On Friday at five-thirty, six, seven at night, The Corner Office is less a restaurant than a three-ring circus filled with liquored-up yuppies doing all their best tricks, elephantine captains of industry getting hot under the collar, fierce and beautiful female executives stalking the bar like lionesses in heels, and business travelers walking that high-wire line between happy-drunk unwinding and serious three-cosmo weirdness. Under the big top at happy hour, the staff walks the floor warily, having grown eyes not just in the backs of their heads, but on the sides and top as well. In the trench, the bartenders never stop moving, rolling from position to position like sharpshooters knocking down targets — super-call Scotch, icy vodka, terrible day-glo things in martini glasses — then moving down to the service end to set up two beers, three glasses of cheap wine, a small Pellegrino and two dirty martinis for the eight-top on 41 that's just a line of blow and one shred of common decency away from an inter-office gang bang.
It's a bizarre, sundry and freaky-fluky crowd, one brought in by a coincidence of geography, of decor, of taste. The Corner Office opened on the ground floor of the new Curtis hotel just five months ago, in sight of the soaring architecture of the Denver Performing Arts Complex, at ground zero of the boutique hotel explosion. Draw a wheel with the corner of 14th and Curtis streets at the hub and spokes radiating outward to LoDo, SoBo, Uptown and every little nouvelle-loftville clogging up the skyline, then further out to Inverness and the Denver Tech Center and DIA, and you're sketching the paths followed by those falling inward toward the Corner Office on any Friday night, when it's already filling up with people from the nearby offices. Early, it also does a brisk theater trade. Late, it does drunk trade and artsy trade and nightcap trade, dealing in Szechuan fries, midnight waffles and Dutch courage. One night it's full of conventioneers, the next it's drag queens dressed like Marie Antoinette.
During Friday at prime time, the Corner Office is no place for a quiet meal. A snack, sure. Five or six martinis and then a standup quickie in the bathroom, absolutely. The place has great bathrooms: large and well-appointed, complete with decks of Post-it notes and pens for amusing yourself without actually scratching dirty limericks or pictures of stick figures humping on the mirrors and walls. I asked a waiter what he thought the protocol was for choosing the appropriate bathroom for sex: Who gets to choose? He said he'd never really thought about it because he was gay, so there wasn't an option. My wife insisted that the women's room would be cleaner. I did not get to find out.
The Corner Office
1401 Curtis Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Fish tacos: $8
Chicken and waffles: $11
Lobster mac-and-cheese: $11
Black Forest waffle: $9
Shrimp spring rolls: $9
Saturday nights at the Corner Office are like Friday nights at the Corner Office, but less dependably weird. The crowd often skews somewhat older, somewhat more local, somewhat more black-turtleneck-and-nicotine-gum. On Saturday, if you're adept at riding the ebb tide, it's possible to get served quickly at the bar, or linger over dinner in the dining room with its Alice in Wonderland-oversized white leather banquettes and booths upholstered in deliberately ugly wool plaids like couches stolen from a hundred grandmothers' sitting rooms. The decor is extraordinarily kitschy-hip: half ultra-modern diner, half rumpus room with a forced decor that hinges almost exclusively on the twin motifs of sex and neckties. It's a big space, its depth belied by its strange shape. Every clock in the place stands perpetually at five o'clock; slatted wood and plank paneling and '60s ergonomic plastic chairs abound. The servers have their own system of livery that I don't understand — some of them kitted out in basic black, others in polos and button-downs, still others in Corner Office-branded Lycra bicycle-racer shirts, all of them jinking and rolling across the crowded floor, all of them carrying trays high as if to show off the food before delivering it to its assigned table.
Which works, because most of the food is worth showing off. Like everything else at the Corner Office, it's heavy on style if not always substance, designed in such a way that it catches the eye first, dragging the rest of the sensorium along behind. Huge mounds of bright-pink cotton candy spilling out of a white bowl, individual scalloped casserole dishes of lobster mac-and-cheese, flat plates of cheeseburger sliders arrayed around a squiggled nest of shoestring frites. This is powerful art-and-commerce stuff, working that tender juncture in the brain between want for comfort and want for beauty. The Corner Office has found its balance between the two by simply ignoring the idea of balance entirely and shamelessly overdoing everything.
The menu in this strange, time-warp space is a borderless, timeless thing, a brazen attempt at pandering to every hunger that might have pissed me off — because I hate that all-things-to-all-people urge that seems to creep up and seize restaurateurs who can't quite guess who their clientele might be — if not for the fact that almost everything on the menu appears to be pandering specifically to me. That's either luck or genius, and frankly, I don't care which, because now if ever I feel like collard greens and a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich on the same night, I know where to go; if ever I need a Black Forest waffle covered with cherries and chocolate syrup at eleven o'clock on a Saturday night, I have just the spot.
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There are essentially two kinds of restaurants in the world: those run for the benefit of customers and those run as playgrounds for chefs. The Corner Office is unabashedly one of the former, and that "unabashedly" part is why it's so successful. With no shame, no tongue-in-cheek, smirking irony, the bar will pour you a double whiskey while the kitchen lovingly plates up your requested bowl of Captain Crunch (with Crunchberries). Lemon edamame and fish tacos? No problem. And not only does the kitchen offer Southern-style fried chicken and waffles, but it's a really fucking good plate of fried chicken and waffles: three pieces of perfectly golden and crisp-skinned fried chicken done to order, crowded on top of an excellent Belgian waffle (like a sugary buttermilk cloud, crunchy at the edges, soft in the middle), the whole thing dusted with a drift of powdered sugar and served with a warm jug of syrup on the side. It may not be as good as the plates served at the best chicken-and-waffle joints in the country — not as loved-up and traditional as Wells's in Harlem or as freighted with history as those served at Roscoe's or Lo-Lo's — but it's the best you're going to find in this part of the country. And at the Corner Office, there's not much chance you'll be eating your really fucking good plate of fried chicken and waffles next to a guy who just sold his blood at the plasma bank across the street to pay for his.
Laura and I returned for dinner on a Sunday night. On its Opentable reservations page on the web, the Corner Office was showing nothing between seven and eight — and even though I knew how busy the place could get, I found that hard to believe in Denver on a Sunday. So I called. The hostess said she could probably get in a two-top at 7:15. And when we arrived, the place was three-quarters empty — quiet and pleasant and still. I ate waffles because waffles were what I was hungry for and drank whiskey because most other places in the city that serve waffles don't serve booze and don't appreciate it when I pull out my hip flask. We gorged ourselves on sliders (good ones, and big enough to be a meal in themselves, served three to an order, with that tangle of excellent shoestrings), wasted valuable digestive real estate on a pointless Caprese salad (too large, poorly conceived and set on a bed of unstemmed, bagged field mix), then shared a massive plate of carnitas. The pork was just all right, the black beans were tasty, the cilantro crema was nicely assembled, and the rice was terrible — overcooked, scraped off the bottom of a steam-table tray and dry as hell. Desserts here are cheap: $3.50 across the board. Excepting the cotton candy, they're served in small portions, which I like. Two bites of triple-chocolate and some candied peanuts and we were gone, played out into the night by Lou Reed and Nico on the sound system while I planned what I would eat on my next visit. Crab pad thai? Chicken tikka masala? Fish and chips?
No. On Monday, I filed in amid the half-time crush of late business-lunchers and early happy-hour devotees for cold beer and fish tacos — grilled tilapia, touch of salsa and avocado cream, a bit too precious for my tastes. Better were the shrimp spring rolls, which were more like fancy-pants Chinese egg rolls than spring rolls but came fast, hot and with a completely shameless "Thai chili sauce" that didn't hit within 5,000 miles of anything actually Thai but was delicious nonetheless. After that, lobster mac-and-cheese. Unlike the lobster (or crab or something else) mac-and-cheese dishes that so many restaurants are doing — and doing badly — this one's good: a simple blend of elbow macaroni and gentle cheese, sparked with a little parmesan, then studded with a generous amount of lobster meat. As with the chicken and waffles, the trick here lay in cooking two fairly simple things perfectly (a cheese béchamel and lobster rather than fried chicken and a waffle), then sticking one on top of the other. It's a deceptively complex trick, because it gives the kitchen twice as many opportunities to screw up. But the Corner Office excels at this sort of stuff, displaying a quirky talent for juxtaposition, for stacking comfort-on-comfort that has nothing to do with Alfred Portale or Gotham, for making kitsch work and cool work while also making food that works on a menu fraught with more potential international disasters than a Bush foreign-policy summit.
It's a tightrope act as precarious as any walked on those Friday nights when the floor is awash in sex and money and booze, teetering between levity and anarchy. The circus is in town, and I can't wait to see what the Corner Office will do next.