Cafe Society

Fuel Cafe helps energize the RiNo neighborhood

It's not quite spring, but there's hope: Ramps and morels are on the menu. If the weather wasn't so cold and rainy, the waiter could open the glass garage door that separates our table from the patio. Soon, he says. Beyond the patio and the parking lot, everything's dark — the way it would be in the unlikely event that we were ordering gnocchi at a gas station in Swink or Hugo on the eastern plains.

Fuel Cafe, though not exactly a gas station, also has automotive roots. Part of the TAXI complex, it occupies a building where Yellow Cabs were once dispatched to downtown, less than two miles to the south, and points beyond. TAXI is turning into a compound of loft condos and office space for creative types — including Mickey Zeppelin, the developer, and his son, Kyle — as well as a gym or two, a coffee trailer and shops for tradespeople who build the actual things that go along with the ideas. Zeppelin and his architects are adding new TAXI buildings to the old at a speed dictated by the economy.

I always loved this part of Denver, and it's about time that humans came here — not just to work, but to live and eat. All the same, I'm glad that these urban pioneers didn't mess with the ambience, happy that Ready Mixed Concrete is unchanged to the east, that the banks of the South Platte just across the street remain undeveloped, weedy and lush. We're on the very border of Globeville, which continues to hold its own as a dependably exotic place.

Dinner will be served in a building that was once full of cars. I like cars, and many clues to the space's automotive origins have been left in place. Since I'll be looking around a lot, I hand my notebook to my sister Marina, who has food credibility, having cooked seriously since she was three, married a chef and burned through countless issues of Cook's Illustrated. Also, many years ago, she gave me a gas-station squeegee for my birthday. It meant a lot at the time and still does, I now discover, surrounded as I am by industrial/residential romance.

Back in the day, cabs would have lined up not far from this table. I remember a driver who used to recite existential poetry over the radio to his fellow cabbies, most of whom were surprisingly tolerant of Allen Ginsberg.

While I poke about the place, Marina writes this in my notebook: Despite the fact that the building is essentially a cinderblock cube, it has a good energy. It feels like a little, inviting secret, but not an "only-in-the-know" place. Though we are in the know, so what do we know?

Fuel is undeniably hip, at least in the classic way: hard edges and concrete floors, plain white plates, plain black T-shirts, good-looking people — many quite young — and a menu driven by a personality. To give you an idea of that personality, chef Bob Blair prefers to be called a cook, which is so modestly unhip as to be sort of charming. Fuel is his place and he cooks what he wants: Mediterranean-inspired dinners, from small plates to bigger, meatier entrees. He also cooks where he wants, though when he started Fuel over two years ago, he says, "I was a little nervous. It didn't make sense, at first, to put a restaurant in the middle of nowhere."

But the middle of nowhere proved sustainable, not that I'm surprised. Right now, I like the middle of nowhere enough to cook up a daydream in which I live across the parking lot in a 600-square-foot loft, grow spring greens in a community garden and force any itinerant train-hoppers to lend a hand. I appreciate that TAXI attracts creative people, but the real draw, for me, is its un-loftiness. There's no Greenwich Village pressing in; no prefab new-urbanism "Town Center." Everyone who lives here — or eats here — is on the frontier. Not in the Davy Crockett way, but in the way kids go nuts at the prospect of building a fort, even if they only go as far away as under the dining room table. That kind of frontier. If you lived here, your mother might be writing you a plaintive letter: Oh, honey, I always pictured you in that nice home down the block, the one with the walkout basement. With the Anderson replacement windows and all those good schools.

My own mother wouldn't have bothered. She knew my mind was warped early on by custody visits with my father, who lived for many years in a Long Island boatyard. A boatyard is not a yacht club. Three generations of Yugoslavian boat-builders worked there, some making beautiful, seemingly hand-carved wooden dories, others swearing at engines and drinking beer. There was no running water, other than what came from a hose on the dock, and nothing traditional to play with. We were always wandering from one giant, dusty shed into another, thinking of all the possibilities.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff