Not a Krispy Kreme doughnut in sight.
Our March 29 Best of Denver 2001 issue never mentioned Krispy Kreme, and that alone made it special. Only an announcement that Jesus was this doughnut outlet's franchise operator would justify the hullabaloo about the place, and even then, only for its Second Coming news value. I mean, it's just a doughnut. A delicious doughnut, but a doughnut nonetheless, and already the thing's had more press than flat-out boring FlatIrons Crossing and Park-a-Lot Meadows combined. The only thing I'd wait two hours to eat is free foie gras, and even then, it would have to be well prepared.
Like the fab foie at Triana (see review above), for example. This year's Best New Restaurant winner serves a fig-sweetened duck liver paired with applesauce cake, a dish that helped it edge out Amuse (1430 Pearl Street, Boulder), Micole (1469 South Pearl Street), Emma's (603 East Eighth Avenue) and Bloom (1 West Flatiron Circle, Broomfield) for the award. In the end, our final answer was based on the total package, and Triana has it all: amazing food, alluring decor, a great wine list and excellent service.
Like Triana and all of the other winners, the Night Shift Saloon (3095 South Peoria Street, Aurora) was entirely unaware that it was about to win a Best of Denver award, in this case for Best Hamburger. And since they weren't warned about what was coming, they ran out of ground beef the day the issue came out. "You know, it was definitely not the usual kind of fancy burger you guys have been picking in the past couple of years, but it was wonderful," enthused one caller, who said he got in just before the kitchen exhausted its meat supply. The Night Shift recovered pretty quickly, but should it happen again, bartender Marilyn Rearick says the burgers aren't the only thing diners ought to check out. "We have great Mexican food, too," she informed me. But when I've been in the place, I've never gotten beyond the burger -- a big, fat, juicy monster, the kind of burger that's exactly what you want when a craving hits. And since it's just $3.75 for a plain burger and $4 for one topped by cheese, you can easily go another buck for some good, thick-cut fries.
The cluttered, divey Night Shift is just the kind of place we like to celebrate in the Best of Denver. The joint was owned by Mary Kay Stammer -- she's credited with inventing the great burger that's served today -- for fourteen years before she turned it over to longtime bartenders J.R. and Colleen Ripe in 1998. But before we settled on the Night Shift, we also ate many other worthy contenders: Devotees should also check out the burgers at Bang! (3472 West 32nd Avenue), winner of this year's Best Resurrection of a Restaurant and last year's Best Burger winner; CityGrille (321 East Colfax Avenue), winner of Best Power Lunch this year; 3rd Ave. Eclectic Burgers and Cuisine (3000 East Third Avenue), winner of the Best Over-the-Top Burger this year; Mel's Bar and Grill (235 Fillmore Street), the Best New American eatery; and Trinity Grille (1801 Broadway), which has won the burger award in the past.
Another hotly contested category this year was chicken wings. After Rocky Mountain News critic John Lehndorff rated his faves this winter, several well-known purveyors of the bird appendages cried fowl, and I heard from several who asked to be checked out. Of the dozen on the list, two stood head and wings above the rest: winner Piper Inn (2251 South Parker Road), and bw-3's Buffalo Wild Wings (8350 West 80th Avenue in Arvada). Both places offer excellent versions of true Buffalo wings (lots of buttery hot sauce and crispy skin), but over two visits to bw-3's it became clear that they have some service issues. The fact that this joint seemed cranky and uncooperative compared to a biker bar -- the Piper Inn -- should tell you something.
The worst wings I tried came from Hot Wings to Go (45 West First Avenue), which were delivered well beyond the promised 45 minutes and had become all soggy from the steam in the styrofoam boxes. These wings were so teeny and scrawny they must have come from robins, although they were covered with a good, Buffalo-style sauce.
The sauces were what compelled me to choose Little Ollie's Chinese (2364 East Third Avenue) for Best Chinese this year, but one e-mailer apparently didn't agree with my selection. "It may be helpful to distinguish between Chinese restaurants and American-Chinese restaurants," the reader wrote. "How many native Chinese do you see at Little Ollie's?" Well, sometimes that's a good indication -- and you don't see many at this popular Cherry Creek restaurant. On the other hand, while a clientele that's almost entirely Asian may indicate that a Chinese restaurant is authentic, it doesn't necessarily mean it's good: It's not like Chinese natives have a lot of palatable, authentic options in this town. And if the cornstarch-thickened glop that tastes like the coating on a candy apple is what distinguishes Chinese from American-Chinese, I'll take the latter any day. And at least all of the cooks at Little Ollie's are Asian. What did our readers pick for Best Chinese Restaurant? The very, very American, slightly Chinese P.F. Chang.
I also received an incoherent e-mail complaining that editorial choices get much more attention in the Best of Denver than do the readers' choices. For this recurring whine, I utter two words: Taco Bell. That fast-food institution has been the readers' pick for Best Taco for eighteen straight years and counting. And this year, in addition to listing the readers' choices at the end of the editorial choices, we also devoted a page to them (page 16, if you haven't worn out your copy -- and if you have, check out westword.com). This page comes in handy if you want a fast guide to winners of the Best of Denver 2001 Readers' Poll -- and only those winners. Tante Louise, for example, was the readers' pick for Best Romantic Restaurant (owing to what I'm assured was a last-second production problem, that pick wound up on the wrong line of the final page of the restaurant section).
It wouldn't be the Best of Denver if there wasn't a glitch or two. In past years, for instance, a few winners have shut their doors while the edition was still on the press. So far this year, there have been no reported fatalities -- but we did get a call from the 35th Avenue Grille at the Park Hill Golf Club (4141 East 35th Avenue), winner of the Best Sunday Brunch Buffet award, informing us that it had recently dropped the brunch due to lack of interest. "I just came on board in October," explains chef Jim Granlund, "and one of the first things the owners said was that the brunch wasn't working. I made some changes, but the public just wasn't supporting it."
But this story has a happy ending: Granlund says the restaurant received so many calls after the Best of Denver 2001 hit the streets that they went ahead and reinstituted the brunch this past weekend to a packed house and rave reviews. "I'd say it's safe to say we're going to keep it going," he adds.
As readers have time to digest the Best of Denver, I'm sure we'll be hearing more about this year's picks. But in the meantime, I have a bone to pick with restaurants that change their hours or days of operation without updating their answering machines, the signs on their front doors or their Web sites -- an all-too-common occurrence around here. How hard is it to remember that people who want to eat at your place would like to know when it's open?
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.