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Family Values

Uncle Sam's wants you--and, believe it or not, your kids.
For that alone, Denver families should stand up and cheer. At most area restaurants, children are about as welcome as anthrax--and twice as deadly to the diners around them. But not only does the four-month-old Uncle Sam's truly welcome families, it also serves food that both kids and their parents want to eat.

This situation may be rare, but to encounter it at Uncle Sam's isn't all that surprising. Owner Larry Herz was one of the first Denver restaurateurs to introduce the idea of "family-style dining" when he opened Carmine's on Penn several years ago. Although the concept of serving large portions that could be shared among several people had already been popularized in larger cities (including at a Carmine's in New York--no relation to Herz's place--that borrowed its family-style notions from that city's La Parma), Carmine's quickly caught on in Denver.

It caught on so quickly, in fact, that after two successful years, Herz felt the need to take on something new, and he sold the restaurant. "I was bored," he explains simply. "I needed a new challenge in my life, and I dig that concept of people sharing food. When I go out, I love to share food with whomever I'm with." Now he just needed to find a workable cuisine, something other than the Italian served at Carmine's. "The Chinese have been doing family-style forever," he says, "so I started thinking about my own upbringing and how we always shared big platters of meatloaf and stuff. I figured, I've been eating family-style with my own family all my life, so it just might work."

And it does.
Although Herz was drawing on his familial traditions, he has no children of his own, and at first he was nervous about opening up Uncle Sam's to families. After all, for all the talk about family-style dining at Carmine's, the restaurant never was--and still isn't--a place for kids. "I think most restaurants don't welcome kids because they're afraid they're going to become the next Chuck E Cheese," Herz says. "And to tell the truth, I was a little worried about that, too. Would people without kids come? And would parents feel like they could drink and relax with their kids there?" So far, however, Herz's fears have proved unfounded. "The families who have come in have, for the most part, been people who are serious about food, and they want their kids to eat good food," he adds. "They're tired of McDonald's, so they come here and get a glass of wine and unwind, and while they pay more than they would at McDonald's, they still don't have to give up the kids' college educations to eat here."

In truth, Uncle Sam's is overflowing with family values. Initially, Herz went whole hog with the family platters, capable of feeding several diners and priced between $15 and $17. But after customers complained that the setup didn't allow them to try a large variety of dishes, Herz also started offering half-platters. So today everything on the menu--including the appetizers, salads, soups and side dishes--is available in half portions, at half the full cost plus a dollar, which seems fair to me. When he started offering the half-platter deal, Herz worried that check totals would be cut in half, too, but he says the result has been exactly the opposite. "Because people can try more dishes, we've seen the checks go up," he explains. "Customers are telling me that it gives them room to try more food."

And with so much good stuff to try, I can see how people had a hard time settling on only one or two dishes. American comfort food is the focus here--with a name like Uncle Sam's, you were expecting maybe chateaubriand?--but it's a little more upscale than Mom used to make, with a few international touches. Still, plain old salt and pepper are the primary seasonings. The dining room's decor (Uncle Sam's took over the plaza space that most recently housed Anastasia Vieux Carre) is all-American, too: Its looks like a page right out of a Yankee Trader catalogue, with stars and stripes that wrap around a large, flag-shaped wall that faces a huge folk-art mural depicting scenes from the heartland.

Our kids took to the surroundings immediately and were soon keeping themselves busy with crayons, brown butcher-paper tablecloths and a server who knows how to flirt with a three-year-old. It helped that he quickly brought cranberry juice for the kids and a nice bottle of wine for us--the list is well-priced and domestic, no surprise--and then gave us time to make our choices from the large blackboard of offerings.

After much deliberation, we voted (ours is a democratic family, so we did take into account our children's desire to have ice cream for dinner, but we decided the one-year-old's vote didn't count) to start with the Maryland crab cakes ($6.95 for half) and Sam's killer shrimp ($6.50 for half). The crab cakes boasted the ideal balance between a crisp outer shell and soft, slightly smooshy and well-seasoned insides; they came with a snappy corn salsa and Old Bay-flecked mayonnaise. The killer shrimp proved to be appropriately named, although the recipe was a happy accident, Herz says. "I was messing around in the kitchen with the shrimp and our house dressing," he confesses. "And those were the result." The key was the balsamic in the house dressing, which lent a tartness to the sweet shrimp, an edge further enhanced by grilling.

Although our waiter was unflappable in the face of toddlers, we frightened him by ordering a full-sized Caesar. "You're going to have a lot of food," he warned, convincing us to instead split a half ($5.50). He was right: Half was still a big salad, and a good one, with a thick, sharp dressing and a generous amount of grated parmesan. We were even more grateful for his advice when the rest of our food came. A full order of Southern-fried chicken ($14.95) brought a bird and a half of darkly browned, crunchy-skinned, virtually greaseless pieces of tender, juicy meat. And a full order of trout Provencal ($16.95) turned out to be a whole, fairly large fish split down the middle, its damp, flaky flesh covered with capers, tomatoes, butter and garlic. We wound up taking half of each dish home.

Since we'd gone with half-sized sides, we were able to polish off all of the freshly sauteed balsamic spinach ($3.50), a tangy, inspired preparation. And the garlic-infused skin-on "smashed" potatoes ($3.50) contained so much butter that they were moist and flavorful even without gravy. The steamed veggies ($3.50) were our only disappointment, but only because we're not huge fans of plain celery, which made up the bulk of a dish that also included yellow squash, carrots and broccoli.

Why we felt the need for dessert, I don't know. Maybe it was to see if those portions, too, were oversized--and of course they were, which gave us something to chase our other leftovers the next day. The chocolate cake ($4.50) was so dense and rich that it was almost a cross between a grandmother's traditional scratch and an updated flourless cake; the icing on top was fantastically heavy and stiff, not too sweet and very chocolatey. The exemplary cranberry bread pudding ($4.50) looked as though it had been made from a cranberry-studded quick bread, but it was wet and very heavy with cranberries.

I felt as though I should take along a few starving people on my second visit, so I invited another couple and their kids, all of whom claimed to have been living on macaroni and cheese for several weeks. Although that didn't stop the kids from ordering macaroni and cheese ($4.50 for a full), Uncle Sam's version was far superior to anything that ever came out of a box. The gooey cheddar had formed that great crust that real cheese gets when it's set under the broiler for a few minutes, and the portion was large enough for two of the kids to share as an entree. The other three helped the adults polish off a platter of lemon-pepper catfish ($16.95)--another whole fish, this one redolent with lemon juice sparked by black pepper--and a platter of angel hair with grilled chicken and poblano pesto ($14.95), with shredded parmesan showered over the pungent pesto that coated big chunks of nicely grilled fowl. We also worked our way through a side of beautifully french-fried sweet potatoes ($3.50 for half) and thick hunks of medium-soft polenta studded with sun-dried tomato bits ($3.50 for half).

While we skipped dessert this time, we still wanted to sit and savor that great meal for a while, so the kids hooked up with a group of their peers in the bar area, which can be seen from the dining room. The bartender let them take charge of the remote control, and they sat happily ogling some sort of bodybuilding competition while sipping Cokes and playing with the toys an employee had given them. Meanwhile, another employee cheerfully got down on his hands and knees beside the table next to us and picked up the crumbs thrown there by kids who weren't ours (I swear).

Later I asked Herz if the staff gets tired of cleaning up after the younger diners. "Really, most of the families are good about that," he answered, adding that he's sometimes surprised by the way parents let their kids act in public. "Oh, we do get those once in a while, the ones who threaten to destroy the place. But if you're going to make a commitment to something, you have to go all the way, and we just grin and bear it--and luckily, I have a staff that's pretty good-natured. So I don't mind if we become known as a place to take your kids. In fact, I'm delighted."

Uncle Sam's, we salute you.

Uncle Sam's, 5946 South Holly Street, Greenwood Village, 741-6443. Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.