Having Racines close by was the best sort of convenience. And I mean the old Racines, the one at Ninth Avenue and Bannock Street on whose grave a retail/condo complex is being built. It was a neighborhood bar that always seemed to be part of the neighborhood no matter where you were from, the kind of place you could go when you didn't want to think about where to go. No matter how you were dressed, you were dressed right. No matter what time of day it was, you could always get a couple cold ones and a burrito. And if those couple cold ones turned into a couple more? Well, there were certainly worse places in town to be when the day started getting away from you.
Did it help that Racines' original location was within staggering distance of the Westword office? Absolutely. And while my job makes it impossible for me to be one of those regulars at a restaurant where everybody knows my name, I felt comfortable with the Racines folks, nonetheless. I drank their beer; I ate their nachos; I soaked in their hospitality; and I generally comported myself like an annoying houseguest who never knows when it's time to leave. The little tray below the cup-holder in my car is full of boxes of wooden matches advertising Racines and its sibling restaurants, because Racines had a big smoking section, and I always appreciated that.
But after almost twenty years in the same spot, Racines closed (not willingly, mind you, and not without a fight), and for almost a year, there was nothing -- nothing -- to take its place. Of course, there were still Dixons and Goodfriends, the other two restaurants in the micro-empire owned and operated by David Racine, Lee Goodfriend and Dixon Staples, but they're both good for their own reasons, not for the reasons I liked Racines. And sure, there were plenty of other bars around, plenty of other places to get a burger and a beer, but none that felt the way Racines did -- like everyone's own private Cheers, rummy regulars and sass-talking bartenders included.
But on May 10, Racines finally reopened in its own building at 650 Sherman Street. And it came out of the gate like it hadn't lost a step in eleven months. It helps that Racines holds on to employees like no other house in town -- keeping about 80 percent of its back-of-house staff, 30 percent of its servers and half its bar in the family during the hiatus so they could be plugged right back into their old gigs in the new space. And it also helps -- a lot -- that the new Racines was quickly packed with former regulars who'd been waiting to get back into their old routine.
"That was tough," says John Imbergamo, a restaurant consultant who works with the Racines triumvirate. "The people -- you just don't know if they're going to come back. After eleven months, you figure they probably found somewhere else to go. And maybe they became fond of that somewhere else, you know?" Still, you don't build a place that seats 270 if you don't have some idea that people are going to remember your name. You don't staff a floor to handle 270 seats through at least six turns without having some faith that you were missed while you were gone. And you don't build your own parking garage without believing you're going to need it.
And the new Racines needs it. "Breakfasts have been just okay," Imbergamo says. "But lunch and dinner? Balls to the wall." In its first week, Racines did numbers 35 to 40 percent greater than in the old days. Early in the week, it was running a fifteen-minute wait on the books at lunch that turned out to be closer to half an hour, and Wednesday dinner had a wait at 5:15 and was still on a wait at 9:15, four hours and three full turns of the dining room later.
That dining room is new, but it doesn't feel new. It's big, but it still feels small. The decor is eclectic in the way that your grandma's basement is -- full of mismatched colors and patterns, lampshades that look like burlap, smooth edges and non-threatening landscapes, a style that would've been hip in the '70s and has now come around to a retro cool, missing only a few macrame plant hangers to put it totally around the bend. And everything -- from the benches and fixtures rescued from the old spot to the new tables and big, new bar -- seems like it belongs here, like it evolved organically and grew in exactly the right spot.
Racines' menu is big and deep with burgers and burritos, steaks, salads and breakfasts served all day -- not exactly simple, but comforting because it's essentially the same as the old menu. To change anything would've pissed off someone who'd been eating that item every day for the last twenty years, and the one thing -- the one rule if there were any rules -- was to not piss off the regulars. Imbergamo says he asked the partners if there wasn't some loser on Racines' board, some dish that didn't sell well, something, anything, that could be dropped so that something new could be added. "And every time I came up with something to take off," he remembers, "someone would come back and say, ŒOh, but Arnie was here three times a week, and he loved the stuffed squirrel sandwich,' or something like that. Everything they had on the menu was someone's favorite."
After eleven months of promises, a seven- figure buildout and countless headaches with planning, permitting and having to replace an entire water main, the new Racines is a bona fide success. "It wasn't just building a new restaurant, but paying homage to an institution," says Imbergamo. And that's exactly what they did. That's why there's a wait at the door. That's why there's a full book at the hostess stand on a Wednesday night. The owners recognized they had a good thing, and they didn't mess with it.
Don't quote me: Not far from the crowds clamoring for a table (and a parking spot) at Racines, Moda Ristorante and Lounge opened its doors at 975 Lincoln Street in the new Beauvallon complex just last month. The restaurant recently added lunch service, and I dropped in last week to see how things were going.
In a word, clumsily. Not bad, just not great. For starters, Moda is a tough room -- a crowded space with tables and chairs jammed tightly together and a "communal table" set right in front of the open line, which reminded me of nothing so much as the horrors of the third-grade lunchroom and never knowing who you were going to end up sitting next to. The space looks nice -- lots of sleek wood and dark, ultra-hip accents in the main dining room, candlelight and couches in the swank lounge in the back -- and the staff is trying hard. But right now the graceful swoop of service feels more like a frantic tap dance, like they're trying to stay one step ahead of a hundred potential disasters.
For all that, though, the kitchen has already hit its mark. The menu is urban Italian -- meaning your basic pastas and salads and pressed focaccia sandwiches all dressed up for a night on the town, so that a simple plate of spaghetti comes off the menu as spaghettini with cherry tomatoes, fior de latte and arugula in a sun-dried tomato olio. Frankly, I don't know what fior di latte is. And neither did my server. Still, someone in the kitchen does, because the spaghetti was good, if a little over-complicated. And the penette with scamorza, eggplant and basil was a well-composed dish of perfectly al dente penne in a thick, unbroken pomodoro sauce that tasted primarily of tomatoes, then garlic, basil and salt, each in their proper descending order.
More than anything, what impressed me about Moda was the balance shown by the cooks working here. The dishes I tried tasted like the real thing -- not traditional Italian, maybe, but the offerings of a pro kitchen regardless, from guys who've quickly gotten their act together. What's more, things in the galley were running smooth enough during the busy first seating of a weekday lunch that the chef was able to come out from behind the line and walk the room, go to the bar, get something to drink and joke with the bartenders -- without his guys falling to pieces or setting anything on fire. That's impressive in the first month of service, and a credit to both the chef and his crew.
Only one thing bugged me about the food: all the quote marks describing the fare on the menu. Egg "fettuccine" with three meat "bolognese"? "Tricolore" salad with Granny Smith apples, walnuts and "gorgonzola"? Penette pasta with "scamorza" in a "pomodoro" sauce? Enough, already. That kind of gimmick on a menu looks like you're showing off, like your kitchen just learned all these new words and is trying to use them all at once. Fact is, if you don't know what fettuccine is, you don't belong in an Italian restaurant to begin with.
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Leftovers: Racines and Moda aren't the only places making news in the neighborhood. Two more restaurants will debut this month in the Beauvallon building, turning it into a regular yuppie Little Italy: La Dolce Vita, which looks like a lightweight version of Moda, and Wholly Tomato, a whole-foods, vegan-friendly, healthy Italian fast-food place. Whether you're vegetarian, wheat-allergic or just a meat-and-tomatoes kinda guy, owner Stephen Anson swears he has a recipe for you.
Just a block away, at 846 Broadway, the three-month-old Minturn Saloon has added daily lunch service, with chicken-and-rice soup, big salads, and sandwiches with whimsically stupid Spanish names like the Polla Fiesta. Me, I'm saving myself for the all-you-can-eat quail special on Wednesday nights, because I've always wondered how many small game birds I could eat before bursting. For $18.95, Minturn's kitchen is serving up beans and rice, tortillas, guacamole and an unending supply of marinated, fire-grilled quail. The concept comes from the original Minturn Saloon located up in the town of the same name, and it's a big success there. But will endless quail fly in Denver?
The well-regarded Sage Southwestern Grill has abandoned its original spot in Littleton for one downtown, and it debuted two weeks ago at 323 14th Street. Further along 14th, at the corner of Larimer Square, Tamayo has introduced a Polynesian-Mexican rooftop lounge featuring everything from live music and a raw bar to late-night hours (until midnight on weekends) in an attempt to wring a few more dollars from the LoDo crowds. The lounge, which is separate from Tamayo's award-winning rooftop patio, has its own outdoor grill and menu, including daily ceviches, tacos and a custom cocktail list.
Finally, Larry Herz's restaurant at 250 Josephine Street that was formerly the New-American Indigo is still open and testing out its new theme (seafood) and menu. The eatery has maintained the sense of humor ("Captain Crunch Calamari," for example) that always separated Indigo from the pack, as well as its globe-trotting sense of culinary arrogance; it's even held on to a few Indigo classics. Now, if it could just settle on a new name...