So far in a month of eating Greek, I've come across some filling and wolfable short-order sandwiches at Yianni's, a fresher and lighter version of similar food at Melita's, and an old favorite in a newish location -- Yanni's in Greenwood Village -- that's putting out plates of what's as close to coastal Greek cuisine as you'll find on the Front Range. I've had a few dishes that just weren't very good and some sides that were all but inedible, like a bowl of stewed green beans at Chef Zorba's. And because July has an extra week this year, I made one last stop where I found almost all of the above in a single location on Colfax: Pete's Greek Town Cafe.
If you've lived in Denver for more than a couple of months, you know about the proliferation of restaurants with the Pete's name; yes, they all refer to the same Pete. Over the decades, Pete Contos has created an empire of restaurants. At one point there may have been eight or more (as the back label of the Pete's Kitchen brand hot sauce indicates), but today there are six. Pete's Kitchen is probably the most well-known -- a stop here is a rite of passage for every Denver high schooler staying out past curfew -- while the Satire Lounge, at over fifty years old, gets the longevity award. If you're new to town and someone invites you to Pete's for dinner (or breakfast), make sure you clarify which Pete's, or even Google Maps won't be able to help you.
This Pete's, the Acropolis of Denver's Greek Town (which itself was created because of Contos), has been around long enough that its many add-ons and renovations have made finding the main entrance a bit of an odyssey. I suggest parking in the rear (off Fillmore Street) and coming in through the back patio and bar. If the weather's nice enough, you'll probably see Contos himself, greeting guests.
If you come in from one of the front doors, you'll find yourself in the bright, noisy dining room with a view of the long diner counter and semi-open kitchen. It's a little too cheery, a little too yellow for my taste, but it's got plenty of character cobbled together from the aesthetics of several generations. The dim bar in the back with the mirrored surfaces, loungy chrome and vinyl chairs and quiet customers (if any at all), is more my speed. It seems better suited to beers or mixed drinks with dinner than the front room, which might be a better option for breakfast, depending on how much your head hurts from the previous night. At the right time, you might catch groups of men playing cards in one of the low, semicircular booths, or a full row of customers at the bar, none of whom came with each other.
Feel free to order food at the bar; the bartender knows the menu well and will even respectably set the saganaki ablaze if you order it. It's an odd feeling watching the display when there's nobody else in the bar -- just me and my wife and the bartender watching the blue flames from the alcohol engulf the flat slab of cheese, shift to orange as the fat begins to burn, and then slowly flicker out. It's something I'd avoided at previous Greek stops, mostly because it feels a little touristy and ostentatious in a full restaurant. But at my final destination, I had to do it. And, of course, hot cheese never disappoints. Keep reading for more on Pete's Greek Town Cafe.
The Greek Town Cafe's menu offers the same limited canon of Hellenic standards as most of my previous destinations. Amy's gyros platter and its accompanying Greek salad stood out as the best so far, with slices of the lamb-beef meat mixture cut so thin they were almost translucent. A well-made tzatziki sauce worked nicely on everything, especially the fat, pan-roasted potato wedges.
My roast leg of lamb had the look of overcooked meat, but proved moist and flavorful, with a crust of dried herbs and a hint of lemon. The steamed veggie medley on the side, though, were the kind of vegetables that make kids hate vegetables, and seemed a waste. But more of those potatoes rescued the plate, soaked in pan drippings and crusty-edged from caramelization.
To top it all off, the bartender brought a monstrous wedge of house-made baklava with just the right amount of honey and spices. It really was too big, and I had it all to myself -- and I ate it all. I'd go back to this Pete's just for a cold beer and a slice of that baklava.
Or maybe as a kind of social experiment on a busier night, I'll go by myself and get the flaming saganaki, a plate of dessert and a couple of beers -- I'd leave satisfied and amused. As oddly dreamlike as it was sitting in the fading light of Pete's time capsule of a bar while the alcohol flame scattered its light in the chrome and mirrors of the place, doing it solo on a busy night would take on the status of a dare, maybe even a quest. I hope all the lonely bar wraiths on Colfax's long stretch of late-night dives think about doing the same: stopping at Pete's for a plate of flaming cheese, for the nostalgia, the entertainment, and the singular experience of getting a whole plate of molten cheese to yourself, while everyone watches.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.