Dems and don'ts for the DNC
Dear Democratic National Convention delegates, candidates, committee heads, chairpersons, hangers-on, fixers, runners, dealers, pimps, organizers, producers, enablers and members of the press:
I know you've been bombarded with helpful hints about how to enjoy your time in Denver. You've been told which restaurants are worth visiting, which bars are good for a drink, which clubs might cater to your particular need or kink (assuming you've been reading the right magazines, that is), and how our welcoming and friendly city might divest you of any extra folding money you've brought up to our altitude. But you haven't heard any of that from me. Because here's what you really need to know:
First, ignore the advice in the New York Times article "36 Hours in Denver." Don't go to the Fort. I know what you're thinking: "But friend, absolutely everyone has told me that for a true taste of Colorado, I must find a car, negotiate perimeter security, drive twenty miles out of town, sit down with a bunch of rubes and tourists and eat a plate full of mangled game birds and peanut-butter-stuffed jalapeños that wouldn't even be appropriate for the buffet line at Ted Nugent's wedding." In fact, the Fort hasn't been vital to the economy of Colorado since it was an actual fort (Bent's Fort, located in southeastern Colorado on the Santa Fe trail). It's a tourist trap, existing almost exclusively to separate meat-loving yokels and visiting grandparents from their cash at a frighteningly fast rate. You want game steaks? Order your Secret Service detachment to head out to the zoo and shotgun you a moose. Under the current administration's doctrine of preemptive brutality, a case could be made that the moose represented a clear and present danger — existing mere miles from the doorstep of where the next president of the United States is staying — and once that sucker is broken down, I'm sure the kitchen at your hotel would do a better job of cooking it up.
I'd also suggest you avoid the Buckhorn Exchange. True, normal people do eat here; I was in the dining room just last week. But there are two problems with the Buckhorn. One, a primary draw is a plate of bull testicles that, while delicious, might lead to uncomfortable 36-point headlines the next morning: PRESUMPTIVE NOMINEE HAS MOUTHFUL OF BALLS. Two, the interior is what I imagine the private clubhouse of the RNC looks like — full of guns, whiskey, dead animals (both mounted on the walls and lying on the plates) and foreigners being cowed into stunned silence by such an awesome display of the three things Americans are supposed to like best: guns, whiskey and things made dead by a combination of the prior. True, there's a lot of history here (the Buckhorn holds Colorado state liquor license No. 1, issued after Prohibition ended, and was actually founded by one of Buffalo Bill Cody's scouts back in 1893), and the kitchen does know its way around a massive steak (two pounds of trimmed strip loin for $87), but unless you've got a real yen for eating gator or whipping your pecker out in public and sizing it up against the sperm whale wang hung from the ceiling, go somewhere else in this steak-and-potatoes town.
Because while steak's not the only thing we do, it happens to be one of the things we do really well. You want to be seen, go to the Palm (1672 Lawrence Street). Like every Palm everywhere, it's for the movers and shakers. You want to be treated like the Very Important Motherfucker you are, go to the Capital Grille (1450 Larimer Street). Even if you aren't a Very Important Motherfucker, this place knows how to fake it like a porn star, and also has an excellent bar where I once spent the better part of an afternoon hitting on a light fixture because I'd underestimated the power of the house martinis. For a combination of the two — grub and service — and if you're willing to take a little jump outside the protective bubble of downtown, there's the original Elway's in Cherry Creek (2500 East First Avenue). Great steaks, solid staff, and even though it bears the name of the Jesus of the Broncos — the closest this city has ever come to having a messiah — Elway's isn't a sports bar. And on a good night, the crowd is not entirely unlike a constant twentieth high-school reunion gone sideways on wine coolers and amyl nitrate. Looking for a standup quickie in the parking lot before that big platform committee meeting in the morning? You could do worse than trolling the bar here.
While we're on the subject of unconventional extracurricular activities, I should remind you that Denver has a profusion of adult-entertainment venues where a man (or woman) of means can get loopy on tequila and go home with stripper all over them. The Diamond Cabaret (1222 Glenarm Place) is half a block from the Colorado Convention Center and open bright and early at 11 a.m., offering a lunch buffet, then dinner and entertainment till 2 a.m. — and it has the added benefit of having been the site of a few recent juicy scandals. You want history? This ain't exactly a museum, but you gotta get your culture where you can.
For a real taste of Denver's history, hit My Brother's Bar (2376 15th Street), where Neal Cassady did a lot of his best drinking (his older brother tended bar here back in the day) and left an open tab after landing in the reformatory. My Brother's also makes a killer cheeseburger. Eight blocks away, at 1600 15th Street, you'll find the Wazee Supper Club. It's not the best restaurant in town, not the greatest bar ever, but it has a weird gravity that makes it a destination for Denver's drunkerati. And no matter how many times booster groups insist that I take my out-of-town visitors to the Fort, the Wazee is where I actually end up taking them.
Denver is an immigrant city, not a melting pot. It's a smorgasbord of little joints, dives and holes-in-the-wall; of ethnic neighborhoods and pocket enclaves where English is not the first language, or the second, or the third; of bizarre and non-geographical transections that make up an imaginary map of need and hunger and homesickness. We have a large Russian population (though no Russian restaurants that I can recommend in good conscience), a huge Vietnamese population, Koreans, Indians (both kinds), Japanese families that go back to the days following WWII, and whole, unnamed neighborhoods that have become the toeholds of Ethiopian and Eritrean and Ghanaian immigrants. I am not so deluded as to believe that anyone here for the convention will use this as an opportunity to brush up on his knowledge of Ethiopian cuisine, but if you come all the way to Denver and don't avail yourselves of our Mexican food, I'm gonna have to punch you.
Ignore what everyone else has suggested and head to Señor Burrito, off Broadway at 12 East First Avenue. Order the pork chop plate and thank me later. At lunch, lose the security detail and go to La Fiesta, a cement bunker at 2340 Champa Street. Or try Taquería Patzcuaro (2616 West 32nd Avenue) or Tacos y Salsas (910 South Federal Boulevard), which does things with tacos and gorditas that you gotta see to believe.
Frankly, if you've wandered far enough afield that you're on Federal already, you really can't go wrong. Just lift your nose and follow it wherever the urge takes you. Pho for breakfast, burritos and desebrado for lunch, maybe a little sushi (though I would suggest Sushi Sasa at 2401 15th Street, or Sushi Den, at 1487 South Pearl Street, if you're on a raw-fish kick; they serve the best you're going to find between L.A. and Manhattan), and then back inside the security cordon by dark. Wander over to Larimer Square and hit Osteria Marco for dinner, then wander back again to the Brown Palace, at 321 17th Street, to do some business over whiskey and cigars at the Churchill Bar, one of the only places in town where you tobacco lobbyists and southern-states delegates can light up indoors. If you want to stick close to the convention center, there's always the Denver Diner (740 West Colfax Avenue). It's open all night, and before I got thrown out of the place three or four times in a row and stopped going, it was one of my favorite haunts in Denver.
If none of this appeals, go to www.westword.com/bestof for a comprehensive listing of everything I love about the Mile High; you'll also find out where to score anything your twisted little heart might desire. And if you need me, I'll be at the Wazee.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.