Restaurants have always been entertaining, even without the "concepts."
Nowhere else, for example, could you enjoy the delicious irony of a wave of water crashing down from a leaky awning over the group of people who founded Colorado's Ocean Journey--as they sat in a seafood joint picking at crab carcasses. And what other setting could inspire two grown men to toss tortillas at a bucket of beer and then pretend to mount each other--all to impress a big-breasted beer rep and win a couple of Corona T-shirts?
It helps if the restaurant is also a bar, because alcohol goes a long way toward making people more amusing. Swanky's, started by Rodney Franks and James Gibson, opened this past December in a space that the pair had been eyeing for a long time while they were bartenders at Wazoo's on Wazee. "This place was an old furniture-refinishing warehouse and showroom, but it had been vacant for six or seven years," Franks says. "We pitched the idea to some investors, borrowed a lot of money and then went for it."
They left the room looking a lot like a warehouse, which gives it a casual feel and a good bar atmosphere. The groovy booths and chairs, upholstered in metallic royal blue and bright green vinyl, add a classy retro look.
On our first visit, we had the good fortune to arrive on a night the Corona company was sponsoring some sort of promotion; the company representative wandered from table to table, cajoling customers into acting goofy for prizes. Since the place wasn't very crowded, our party of four won two much-coveted T-shirts and got to witness some stupid behavior.
While we were doing that, we tried to get into the spirit of things by ordering the deal bucket of five Coronas for $10, as well as a Swanky's Spank Me, a lethal combination of Everclear, triple sec, blue curacao, pineapple and orange juices and margarita mix that apparently exists solely so the server can say, "Do you wanna Spank Me?" The color of antifreeze and the consistency of a Slurpee, the drink tasted like a bad Jolly Rancher on the first gulp and an okay Jolly Rancher on the second; by the third, we didn't care what it tasted like. The two-drink maximum on the Spank Me is a very good thing.
Now, in a place that looks like a bar, where people are acting like they're in a bar, it's hard to hold out much hope that the food's going to be any good. But Swanky's hired David Neuman to run the kitchen; he's been spending time with the Larimer Group and at Hemingway's, and that doesn't seem to have ruined his ability to make appetizing dishes. "We really didn't want to get too crazy with the food," says Franks. "Our main objective was to do a dozen oysters and some beer for a good price, and then David came up with some stuff that people seem to like, and so that's become more of a factor than we thought."
It should be a factor, considering all of the crappy food being served in LoDo sports bars. And though Swanky's doesn't necessarily bill itself as a sports bar, it's in that same vein--which makes the cheap oysters on the half shell ($7.25 for a dozen) all the more appealing. It would help if they'd arrive in a timely fashion--the big-breasted Corona babe was only so entertaining--but everything at Swanky's took some time, so it was fortuitous that there was a spontaneous floor show starring the customers.
But once the food really started coming, we were able to pull our attention away from the guys trying to fling tortillas into the Corona girl's chest and focus on the munchies. The buffalo popcorn shrimp ($6.50) set our mouths aflame, so fiery were the little hot-sauce-coated baubles, and while the thick, rich blue-cheese dressing on the side tasted great, it offered little relief. Strangely less hot--considering the habanero--were the habanero-and-apricot chicken wings ($6.95), but they were nonetheless tasty, with a faint sweetness courtesy of apricot jam; they were a smidgen on the dry side, but not so much so that we couldn't polish them off. And the thinly battered sesame shrimp ($7.95) came coated in an addictively sweet goo that we scraped off the plate with a spoon after all the little crustaceans had gone to stomach heaven.
I was in heaven myself when I got my beer-battered fish and chips ($7.50). Since most places these days serve hunks of freezer-burned cod encased in soggy cardboard, I was delighted when two huge planks of juicy, fresh cod cloaked in a beer-bubbly, golden-brown batter arrived in front of me. The lightly seasoned chips were good, too, and the tartar sauce had been made up fresh.
Seafood is very much the focus of Neuman's Louisiana-oriented menu, and he once again proved he has a way with it. The blackened catfish ($9.95) was another fresh specimen, this time camouflaged with hot, hot, hot spices and served over well-cooked rice. On the side was one of Swanky's signature items: maque choux, a dish that's rarely prepared correctly, much less pronounced correctly (and here, billed as maque shoux, it wasn't even spelled correctly). But Neuman's version was pretty true to form for what's essentially a spicy corn casserole. He used andouille sausage--not necessarily traditional, but every Cajun mama has her own way--but it's the Paul Prudhomme kind, which I've always found to be greasier than most. Franks says they know it makes the maque choux oily, and they're looking at other brands. Until they change, expect a delectable concoction of corn, sausage, eggs and onions that you're dying to finish but can't because it's too greasy.
The other two entrees were just so-so: a spicy shrimp po'boy ($7.95) served on a sturdy but soft hoagie bun and Swanky's hotter-than-hell chicken sandwich ($7.95), which I'm guessing wasn't quite hotter than hell but was spicy nonetheless, with pepper Jack cheese and a "habanero ranch" dressing that tasted--and sported the heat factor--of Tabasco.
In fact, of the twenty or so items on Swanky's menu, only five of them do not contain a chile pepper in some form, be it cayenne pepper or hot sauce. One of those is the crawfish boil, a killer bargain that happens only on Wednesdays. For ten bucks, we got a bucket of the little suckers dumped out on our butcher-papered table; potatoes, a three-inch-long segment of corn on the cob and one big, fat sausage had been cooked with them, and the whole thing was coated in Old Bay-type seasonings. If they'd add one more corn segment, it would be one of the best dinner-for-two deals on the planet, because the pair of us who went on the second visit were barely able to get through all of those 'daddies. Of course, we'd had an order of habanero-and-apricot wings again, too, which this time sported softer skins, more apricot and more hot sauce, much to its advantage on all counts. Add that bucket of Coronas (also available on Wednesdays only) and we were thoroughly entertained, which was another good thing, since this time we were the only people in the place.
And sometimes that's a bad thing, especially when you're trying to catch up with a friend from out of town and the server has nothing better to do than hover. That was our initial experience on a Monday night at Anita's Crab Shack, a two-month-old LoDo eatery that went into the old Icehouse space that belonged to Cucina! Cucina! Anita's owner Carol Schauer had worked as regional manager for Rock Bottom Inc., so she'd had a clear view of the goings-on while she took care of business at the Denver ChopHouse & Brewery across the way.
"This concept seemed to be something that was not being done in this part of town," Schauer says. "I wanted to offer something casual and fun that wasn't already being offered."
I'm not convinced it's being offered here, either, since the whole idea of a crab shack is supposed to involve messy meals and newspaper on the tables. Pieces of the concept--plastic plates, extra napkins on the tables and crab legs--are in place here, but the dining room is too upscale to feel crab-shacky, and any food that goes beyond basic body parts is bland and poorly executed.
But on that first stop, we just wanted to drink and munch a little, so we quickly became annoyed when our server, who was otherwise a very nice person, kept interrupting one of our party's enthralling, brilliantly entertaining stories to ask if we were ready to order yet, when clearly we weren't. Finally I told her that we'd find her when we were ready, and when that time came, I ordered the oysters on the half-shell ($8.50), which seemed pricey for a half-dozen considering that I'd just been at Swanky's, where they were cheaper by the dozen. When I asked the server what was up, she came back from the kitchen to report that theirs were more expensive because other places use fresh oysters that have been frozen. (But that really isn't true, a fact confirmed by a call to the Seattle Fish Company, where Anita's gets its oysters. One type of oyster, out of Galveston, holds up well under freezing but has to be shucked and is rarely used in restaurants, instead being reserved for large hotels that do banquets.)
It turns out that the oysters at Anita's were only a buck or two more than the average for downtown--Swanky's uses a lower-grade oyster in order to get the price down, and they tasted just fine to me--but I think we in LoDo have been spoiled by happy-hour bivalves at places such as Jax. It also turned out that the frozen-oyster info had not come from Anita's chef, Richard Schlosberg, who was off that night. Which might explain why the crabcake ($5.95) was a tortured, drippy mess. The conventional wisdom on crabcakes is that you try to leave the crabmeat alone as much as possible--but this crab looked like it had been through a meat grinder before being smooshed into a patty with a lot of bread and mayo, then fried until the interior had been brought to a low lukewarm. Gross. The buttery garlic rolls that came with the meal, however, were wonderful.
We were happy to have those on hand again for the second stop, this time on a busier night and with right-on service, because except for those rolls and the oysters, the food was lackluster. The steamed king crab knuckles ($6.95) were dry, although a dousing in butter perked them up a bit, and while we welcomed the drier crabcake, it still featured that shredded crab, this time with the addition of raw onion and celery; on top of that, it had a fried flavor like that of old oil, and the dipping sauce on the side tasted like ketchup mixed with mayonnaise.
Another appetizer, the oysters Rockefeller ($9.50), brought only five oysters; when I asked the server why, he said that the thinking in the kitchen was that the extra stuff on the oysters warranted taking one away. Talk about cheap. The "stuff" turned out to be fresh spinach (a good move) that had been creamed with what sometimes tasted like nutmeg, sometimes tasted like parmesan and sometimes tasted like vanilla, depending on which oyster we were eating. Weird.
An order of fries ($1) came out mostly soggy, and that was one of the very few items the vegetarian in our group could order. He was forced to go with the only non-meat dish on the menu for his entree, the fettuccine Alfredo ($9.90), not something one would expect in a crab shack, and it needed something--like salt, or garlic, or flavor. And the Hawaiian ahi ($17.50) was the saddest tuna I've ever encountered, supposedly glazed in a soy-ginger sauce and then grilled, but tasting of nothing but the grill; one side had been cooked more than the other, and the piece was chewier than it should have been, even though the center was raw. It was served over a pile of regular old green cabbage--something like this really calls for Asian--that had been drenched in soy sauce, and this was inexplicably sided by coleslaw, along with the standard red potatoes I'd ordered.
After all that, we were surprised to find out that Anita's makes its own desserts and even more surprised to receive a lime-packed piece of Key lime pie ($3.95). Unfortunately, no one had checked to see if this obviously frozen pie had thawed all the way through before being served. It hadn't.
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But it was kind of entertaining to watch each other cringe from the pain of biting down on something frozen. Still, that probably wasn't as painful as it will be for the folks at Anita's when they realize how much work it will take to stay afloat in this competitive market.
Swanky's, 1938 Blake Street, 303-297-2399. Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday.
Anita's Crab Shack, 1801 Wynkoop Street, 303-308-9933. Hours: 4-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; 4-10 p.m. Sunday.