese Board to Chez Panisse -- has its first Denver location. The new spot, at 2500 East Second Avenue, opened on October 30 and is staying true to the fresh-roasted/artisan-blend philosophy that's kept Peet's growing and the joe flowing since the opening of the first Peet's coffee shop and roastery on Vine Street in Berkeley back in 1966.
Trattoria Stella is moving forward with a second location at 3201 East Colfax Avenue, but things are moving sloooow. I talked to owner Thomas Sumners, and he assured me that while it won't take a year before Stella's the Second makes its debut, it also won't be anytime soon. The biggest issue is a giant billboard on top of the building that has to come down before the crew from Stella's can start moving in, and that's proving to be easier said than done.
"It's always something, isn't it?" Sumners asks. "I wish it was the kind of thing where we could just throw money at it until it went away, but we don't have that kind of money, so it's going to take time."
While he's waiting, Sumners and his crew -- along with new chef Jennifer Blakeslee -- are discussing menus. "Probably American nouvelle," Sumners says. Since the two restaurants will be sharing staff, Sumner and his wife, Marna (who also does the baking and Sunday brunches at Stella's), want a setup where their cooks will be able to do different things without getting bored. "But we're still going back and forth on that," he adds. "We didn't want to do Italian, because we're already doing that here. And the cooks wanted something where they'd be able to do some more of their own dishes."
Speaking of doing their own thing, two of Denver's big names are moving on -- again. Jeff Saudo, the chef at Mel's ("Hum Enchanted Evening," October 9), is leaving his post at Mel and Jane Master's temple to new American cuisine. He plans to spend more time with his family, including a new daughter, and eventually head back East, toward North Carolina and home. "It is a loss, but it will be good for him personally," says Mel. "The good news is, we managed to get my old chef and friend Tyler Wiard back."
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Yup, that's right. Saudo's last day at Mel's will be on January 1, and Wiard's first day back will be January 2. He worked at Mel's in the late '90s, then again briefly as a fill-in before Saudo came on. This means the Fourth Story, where Wiard has been working for the last year and a half, is now looking for another chef -- the seventh in seven years -- to run its embattled kitchen.
And finally, the owners of Boulder's Triana decided late last week to close up shop after three years on the Pearl Street Mall. "We've had a tough run financially in the last year," says Adam DeVito. "We really tried to be this accessible place -- warm, but still sensual. We wanted to be girl-next-door sexy, but not the kind of place where you had to hold your breath just to walk through the door." Unfortunately, thanks to some lousy positioning, Triana got lumped in among all the other weekend destination restaurants in Boulder and was never able to hold on to a weekday crowd. Not even some great menus and a fantastic happy hour helped. "And then "Eventually, the financial strain got to be too much." And what does DeVito plan to do next? "Never the restaurant business again."
Luckily, not everyone feels that way. The 1039 Pearl Street address has already been snapped up, and a new chef-owned restaurant called simply The Kitchen will be opening in the space come spring. No word yet on the food, but new owners Hugo Matheson (from Trios) and Kimbal Musk will try to create a place that will trade on the warm, intimate architecture of the old Triana while still creating a friendly, approachable weekday hangout.
And for any of you left holding (legitimate) Triana gift certificates issued after September 15, they can be redeemed for cash before the end of the year by calling the office of Aarone Appel, at 303-545-5755.