Smokin' to the left, smokin' to the right: It's getting harder and harder to find a restaurant that still welcomes smokers -- even the very casual Benny's Restaurant y Cantina (301 East Seventh Avenue) considered taking itself off the list of possibilities. Earlier this year, the popular Mexican eatery printed up a form asking patrons whether Benny's should go smoke-free. "Secondhand smoke has become a serious health threat, especially harmful to children," the questionnaire pointed out.
But when owner Benny Armas tabulated the results, he realized that a healthy minority of his customers didn't care about the health hazards of smoking in restaurants. "A little less than 60 percent said to go ahead and make it smoke-free," Armas says, "so I'd say we'll keep the smoking. Forty percent is too many people to make such a serious change. But we are going to do some things that will make it better for the 60 percent who don't want smoking."
Armas has already installed new smoke vents and an exhaust fan that sucks the smoke out every hour or so. "We're also going to divide up the bar area and put in some partitions and stuff that will separate the smokers better," he adds. "That way, we'll accommodate everyone."
In the meantime, Benny's has been working on another problem that resulted in the restaurant's being fined $300 by Denver's Department of Environmental Health for poor hygienic practices (a notice was subsequently posted on the eatery's door). On a regular inspection tour of the restaurant on December 4, 2001, the department cited Benny's for failing to have adequate hand-washing facilities for employees and also for employees failing to make sure their hands were clean. Overall, though, the restaurant has gotten a pretty clean bill of health over the years -- you can view its inspection reports, along with those for any other Denver eatery, at denvergov.org -- and Armas promises to continue cleaning up Benny's act. That includes working harder to keep part of his space smoke-free while making smokers continue to feel welcome.
Another hospitable spot for smokers is the bar/smoking section of CityGrille (321 East Colfax Avenue), which recently remodeled (hardwood floors in the bar area, a new awning and a paint job) and also added Saturday lunches. "We've been open on Sundays for about three or four months now," says part owner Rich Salturelli. "The response has been so good that we decided to open on Saturdays for lunch, too. On our first Saturday, February 9, we did more than a hundred lunches."
Not bad for a neighborhood eatery in a neighborhood that's rather quiet on weekends -- although now that the Red Room has finally opened across the street at 320 East Colfax, that area east of the Capitol could liven up considerably. Part of CityGrille's draw is the daily specials, which Salturelli's partner, Dave Minty, has expanded through the weekend. On Saturdays, the bargain is the prime rib, a twelve-ounce slice with a baked potato, veggie and salad for $10.95.
Another option for both decent food and a smoker-friendly atmosphere is the J&L Cafe (4101 Kipling Street, Wheat Ridge), a tiny place filled with photos of classic cars and James Dean that makes great homemade pie, a mean burrito and a so-so cheesesteak (the green peppers and onions could use some more time on the grill). This joint is all smoking, all the time: Even the owners occasionally escape their duties in the kitchen to enjoy a smoke break in the dining area. Breakfast Inn, Dinner Too (6135 East Evans Avenue) has a very generous smoking section, as do the Edgewater Inn (5302 West 25th Avenue, Edgewater), the Campus Lounge (701 South University Boulevard) and the Bonnie Brae Tavern (740 South University). For a fancier meal, you can smoke on the bar side of Sacre Bleu (410 East Seventh Avenue) while munching on a seared tenderloin sandwich from the tasty bar menu.
Have other nominations for where nicotine-craving diners can find smokin' deals? Send them in.
Labor pains: Although both Nate's Café and its namesake, Nathan Joseph, have yet to be born, plans for both are well under way. David Nicholson, a veteran chef who took seven years off to work in telecommunications, once cooked at the original Tivoli location of the Rattlesnake Grill as well as at Today's Gourmet (which became Highland's Garden Café, at 3927 West 32nd Avenue); more recently he worked at Jax Fish House (1539 17th Street) and Pino's Place (3 Wilcox Street, Castle Rock), a popular Italian spot. Now he's expecting to open his own place, in the former home of the D.C. Deli (275 South Logan Street) -- just a week before the April 13 due date of Nathan Joseph, his first child.
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Nate's Café is going to be much more ambitious than the D.C. Deli ever was. "We're calling it 'contemporary American,'" says Nicholson. "Fresh ingredients, with dishes that change with the seasons, exciting combinations and a sort of melting pot of ethnicity." The initial menu includes some noteworthy items, among them tempura-fried tuna carpaccio and grilled salmon with a red-chile-and-tequila-honey glaze. For the first month, Nate's will offer dinner only, then move to lunch and dinner the next month, and finally add weekend brunches.
That soft opening, coupled with the fact that both Nicholson and his front-of-the-house person, Trish White, who worked with him at Highland's Garden, have both been away from the biz for a while, should make sure things don't get too stressed out right away, Nicholson says.
With both a brand-new baby and a restaurant? Yeah, right.