Over the past year the neighborhood around Coors Field has exploded with new eateries. Now, with the baseball fans gone and a long, cold winter ahead, some of those restaurants are going to make lunchmeat of the competition.

But until they do, people who work in LoDo have a smorgasboard of choices at lunchtime. Sushi? The area's swimming in it. Mexican? Over a dozen possibilities, ranging from yupscale fish tacos to take-out tamales from an authentic panadera. And diners don't have to elbow through this summer's crowds to reach their restaurant of choice. Although LoDo is just a quick hop and a jump--or free shuttle ride--from 17th Street's high-rises, the lunch bunch don't often head this way.

They obviously don't know what they're missing.
Flat Pennies, for example. Although it didn't open until after the baseball season ended, this place already looks like a bona fide hit. Of course, Flat Pennies is the neighborhood's newest restaurant and benefits from that novelty, but the menu and the atmosphere both speak of staying power. This smartly designed, month-old space in an arm of Union Station shares owners with Gate 12 and Jetz, two other LoDo/ballpark neighborhood spots that exhibit the same savvy marketing; the decor was done by the same group that designed most of Larimer Square's restaurants. At Flat Pennies, the designers chose to stay with sleek lines reminiscent of a train depot, but they added dark wood and moody art, padded U-shaped booths, hot-cool colors, an uncluttered table configuration and a hip, jazzy air that smooth the way for Flat Pennies' transformation from restaurant by day to nightclub by night.

The food offerings are the same no matter what the hour. General manager Troy Johnston wisely chose a simple, straightforward menu--sandwiches (with a heavy emphasis on chicken), basic sides, a fresh-veggie plate and a few Tex-Mex items--that's available until the place closes. The lineup works well at lunch and adapts easily to a happy hour that can stretch into the wee hours. In fact, Johnston brings in live music several times a week, from a big band one night to a "Shaken but Not Stirred" blues evening that's BYOC (Bring Your Own Cigar).

But Flat Pennies really shines at lunch, when it's a tossup whether the service or the food is better. Both hit the mark.

Our first visit was a leisurely late lunch, so we had plenty of time to savor the grub. The day's soup, cream of potato ($1.50 a cup), arrived steamy hot and gloppy as gravy, but the nagging flavor of overroasted garlic forced us to abandon it early on. That was the only disappointment we encountered, though, and ignoring the soup allowed us to focus on three exemplary sandwiches. The Overland ($6.75) paired a skinless, grilled chicken breast with Jack cheese, chopped black olives, a thin layer of pico de gallo, lettuce and enough guacamole to feed twenty guests at a Super Bowl party; luckily, the multigrain bun that held this delicious mess together was heavy-duty. The bun around the bacon bleu burger ($6.75) was even bigger, and for good reason: It barely contained the half-pound of ground sirloin dripping with medium-rare juices, as well as bacon, plenty of fresh blue-cheese crumbles, a glob of cheddar cheese, mushrooms sauteed in a touch of oil, and the usual garden garnishes. Eat this and you meet all food-pyramid requirements for a week. The Grilled Brake Man ($4.75) was another monster, with its Texas toast triangles (made from seven-grain bread) overflowing with Swiss, cheddar and American cheeses, thick, smoky bacon and ripe tomato slices (where did the kitchen find those this time of year?). Add in seasoned fries, a light coleslaw and a few microbrews, and we were out to lunch for the rest of the day.

After such a promising introduction, we made tracks to return to Flat Pennies, this time bringing extra people so we could try more stuff. This included a few starters, including an order of artichoke-and-spinach dip ($5.95) that avoided the cheap-cheese route and instead featured Asiago and parmesan; the former gave the dip a creamy texture, the latter provided bite and kept it from getting too rich, and the accompanying tortilla chips proved the perfect scoops for catching every last blob. The BBQ chicken quesadilla ($5.95) disappeared just as quickly, largely because of the flavorful meat coated with just enough heat and cooled by sour cream and red onions.

The kitchen also did right by the bird in the Wabash cannonball ($6.75), a sandwich featuring a breast slathered with honey-mustard barbecue sauce. Another barbecued chicken breast, along with two fat pieces of bacon, three slices of cheddar cheese and numerous peppercorns in a homemade mayonnaise added up to a ton of flavor in the Mountaineer ($6.75) sandwich. And Flat Pennies scored again with the Gandy Dancer ($6.50), in which decent-quality pastrami on toasted marble rye was piled high with Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Thousand Island dressing. Even a basic salad, the Union Pacific ($4.50 alone or $2.25 as a side), went the extra mile by mixing squeaky-fresh carrots, red cabbage, tomatoes, radishes, mushrooms, red onions and chives in a tangy, balsamic-kissed vinaigrette.

Compared to Flat Pennies, the menu at the six-month-old Stars comes up short. Still, this self-billed "sports garden" isn't a bad spot for lunch--especially if you're a big guy who regards a plate of ribs and a platter-sized salad as a midday snack. Although Stars is owned by nine real stars--sports figures Brian Fisher, Jay Humphries, Mike Pritchard and Steve Sewell, to name a few--the setup is more sports gallery than bar, with a comfortable, fun, casual feel that includes a few whimsical touches such as the small televisions nestled in the walls at the end of each booth.

The understated atmosphere was intentional. "We didn't want this to be a typical sports bar, like a Jackson's Hole," says general manager Bob Crowley. "We didn't come down here because of Coors Field. We wanted this to stand on its own." But the supercharged staff does its bit, too, as do a few winning dishes I've found on the menu. The Ruffin's Reuben ($6.50) is a tasty if sloppy take on the classic; the corned beef was excellent but haphazardly sliced so that huge, jagged portions stuck out from under the pumpernickel, where the meat kept company with flawless Thousand Island-soaked sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. The chicken burrito ($6.75) was football-sized, with a mean, clean-tasting green chile smothering the flour tortilla wrapped around Spanish rice, cheddar, jalapenos and chunks of intensely flavored, mesquite-grilled chicken.

After that dish, though, the kitchen chickened out on flavor. The grilled, slightly dry breast in the chicken sandwich ($6.50) was unexciting, and the additions of honey Dijon mustard and Jack cheese didn't do much to spice things up. The boneless chicken wings ($5.25) came with great dressings--a rich ranch and a zesty blue cheese--but the wings themselves were rubbery and dry. The lemon chicken ($7.95) was mediocre, and the chicken fettuccine Alfredo ($8.50) wasn't worth finishing, much less discussing.

An order of the Danish baby-back ribs ($11.95) brought a heaping portion of nice meat, but the heat-free barbecue sauce was bland and the side of "Ma Crowley's" baked beans blander. Blander still were the steak fries that seem to come with just about everything. The real loser, though, was the Bronco burger ($5.50), as raw as a second-round draft pick on the first day of training camp--even though I'd asked for medium-rare--yet somehow cooked to a crisp on the outside. And those were some of the more delicate items on the menu.

Stars would do well to take a hint from its winning decor and lighten up its lunchtime offerings. Crowley says the owners have been talking about creating a lunch menu that would appeal to businesspeople looking for a quick bite; I say they should do that yesterday if they want to give Stars a sporting chance at a second season.

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