Dinner and a Show
Sitting on the patio on top of the West End Tavern, gazing at the great view (and I'm not just talking about the unparalleled sight of the Flatirons), I sipped whiskey and smoked a cigarette in one of the few places where you still can in Boulder, and thanked God for Dave Query.
Which is not my usual mode -- not my usual grumpy, nitpicking, schizophrenic style with its wild vacillations between love and loathing. I am a born critic and therefore never entirely happy with anything, but I was happy here -- in Boulder, of all places, looking at the roof of the world from the roof of a Dave Query restaurant, which was all the more surprising because I haven't been nearly as thrilled with what the longtime restaurateur has done with some of his other establishments. Then again, he hasn't been entirely thrilled with me, at one point calling me "a gnat on an elephant's ass" after I wrote some not-so-nice things about one of his other places.
But what a difference a new address -- with a new style, a new feel and a new chef (seven-year Query veteran Chris Blackwood) -- can make.
The West End Tavern had been around for years before Query got his hands on it. Almost twenty of them, actually, during which time it existed as a sort of neighborhood institution -- a slightly funky, kinda fluky, hit-or-miss, off-the-mall joint that catered to the locals without ever seeming to cater to anybody. About a year ago, though, the announcement came down that Boulder/Denver uber-operator Query had bought the joint, solidifying his absolute hold on this one block of Pearl Street (which was already home to one of his Jax outlets and Rhumba, on the corner). Query started right in making uncomfortable noises about comfort-food menus and updating the place to fit his mood, giving me nightmares filled with Caribbean fish-house themes, too many mojos, overburdened menus and eight-dollar custom cocktails at the bar. Fortunately, only the last of those came true.
Because what Query really did was create a great tavern, damn near the perfect tavern, with a razor's-edge menu that walks the line between too much and just enough without ever seriously overstepping; a crowd that most owners would kill for -- a cocktail mix of local nuts, college students, trust-fund hippies, moneyed neighbors, flush tourists, Pearl Street freaks and families; and a growing, and deserved, reputation for offhand coolness which the house has yet to screw up.
What Query calls comfort food is far from the mushy, soft and utterly non-threatening Gerber baby pabulum that most places fall back on when they're looking to dupe the masses into paying top dollar for creamed corn and garlic mashers. What the West End's kitchen turns out is more like what would result if a fast-moving drunken picnic crashed headlong into a great neighborhood bar, with beach food and backyard barbecue tangling up with lawn-fete classics and powerful drinks. The atmosphere has an endless-summer feel, and the service is friendly, fast, skilled for the environment in which the servers work -- and occasionally unbelievably annoying.
During one lunch, our waitress (obviously a new hire) spent the entire time skanking around the downstairs dining room, flirting with the bartender, hiking up her skirt, fishing for compliments about her legs, and trying desperately to catch the prurient attentions of the floor manager. She couldn't have been more obvious in her intentions if she'd lifted her skirt and flung herself crotch-first at the guy, but he was having none of it. The poor man ended up doing most of the serving himself while she preened, stepping in to rescue our meals from under the heat lamps on the rail before they burst into flames.
We'd ordered cheeseburgers -- solid, no-nonsense bar burgers heavy on everything, with split baby red potatoes on the side -- and messy, St. Louis-style BBQ ribs that everyone in the house was raving about, but which seemed to me to be fairly standard. Perhaps it was simply a matter of barbecue availability, since Boulder has never been known as a serious barbecue town. To make sure, though, on my way out the door I grabbed a house-smoked pork shoulder sandwich to go. Served on plain white bread (admirable) with a charred-onion BBQ sauce (with a nice, smoky earthiness, if not much taste of charred onions) and one of those toothpick American flags stuck in the top (shlock à la Rocco), it was a decent sandwich -- piled thick with slightly dry sliced pork that worked well with the sauce, and certainly big enough to tide over a hungry boy 'til supper.
On another visit -- for dinner this time -- I was fortunate enough to be given the best seat in the house. It was the outside chair of the four-top situated directly at the bottom of the stairs leading up to a slightly raised second patio seating area on the non-smoking side. At first glance, this seemed like the worst seat in the house -- closest to the door leading out to the patio or in to the stairs, closest to the waitress station, on a corner that everyone had to pass on their way to anywhere, and subject to constant bumping and jostling -- but it had one unexpected advantage for marginal perverts like me: the view. Because of the way seating was arranged on the patio's top level, there was another table right at the head of the stairs, crammed against the railing and surrounded by other close-set tables, which forced the waitress serving any party seated there to bend and reach when laying down or clearing plates. And because the uniforms worn by the West End's coterie of lovely (and no doubt smart, strong and empowered) waitresses consist of black tank tops or T-shirts and short khaki skirts, well...I am a gentleman, so I won't describe the accidental vista that came with my dinner except to say that it was, in its way, much more impressive than that of the mountains in the distance, and when I did describe it to some of the fellas around the office, a half-dozen of them immediately blew off less important journalistic commitments (like phone calls to congressmen or undercover stakeouts) to go check facts for me. Awful nice of them, I thought -- and it's good to know I'm not the only debauched voyeur on staff.
My dinner was as good as the view. A simple half a roast chicken, damp at the skin and almost impossibly juicy inside, came with corn on the cob and (tragically tough) collard greens studded with little chunks of pork. The overflowing plate was perfectly suited to the casual, busy space and lovely late-afternoon sunshine. I was even willing to share a little of the chicken with my three companions, provided I got to pick at their meals: ruby trout crusted with sweet potatoes (a nice touch, and cooked perfectly where the apple-bourbon chutney that topped the crust hadn't softened its crunch), beer-battered fish and chips (served greasy, hot and crispy -- an unqualified hit all around) and fajitas. Like most fajitas, these were nothing to write home about -- a standard galley presentation of sautéed peppers and onions, meat, saffron rice, salsa, guacamole and flour tortillas. I wasn't expecting fireworks or anything, but a little sizzle, a little spark of something, would have been welcome.
While the West End's kitchen suffers from an often jittery inconsistency -- with missing sides and other dishes that seem to swap flavors from night to night -- it sometimes skews weirdly in the direction of surprising excellence for what, on other visits, had just been pretty good. For example, each time I found myself wandering back into the joint (a habit I intend to continue), I ordered the house mac-and-cheese. Each time, it was good; each time, it was completely different. Essentially an on-the-fly gratin, the dish is basically plain elbow macaroni in a white cheddar béchamel jacked with the wonderful savory bite of goat cheese, then fired under the broiler to give it a brown, crumb crust on top. Once, I tasted no goat cheese; next round, I tasted nothing but goat cheese. One time, the crust was nicely browned; the next, it wasn't browned at all. But no matter how the mac turned out, I enjoyed each version.
The mashed potatoes were never done the same way twice, either; most often the spuds were dull, but once they were such a cream-and-butter riot that I almost ordered seconds. The West End also offers huge bowls of yam chips -- decent on two occasions, when they were cut like potato chips (straight down into rounds and fried crisp), and downright wonderful on a third, when they were sliced (arguably wrongly) sideways, against the grain of the yam, making them much more tender and flavorful.
I wasn't crazy about the pink sugar tuilles that crowned the desserts, and the blackened beef skewers were boring enough to be right off some hotel buffet line. But the deviled eggs with bacon were such a fantastic bit of classic backyard Americana that I wish more restaurants offered them. The spicy, chile-barbed shrimp swimming in BBQ sauce, hit with a shot of ginger and sprinkled with sesame seeds, might have seemed a little too Asian-fusion for a real tavern menu -- if not for the fact that the little suckers were so addictive. Besides, by the time you've settled into your seat on the patio, had a look at the sun setting over the mountains and downed a bourbon-spiked root-beer float (an innovation for which Query deserves a Nobel prize, although I prefer the chocolaty Bulleit bourbon upgrade to the standard Eagle brand), you're no longer thinking much about what's right and wrong, what's proper or not for tavern cooking. You're just thinking about how happy you are.
And that's the secret to Query's success with the West End Tavern. It isn't all about asses, views or comfort food, but rather how comfortable you are sitting here on a perfect afternoon, knowing there's simply no place else you'd rather be.
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