The first time I stepped into Elway's Downtown at the Ritz-Carlton, I immediately wanted to turn around, get in my car and drive somewhere more my speed: some greasy taquería, perhaps, a dive bar where I could get into an argument with a midget about Irish versus Scotch whiskey, even the original Elway's in Cherry Creek.
I didn't, but that was my gut instinct — the fierce pull of some internal mechanism saying that this place, with its big leather chairs and liveried staff and business-suited clientele, was not for me. It just reeked of money and the out-gassing of business travelers giving off a steam of jet rage and dry-cleaning. If I'd scratched the wall with my fingernail, it would've bled ten-dollar bills.
Still, it's become my habit to ignore such impulses, to fight that sense of displacement that tempts me into retreat. I've had great meals in rooms where I didn't belong, and have only rarely been treated with the derision and disregard some part of me seems to think I deserve when I roll into fancy hotels in blue jeans and biker boots and a T-shirt with a picture of Boba Fett on it. So I smiled at the host, standing stiffly at his station, pointed at the bar and then followed my own finger before he could say a word. I found a seat on a busyish Friday, claiming twelve inches of space on the bar top and a menu, then started drinking. There were no midgets, so I drank my Irish neat and undisturbed, listening to graying men in double-breasted jackets discussing flat-screen TVs and the market in compressed industrial gases. It wasn't comfortable, exactly, but it was what it was: the upscale bar of an upscale hotel filled with upscale clientele traveling on expense accounts. So why, I wondered, was the Muzak playing Queen and U2? It seemed odd, as discordant in this room as I was.
At the Ritz-Carlton, 1881 Curtis Street
Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Shrimp cocktail: $16
Crab cake: $17
Mashed potatoes: $7
I started with the crab cake with miso beurre blanc, which didn't bowl me over but was perfectly serviceable — lump crab, a little heavy on the breading, a sauce that was, delightfully, mostly butter. I didn't understand how a steakhouse could devote nearly half its menu to soups (including an excellent steak chili) and salads (ten, by my count), but they were easy to ignore — and everyone did. Every table in the joint was graced with lamb chop fondue, with shrimp wrapped in bacon, with fat, bloody hunks of cow in various states of deconstruction. Feeling lightweight, I went with the petit filet (eight ounces), which is the worst thing to order in any steakhouse — tender, sure, but flavorless relative to the more big-daddy cuts: the New York, the ribeye, the bone-in anything. Still, it was a decent steak. It looked a little bereft on the plate, so small and forlorn, but the cut was good, the flavor preserved as much as possible. The creamed spinach on the side leaked cream and butter like I imagine Emeril Lagasse would if you poked him with a cocktail fork, and the bearnaise showed the skill of a talented saucier in the back, with just the right balance of tarragon sweetness.
While the meal was fine, Elway's was no fun at all. I didn't flee when I finished, but neither did I linger in the hermetic comfort of the bar — immediately in the mood for the vivid life and pleasant grunginess of, say, Club 404. Or the bus station just a few steps away.
Elway's — the original Elway's — spawned this second location, which opened this past January. The Ritz management, its F&B people and chef de cuisine Ben Davison all spent time poking around the kitchen and dining room of the Cherry Creek restaurant. In one of those quirks of synchronicity that I have come to see as completely de rigueur in Colorado's scene, Davison and Tyler Wiard (who became chef at the original Elway's after the departure of Charles Schwerd in 2006) had worked together at Mel's back in the day. A Colorado native, Davison later went east (doing time at both Le Bec Fin and the Striped Bass in Philly) before being tempted back to the mountains. And the menu that he and his crew cook downtown is a straight lift of Wiard's updated Elway's menu, with just a few minor derivations. Because the Ritz wasn't just after Big John's name. It wanted the whole package — food, folks and fun, to coin a phrase. But, like an accident in packing, somewhere on the trip downtown, the fun got lost.
Denver is a town filled with steakhouses. They come and go like herpes. And in 2004, when the first Elway's opened, we were already overstuffed.
But Elway's carved out a niche for itself by offering a crazy-good floor (would-be staff members had to take a personality assessment test before even being interviewed) and a goofy, completely un-serious attitude typified by Ding Dongs on the dessert menu and shrimp cocktail served over wells of smoking dry ice. It was a comfortable spot: a cougar preserve in the bar, an all-comers joint in the dining room. Never mind that dinner here could easily run into the triple digits — it wasn't the kind of place that felt like the kind of place where you'd drop forty or fifty bucks on a steak-with-nothing, and made that casualness and easy absurdity work for it.
Which, of course, made Elway's irresistible to high-rollers coming into town and interested in jamming another steakhouse into a bajillion-dollar hotel property. An established concept with a local hook, dedicated fans, a chef who knew how to play with appetite and expectation. But somewhere along the way, the Ritz-Carlton location misplaced the one thing that set the original Elway's apart from every other steakhouse in town.
I went back to the Ritz on a slow night, with an eye toward figuring out why this Elway's simply wasn't fun. I took a seat on the floor this time, at a two-top booth along the wall. The space was lovely in the way that only a hotel restaurant can be — widely spaced tables set with fine, lethal silver and sparkling glassware; a strange, angular room with a center-island bar and more seats than it needed (200 at a guess). There was leather, glass, fancy accent lighting that probably cost more than some restaurants spend on their entire start-up, and a great League of Evil table in the back with high-backed leather armchairs around a circular table that just begged for a one-eyed man stroking a white cat, seated and surrounded by his deadly minions.
This time, the piped-in music was "All She Wants to Do Is Dance," by Don Henley. I love that song, but I can guarantee that, other than the staff, I was the only one in the room who did. I ordered a beer and watched one of the servers or captains checking tables — feeling their balance, microscopically adjusting the positions of wine glasses and removing invisible specks of dust from plates with a cloth. The service here is always excellent, and I put my waitress through her paces — hemming and hawing, changing my mind, going so far as to make her recite half the menu from memory, just to see if she could.
She could, and did so with aplomb — happy to help, reminding me that if I was in the mood for steak, I should order something bone-in. "That's the best way to have them," she said with a conspiratorial wink, as if passing on house secrets. Nice, until I saw her pull the same trick at every table she served.
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The menu serves up the best tricks of the original Elway's. Ding Dongs for dessert. Steak tacos made with USDA prime, like the best carne asada ever (a Wiard update of the duck soft tacos served by Schwerd). Sides prepared with extraordinary care. I ordered the signature shrimp cocktail, which arrived on dry ice, trailing a comet's tail across the dining room, a sight I'd marveled at in Cherry Creek ("Serious Fun," March 31, 2005). But now I surreptitiously fanned the sublimating smoke away — in this room, it seemed a flagrant embarrassment rather than a goof. Still, the shrimp, which had been poached in court bouillon, were succulent and huge: Mexican whites that should be served with a pistol and a warning rather than cocktail sauce, lest one of them reanimate and attack Cleveland, like in some terrible old monster movie.
I'd ordered the bone-in ribeye, and it was, if anything, even better than the steaks served at the original. Davison (or someone on his crew) really knows how to put a char on a good piece of meat — the outside seasoned, seared hard, crusted rather than lightly caramelized, and giving way to a perfect mid-rare within. The whipped potatoes were so rich they actually had a faint aftertaste of marshmallow. And the individual molded cheesecake for dessert came with a strawberry coulis perfectly evocative of a season that, with the snow still collecting outside, it most certainly wasn't. The dessert was delicious nonetheless — and, in its own way, a mark of money's mastery over nature.
The music had switched up. More Queen ("Another One Bites the Dust") and then "Shiny Happy People," by R.E.M. The contrast with the rest of the room was bizarre. Having done everything it could to make this space, this menu, this restaurant feel and act like the one that worked so well in Cherry Creek, the house had only succeeded in pointing up the differences. Running clean through the core of Elway's at the Ritz was a stiff and formal bone that couldn't be broken — or even relaxed — by any amount of Ding Dongs or Don Henley. There was great food, careful service, a beautiful room — just no fun.
And it was fun that made the original Elway's such a winner.