When I get to thinking about diners, as I did in this week's review of Sam's #3 , I start making lists. Best of this, greatest that -- it's my Nick Hornby High Fidelity obsession shining through. And while his scruffy obsessives did their thing mostly with records and songs (top five side ones, track ones) and pop culture (top five episodes of Cheers), there's only one area I know enough about for such a considered, canonical listing, and that's food. In particular, diners.
Could I name the five best French restaurants in Denver? Yes, except for the fact that I don't think we even have five French restaurants left in this city. Could I tell you my favorite restaurants? Sure. Favorite for a date: Penang, in Philadelphia's Chinatown. Favorite for when I'm eating alone: Tom's Diner, back in New York. Favorite for service that makes me feel a lot bigger and more important than I actually am: Frasca. Favorite for service that allows me to be just another shmoo out for dinner with the wife: Cafe Jordano.
Most of my food lists are confined to areas where I've actually lived, but diners are a whole different story. I've been traveling to and eating at diners for most of my adult life, and I'm willing to bet that I've hit, if not all the greats, then a bigger portion of them than anyone except maybe Jane and Michael Stern, who've written the Road Food column for Gourmet magazine for the last 200 years or so. And I return to many of these spots again and again, either in person or in my memories. So after Sam's #3 had me going all weepy because it reminded me of back home, I decided to make a list of those diners -- I'm calling it my "Nuclear Armageddon Top Five," in honor of Hornby's inimitable style -- where I wouldn't mind spending my final hours eating a chili dog, drinking a pot of coffee, and watching the world come to its final, crashing end.
1. The State Diner, Ithaca, New York. Absolutely the best ever. It's done in the train-car-style of most great diners, with fold-down jump-seat booths, cheap cheeseburgers, strong coffee, burnished chrome, the world's oldest orange-juice dispenser, and just enough dusty, ill-maintained neon to give it a sickly, creepy glow after dark. This place was more or less responsible for my 0.8 freshman GPA and my subsequent dropping out -- but Laura helped with that, too. I met her the same year I found the State, and my tactic for making her fall in love with me was to sleep with someone else, leave college, and not see her again for eight years. Sounds stupid, but it worked.
2. Panos, Buffalo, New York. The original Panos, not the bastardized new one next door that looks like a Greek Burger King. The original was a shotgun-shack 24-seater with six booths and a counter, all done in shades of grease. It was open all night, every night, with a $2.99 steak-and-eggs special and lines down the block. The souvlaki was the best I've ever had in my life, the crowds the worst I've ever experienced, and at the end of the night, the cigarette butts, toast crusts, dirty napkins and cold home fries would be piled ankle-deep on the floor. I once saw a waitress stab a drunk with a broken ketchup bottle for grabbing her ass. Many of the Big Brains from down the road at the college also hung out here after hours, and let me tell you, you ain't seen shit till you've seen some big, hairy Hells Angel sporting three college rings on his hand (Harvard, MIT and UB) and a "Daddy Never Loved Me" weeping-Jesus tattoo throw down with a tweedy English professor over which writer got more tail: Henry Miller (who got Anaïs Nin) or Arthur Miller (who got Marilyn Monroe). I actually worked short-order, graveyard shift at this Panos for a few months. To this day, it's the greatest job I've ever had.
3. Owl Bar and Cafe, San Antonio, New Mexico. Physically situated right on the edge of the White Sands Missile Test Range, the Owl is not so much a diner as a high-desert dive bar right out of the more twisted imaginings of David Lynch. Robert Oppenheimer and his boys from the Manhattan Project used to come here and get loaded on the weekends (when they weren't thinking up new and interesting ways to destroy the world), and there's a rumor that Einstein (yeah, that Einstein) once stopped in for a beer on his way to California. The wooden long bar was rescued from the A.H. Hilton Mercantile and Hotel in San Antonio after a fire destroyed the place in the 1940s -- also wiping out the first employment records of one Conrad Hilton, A.H.'s son. And while the Owl's big draws are these ties to freaky Americana, it also serves the greatest green-chile cheeseburger in the world. A sign attesting to this fact hangs in front, and it's correct. But the Owl didn't set out to serve great cheeseburgers. As I understand it, the bar started serving food only because so many of America's top nuclear scientists were coming here from the Trinity site, getting shnozzled, then tear-assing back to the compound along dark, desert roads in the middle of the night with nothing but a gallon of firewater sloshing around in their guts.
4. Gateway Diner, Jeffersonville, Pennsylvania. Chicken croquettes and meatloaf sandwiches on the menu, smoke in the air, a signed picture of Tommy Lasorda on the wall -- what more could any diner junkie need? The Gateway is a classic, part of a dying breed of joints with nothing going for them but history and the loyalty of their regulars. Everything about the Gateway -- the smells, the flavors, the accents, the really, really frightening colors of the pies -- acts as a concentrated distillation of everything I've always loved about East Coast diners, all packed together into one small space, frosted with a scrim of ice (I've never been here in the summer) and served with the sweetness of an iodine malted.
5. Peppermill Inn, Las Vegas, Nevada. The Peppermill isn't the greatest diner in the world -- but if that world is going to end, what better place to watch it than Vegas? And better yet, a spot in Vegas that's at once a restaurant, a bar, a swingin'-'70s Fireside Lounge, the end of the line for just about every busted-out card sharp in the city on any given Friday night, and a kick-ass, chrome-and-Formica, smoked-glass and red Naugahyde nightmare of a diner. This was where I went to write my vows on the night before Laura and I were married, right down the street at the Treasure Island casino, between pirate shows. They didn't care that I'd brought my own whiskey with me, didn't raise a fuss when I paid for my coffee with whatever change I had left in my pocket, and when my waitress asked me what I'd been doing all night and I told her, she gave me a free doughnut. That's my kind of place.
Out to lunch: At one point, Mirepoix was my kind of place, too. This spot in Cherry Creek's posh JW Marriott isn't a diner by any stretch of the imagination, but when I reviewed it nine months ago ("Paradise Found," November 4, 2004), I liked it anyway. The Marriott group had brought in Adega's Bryan Moscatello to get the room going, and the food showed the same skills he displays at his LoDo landmark.
Moscatello and the Marriott parted companies this spring, though, and Thomas Baranoucky (Moscatello's former sous) became executive chef while the owners considered how to lure outside business into a hotel restaurant -- never an easy task. Last month, Mirepoix rolled out a lunch menu where everything edible is going out the door for ten bucks a pop. It reads like a brave attempt to lure diners away from North, which is rocking the clock just a few doors down, in the 100 block of Clayton Lane. And it could work, except for one thing:
Nothing at Mirepoix is quite as good as it once was. When I reviewed the restaurant last year, I found Mirepoix very good indeed. But when I stopped in last week, the once-brilliant scallop chenin blanc bisque was overburdened by allspice or nutmeg or turmeric or one of those very heavy, very wintery spices totally out of place on a light and breezy summer menu. Every spoonful tasted like a scallop-infused Christmas cookie. The tempura shrimp salad was a dull, ugly mess of bad intentions: cheap, chopped romaine, overdressed, encircled by cold, limp and chewy tempura shrimp, then set with a fan of totally misplaced avocado slices that did absolutely nothing for the plate.
These disappointments were followed by a big, beautiful bowl of open-face ravioli stuffed with summer vegetables. The handmade ravioli skins were excellent, the vegetables had been handled well (except for the spinach, overcooked by about six hours), and the sauce that everything swam in was delicious in a cut-grass-and-sunlight sort of way. Problem was, you couldn't experience all these flavors in a single bite, because the chef had unwisely decided to do open ravioli with a brothy sauce -- leaving nothing to hold the filling inside. Touch them with a fork, and the whole artifice collapsed.
Sure, it was just one meal -- and lunch, besides. But I also had to wait about 25 minutes for my first course (in a dining room that was just a quarter full), then was rushed through the remainder of my meal, with servers asking if I was done while a plate was still half full and telling me that my entree was up and sitting in the window so I should really take it now.
The dessert menu looked really interesting, but since they'd started closing the big, wrought-iron gates across the front door while I was still eating my salad and no one ever asked if I wanted dessert before they brought my check, I never got to find out.
Leftovers: The Ivy Cafe -- second outpost for Goose Sorenson, owner and exec at Solera -- is closed. Not permanently, he says, but certainly for the time being. He shuttered the bagel-and-coffee joint a couple of weeks ago, after spending the past several months bouncing around the country, cooking a James Beard dinner here, guest-chefing there, hitting the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and doing all those other things that take up a fella's time when he's chasing after serious food-world celebrity. This past spring, he lost longtime partner Brian Klinginsmith, who bailed out of the restaurant business entirely; that meant that Goose had to take on the back-of-the-house paperwork, too. To top that off, he had to leave town three times in the past month for funerals.
And now Goose is losing his sous chef -- Mark Teffenhart, the man who'd been running Solera's kitchen all the time the boss was away -- to Radek Cerny. Teffenhart will be stepping into the role of chef de cuisine at L'Atelier in Boulder, which strikes me as a little odd, because L'Atelier was always promoted as a one-man culinary show: Cerny by Cerny. In that sort of arrangement, a restaurant doesn't really need a chef de cuisine.
How does Goose feel about Teffenhart jumping ship? "I was totally fine with it," he says. "I told him, you know, that's the natural progression of a sous chef, and if you gotta go, you gotta go."
So Teffenhart did. Goose expects that he'll have a new executive sous in place shortly, but in the meantime, Solera's "been getting crushed," he says. Ninety or more covers every night, full patio -- which means he'll be sticking closer to home for a while.
As for the Ivy, "all the bills are paid," he says, "and all I have to worry about is the rent, so I can take my time with it and decide what I really want to do." He's got consultants coming in from all over the map to make suggestions. Michael Bortz from Paradise Bakery has been in, as have some of the bakers from Il Fornaio. Goose has thought about doing a deli counter and a cheese shop, a breakfast joint, a mini-Solera. "That's the next thing," he says. "Just deciding what to do there."
While Goose was busy reconfiguring his business, the boys from Frasca hopped a flight for Italy at the beginning of this month, taking their entire crew to Friuli, the region from which the restaurant has drawn its award-winning inspiration. The staff enjoyed ten days of eating, drinking and relaxing in an "educational" fashion, according to partner Bobby Stuckey, then returned to Boulder in time to reopen the restaurant on July 12.
I'm surprised they didn't cross paths with Blair Taylor and the gang from Barolo, who were also in Italy for a wine-tasting tour, going east to west across the northern portion of the country (which meant that Barolo, too, was closed until July 7). This was the tenth annual staff trip for Taylor, and he returned with some wonderful new wines to add to his list, as well as a recipe for Italian fonduta (fontina cheese and egg yolk) ravioli flavored with hay that will likely make its way onto the menu, in some form or another, come winter.
Come to think of it, Taylor and Goose should sit down sometime soon and trade travel tips, because Goose will be heading for Italy himself in November, in the company of Roberto Donna from Washington D.C.'s Osteria del Galileo, for the annual truffle harvest.
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Chef/owner Teri Rippeto shut down Potager for two weeks, then reopened July 14 with a new, fresh-from-the-market summer menu featuring roasted Maine lobsters, brine-cured Long Family Farm pork chops, goat cheese soufflé with pickled beets, cured izumi dai (that's Japanese for snapper) served over a nasturtium-flower salad, and a simple bowl of mussels -- steamed in white wine with garlic, parsley and fresh garden tomatoes -- that I'd eat for dinner every night if I could.
The Old South Pearl area has added another pearl to its string of popular restaurants -- Lola and Sushi Den chief among them -- with the opening of the Black Pearl in the former Oodles, at 1529 South Pearl Street. But don't look for a new Chinese joint to join the local lineup: Although an Asian restaurant proposed for the 1600 South block still has a date with the Denver Board of Adjustment on August 12, the folks behind the project have surrendered to neighborhood opposition, and all plans are on hold.
And finally, for all of you who wrote to tell me I was a fucking moron for crediting the predilection for brains to George Romero's zombies rather than to Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead zombies in my review of the 9th Door ("Life and Death," July 7), I apologize. Anyone who knows anything knows that Romero's zombies are not nearly as finicky as O'Bannon's when it comes to their dining choices. O'Bannon's prefer brains. Romero's like the entrails, the arms, the legs and anything else they can get their undead hands on. I was wrong, and I'm truly sorry.
But for those of you who also wrote to tell me I was a fucking moron for including 28 Days Later in my list of zombie cinema, screw you. Just because the zombies were wearing Nikes doesn't mean they weren't zombies. Just because they became zombies through some stupid, contrived plot device about disease-ridden monkeys doesn't mean they weren't zombies. Fer chrissake, I'm pretty sure that star Cillian Murphy was an actual zombie before getting the part, but that's neither here nor there. Fact is, these monsters wandered the streets of London, chasing people, biting them and turning them into the living dead. What do you want me to call them, Girl Scouts?