Not too long ago, going out to eat meant just that: leaving your house and going someplace where someone unrelated to you would do the cooking. It was a simple process, requiring nothing of the diner except an appetite and a wallet. You didn't need to buy a new wardrobe, understand the plight of the endangered Patagonian Toothfish or learn several new languages before you could enjoy your dinner.
Back then, there were basically only three kinds of restaurants to choose from. There was the diner/deli/hamburger stand, where you went if you were in a hurry and unconcerned with such trivialities as silverware or ptomaine poisoning. If you wanted something a little nicer, there were maybe two dozen fancy restaurants (mostly French and located in New York or Los Angeles, which were totally mythological locales to the vast majority of people who lived in places like Boise and Topeka), where you'd go to celebrate anniversaries or other occasions requiring tablecloths. And then there was everywhere else.
"Everywhere else" was where you went when you wanted a fat steak, a potato and an inconsequential vegetable -- without anyone doing anything funny to them. It was where you went for a dinner that required a knife and fork, but not necessarily a jacket or a second mortgage. It was where you went for a meal that was good, but not necessarily memorable; tasty, but no cause to discuss the intent of the chef or the pedigree of the tomatoes. It was where you went to be fed, if not necessarily to dine.
Trinity Grille may be one of the country's last surviving examples of "everywhere else." For two decades (which, in the Denver dining business, is long enough to be considered "distinguished" but about ten years shy of "venerable"), this restaurant has been serving the meat and potatoes of American cuisine without anyone in the kitchen trying to get cute or clever.
Trinity was modeled after a very specific somewhere else: Tadich Grill, San Francisco's 140-year-old steak-and-seafood house (which itself was styled after those comfortable colonial New England pubs that all claim George Washington once ate there and loved the scrod). At Trinity, this translates into a space that's one part Massachusetts chowder house and one part Irish pub, with a little White's of London added in for some elitist, Old World spice. With all the dark wood and polished brass, the long bar with golf playing on the TV above and the orderly ranks of bottles behind, the hunter-green accents and framed prints of cigar advertisements and boxers in the clutch, Trinity is missing only the cigarette holders and top hats on its business-class clientele to be the perfect setting for an early-1900s musical farce about society bankers.
Sitting at the bar and looking over the power-lunch crowd, I was sure that more than half of the customers were committing such commonplace felonies and sins against good taste as trading insider stock tips, manipulating commodity prices and lying about their golf handicaps over their Mississippi catfish and fat, dripping steakburgers -- and that was fine. That's what I've always assumed people do in places like this, and while maybe I'll become one of them someday -- the sort of hearty fellow who can comfortably rub elbows with Captains of Industry over a glass of single-malt without embarrassing himself in some spectacular fashion -- this kind of environment will always tickle the seventeen-year-old punk in me, making me want to do something horribly boorish just to see the reaction I'd get. Like sticking up the bartender for a bottle of Glenfiddich with a stuffed-pork-chop pistol and my napkin tied around my face. The trick to pulling such a stunt is to do it loudly, quickly, and with an overabundance of enthusiasm. That way, by the time anyone notices, the whole thing will be over, you'll be sitting quietly at the bar, and everyone in the dining room will be wondering if that was one of those acid flashbacks they've been waiting for.
But I restrained myself and instead focused my attention on the food. I'd ordered the crabcakes, which are famous among Trinity devotees -- and rightly so, it turns out. Slightly smaller, slightly fatter, but just as heavy as hockey pucks, these cakes were a great example of how Trinity's kitchen keeps things simple and refrains from upscaling the classics. Here the cakes were all crab: Maryland lump blue with a little salt, a little pepper, a sprinkling of chopped green onion, and nothing else. The kitchen had valiantly resisted any urge to jazz things up with competing sauces, bell peppers or (God forbid) celery, and the result was some of the better crabcakes I've had in a while. Pan-fried until golden and warm in the center, they were served with fresh-cut (and overcooked) fries and a tame rémoulade that nicely matched the soft flavor of the crab without overpowering it.
Apparently the kitchen's entire supply of crab went into those cakes, however, because I couldn't find any in my crab and corn chowder. As just corn chowder, though, it was great: thick and heavy with potatoes and plump kernels, if a little light on the salt (but that was easily remedied). Even more impressive was Nana's slaw (the original recipe came from owner Tom Walls's grandmother who, like most grandmothers, was obviously a genius in the kitchen). Forget your church picnic version, your Friday fish-fry standard, even those New York deli originals. This was hands-down, no contest, without a doubt the best coleslaw I've ever tasted. Made with fresh, sweet, crunchy cabbage, it was creamy, with a hint of onion and garlic and a dusting of paprika for color. I ate it all, then ordered seconds. And I don't even like coleslaw.
Bonus points, too, for a waitstaff that was quick and surprisingly well-timed even when the place was jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the worst depths of a busy lunch seating. Trinity Grille has achieved that rare style of service that's efficient without feeling hurried, and unremarkable only because the servers appear exactly when needed and don't intrude unless called.
At both lunch and dinner, Trinity offers a good, New England-style fish and chips featuring a workhorse beer batter that's not too sweet and just light enough that it doesn't burn before the haddock inside cooks. The Germantown schnitzel, which I enjoyed as a quick dinner on another visit, was also simple and straightforward. Medallions of veal had been pounded thin, lightly breaded, then fried and served in a heavy, unbreakable lemon, butter and caper sauce, with steamed broccoli and Trinity potatoes -- fat chunks of boiled, baby red potatoes in an addictive green-onion-and-cheese sauce gooey enough to make any dieter cry. It was a good, solid meal, and while it's not going to be one of those meals I remember forever, as I walked out of the place that night, I had absolutely no doubt that I'd been well fed.
A generous fourteen-ounce New York strip made for another good, solid meal. Ordering the steak medium rare actually resulted in it being brought to the table that way, grill-marked and sizzling, with sticky mashed potatoes and another side of steamed vegetables that were easy to ignore (which is the proper way to treat your vegetables when you're in a steak-and-potatoes kind of mood). This was steak, pure and simple -- well-aged on the rack, not the grill, and delivered with a noteworthy lack of fuss. While few restaurants seem able to let an entree go without first covering it or stuffing it with something else, Trinity's kitchen knows when to leave well enough alone.
Except when it comes to seafood, perhaps. That's where Trinity leaves the "everywhere else" of simpler times and becomes part of the contemporary dining scene -- the one where you can get steak béarnaise and herbed Boursin at Dave & Buster's or find a Wolfgang Puck franchise in an airport concourse. The seafood side of the menu features such trend-chasing combinations as grilled Atlantic salmon with pineapple-chipotle salsa, sesame-coated mahi-mahi with udon noodles, and the ubiquitous ahi tuna -- served black-and-blue in this case, very rare, with soy and wasabe. At Trinity Grille, though, I found myself wanting steak, a hearty soup, even wiener schnitzel (which may seem an odd thing to find at a place like this but makes sense as soon as you taste it and feel the weight of it settle on you). That's the sort of food that matches the decor, the dim lighting and the overwhelmingly solid feel of the restaurant.
The mere thought of pineapple-chipotle salsa didn't seem right here. Ditto for the udon noodles and ahi. Those are summer tastes -- light, sharp, stinging and bright -- and Trinity is not a place that inspires thoughts of summer. Tadich Grill is one of the world's best cold-weather restaurants, because it's the sort of place where you want to curl up around a bowl of soup to warm your insides. I'm feeling the same way about Trinity: I can't wait to go back and try that chowder again when the first snow hits, have some fried lobster when the leaves start to fall, settle into one of those deep green booths for a nice dinner with my wife while the wind howls outside.
On my own internal calendar, the seasons have already changed.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.