Breakfast King has finally completed its promised remodel -- but if you didn't know what to look for, you could miss it, easy. The 24-hour hash joint that's squatted for decades in the shadow of the old Gates Rubber plant still has the same funk -- that weird, one-two punch of old grease and fresh coffee that's always smelled like home to me. It still draws the same crowds (mostly older folk, friends of the house and dedicated diner junkies who know the real McCoy when they find it); it has that same lazy Sunday vibe whenever the sun is up and the same slightly creepy dead-ender's truck-stop feel after dark. The heart of the place has been left untouched by the recent rounds of facelift, nose job, tummy tuck and dermabrasion, and although I'll admit that I liked the King just fine in its previous, slightly worn and rumpled state, the cosmetic changes are simply that: purely cosmetic.
On a recent Monday, owner Terry Moore (one of three chiefs currently in command of the King) was working the floor at 300 West Mississippi Avenue, pressing the flesh and accepting compliments now that the dust has settled back into its proper place and things have returned more or less to normal. This is a man who knew how dangerous it could be to try and clean up a diner, who got that the life of a place sometimes exists in the scars and historic grime that it's picked up over long years of service. He understood that the temptation of the dark side -- that urge to clean an honest diner so much that it becomes a quasi-fern bar, or to remodel it straight into Gunther Toody's-land -- is powerful. We'd talked about this a couple of months back ("Travelin' Man," April 15), so I knew how carefully Moore was approaching the process.
And it shows in the finished product: The King now looks like a better, younger version of itself. The walls are still hung with that wonderfully awful 1970s rumpus-room paneling; the brown glass lights still dangle from the ceiling. There are new tabletops, and the booths have been recovered, but someone must've loaned Moore a time machine so he could go back and find just the right shade of Creamsicle Vegas orange vinyl, a color that hasn't existed since Debbie Reynolds packed it in at Caesars, since the last scrap of deep-pile shag was pulled out of the back of the last High Times party van. And while the King is now a little heavy on brushed aluminum -- with long, burnished sheets of it pinned up by the kitchen, the service area and all over the back-bar -- a good diner can wear its chrome and stainless like an old general wears his medals: proudly, knowing that every inch of decoration has been earned. Plus, this stuff ages well, and the constant grind of 'round-the-clock service will take the edge off the shiny newness of all that is shiny and new, wearing away a bit of that bright luster.
And then the King will be right back where it started. All it takes is time, and time is one thing this diner has plenty of.
Speaking of diners, one of my perennial guilty-pleasure faves, Johnny's Diner-- a pure outpost of Americana at 2323 South Havana Street, smack in the middle of Aurora's Little Asia, where I was hanging out for this week's review -- has jumped its class. What was once a straight-up, car-cult, fast-and-greasy breakfast bar, with service starting early in the morning and ending sometime around three in the afternoon, is now a full-fledged restaurant with hours extending until eight in the pee-em. And folks are lining up at the long counter for cheeseburgers and fries the same way they always have for ham-and-egg sandwiches and watery coffees-to-go.
For me, though, these new hours are a mixed blessing. Yes, I can now get cherry milkshakes on my way home from Bite Me HQ, provided I have a couple of bucks in my pocket. (It's cash on the barrelhead here, no credit, no excuses.) But Johnny's is no longer a breakfast bar, and being a breakfast bar is a noble thing -- cramming a full day's business into a few short hours guarantees that the service will be fast, the grub good and the menu narrowly focused on those things that the kitchen can do quickly and well. Denver has always been woefully short of these bastard diner-cafe hybrids, and now we've got one less.
Ask the critic, redux: In the August 5 Bite Me, I burned up a lot of space with my grumpy-old-man shtick about culinary schools and my distrust of the toqued and tassled graduates they keep pumping out, damn snot-nosed punks wearing the whites and blah blah blah.
And while I still feel that way (and grow grumpier about the situation with each passing minute), I did leave out an important part of the culinary school equation: What about an already blooded chef going back to school? That's what Michael, a pro with nearly twenty years in the galley behind him, e-mailed me about last week. "I had my first job at Mustard's Last Stand when I was 15," he wrote. "My next job was as breakfast cook/lunch prep at Green's. The chef there, a CIA grad, told me not to go to school but to work, that I would learn more in two years working and reading on my own than in two years at school."
Matter of fact, you'd probably learn more in two years of cooking than in ten at any C-school out there, but back to Michael: "I took his advice. By '93 I was a sous chef. In '97, I was an exec chef. Since then, I've chased the money at a corporate steakhouse, moved to Florida and worked as a sous in Palm Beach, returned to Denver, and have since been passed over for at least two jobs that I know of for someone with less experience, but with that degree. Anyway, to make a long story longer, I bit the bullet and applied to Johnson & Wales for the fall term (at the last moment), and was accepted (the only pre-requisite being that I was breathing, I'm sure). My questions to you are: Do you think I will be the oldest guy in school (I'm 33), and do you think there are a lot of guys in my same situation who feel as helpless as I do to the whims of restaurant owners and HR people who think that without a degree, no matter how much time in the biz, you aren't qualified to run their kitchens?"
First, Michael, I don't think you'll be the oldest guy there because you'll be surrounded by investment bankers and former dot-commers trying to make a midlife career change, all sweating through their schoolboy whites and chopping their fingers off in knife skills class. What you'll be is a veteran, and being the one standing at the end of the day -- no matter the age of the rookies on the floor all around you -- should feel pretty good.
Unfortunately, there are probably plenty of guys like you right now being passed over and sidelined by dumbass owners and bean-counting front-office types who haven't the foggiest idea what the difference is between a gunny sergeant with a decade in the field and some West Point Second Lieutenant so fresh from the parade ground that you can still see the shine on his buttons and brass from fifty yards away. There was a time (here I go with the old-man thing again) when cooking was a blue-collar gig. It was something people fell into almost by accident when they were young, then stayed in because they liked the life and the opportunities it presented. It was a trade you learned from the ground up from the guys who'd been doing it their entire lives, and if you learned good, you could really make something of yourself.
What it wasn't was a white-collar job. What it wasn't was something you could learn from a book. And I never thought it would become a job that kids aspired to, one that could potentially get your ass on TV.
But times are changing, and Michael, you are exactly the kind of guy who should be going to C-school. If more people did it the way you are -- hitting the books to brush up only after learning your trade the hard way -- the industry would be in much better shape. So best of luck to you.
Meanwhile, for any of you restaurant owners of the type that Michael described, anyone who still believes that a diploma makes someone more qualified than ten years of service, here's a phone number that you'll probably be needing someday soon: 303-844-4045. That'll get you to a clerk at bankruptcy court. Tell 'em I said hi.
You oughtta be in pictures: Several local guys and gals are making a splash in the glossies. Melinda King, mix mistress at The Hornet, will be featured in a Grey Goose Vodka tear-out showing up in the September issues of a slew of Condé Nast mags (Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, Gourmet and the like). Granted, this is a not-so-cheap ploy by the good people at Grey Goose to make all of us drink more vodka, but King's recipe for L'Lemonade, her signature drink, did beat out the efforts of about 2,000 other bartenders, all mixing their best vodka cocktails, to make her one of the top 48 "Tastemakers" nationwide.
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In the issue of Bon Appétit on the shelves right now, not one, not two, but three Denver hot spots get a little ink. The "Wine and Spirits" section cites Richard Sandoval's Zengo for its bartenders' excellent and prodigious use of the muddling technique (squishing up herbs or fruits in the bottom of a glass with a blunt stick -- a move performed on no fewer than fifteen of Zengo's cocktails) and for its fifty-label-deep tequila list. Adega is featured in a two-page spread on small plates; chef Bryan Moscatello's artichoke, shallot and Camembert fonduta (that's an Italian fondue to you and me) plays a starring role. And under "Casual Chic," Luca d'Italia receives both a plug and a picture for its cheese-and-Italian-sausage rigatoni. Both the fonduta and the rigatoni come with recipes attached: If you're gonna steal, steal from the best.
Finally, Food Arts magazine just handed its monthly "Silver Spoon" award, which honors those who've made a significant impact on the world of food and wine, to Mel and Jane Master of Mel's. With all they've done, the Masters deserve a whole silver service.
Leftovers: The saga continues at the Fourth Story, which recently lost both chef Chris Reap and general manager Terry Hanifen. Former beverage fella and current sommelier Jerry Payne is taking over Hanifen's spot and doing his best to keep things on an even keel until early September, when Tim Opiel (currently of the Rialto Cafe) comes on board as the new chef. "There will be a new menu," Payne says. "But it won't be like a whole new format or layout. The Fourth Story is a contemporary American restaurant, so we will have certain menu requirements. But it will be Tim's menu, for sure."
And it will be the third new menu in a year at the restaurant, which will have seen three chefs in that time. The crew in the kitchen has remained nearly constant through all the tumult, though, so if you've been to the Fourth recently and had a decent meal, those are the guys to thank.