My Dinner With Barry

Pulling up steaks: The Northwoods Inn may have moved, but it's true to its origins.
Mark Manger

If you serve prime and it's not bone-in, you may as well be a fucking Sizzler."

That's Barry talking. Mister Fey, to some. Concert promoter and ticket broker, the guy who's rumored to have once pulled a gun on a recalcitrant Axl Rose when the kilt-wearing prima donna dared to walk out on one of Mister Fey's shows. In his heyday, Barry was the Man-with-a-capital-M. Colorado's own Bill Graham, who brought the best and brightest of rock royalty to Denver -- by force, if necessary. Wandering acid casualties and hippies now sporting the gray-ponytail skullet (a badge of honor among the deathless ranks of free-love counterculture idealists) still remember the Family Dog, Fey's psychedelic nightclub/playhouse for Denver's flower children. The rest of us know him as the name at the top of the ticket: BARRY FEY PRESENTS, followed by U2, the Rolling Stones, Guns N' Roses, what have you.

But tonight, at the Northwoods Inn, Barry's all about meat. And he's pissed. Our waiter -- not exactly one of those sure-footed pros who work the floor at the Palm, but smiling, happy and competent in an energetic, second-string high-school-quarterback kind of way -- has just informed us that the kitchen is out of pork chops and prime rib, and even if there were some prime left, it would be of the non-bone variety. The waiter apologizes, then walks off to give us a minute to look back over the menu and regroup. Barry decides to take a stroll, stomping around the cavernous main dining room that holds 250, easy, with every damn chair filled on this Wednesday night. He leers hungrily over the shoulders of complete strangers, checking to see what everyone's eating, what looks good, and threatening to snap up the leftover prime from any diner who's not quick or mean enough to fend him off.

By the time we were seated, I'd already spent an hour and a half with Barry, lounging outside the restaurant while we waited for a table to open up. So already, I know a little about the guy. I know he's going through a rough stretch right now. I know he's moving -- looking for one of those hip downtown lofts after leaving his Cherry Hills home of more than three decades. I know he's bankrupt; I know his best friend just died. I know he's got that pall of fading celebrity about him, but he's wearing it well. Better than most would. Better than some of his former rock-and-roll associates (has anyone seen Axl lately?). And yeah, some of his act's a put-on, but it's solid. You gotta respect a guy who can't tell a story from his past without famous names blowing through like confetti: Mick and Keith, Bono, Janis. I don't like name-dropping, but this isn't that. This is just his life, and if Mister Fey wants to tell a story about the best meal he's ever eaten -- in France, with U2 -- then he will, with minimal hubris, like hasn't everybody shared a chocolate torte with the Edge?

In terms of steakhouses, Barry's an addict and a purist and a man who's been asked (sometimes politely, sometimes not) to stay away from almost as many beef temples as he's welcome in these days. For insulting the allegedly "world-famous" garlic mashed potatoes at Brook's Steakhouse. For going up the street to the Palm and smuggling a bottle of Heinz 57 into Gallagher's when he was eating there with my predecessor ("We Came, We Sauce," May 31, 2001). He knows the number for Morton's by heart and later will call it -- boldly defying the Northwood Inn's zero-tolerance cell-phone policy -- to check the price of its lobster tail. (For the record, Northwoods comes in at about half that price.) This is a big man with big appetites, who loves and hates on a massive, extravagant scale, and these credentials are enough for me to trust his opinion on what separates good cow from bad.

Then again, he's also a known pistol-waver who despised me within minutes of my arriving in town for using a racial slur in my first restaurant review. (Actually, I was quoting the anti-Semite at the table next to mine at Venice, but that didn't matter to Barry -- I was the asshole for repeating it.) But that's fine: People who hate my guts so thoroughly are at least honest, and they have nothing to hide. Plus Barry, I'm pretty sure, didn't come to dinner packing heat.

If he did, though, he probably wouldn't be the only one dressing Southern-style for dinner at the Northwoods Inn. The main dining room (as well as any of the adjoining porches and lounges) would be ideal for a meeting of the local NRA brain trust. The moldering heads of dead things hang from every peeled-log wall, their acrylic eyes looking out over hundreds of plates where their butchered brethren are being wolfed down by a solid meat-and-potatoes kinda crowd. Straight-up country folk in tent dresses and their best steel-belted dungarees with 48-inch waists mix with squawking early-bird-dinner habitués and extended families taking advantage of two-fer coupon night. Citified Denver cowboys in $500 Tony Lamas rub shoulders with the real unincorporated article, while parties of two, of four, of eight and eighteen are all admirably attended to by a small army of red-vested servers and busboys who keep the kitchen door swinging nonstop for hours.  

The Northwoods Inn has a system, and it works. First, no reservations for parties smaller than ten. Tables are first come, first served, and seating is overseen by a manager who holds court at the service bar, artfully juggling dozens of waiting parties so that -- on a busy night -- no empty table stays that way for more than a minute. You're seated; your drink orders are taken, and one sandwich-board-style menu is left for your party. A bowl of peanuts keeps you nibbling while you wait for the machinery of service to grind out your mains (shells go on the floor), as does a bowl of the restaurant's special cottage cheese -- cut with green onions and a buttermilk ranch-y seasoning mix; it's only special because it's delivered gratis.

Barry returns from his tour of the dining room, and he doesn't look much happier. "No prime," he says. "Not anywhere. What kind of a fucking place is this?" He sits, and we plan an assault on the menu -- trying for maximum exposure with minimum fuss.

Not surprisingly, the menu is mostly meat. If it were legal to hunt vegetarians for sport, I'm sure the Northwoods Inn would serve loin of Richard Gere and Sting fillet. There are no appetizers, per se, but every entree comes with soup (served out of a communal-by-table cast-iron cook pot and tasting like straight-from-the-can Sysco product, with that thick, metallic aftertaste of pre-made, freeze-dried, canned or frozen high-volume "food service solutions"); decent bread warm from the oven; an iceberg salad mass-produced probably 500 at a time but made with commendably fresh and crisp lettuce, a slice of cucumber, a tomato wedge, a handful of tiny croutons and pinto beans; and a baked potato so swamped with butter that I suspect the kitchen is in collusion with some local big-and-tall shop to keep it amply supplied with customers.

It's all exactly as Barry remembers from when he first ate at the Northwoods Inn -- even though the restaurant was then a mile or so up Santa Fe Drive in what's now Hudson Gardens. "It was September the 8th, 1967," he begins, using the same cadence as Quint telling his tale of the USS Indianapolis in Jaws. You know the one: It was comin' back, from the island of Tinian Delady, Chief. Just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Only Barry's story is about going to the Northwoods Inn with Janis Joplin. There were some other people in the group: a big black guy dressed in a bearskin, a little Jewish guy, and Chet Helms, a pure Haight-Ashbury longhair with a scruffy beard and sandals. "He looked just like Jesus Christ," Barry remembers, "and when we walked in the door...well, you know that scene from all the Westerns where the bad guys walk in and everything just goes silent? It was like that, because this guy looked just like fucking Jesus Christ." Everyone in the place wanted his picture taken with the big Jesus-looking hippie. No one looked twice at Janis Joplin.

As Barry tells his story and we pick at our salads, I watch a tiny woman in a neat black cardigan move in slow, widening circles around the crowded dining room. She has the sharp eyes of a casino pit boss and stalks imperiously, with total self-assurance, through the lounge, past the service bar and through the maze of scrambled four-tops. She's the floor manager, and her look is all business, no bullshit. With a word here, sometimes just a look, sometimes just a gesture, she keeps everything running smoothly, doing it like she's been doing it for twenty years. When she stops by our table, she comes bearing good news: She's found a piece of prime rib for Barry. The kitchen had set aside several portions for the party of eighteen seated ahead of us but didn't need them all, so we're in luck.

She's gracious; we're thankful, and when we ask, we learn that she's actually been doing this not for twenty years, but for 42 -- since the day the original Northwoods Inn opened in May 1961. She's the owner.  

"So what were you doing on September the 8th, 1967?" Barry asks, and he goes through the whole story again for a woman who gives us a look like she hasn't the slightest idea who Janis Joplin was, and even less of an idea who Barry might have been. She knows her restaurant, and that's enough.

Our entrees arrive as the story ends. Again. Barry's prime -- no end cut, no nasty piece of leftover shoe leather -- is done rare-medium rare, just as he asked. It doesn't have a lot of flavor, but that's a general failing of meat with no bone in it. The closer to the bone, the more concentrated the blood vessels and the richer the flavor. Blood lends salty high notes; fat adds that silky, mellow smoothness. Blood and fat: That's your entire flavor profile, and while this piece of prime is certainly passable and has been nicely handled by the kitchen, it's missing the juicy zing of the best cuts of beef. It's not fucking Sizzler, but not the best thing on the Northwoods Inn menu, either.

No, that would be the inch-thick T-bone -- ideally done with a finely seared exterior and insides the color of a fresh bruise. The meat on the filet mignon side of the bone is soft and gently flavored throughout, while the strip-sirloin side progresses from a delicate, tender nothingness -- like chewing butcher paper -- to a dense, meaty taste where the beef meets the bone. The boneless top sirloin is excellent, too. Listed on the menu as a special whenever available, it's as fine a piece of meat as you'll find anyplace with a honky-tonk piano in the lounge and peanut shells on the floor.

God made the cow pretty yummy all by itself, and it needs little beyond the application of the knife and fire to make it perfect. Therefore, there are only three things you need to know in order to cook a good steak. One, cook it rare-medium rare and no more than that. (If you're the kind of person who's paralyzed with worry over the one-in-a-million shot of having your brain wormed with spongiform encephalitis, then eat a goddamn salad -- leaving more steak for Barry and me.) Two, apply heat equally to both sides of the cut. This means turning the meat once -- and only once -- at exactly the right time, a skill solely acquired through experience. And three, the steak has to be rested after it comes off the heat. Fire plays havoc with the cells inside the beef, bursting them open and squeezing all of the good juices out. If a steak is cut immediately after it comes off the grill, it will exsanguinate all over your plate -- bleeding out like a murder victim in front of you -- and will be dry, tough and flavorless. Resting gives the meat time to reabsorb all those juices, holding them tight so that every bite is perfect and full of beefy goodness.

Both the top sirloin and the T-bone have been handled with those three essential precepts in mind. They've been pulled off the grill a little shy of medium rare, rested properly, then slapped down on a blazing-hot sizzle platter so that their undersides -- the ones touching the hot metal -- caramelize without the rest of the meat getting any more heat.

The non-steak entrees are less successful. Barry and I each grab a piece of the "logging-camp-style" fried chicken. He gets a good one, a leg that's crisp and greasy, with slightly sweet meat; I get a bad one, from some unidentifiable part of the chicken -- a back, maybe, or a wing and rib -- that's limp, gamy, dry and altogether nasty. The chicken-fried steak would be a star in a diner, but it doesn't stack up well against the T-bone. The gravy is thick, smooth, studded with big pieces of sausage and touched with a little lemon. It smothers a steak that's been beaten tender, then effectively armored against the heat of cooking by a thick crust so that it comes out still soft enough to cut with a fork. But the mashed potatoes on the side? Ouch. I like mashers out of a box as much as the next cook, because they usually taste okay and are certainly a time-saver when you're cooking for a thousand. Still, when you pull out the bag of potato starch and it says BUTTER BUDS or promises REAL BUTTER FLAVOR ADDED? Believe it. Please, for the love of God and the arterial health of your regular customers, just add the hot water and leave it alone. Shoveling down a big, fat forkful of Northwoods Inn spuds is less like eating potatoes than it is like taking two sticks of full-fat butter, one in each fist, and shoving them into my mouth. Straight, no chaser.  

But the lobster tail is another winner -- good by steakhouse standards, served already cracked, rising out of its shell like a cresting wave and accompanied by only drawn butter and lemon. Here simplicity pays off again.

Do one thing right, and do it right every time. That should be the motto of every bistro, boîte and hot spot out there in Restaurantland. That's really the only secret to success in the food-service game, and it's a lesson that the Northwoods Inn has learned well over the past 42 years. Other than a few misses (and really, who goes to a steakhouse for the soup or fried chicken?), the menu is simple and solid. The service is friendly, the prices are reasonable, and they have the process down to a science. They bring the meat -- good meat -- to the masses, that's for sure.

After all that beef hits the table, there comes a point where Barry and I just put our heads down and enjoy ourselves. There are no more stories, no celebrity, no pretense of criticism -- just two guys who love food speaking in the language of cavemen, all grunts of satisfaction and half-sentences like "Hey, now this is..." and "Mmm, that's just so...." It's the kind of conversation you have when no conversation is necessary, when you know everything is good and right and are too busy stuffing your face to bother to utter a complete sentence. We have a good time; that's what it finally comes down to -- no guns drawn, no insults hurled. And Barry -- who is so legendarily picky about his beef that he'll probably want his ashes scattered over Peter Luger in Brooklyn when he finally kicks off for that last jam session in the sky -- is finally satisfied, returning again to a place where things ain't been so good since September the 8th, 1967, when Janis, Jesus, a bear and two Jews all sat down for dinner at the Northwoods Inn.

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