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Let's Get Real

For genuine diner food, McCoys Restaurant is the real McCoy.
Q Crutchfield

Dressed in a too-tight denim mini-skirt with nothing on her legs but little white bobby socks, the waitress bounded over to a nearby booth to make her announcement. "The nice lady who was sitting over there says Grandma bought your breakfast," she proclaimed with a big grin on her face, then waited expectantly for the two twentyish women and the toddler with them to react. She didn't have to wait long: Almost immediately, one woman rolled her eyes and muttered something under her breath, while the other replied, "Oh, boy. Thanks." The server raised her eyebrows. "Uh, sure," she said, then bounded off to the kitchen. Eye-roller looked out the window. "That bitch," she said. "She's not my grandmother. She's her grandmother," and nodded toward the little tyke, who was happily blowing bubbles in her milkshake with a straw. "I wish I'd never met that asshole she calls a son."

Okay, sometimes McCoys Restaurant might be a little too real.

Still, where else can you find old-fashioned diner food for cheap, the most upbeat waitresses in town, and enough gritty realism to supply David Mamet with a play a day? Certainly not at the Village Inn just across Federal Boulevard -- that's not nearly real enough. Better to stick with McCoys, where a recent family scene included a man with slicked-back hair and an enormous belly barely covered by a Triumph motorcycle T-shirt, and his adult son, whose hair was also slicked back and who had a matching Triumph T-shirt over a belly that wasn't quite as big as Dad's, but, hey, give him time. Sonny was towing a car seat that held a teeny-tiny sleeping infant, but, dang, she's a girl, and her mom wouldn't let the men put her in a Triumph T-shirt. "Don't you wake her up," warned Mom, whose hair was still wet from a shower, and the two men looked at her sheepishly. "But I wanna play with her," protested the proud grandfather.

A lot of people bring their babies to McCoys, and the servers -- all of whom seem to wear jean skirts that are a little too tight, and all of whom are amazingly positive about waiting on tables that can't deliver more than three-buck tips -- coo and fawn over the little ones. But not just kids are welcome here; everyone is. This eatery is as casual as it gets, with indestructible burgundy and green booths, cheap Remingtonesque prints and, for the holidays, little pine trees planted in plastic pots that are covered with red and green foil and placed on each table.

McCoys has been owned by David Dooley for about two decades, but has been around a lot longer than that. From the start, it's followed the tried-and-true formula that has worked for diners since the first one opened in Boston in 1897 in a refurbished horse-drawn trolley: good, inexpensive food, available 24-7, and usually made from scratch. No matter that McCoys occupies a building that looks more like an old Denny's than an old railroad car: This is a classic diner, all right.

The entertainingly dysfunctional atmosphere is just one diner trademark. Then there's the food. We dug into a plate of country-style fried chicken, three pieces of bird coated in a grease-soaked batter and flash-fried so quickly that bits of batter solidified in snowflake patterns against the meat. The crunchy chicken, nice and moist inside, included the quintessential diner side: an enormous blob of mashed potatoes, thick and smooth, smothered in pepper-speckled white gravy. More of that gravy came with the Biscuits Plus plate, which brought a pair of fat, fluffy biscuits plus two strips of crispy bacon and a pair of eggs even sunnier than the servers.

Breakfast is served at all hours at McCoys, which means you can enjoy the town's best French toast at any time of day or night. The thick slices of eggy bread had been fried on the grill in butter and sprinkled with oats, cinnamon and powdered sugar; the oats gave the soggy bread centers some heft and texture, and there was so much sugar that we didn't really need the syrup. (Even so, I must confess to pairing the French toast with one of McCoys chocolatey, whipped-cream-covered milkshakes.) For the true sugar freak, though, nothing beats the fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, which are made in-house -- unlike the lame pumpkin and lemon meringue pies, which McCoys buys frozen and then bakes in its ovens. When two businessmen asked a server what they could have as a "light snack" for lunch, she replied, "Oh, the cinnamon rolls would be good." Their eyes nearly popped out of their heads when they caught sight of those monsters, cinnamon-swirled loaves topped with a thick, sugar-crusty shell of icing.

McCoys portions are substantial. An appetizer of toasted ravioli was big enough for two to share, although we still fought over the last of the chewy nuggets, which had started out frozen, then been enlivened by a dip in a pan of sizzling butter. The ravioli came with very respectable, surprisingly delicious Italian red sauce, a thick, semi-chunky marinara bursting with tomato taste and fresh herbs. And McCoys had more surprises in store, including a reassuring platter of pot roast that combined super-tender chunks of beef with carrots and cauliflower, all of which had been so cooked down that the stew was virtually indistinguishable in texture from the mashed potatoes it sat on. Smothered in a dense, salty brown gravy, this was delightfully mad baby food for adults. Too bad it came with canned green beans, a roll that had been microwaved so that the edges dried as soon as it hit the air, and a ball of "butter" that was the color of cheap margarine.

The excellent chiles rellenos offered more evidence of the versatile kitchen at McCoys. Won ton wrappers had been stuffed with green-chile hunks (rather than the traditional entire chile) and tons of gooey, oily cheese, then deep-fried until the cheese became even more gooey and oily. The rellenos -- two large packages -- had been buried under a layer of cheese and smothered in a green chile that was rife with pork pieces and chiles. A variation on the sweet, gravylike green chile popular around town, this was a habit-forming elixir that cried out for a basket of warm tortillas and a cerveza.

Which McCoys also offers, either in the dining room or in a bar tucked discreetly into the back of the restaurant. Throughout the day, customers make a beeline for the back room, ostensibly to get some assistance in working through an issue that may have arisen over their meal. For example, there was the little guy with a mullet haircut who was telling his much-taller girlfriend that he was really sorry about flirting with a friend of hers. "Dude," she said. "I feel like such a bitch, but I am totally not okay with this." He gave her an I'm-really-really-sorry look, and the server handing him a beer gave him a sympathetic smile. "Okay," the girlfriend conceded. "But if I hear about this again, you are a dead man."

It's just so hard to stay cranky in a place this comfortable. Not even Joe the Regular Guy, who'd just had surgery and didn't have anyone to cook for him, could grumble through an entire meal. "See you on Friday," one of the gals called to Joe as he slowly and painfully made his way out the front door, waving a dismissive hand at them as if to say, "Yeah, yeah." But the little smile on his face showed that he was pleased.

Sure, reality may bite -- but at least McCoys gives you something to sink your teeth into when it does.

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McCoys Restaurant

4855 Federal Blvd.
Denver, CO 80221

303-433-9511