I love the Brown Palace. I've never spent a night there, never seen the inside of one of the rooms, never even gotten off the ground floor, but something about the place just moves me. Which is odd, because normally I don't care a whit for architecture, have no particular love for any history that doesn't involve me personally, and have never cared much about any surroundings that weren't restaurant surroundings. I've lived in my car for long stretches, rented the kinds of apartments that hookers would pass on as too depressing, and slept on the beach (not a good beach, either). I've often told Laura that if it weren't for her, I would be perfectly content living in one of those eighty-dollar-a-month storage lockers out by the interstate — and I know that, because I have. I didn't think it was weird at all, just dirt cheap and convenient as all get-out until I got caught.
The Brown Palace, though, comes close to what I've occasionally imagined heaven might look like: big and wide open, with a huge stained-glass skylight capping some distant ceiling, a well-connected concierge standing by, several restaurants to choose from and a nearby bar that not only stocks a fine collection of bottled Irish brain lubricant, but lets me smoke. I've been to the Brown maybe a dozen times since coming to Denver five years ago, and I never get tired of walking into that lobby. Nor do I get tired of the booze, of the sound of hard-soled shoes echoing on the tiled floors, of watching the door around back where all the help — potato-shaped housekeepers, slumping cooks, young runners, whippet-thin dishwashers and off-duty valets — stands clustered, smoking, making fun of the guests, talking shit to each other in languages where I can only pick out the curse words.
One recent weekend, I arranged to meet relatives at the Brown. They were from the full-Mick side of the family, in town on a stopover to play some golf before moving on to greener pastures, interested in hanging out because — being the half-estranged little cur that I am - I hadn't seen a lot of them for about ten or fifteen years. So we made plans to gather for a downscale, casual Friday dinner at the Ship Tavern, then to convene again on Saturday at the Palace Arms, the fancy-pants room where I had one of my best meals of 2006 ("Fantasy Land," December 21, 2006). My darling wife, Laura, absolutely refuses to eat at the Palace Arms — something about the fucking yuppies, foie gras and never getting dressed up unless someone is getting hitched or going in the dirt — but I cajoled her into trying the Ship.
321 17th Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Jalapeo poppers: $15
Shrimp cocktail: $13
Seafood chowder: $6
Lobster roll: $18
Tuna steak: $33
Fish and chips: $18.50
"Cinch," I told her. "Cheeseburgers and beer. It's nothing."
"I'm not getting dressed up."
"No one's asking you to."
"And no one's making me eat sea bugs or French food, either."
The Ship has been open seventy-odd years. It was a celebratory addition to the Brown, marking the end of Prohibition in 1934, and modeled after the East Coast fish restaurants that had become insanely popular among the slumming riche hankering for the old-timey charm of the wharf restaurants that had once serviced the passengers of the clippers docked in New York harbor. As a matter of fact, the place still looks that way — remaining doggedly true to a kind of Crow's Nest/Rusty Scupper endotype with its wooden ships, blue-and-white-checked tablecloths, nautically themed booths and unbelievably uncomfortable bar stools with anchors and whatnot picked out in upholstery tacks. Although there's a plonky piano at one end of the bar, as well as a couple of TVs, the dust hanging from the rigging of the model clippers in the windows is probably a few decades older than I am. And a strange sense of creeping decrepitude keeps trying to sneak in over the transom, thwarted only by the throbbing energy of a dining room that is, on occasion, inexplicably full.
Okay, not entirely inexplicably. One of the great advantages of working a hotel restaurant is the sure knowledge that no matter how badly you fuck something up, the people will just keep coming. New people every night, every week, on and on. And they're going to keep coming, even if you embarrass yourself by putting jalapeño poppers on the menu (as the Ship does), even if you serve the single-worst fish fry I've ever had outside of a chain restaurant, even if you're trying to pass off the totally done-and-dead trend of Asian-fusion ahi appetizers and just praying to God no one notices.
Well, I noticed the minute I opened the menu. Here was a restaurant limping along next to the city's last old-guard Frog temple, and it was serving fucking jalapeño poppers? Sure, they'd been prettied up — tempura-fried, stuffed with lobster-jacked cream cheese, decorated with sauces from squeeze bottles and paint brushes. And sure, they were a great way to use up all the extra lobster head and back and leg meat kicking around the kitchen, keeping food costs low. Yes, the chef is a bookkeeping genius. And, no, I don't care. I don't care how well the things sell (and I'm sure they sell very well), because you know what else sells well? Crack cocaine and riblets. And as a chef, there should be some depths to which you are unwilling to sink. No matter what you do to jalapeño poppers, they're going to look like they were pooped out the back end of a Food-O-Matic 5000 and taste like something I could get from the freezer case at Costco.
The fish fry was even more horrifying. I don't how this kitchen found a fish that grows cylindrical filets, but just because it comes a little cheaper from the distributor with the Chernobyl billing address doesn't mean that anyone ought to buy it. I've had better fish from the drive-thru at Long John Silver's. This should have come with an eye patch and a paper pirate hat. And the potato wedges somehow managed to be both burnt and limp at the same time. The burgers were passable, though, and the New England seafood chowder was fantastic — so good, in fact, that it convinced me I should return, if only to figure out how a kitchen that had screwed itself so badly on a simple fish-and-chips platter could make such a dense, layered and deeply flavorful chowder.
The next night, our dinner at the Palace Arms passed pleasantly enough (see Second Helping, page 62) and bled over even more pleasantly into Saturday night at the Churchill Bar. But you can't compare a meal at the Ship to one at the Palace Arms; it would be less like comparing apples to oranges than comparing apples to osetra caviar. I'm not (yet) so addled as to insist that all restaurants serve duck consommé or saumon braconné dans l'aspic; besides, put a really good cheeseburger and a really good foie-gras-topped Rossini on the table in front of me, and eight nights out of ten I'm going to just murder that cheeseburger and ask for seconds.
Still, it killed me that the Ship — with its separate kitchen, own crew and dedicated chef — existed in the same hotel as the Palace Arms yet was turning out food like the cooks were wearing mittens. There were only two possible reasons: Either the kitchen was cooking for some sort of totally imaginary lowest common denominator, or it had been kept isolated in its heat-lamped hotel arcology for too long to understand that a tuna steak with more stamps on its passport than an international jewel thief was not going to impress anyone. I was determined to find out what the problem was.
So I returned to the Ship the next Saturday night, after my relatives had left town, and sat at the bar, drinking and watching the floor to see what the guests were eating: steaks, the tuna, burgers and (fuck me) jalapeño poppers. I, on the other hand, ordered another simple classic, the steamers: clams and oysters in a simple broth redolent of garlic and pancetta. Thinking I was on to something with the chowder and clams, I went back again on Monday and skipped the pistachio-crusted halibut in chardonnay sauce (ugh) and the mushroom risotto with scallops and truffle-chive emulsion (because together, truffles and seafood smell like a foot), and instead started with a shrimp cocktail of massive U-15 shrimp. The shrimp were poorly deveined but perfectly boiled in court bouillon (something that most restaurants just don't do anymore because it's old-fashioned and not progressive enough). Bad knife work aside, it was amazing to taste chilled shrimp that were allowed to taste like shrimp, rather than sugarcane or galangal or adobo or whatever else some uppity, smarty-pants, book-smart cook gets it in his head to marinate, poach or pickle them in. Eternally hopeful, I next tried the Maine lobster-salad sandwich — really a lobster roll, and a great one: half a good-sized Maine lobster, ideally cooked, thinly dressed in what I swear must have been handmade mayonnaise, topped with sliced avocado (which I pushed off to the side) and mounted on a brioche roll that I know was made in-house.
That final meal confirmed what I'd decided about the Ship: Go with the strength of the house, which is basically anything that might have been found on the menu back when the place opened seven decades ago, and skip absolutely everything displaying a misguided urge toward contemporary relevance, even a whiff of modernity.
There's this joke: A guy walks into a museum and sees George Washington's ax, the one he used to chop down the cherry tree. The guy goes to the curator and says, "No way. Is that really George Washington's ax?" And the curator says, "Absolutely. Of course, it's very old, so the head has been replaced twice and the handle three times. But, yes, that's George Washington's ax, all right."
As I walked out of the Ship on Monday night, having finally gotten a good meal on my third try, I couldn't help but think of that joke. Over the years, the walls have been repainted, the stools replaced and the kitchen rebuilt a few times, the menu stuffed full of wasabi and pistachio, Kobe burgers and Hawaiian ahi in unagi sauce — but it's the Ship Tavern, all right.
So, can I interest you in some jalapeño poppers?
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.