Under my Grand Unified Theory of Steakhouses, the operation of any steakhouse can be diagrammed the way a particle physicist diagrams an atom. The customers come and go through the dining room like electrons jigging through the outer valences, entering with full wallets measured as an excess of positrons, then bouncing out of their orbits two hours later having been stripped down to neutrons and pocket change for the valet.
In a mediocre steakhouse (as with sex and pizza, it's rare that a steakhouse sinks to the level of truly bad; instead, there are varying degrees of satisfaction), the cash register is at the center, atomic weight measured by the amount of cash extracted from the happy electrons that fill the tables every night. Conversely, a good steakhouse has the nucleus situated firmly in the heart of the kitchen, with tiny little subatomic units scampering about -- quarks and muons all white-hatted and bound up in chef's coats -- circulating around a magnetic core made up of several grills, a big cooler and some meta-particle in the shape of a giant butcher's illustration of a cow, further broken down into its own constituent parts.
On the periodic table of steakhouses, Elway's fits somewhere in the goofy quadrant. Far to the left of the more staid and stable elements -- the iron and hydrogen neighborhood populated by the Palm, Morton's and Sullivan's -- but also right of the noble gases, that ether inhabited locally by the Capital Grille and Del Frisco's. It's down in the sticky southern latitudes, among the radioactive, the fractious, the inherently rare and unstable. Elway's is steakhouse radium, born with a half-life -- a built-in expiration date equal to that of the fading glitter of celebrity. It is restaurant trinitite, entirely man-made and existing with no natural precursor.
Just saying the name "Elway's" drives a certain breed of Coloradan into paroxysms of fanatical lust, conjuring up sweaty dreams of Big John slouching around the back of the house in his Hall of Fame jersey, flipping burgers and grilling tenderloins for the masses. And just saying it drives a certain other breed of Coloradan into fits of giggles. Do we really need another celebrity restaurant? Not just in Denver, but anywhere? In this brave new post-Planet Hollywood world, haven't the idols learned that there are still some places (granted, they are precious few) where their names and grinning faces are not welcome? Think the Model Cafe (which was a joke before it ever opened, and closed to peals of cruel laughter). Think NYLA, the place Britney Spears threw her insignificant weight behind in New York. Locally, think Dante Bichette's or Larry Walker's or Lyle Alzado's. The restaurant world manufactures its own celebrities, thank you very much, and we've always been cultish about them, reacting with automatic scorn and reflexive contempt for outsiders trying to get us through the door of Michael Jackson's King of Pop Soda Fountain or Spielberg's Chicken and Waffles.
But here, Elway, the icon, is far less important to the success of Elway's, the restaurant, than is the triumvirate of businessman Elway, partner Tim Schmidt (of Hacienda Colorado and the Black-eyed Pea chain before that) and manager Tom Moxcey. The restaurant isn't jammed with statuary or blanketed in Broncos paraphernalia; the tables aren't clothed in blue and orange; the menu isn't front-loaded with Quarterback Burgers. The dining room looks like a shrine to the steak, not a temple of celebrity.
"We wanted a restaurant that lived up to its name, not a restaurant that was its name," explains Moxcey. And when he says "we," he means all three of them, because Elway -- in a surprising departure from most personality-driven restaurants -- was there through the entire process. He came to design meetings, helped map the concept of the restaurant, and walked through the space as it was constructed. He was in on the discussions of pricing, of serving Prime steaks over Choice. All three men knew exactly what they wanted before the first brick was laid, before the first cook was hired, long before the doors opened to the public.
And what they wanted was a steakhouse that wasn't just a steakhouse. "John and Tim and I all thought that we'd start with that -- the Colorado-steakhouse concept -- as a base and wander from there," Moxcey says. "We thought there were enough starched-shirt places in town and that we could do something more...casual? No. Well, yeah -- I guess Œcasual' is the right word. We thought we could make our own niche where you could decide what you want to spend and what you want to eat. That's why you can come into our dining room and see one table where one side is eating, you know, a nice big steak chop, and the other side has a burger."
Or rotisserie-roasted chicken. Or grilled, farm-raised salmon, tilapia and black cod. Or duck tacos, prepared and plated more in the style of a New American restaurant, with two small, thick flour tortillas stuck into an overflowing bowl of heavily seasoned meat, sided by another bowl of surprisingly good guac and a third of thin salsa. Or an excellent, inch-thick slab of bloody-rare, center-cut prime rib.
The shrimp cocktail I'd ordered to go with my prime rib arrived at the table smoking like some mad-scientist's experiment gone wrong. The culprit was dry ice, juiced with a shot of warm water, sitting in the well below the shrimp and cocktail sauce. And while I could've done without the highly public theater of the presentation (every other diner was watching and snickering while I waited for the clouds to clear), I understood the intent, this lurch toward the surprising and the silly that includes a dessert menu packed with DingDongs and homemade s'mores (with factory marshmallows, but a nice, housemade melted-chocolate ganache), and warm cookies and milk.
It's because Elway's, in addition to being a celebrity steakhouse (where the celebrity in question sometimes drops by to press the flesh and sign a few autographs), a Colorado steakhouse and a Cherry Creek steakhouse complete with jacketed valets who park the nicest cars closest to the front doors, is also a fun steakhouse, of all things. That's difficult to pull off when prices top out around the serious, $40-per-plate range, and your core demographic takes its meat-eating very seriously. But Elway's gets away with it, because the partners put so much thought into how they could make their place feel so offhand casual.
There was no component of this launch that wasn't planned, no element of the dining experience that wasn't considered and discussed at length and trained for before the first customer walked through the door. Elway's served thousands of practice meals before the grand opening, held two weeks of staged dinners and more than fifteen formal tastings during the planning of the menu. Even now, six months out from the opening, there are still weekly wine meetings, daily staff meetings, and an understanding throughout the house that every night, every seating and every plate is another test.
"Training, that kind of thing, it never just ends," Moxcey says. And he's right. Think that way, and all you can ever get is better.
Which isn't to say that Elway's is flawless. Forethought, while putting you in a very healthy evolutionary position, doesn't guarantee perfection. In fact, the dining room gives off an overplanned vibe. Something in the arrangement of walls and bar and sweeping expanse of floor makes the space seem almost subconsciously fake, as though it was extruded whole from some giant restaurant-model-building machine rather than actually constructed piece by piece in the old Coyote Cafe space. The banquette seating on the far side of the lobby's granite fountain was no doubt put there so that valuable square footage wouldn't be wasted, but when you're seated there, the tinkling water behind you makes you feel like you're eating in a gigantic, though very well-appointed, men's room. And thanks to the row of elevated booths in front, you have a view of nothing but other people eating, interrupted by the occasional server flashing past on his way to the kitchen.
In the atomic model of steakhouses, the nucleus at Elway's is lodged firmly in its kitchen, with everything good radiating outward from this core of knowledge and skill. The cooks on Elway's line know their grills and, under the direction of executive chef Charles Schwerd (a veteran of Ruth's Chris, Drinkwater's City Hall Steakhouse and the Mastro restaurant group in Arizona, with a decade spent in the family meatpacking business), have a better understanding of butchery and the blood-and-bone science of cooking a steak than most kitchens could beg, borrow or steal. Ever steak I've ordered here was done precisely to the temperature I asked, then presented alone on a bigger plate than necessary, so that the expanse of unused white china -- this formal absence of starch and veg -- implies that the steak alone is enough, unrivaled by any lesser inclusions. The sides are handled competently, with no particular flair or significant weaknesses, offering a fairly standardized board of creamed spinach (heavy on the cream), grilled asparagus, wedge salads (pure iceberg, the way God intended) and potatoes of every standard derivation.
Planned and practiced and trained for, the good on Elway's menu is almost reflexive. Unfortunately, the bad is the same way, with poor choices ingrained into the kitchen by robotic repetition, resulting in a roasted-corn-and-potato chowder that was frighteningly over-salted one night, then over-salted to exactly the same puckering level each subsequent time I ordered it. The homemade potato chips were overcooked, and overcooked the same way twice; the coleslaw was unappetizingly bland on a Friday when it came with a decent white-cheddar-and-bacon cheeseburger, and unappetizingly bland again on a Monday when served with a well-considered and expertly prepared ground-duck burger. And while the lobster tail, that indispensable high-end moneymaker on any steakhouse menu, was fantastic -- lovely and buttery and delicately handled by a kitchen that, although obviously beef-centric, recognizes the contrasting rigors of seafood prep and presentation -- it had been mounted atop its shell with dots of mashed potato. As an adhesive, potatoes are better than Elmer's glue, better than a staple gun, certainly better than having every other plate returned when the lobster topples off its post before reaching the table. But using mashed potato also results in the bottom of the tail being smeared with the stuff, which ruins that indulgent hit of luxury that should be the only sensation when you take your first bite of lobster dressed in clarified butter.
Still, the practiced casualness of the place and the serious expertise brought to the menu's showcase list of prime rib, T-bone and strip steaks make these minor flaws almost forgettable. It's hard to complain about a smear of potatoes when there's a big, honkin' lobster tail in front of you. It's tough to hang on to much animosity over the splash of a fountain when it's drowned out by the sizzle of a huge whack of bone-in filet, done a perfect mid-rare, cut and gleaming on a plate dampened with water to make it sputter and pop when presented.
Which is a nice trick, by the way, proof positive that while Elway's is couched in science -- meticulously planned, marketed and modeled from the atom out -- the partners also recognize the importance of both the sizzle and the steak.
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