This was not the kind of place I was likely to review. It was not the kind of place where I was ever likely to eat, much less steal a menu from.
And yet here I was, puzzling over a menu that I lifted from Reiver's a week or so before, following the links in prep, set and stock that repeated through the appetizer, sandwich, entree and specialty portions of chef Ruperto Dominguez's daily board. Crab in the artichoke dip, in the crabcake app with avocado aioli, in the crab melt and crab enchiladas. Avocados in multiple presentations. Spiced walnuts decorating half a dozen salads and pastas. Gorgonzola in the baby-spinach salad, in the penne pasta and as a compound butter -- along with walnuts -- on top of the New York strip entree. Horseradish everywhere. Onions. Pesto. To a connoisseur of menus -- which I am, even more sometimes than I am of the food itself -- this repetition, these reiterations of individual foods across a broad swath of plates, was telling. They spoke of a chef squeezing the maximum impact out of a cramped kitchen budget, a smart guy who knew how to order, how to organize prep, how to tweak a neighborhood-joint menu into something unique without going all fern-bar sissy or weird or crazy in the process. It was a good menu, a workhorse enlivened by at least one surprise per plate -- simple grilled salmon topped with an artistic lemon, tomato and caper cream sauce like an angry béchamel; a chicken sandwich rubbed with pesto, then topped with a scratch tapenade of artichokes and roasted red peppers. It was also not a menu I expected to find at Reiver's.
By reputation, Reiver's was little more than another aging neighborhood bar in a city that seems to hang on to them with desperate, sometimes insane tenacity. Opened in 1977, the last real stir it provoked was a decade ago, when Dan Shipp (now the owner of seven other restaurants around Denver and the mountains) bought it from its founder. From the tented patio that angles out into the flow of sidewalk traffic, I could see six other restaurants -- each of them newer and, in their own ways, more interesting than Reiver's. Or so I thought. I'd been visiting this block for almost five years, following chefs and menus and openings and closings in the rich yuppie/college kid/soccer-mom microcosm of Old South Gaylord. Baked goods, sushi, cheeseburgers, tacos, cold beers, warm sake, expensive wine: There was plenty to do and plenty to eat. And Reiver's -- a storied but eminently missable landmark once popular among the coke-sniffles-and-Steely Dan crowd, now slowly slipping into doddering senescence - was nowhere near the top of my list. I only wound up there for lunch because of a waiting list, a broken parking brake and an argument about plantains with my darling wife Laura. This was a lunch of last resort, a surrender after too much time spent arguing back and forth about each other's various failings of intelligence, taste, upbringing and parallel-parking skills had left us starving and badly in need of several drinks.
There should be a word to describe an experience that does not suck nearly as bad as conventional wisdom had conditioned you to expect that it would. Probably some word in German, because the Germans have always been good at coming up with simple ways to express complex issues of psychological dissonance.
There should be another word to describe an experience that, in being so much better than you expected it would be, manages to transcend the bad mood that helped feed your low expectations in the first place. This word would likely have to be coined by one of America's legion of self-help-book writers because they pretty much corner the market on imaginary words invented to express complex issues of social or marital dissonance.
Unfortunately, neither of those words yet exist, so I was left with only a simple menu to explain how a single restaurant meal could turn all perceptions upside down.
"We're just doing simple pub food, you know? The kind of thing the neighbors want." That's what Shipp told me when I got him on the phone after taking a couple of turns through Reiver's. But what he told me wasn't true. The excellent chicken-fried steak I had with Laura at that first lunch -- pounded, milk-soaked, rubbed with horseradish, wrapped in prosciutto and then breaded Southern-style in crushed Saltine crackers -- was not simple pub food. The mussels pan-poached in garlic-saffron broth with a hit of sweet plum wine? Not standard fare at your local dive. Even the big green-chile cheeseburger with homemade church-picnic potato salad that stopped Laura's harangue about my callow Rust Belt tastes and lackluster emergency automotive repair skills was better than it had any right to be -- the roasted chiles a little more vegetable-y than I like, but still perfectly roasted, mounted whole atop a solid burger cooked a perfect medium-well.
So no, the food was not simple at all, and the recent history of Reiver's helped explain why. A few years after he purchased the place, Shipp said, he got it in his head to turn it into a white-tablecloth restaurant along the lines of the other spots opening up and down the street. There was a lot of money in the neighborhood -- money interested in fancy-pants cuisine, fine wines and guttering candles on the tables -- and Shipp wanted a piece. He brought in chef John Daly (ex- of Wolfgang Puck and Cuba Libre, now cooking at the California Cafe) to write a menu that was chock-a-block with loins of this and filets of that, expensive fish presentations and tartares. Another chef, Rocky Simpson, signed on to execute the Daly-designed menu. And then everyone just waited for the greenbacks to come rolling in.
But Reiver's had a name, a style, a reputation that did not jibe with the food now coming out of the kitchen, and the fine-dining crowd never materialized. Shipp started tinkering with the menu, pulling back the more costly dishes, losing some of the fancy entrees that simply refused to move. This might have signaled the start of a slow, grim death for Reiver's if not for one thing: Ruperto Dominguez. He'd been in the kitchen since before Shipp bought the place, before all the white-jackets were brought in to fuss and fluff up the menu. Dominguez was a cook, plain and true, and he did what the chefs told him. Chef wanted a tartare? Cool, he'd plate a tartare. Chef wanted filet mignon? No problem: Filet mignon was just a burger with a higher price tag -- two turns on the grill, add some wrap and out the door.
But eventually, the chefs all left -- and Dominguez stayed. He and his all-Hispanic crew had learned some nice tricks from the boys in white. More important, Dominguez had learned what worked and didn't work at Reiver's, because he'd had to cook through all the nights when no one was ordering the tartare and no one wanted the filet mignon or the fancy fish plates on the specials board. And Dominguez used what he knew to put together the current menu, that telling document of one cook's intimate understanding of his crowd. The burger-and-sandwich roster was still the largest section, because burgers and sandwiches were still the biggest sellers at Reiver's -- but not many pubs out there offer sandwiches of zucchini, squash and portobello marinated in balsamic vinegar, smeared with a restrained pistachio pesto and topped with slabs of melted brie; not many make their own barbecue sauce and their own custom salad dressings; roll their own compound butters; have daikon, baby spinach and pickled ginger on their order sheets; list four different aiolis on just the first page of the menu.
When Las Margaritas closed across the street (the space became Chi Bistro, reviewed last week), Dominguez bulked up the Mexican offerings at Reiver's, adding rellenos, simple steak tacos, five kinds of enchiladas and a killer smooth and smoky-sweet Colorado-style homemade green chile. Then last May, Shipp closed Reiver's for a while and gave it a top-to-toes remodel, gutting the dining rooms, putting in new taps, new TVs, new everything. "We kept what worked," Shipp explained. "We got rid of everything else."
And so today, while Reiver's still has the same old name and reputation, it's a completely new restaurant. It's comfortable, constructed along clean and simple lines, with a centrally located bar and wings of table seating stretching off to either side. There's a hostess stand, an antique wooden cabinet where the top-shelf liquors are kept, that patio with the tenting held down against the wind with sandbags. And the crowds have started coming back, the former regulars as well as recent arrivals in the neighborhood -- a lot of them with kids in tow, their strollers parked against the walls. Lunches are crowded, dinners are getting there, nights are busy with college kids, locals and serious drinkers who couldn't care less about the aioli drizzled over the calamari or the red grapes and walnuts tossed in with the penne and chicken in the parmesan-heavy béchamel. Bucket prices on PBRs? That they care about.
But slowly, other people are ordering not just the burgers and sandwiches that cover the bills, but the tenderloin cobb salad with green onion and horseradish cream. And the chicken marsala that's the special one night, the Cajun salmon the next, both coming out of some deep, communal well of line-cook know-how, from a playbook of never-fail plates.
Reiver's is not yet a great restaurant. It will probably never be a great restaurant. But it is a very good one with a reputation for being much, much less. Which just goes to show that a restaurant's reputation is only as good as the last meal there -- but meals can change a lot faster than most people's opinions.
And if it hadn't been for that emergency brake and those plantains, I might never have changed mine.
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