Jon Schlegel is standing outside the door of his restaurant, Snooze, wondering where the people are. I'm sitting at the counter inside, sipping my coffee and filling in all the little boxes of the Saturday crossword puzzle with dirty words. And I'm wondering the same thing.
It's two in the morning on Sunday: Let Out all over downtown, and prime time for stumbling drunks looking for pancakes and a safe harbor. On the short stroll from my car to Schlegel's front door, I'd already witnessed the entire panoply of Denver after dark. I'd been offered drugs in trade for one of the very few free and semi-legal parking spaces in the LoDo/Ballpark neighborhoods (where every single street space becomes a tow-away zone after 2 a.m., ostensibly so the city can sweep, forcing hundreds of stupid-drunk bar-hoppers and club kids into doing some highly personal last-call math: Do I drive drunk and pray, or do I do the responsible thing, call a cab, and spend my Monday at car jail, negotiating a ransom on my 1992 Honda Civic?). I'd seen (well, mostly heard) a girl fight outside Kokopelli's, watched seven twenty-somethings try to cram into a four-seater convertible, and caught the world's shortest high-speed police chase -- a carful of kids going the wrong way up Larimer Street with the pedal to the floor, two cop cars in pursuit, starting at 22nd Street and wrecking at the corner of 24th, just two short blocks away.
This was all in about five minutes, all within a few hundred yards of Snooze. It wasn't exactly Vice City, but it was Denver, and sometimes Denver is enough.
Snooze is a little like paradise at 2 a.m., but mostly just because it's there. Remember the movie Omega Man? The one where Charlton Heston is living in some end-of-the-world version of Cleveland or Detroit, surrounded by freak-ass albino zombies? The albino zombies can't stand the light, and Chuck's pad -- complete with machine guns, muscle cars, armored garage doors, a laboratory where we're supposed to believe he's trying to find a cure for albino zombie-ism better than three slugs to the chest, and some Hugh Hefner-style, post-apocalyptic red-velvet love nest -- is like an island of light. He's got generator-driven floodlights and street lights and security lights, and anytime he (or anyone else) is running from the albino zombies, they're running toward Chuck's place because, well, there simply aren't a lot of other options.
The same goes for last call on Larimer, when nervous yuppies and disheveled hipsters, scooter kids and all manner of Saturday-night survivors come running for Schlegel's island of light like they have zombies on their tail.
Which is why Schlegel is standing there, right on the edge of the glow cast by Snooze, just one bad-ass sneer and a grease gun short of Heston in his prime, shouting across Larimer at a crowd of girls pulled together into a shuffling, defensive knot and asking if they want some pancakes. At 2 a.m., pancakes sound good to almost everyone. And Schlegel is the only pusher working the area at this hour, offering pineapple-studded and syrup-drenched goodness (as opposed to, say, weed or crack or a twenty-dollar stand-up quickie in an alley), so it's Snooze or nothing. It's Snooze or you take your chances with the zombies. And at 2 a.m., as the crowds start to arrive and the tables begin to fill, Schlegel starts looking like a genius.
He comes back inside, party of six in tow, handing them off to a hostess who seats them deep in Snooze's aggressively cool dining room. The space is sharp and seductive as anything, a Motor City moderne design that's like a head-on collision between a classic Impala and a fast-moving New American bistro, all sexy curves and chrome accents -- overdone minimalism or underdone maximalism, depending on your eye. There are tables, banquettes, a counter that looks like no counter that's ever existed before in an all-night diner but, with its perfect, smooth formica and gleaming chrome lip, like one you've always wanted to exist somewhere. Everywhere you look, there's something: a pretty light fixture, a sensuously curved newspaper rack, an intersection of color -- pale green, soft purple or warm orange, the season's hottest shades. Everywhere, that is, that's not crowded with waiters or friends of the house or beautiful people with interesting tattoos or just Schlegel, who, until the crowds begin to come, sometimes acts as if he's trying to fill the place all on his own.
"Watch this," he says to the girl working the counter, slapping a hand down on the high-grade formica, then pointing out through the windows at another group of wastrels who look like they accidentally slipped out of the J.Crew catalogue and landed on Larimer, dodging cops and puddles of puke. "I'm going to get those people in here."
And then he's off again, out the door, standing in the light and doing his "Hey, buddy" best to hook the kids on flapjacks.
But even if his restaurant looks great, it isn't a great restaurant. Snooze's service is competent only when business is slow, turning clumsy and bumbling and occasionally downright snotty when the house is anything more than half full. I've seen the kitchen overwhelmed to the point of temporary paralysis when just three or four orders go in at the same time. And the menu is as boring and functional as it gets -- not quirky enough to fit the space and location, nor stripped-down for high-volume efficiency, but simply bland, combining maybe a dozen breakfast offerings of the dullest, whitest, most plain-Jane variety, dumbed down even from simple authenticity into an up-from-frozen, pre-pack, steam-table simulacrum of breakfast just a few steps shy of presenting pictures of bacon and eggs or oatmeal or hash browns printed on edible paper and laid on the plate.
While I wait for my order, I focus on the crossword. Ten-letter word for a classic Humphrey Bogart movie: Cocksucker. Three-letter word for a Japanese formal dress: Ass. It's harder than you'd think to fill in enough of a puzzle to make it look like you tried. You've got to know a lot of naughty words with a lot of unusual letter combinations.
My food arrives just as the first rush begins in earnest. I've ordered the breakfast tacos, essentially small breakfast burritos: three small flour tortillas (or regular-sized corn tortillas) filled with scrambled eggs, bacon or what I believe are microwaved and sliced Jimmy Dean sausage links, and straight Sysco homefries right out of the fryer, dressed with a smoky ranchero sauce and topped with a simple, oddly sweet pico. They're served on a big plate lousy with shredded lettuce that sticks to the tortillas and has to be picked off every time I reach for a taco, because lettuce does not go well with scrambled eggs.
Conversely, the breakfast burrito is a large flour tortilla stuffed with scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, and straight Sysco hash browns barely browned on the flat grill. Rather than bringing back that decent ranchero, the kitchen sets the burrito in a tarn of what the menu calls "green chile" but which tastes like a decent tomatillo salsa. It's completely white-bread, as soulless as if it had been punched out with a stamping die, bearing as much relation to a great breakfast burrito as a McNugget does to a great piece of fried chicken.
The almond-oatmeal brûlée listed at the top of the full menu (the late-night menu repeats about half the dishes from the daytime menu) is what got me to Snooze in the first place. It seemed like a good idea at the time: a nice, hot, fresh bowl of oatmeal topped with a crust of torched sugar, like a pâtissier's crème brûlée. It sounded like something I wish I'd come up with back when I was still cooking -- simple yet elegant, an upscaled classic, perfect for getting an extra two or three bucks out of an item generally relegated to the bottom tier of a breakfast menu, served only to babies, vegetarians and stodgy old men who've had oatmeal every morning for the last forty years and aren't about to deviate now.
So when I'm served a bowl of gluey, gummy, steam-table wallpaper paste with just the barest hint of burnt sugar (like maybe a Bic lighter has been waved in the general direction of the oatmeal, which also shows signs of recent violence, like a server has stirred it at the rail to keep it from congealing under the heat lamps) and some irregularly chopped hunks of random fruit and slivers of almonds scattered over the top, I know it's trouble. Fucking up oatmeal is not difficult, but it takes a certain effort. You have to willfully put it in the steam table rather than make it to order. You have to willfully ignore the timing of a properly run kitchen and put it to the rail first because it's easy to plate, letting it cool and die while other orders are cooked. And in fucking up this particular oatmeal, the kitchen also has to willfully disregard its own menu description, serving not a lovely, torched-sugar masterpiece of sophisticated classicism, but an ugly bowl of dull, gooey, lukewarm gray oats.
Next to me, Schlegel is talking with one of his regulars, describing how his nights go. He opens at 1:30 in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays to catch the bar crowds, to get a nice little pop that cools out by three, which is when the industry people start coming in -- bartenders and DJs and doormen and kitchen crews from those places that serve right up until last call. They keep him going until five-ish, leaving his floor staff just enough time to get set for the early breakfast hit that starts around six. At seven, Snooze can take advantage of its full liquor license, serving an array of morning cocktails: top-shelf hair-of-the-dog and emergency conscience-killers for the smart set. I've seen the place at eight in the morning, at eleven in the morning on weekends, when drinkers are packed around the bar and every table is full.
The scene is very different at eleven on weekdays, when most people are thinking lunch. And because the lunch offerings -- a burger, a turkey club sandwich, grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup and a couple of salads -- are even less engaging than those on the breakfast menu, this is when I've eaten Schlegel's pancakes, the only reason I can see for coming here at lunchtime, when eating options abound. Snooze makes a filling plate of flapjacks, serving them singularly or in flights -- one of each variety, a sort of pancake sampler platter. The menu regularly offers both a pineapple upside-down pancake -- very good, topped with a generous pat of compound cinnamon butter and thickly studded with whole pieces of caramelized golden pineapple -- and a chocolate-and-peanut-butter pancake, laced with dark chocolate sauce and topped with peanut butter crème that I like somewhat less, but only because I'm not a peanut butter kind of guy. There's also a pancake du jour, which I imagine is the release valve for all that pent-up culinary creativity in the kitchen, an opportunity for the cooks to go crazy in the pancake milieu.
If nothing else, Schlegel deserves credit for bringing last-call pancakes to the scurrying Let Out refugees. His is not a great restaurant, but it's a successful restaurant: pretty but vacant, stylish but hollow, more place than action and more scene than anything else. As a restaurant built for people who care less about what's on the menu than how they look ordering from that menu, it's ideal. As a middle-of-the-night refuge in a neighborhood that has no other, it's handy when the zombies are on the prowl. And I'm sure there will be nights when I'll be thankful to see Schlegel standing by his front door like the Omega Man himself, bathed in light and the smell of warm syrup.
But Snooze is a restaurant that delivers on everything it promises only because it promises so little. And as I get up to leave -- paying my bill and brushing past Schlegel, who's already got his eye on the street for the next potential party -- all I can think is that I'd been hoping for something more.
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