It had been years since I’d had a full meal at Table 6. I’d met family there for appetizers, had even popped in for a glass of wine and tater tots on my way home from work, using the low-key communal bar to ease the transition from a solitary day at the computer to the busyness of home. But to sit back and lose myself in conversation as hours passed and servers brought course after course my way? I hadn’t done that since Bush was president and Potter-mania was at its peak.
Yet there I was on a snowy Thursday night, sharing such a long meal with a friend that her husband texted repeatedly, and she, fearing an emergency, finally apologetically checked her phone. As she did so, I thought about what this restaurant meant to the city when it first opened eleven years ago. My friend had never heard of the place before we agreed to meet there, but had she been in town back then, Table 6 would have certainly been on her short list, as it was for anyone who cared about food and was tired of steak. Started by the owners of the then-wildly popular but now-forgotten Adega, the restaurant crackled with the intensity of a place doing something new and doing it well, and it was an instant hit. John Mariani, Esquire’s influential food writer, took notice, naming it one of the country’s 21 best new restaurants that year — and even more people squeezed into the humble dining room, willing to wait two hours for a shot at founding chef Aaron Whitcomb’s food.
Looking back, it’s not hyperbole to say that Table 6 helped Denver get where it is today, nudging it from culinary backwater to a city that shares the same conversational space as the great food towns of Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine. Denver’s dining scene has definitely improved with age — but can the same be said for Table 6? The restaurant has changed hands and chefs several times over the years, most recently last fall, when Michael Winston returned; he’d line-cooked at Table 6 in its second heyday, under Scott Parker, who later moved to Session Kitchen.
That the restaurant is still around after all this time is no small feat, considering the size and scope of the competition. I wondered if it would feel old-timey, like Julia Child’s kitchen in the Smithsonian showing how restaurants used to look and act. But as I pushed my way past the velvet curtains that keep the cold air out of the dining room, I felt the same connection I’d always felt. The room does feel old, but there’s not even the faintest hint of that clinging-to-life melancholy you find in restaurants past their prime. If floorboards gap under your feet and chalkboards hang by the kitchen, they’re in the same comfortable vein as the host’s charming offer to take my coat. He followed that up with an equally rare gesture, letting me choose my seat. “Most guests prefer these tables along the wall,” he said, indicating the coveted ones against the exposed brick with a sweep of his hand. His words may not sound like much, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been led to the worst table in the house, even in a near-empty dining room, as if the host had no understanding of the difference a table makes, and no interest in thinking like a guest.
Our server followed in the host’s knowledgeable but easygoing footsteps, appearing when we needed him, never hovering or rushing, steering us to items he particularly liked. Other servers were just as adept at reading what kind of meal we’d come in for, anticipating questions before they were asked, translating our wine interests and setting me up with the “wacky, delicious wine of the night,” a light-bodied Italian red I wouldn’t have chosen but fully enjoyed. Credit for the front-of-the-house finesse belongs to Aaron Forman, who’s served as Table 6’s general manager from the start and became an owner in 2006.
The menu is still smart — approachable enough for everyone to find something to eat, yet quirky enough that it isn’t tired. In that, it’s very much like the decor, which appears quite genteel until you notice the chalkboard drawings of Snap, Crackle and Pop and a flower-spewing phonograph, or listen to the server go on about that wacky wine. But where the menu once felt vibrantly, resoundingly alive, the ones I saw seemed pleasantly routine, the way real life feels after you’ve been hiking fourteeners or ziplining in rainforests, or whatever it is you do that makes your pulse pound and time slow.
Ten years ago, it would’ve been enough just to pair candied yams with lemongrass chicken scaloppini, to drizzle fried Brussels sprouts with black-vinegar truffle vinaigrette. These days, such combinations have become the new normal. The Brussels sprouts could’ve been swapped for plates at a dozen restaurants; still, the ubiquitous pile of crisp, salty leaves kept us reaching for more without stopping to notice what we were eating. We did, however, stop talking long enough to savor slabs of crusty bread so good we risked doing what our mothers always warned us about: filling up on bread before dinner. But what can you do when presented with that crust, that chewy crumb, that softened, sea-salt-speckled butter?
The rest of the food took up where those sprouts left off, though: nothing so clever or impeccably prepared that it stopped the show, nothing so clunky that it drew us out of our conversation, regardless of what conversation I was having, which night and with whom. That’s less a criticism than a fact: Not every meal has to distinguish itself with sparklers and a marching band.
So we talked our way through tater tots with hazelnut-herb aioli, and ravioli as fat as meatballs stuffed with a blend of smoked char and cream cheese. We shared stories of how we met our spouses over burnt ends fashioned not with brisket, but lamb collar rubbed with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cumin and coriander, the barbecue sauce not Kansas City-style, but sweet nonetheless, thanks to poached figs. Another night, said spouse and I shared those parts of our day that you air only with the person who knows you best, trading bites of sage sausage and bread pudding streaked with sultana-raisin purée, the maple-blueberry drizzle a nod to today’s fascination with brunch.(Table 6, incidentally, has built quite a reputation for the meal, despite its lack of Bloody Marys; the restaurant serves beer and wine only.) We hashed out travel plans over short ribs that united West (in black-pepper spaetzle) and East (with bok choy), the latter being near to Winston’s heart after stints at Izakaya Den and TAG. More than anything, this is food that real life happens by, the stuff of dinners with Grandma, date nights, friends deepening a friendship.
What a difference small attentions in plating could make, though. Pork spring rolls, for example, seemed like an easy way out, two large rolls cut on the bias, stuffed with pork I would have liked better on its own, the meat redolent of the oyster sauce and ginger in which it had been braised. Why not serve them unwrapped, the better to appreciate that pork — and distance them from the scads of spring rolls served at chain restaurants across America?
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And just because the menu boasts those eccentric combinations that have become the new definition of comfort food, execution shouldn’t be quite so relaxed. Short ribs were dry, their meaty strands pointy, and so cool that the thick slice of sesame-garlic butter on top failed to wilt around the edges, much less melt into a sauce. Housemade ravioli were thick and tough. Chocolate-filled beignets were warm, not hot, and caked in an avalanche of powdered sugar. If ever there were a time to retire those beignets — and tater tots, while we’re at it — this is it. No one can fake enthusiasm where it doesn’t exist: not a man when asked if he wants to catch a chick flick, certainly not a kitchen that’s been making the same dishes for years.
Winston’s arrival presents a rare opportunity for Table 6, which has mellowed over time into a comfortable restaurant that’s sure to deliver an enjoyable meal. That’s something in itself, but for a restaurant that used to really Be Something, is it enough? Where Winston takes Table 6 from here will determine if there’s still anywhere new for this neighborhood spot to go.
609 Corona Street
Fried Brussels sprouts $10
Tater tots $8
Pork spring rolls $9
Smoked-char ravioli $23
Short ribs $29
Lamb burnt ends $25
Table 6 is open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at table6denver.com or call 303-831-8800.