Country Cookin'

While the restaurant business is down across the country, eateries have reported that sales are up for two things: comfort foods and alcohol. "We've just been selling the heck out of mashed potatoes," says a server at the Buckhorn Exchange (1000 Osage Street), one of my many stops during Dine Out to Help Out, Colorado's version of the national Dine Out for America, on October 11. "People just want to fill their bellies with something warm and good like that."

And the Buckhorn, a 107-year-old eatery that still lays claim to Colorado Liquor License #1, dishes out some marvelous mashed potatoes, dense spuds with little slips of skin in the mix and a buttery flavor that goes well with the Buckhorn's rich brown gravy. That gravy is also good with the pot roast sandwich, a fat bundle of tender beef brisket that is forever spilling out of thin slices of pumpernickel. But the sloppiness is part of the appeal. Paired with more mashed potatoes and a bowl of the Buckhorn's legendary bean soup -- a thick, slightly peppery concoction that contains plenty of soft pintos and onions so cooked down they're practically ghosts -- the sandwich is exactly the kind of comfort food we're looking for right now.

In fact, the pot roast sandwich is the number-one reason so many people drop by the Buckhorn for lunch. "That's the biggest seller, no question," says Buckhorn spokeswoman Lynn Bronikowski. "And it's only going to get bigger, I think, in light of the way we're looking for those kinds of food. And with the Old West atmosphere and menu the Buckhorn has, it's just a natural place for American-style dining."

Not to mention you'll be eating under an impressive collection of animal trophies -- including a recently added whale's penis -- that covers the walls of the dining areas. Upstairs, a dimly lit bar with a couch setup on one end just begs for lounging. Mama, I'm comin' home.

Many of the other places I visited on Dine Out day seemed to be selling more alcohol than food. At Bistro Adde Brewster (250 Steele Street), Strings (1700 Humboldt Street), Mel's Restaurant and Bar (235 Fillmore Street), Dazzle (930 Lincoln Street), Radex (100 East Ninth Avenue) and Roy's of Cherry Creek (3000 East First Avenue), the atmosphere was almost party-like, with total strangers chatting among the tables and a lot of good cheer in the air. Of course, people had plenty of reason to be cheerful at those restaurants. At Adde Brewster, I snacked on the timbale of tuna tartare ($11), a stunning combination of impeccably fresh raw tuna, pieces of avocado, ripe mango and the sharp edge of wasabe balanced by sweet soy. At Strings, I simply drank wine and stole bites from my friend's dessert, an oh-my-God warm gingerbread pudding ($6) accompanied by a scoop of cinnamon-speckled pumpkin ice cream and a cajeta sauce (the Mexican version of caramel sauce, traditionally made with goat's milk).

By then I was feeling very comforted, but I still had to sample some things off of Mel's new menu, including foie gras ($12.95) and a shellish crème brûlée ($7.75), both of which made my tummy feel warm and welcome (and stuffed). Still, an hour later I managed to get hungry again at Dazzle, where the bar burger is reason to salute -- not just for the price ($4.50), but for the soft, warm focaccia the burger sits on and the gooey Stilton that you can get on top. I haven't managed to get a decent shrimp cake ($9.95) at Radex in ages -- the kitchen seems to continually reduce the amount of shrimp -- but at least the cake came with feather-light mashed potatoes napped by a balsamic beurre blanc. And an order of escargot ($8.95) smothered in Gorgonzola and butter really hit the spot -- several of them. When I got to Roy's, people were dancing at the bar, but I was still able to squeeze in an order for the luscious crabcakes ($11). I might have eaten more, but by the time I was done at Roy's, just about everyone else was closed.

By the way, Outback Steakhouse, the company that owns Roy's, reported raising $8.5 million for relief efforts that day at all of its eateries, while another heavy hitter, Lonestar Steakhouse and Saloon Inc. (which also owns Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, at 8100 East Orchard Avenue in Greenwood Village, and Sullivan's, at 1745 Wazee Street) raised more than $2 million. I raise my glass to those places, as well as the 500 others that joined in the effort.

And I had my share of vino that night, all the while marveling at the number of bottles coming out of the cellars. "I don't have any exact figures," says Adde Brewster owner Adde Bjorklund. "But you can tell people have been trying to drown their sorrows one way or another."  

Although Bjorklund is worried about the downturn in business, he's trying to stay upbeat until the holidays. "That's when we'll really be able to tell," he says. "Then the first of the year will be when we're going to start seeing some fallout in our industry from all of this."

At Applejack Wine & Spirits (3320 Youngfield Street, Wheat Ridge), owner Alan Freis says sales have never been better. But he's noticed that people are drinking differently. "They're buying a little more selectively right now, and it's very noticeable," he says. "They're not buying the higher-end items the way they used to, overall, and then, where they used to buy $20 bottles of gin, now they're going for the $17 bottles."

Say cheese: Since the place opened, there have been complaints that the Cheesecake Factory (1201 16th Street, Denver, and 1401 Pearl Street in Boulder) doesn't get involved in local charity work. Those complaints got a lot louder when the Factory failed to show up on the list of restaurants contributing to Dine Out for America. But according to Howard Gordon, senior vice president of business development and marketing for the 48-store chain, the company instead decided to specifically target the Windows of Hope group that directly benefits the families of employees of Windows on the World, the eatery that sat atop the World Trade Center.

"We have over 500 inquiries for charitable donations sitting in our office every week," Gordon says. "We just can't do everything. But we empower our general managers on a local level to get involved, and I can tell you that we do a lot of charitable work in the Denver area." While he can't cite specific events the restaurants have supported -- for instance, the Cheesecake Factory has never participated in Dine Out for Life, the annual March fundraiser for Project Angel Heart (Gordon says he'll "look into it") -- he says both Colorado outlets have been generous with free meals, gift certificates or food items for local events. "Sometimes, because we're a corporate entity that some people perceive as taking away from the mom-and-pops, we just don't get named when we donate," Gordon adds. "That doesn't mean we aren't doing it."

Gordon points to an event last week in Los Angeles, where the company opened its second site of a new concept, the Grand Lux Café, as an example of how the corporation donates to charities: The proceeds from opening night at Grand Lux will go to the families of Windows on the World workers. "The employees at the South Florida Cheesecake Factory decided to issue a challenge to the other Factories to raise money themselves through collections and their own personal contributions," Gordon explains. "And that money is going toward Windows of Hope." So far, the employees have raised $70,000, which the company pledges to match. "We're not done yet, so we don't know what the final amount will be," Gordon says. But even if the employees' contribution doubles and the company matches it, we're still looking at a pretty paltry sum -- under $300,000 -- from an entity that two weeks ago reported $137.6 million as its third-quarter earnings.

"As a very successful restaurant, we think that the main thing we offer a community is employment," Gordon says. "In each restaurant, we hire upwards of 200 locals, so we're supporting the community that way. At least we aren't going out of business." Gordon also says he can't understand why people get so upset about the restaurant's chain ownership. "I always say that if your restaurant were good, it would be doing as wonderful a business as we do," he explains. "Obviously, we're providing something that people want. For instance, the Avalanche and the Rockies love us. So we're obviously doing something right."

The whole thing makes my cheese boil.

A much smaller chain reaction prompted a note from Laurie Cohen-Ringer, who, along with nine buddies, stopped by her usual Thursday-night haunt, Chez Jose, at 3027 East Second Avenue (there's a second site at 5910 South University Boulevard in Littleton), on October 11 only to find that it wasn't participating in Dine Out to Help Out. (And this despite the fact that Chez Jose has U.S. flags posted on each window -- some of which read "Todos Unidos.") According to owner Dan Ohlson, Chez Jose found out about the event too late to join in. "We're not a member of the Colorado Restaurant Association, so we were never approached," he says, referring to the organization that sponsored the fundraiser. "By the time we found out, just two days before, we really weren't set up for it."  

Chez Jose still intends to host some kind of benefit for Windows of Hope. "I definitely understand where these customers are coming from," Ohlson says. "I plan to get ahold of Ms. Cohen-Ringer and explain the situation to her. And then I plan to talk to my staff about our options."

Review redux: Over the years, I've received many nasty letters from irate restaurateurs who felt I did their eateries wrong, and I've gotten thank-you notes from happy restaurateurs who said I did them right. But here's a first: Immediately after I panned Coos Bay Bistro, 2076 South University Boulevard ("Steer Clear," October 18), co-owner Carolyn Montanez wrote to apologize for my terrible meals. "I am ashamed and take full responsibility for the shortcomings of your experiences," she said. "We have a responsibility to make sure you or any other customer leave our restaurant with satisfaction and a sense of value, and it is completely clear to me that you received neither. Please accept my apology, and join us again someday."

If she and partner Philip Sauer care as much as this letter would indicate and follow through on improving Coos Bay, you bet I'll be back.

There's no going back to Holoworld (9535 Park Meadows Drive in Lone Tree). Despite vehement claims by management that the video arcade cum eatery would reopen, the phone's been disconnected for weeks, and the sign on the front door still says "Holoworld is now closed." Too bad, since I'd enjoyed the place -- both for its ability to keep children occupied and its better-than-average eatertainment fare ("Reality Bites," January 18). Sadly, Holoworld has gone the way of the Rainforest Cafe, which dried up and blew out of the Cherry Creek Shopping Center earlier this year, while Cafe Odyssey (500 16th Street) somehow stays open. Who eats there, anyway?

One of my favorite finds of the summer was Billy Bob's Riverside Saloon (3100 Arkins Court), home of Billy Bob's Big Ass Burger ("The Next Big Thing," August 2). But when Rocky Mountain News restaurant critic John Lehndorff reviewed the place last month, a prudey-pants editor censored the word "ass" from the burger's name. Billy Bob's Big Burger? Unlike the burger itself, it's just missing something.

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Buckhorn Exchange

1000 Osage St.
Denver, CO 80204


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