By the time the Best of Denver 2005 hit the streets last week -- the culmination of months of work and countless bloated, hung-over mornings suffered by myself and my faithful lackeys here at Bite Me World HQ -- over a hundred winners in the Food and Drink section alone had been tested and retested (and, in some cases, re-retested). While there's no doubt that some of our picks were controversial (giving Best Crew to Table 6 for surviving the kind of pressure and stress that comes from being voted one of the best restaurants in the nation by the big-money glossies; naming Zengo Best Seafood Restaurant for the small miracles its crew works with everything from sushi to ceviche to Mexi-Frenchy-Asian black cod and tuna; bestowing the big one, the gold medal, the biggest of the Best of Denver food awards -- Best New Restaurant -- to Frasca, a Boulder eatery), controversy is what we do best. As I write this, the first responses to our choices are just trickling in, so I'm using this moment of blessed calm before the storm to do something I don't usually do.
I'm saying thank you.
Not just to those who helped me out this year (although you all certainly deserve it). Not just to the winners. But to everyone. To every restaurant, every chef, every commis and grillman and burger-flipper and carnale. Every floorman. Every owner. Every white-jacket in town who's reading this hunched over the stainless with oven burns on his arms and a prep list in his pocket. And every diner -- from the snootiest foodie to the bona fide gastronauts to anyone else in town who's dropped a nickel into the coffers of a real restaurant in the last three-sixty-five.
Shortly after starting this gig in July 2002, I walked into Adega on a Friday night with a party of four and no reservation. I remember that the place was doing good trade -- a full bar, three-quarters committed on the floor, the whole place humming with a friction buzz between kitchen and customers, between old money and new. We were seated immediately in the main dining room, at a fine table, given excellent service, ate a meal that was one of the best I'd had anywhere (not the best, but certainly up there in the top ten), and got out the door for under $300 -- which, in my mind, was a bargain.
As we were leaving, I remember thinking to myself that I'd chosen well in taking this job. I'd been looking for a city on the verge, right on the cusp of exploding into a serious food town. I'd wanted a place with history, with a tradition of fine dining that would have created a backlog of young turks aching for their shot at the bigtime. And I'd wanted drama -- a war that could be observed from the front lines in the style of my journalistic heroes: Fisher, Bourdain, Herr and Thompson. I didn't care what the fight was. House-to-house combat, chains-versus-independents, old-guard scrapping with the new -- it didn't matter. I just wanted to find a battle and pitch in.
Denver was the best beat I could have hoped for. This city had almost everything: love and war, blood and guts, heroes and goats, a well of talent as deep as cities twice its size. The only thing missing was support from the public. Cash, in other words. The green stuff. And crowds willing to part with it.
That was where I would come in.
It didn't matter to me that, traditionally, a critic is supposed to be unbiased -- a remote mouthpiece, standing aloof and above the hurly-burly, simply reporting on the density of the crème brûlée or the sauce on the coq au vin. That's crap. Dining is a subjective thing, and any claim of impartiality is a dangerous lie. We love what we love, and we hate what we hate, and since eating is such an intimate and personal experience, I figured that just coming out and treating it like that would be the best way to do the job. So I started right in with begging and cajoling and threatening and screeching at the top of my lungs about everything that was good (and everything that was bad) in Denver, treating every meal I ate as the highly personal bit of food theater it was, and doing everything in my power to get people out of their houses and into the scene.
Over the past few years, I've demanded that the legislature pass a law requiring every restaurant open in the morning to serve breakfast burritos, just so I'd never have to go far for a good one. I've asked God to rain fire on Olive Garden and T.G.I. Friday's franchises, threatened to come into people's homes and drag them bodily out to certain restaurants in danger of closing, suggested authorizing a team of food-service ninjas to break into professional kitchens in the middle of the night and steal all their bottles of truffle oil. I've done what I consider to be my job: being the voice of the common man (or woman), and acting as the ambassador between the cooks in the galley and the customers in the dining room. Today I'm a little bit older, quite a bit larger, no wiser than the day I started -- and I'm still slugging.
I'm very happy to report that in the last three weeks, I've been turned away from no fewer than a half-dozen restaurants because I showed up without a reservation and there wasn't an open table in the house. And that's where the thanks come in. I love it when I'm stopped at the hostess stand, faced with a full book and no openings, and forced to turn tail and slink out again. That's the sign of a healthy restaurant, a healthy scene, the blossoming of that support I once saw as the sole factor Denver was lacking. At Elway's (see review), I had to fight for a seat and ended up eating a Sunday meal (a rarity for me) when that was all I could get. Frasca has a waiting list for reservations that's measured in weeks, not hours. I had to eat in the bar...on a Wednesday.
Table 6, Somethin' Else, Capital Grille -- all jammed, all beautiful. Weekends are loaded, weekdays are slammed. Ronald and Louella Brooks report that business is up 200 percent at Brooks Smokehouse Bar-B-Que, their little barbecue shack on Fairfax Street -- and that's before getting two of this year's Best Of awards. Go Fish Grille is doing business like crazy. Le Central was so crammed during a recent lunch visit that there was a line out the door.
Sparrow? Packed. The kneecapping I gave them in my March 17 review, "Cry Fowl," has had little noticeable effect beyond the piles of responses I've gotten at the office (some of which are published in this week's Letters section). Sparrow fans are accusing me of every transgression under the sun -- from collusion to flat-out stupidity -- and demanding my resignation or threatening to show up at the office to knock my teeth out. Unfortunately, they'll have to line up behind those already waiting for a piece of me as a result of my review of Luciano's Pizza and Wings ("Buffalo Bills," March 10), which was mostly favorable -- but these transplanted Buffalonians are a contentious lot, probably because of the mild Colorado winter. Upstate New Yorkers get twitchy when it's March and they're not buried under six feet of snow and ice.
Regardless of psychosis, my thanks go out to all of them, too. Threatening to kill a restaurant critic -- what more powerful sign could there be that a town's taking its restaurant scene seriously? I get paid to say what I say every week (and much to the disappointment of some of you, it looks like I'm going to continue getting paid for it for a while yet). But these folks are rising up in defense of their favorites gratis, writing and calling and taking it upon themselves to get a day pass from whatever psychiatric institution they're currently housed at and making the long drive down to the office in the hopes of getting a crack at me. Fuckin' A, baby.
So let me just say it again: Thanks to everyone. To all of you out there doing the job, and all of you out there enjoying the fruits of that labor. To all of you with the balls to keep opening restaurants in a tough market, and all of you who want to see mine removed. All the good we have in Denver right now is because of you.
All I did was write about it.
Leftovers: Big news for the lunch bunch. On April 5, the aforementioned Sparrow (410 East Seventh Avenue) will begin serving lunch Tuesday through Friday. Kristy Socarras Bigelow's great Cuba Cuba (1173 Delaware Street) is also adding lunch, available Monday through Friday and featuring -- in addition to a couple of hot plates -- a sandwich menu starring the Miami-style Cuban sandwiches I've been dying for ever since I left the Sunshine State. Plus, Kristy's brother Enrique is back in the galley, showing off what he learned during ten years in some of Miami's best restaurants. Man, that boy can cook.
Goose Gossage's Burgers-n-Sports is no more. Actually, there's still a burger joint at 18695 East Stage Run Road in Parker, but it has a new name, Old School Burgers, that's better for a place that operates with no freezers, no heat lamps, no microwaves, and does a burger the way burgers were meant to be: hand-formed from fresh ground beef and mounted with all the best fixings. Old School plans to open two more locations this year, one in Englewood and the other in Aurora.
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Udi the Sandwichman, brainchild of local baker and sandwich devotee Udi Baron, finally has a retail outlet where fans can get the ultimate sandwich straight from the source. Udi's on Broadway (7000 Broadway) is a 12,000-square-foot, one-stop shop for all things sandwich-related, from fresh breads baked by third-generation baker Maurizio Negrini (his product currently graces some of the best tables in town, including those at Frasca, Table 6, Vesta, North and Restaurant Kevin Taylor) to sandwiches created by former Brasserie Rouge exec John Broening (who brings the same kind of obsessive love to crafting a barbecued-pork sandwich that he once did to making duck terrines and steak frites) and pastries from Yasmin Lozada-Hissom (who trained in Paris, New York and Italy before being snapped up by Baron). The cafe portion of the place seats eighty, inside and out, and is attached to a massive production facility where every bread, every meat, every tart and even the mayonnaise is made fresh daily. Get the goods from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwich Shop, which already has a spot at 4682 South Yosemite Street in Aurora, will host a grand opening of a downtown location at 110 16th Street on April 1.
Finally, a couple of corrections to my Best of Denver choices. For the Best Pasta in a Pizza Place, I meant to send you gnocchi addicts over to Armando's at 16653 East Smoky Hill Road in Aurora, not to the original Armando's location at 201 Milwaukee Street. That's because Armando sold the Cherry Creek outpost last year, before opening Dolce Vita Ristorante & Pizzeria at 955 Lincoln Street. While that's a good eatery, too, Armando is still in the kitchen at the Aurora Armando's nearly every night, and that's the place that won this award.
The Bagel Deli & Restaurant at 6439 East Hampden Avenue certainly deserved an award, but not exactly the one it got for Best Kosher Deli. Owner Joe Kaplan says it's "kosher-style," and that's definitely not the same thing -- so in the future, please consider the Bagel Deli the Best Jewish Deli in Denver. And my apologies to any kosher-conscious readers who were briefly led astray.