The Fame Game
It must be weird when fame pays off, when you're not just recognized for what you do well, but when that recognition translates into the kind of fast return that usually only comes in movies. There's that scene of the Beatles in their hotel room, tumbling all over each other like a sack full of kittens when they hear one of their songs played on American radio for the first time. And then there's the nobody, the SAG-scale plugger, the character actor who, after giving the performance of his life, wins the Academy Award and is on the phone with his agent before he's even back in his seat, howling for twenty million on his next picture.
But those are the rare examples. For most of us -- for the employees of the month, winners of the company talent show, all the World's Greatest Grandmas -- the recognition must be its own reward. And that's fine, but haven't we all dreamed of the truly big score? Of collecting some trinket of appreciation for that one thing we do really well, standing at the podium blinded by the glare of the spotlights, thanking mom and Jesus, then stepping down into a life wholly changed?
Late in my marathon dinner at Table 6, there's a moment when chef Aaron Whitcomb -- buried in tickets, juggling fire orders, sweating under the backward Southie snap-brim he wears in place of a chef's toque -- stops moving for just a minute. He stands in his wide-open kitchen, looking out over the sea of customers, at the jammed-up door, the packed sidebar. He's the center of a kitchen firing on all cylinders, motionless but for his head, which swivels like a turret on the stump of his neck, and the flickering of a thin smile. Maybe he's thinking about his back stock. Maybe he's thinking about the Broncos. Maybe he's dropped a ticket and is wondering where the fried oyster Cobb in front of him is supposed to go. But I doubt it. I know that look and can almost see the blood banging in his temples. He's having a moment of divine payoff, thinking it's good to be the king.
Just a few weeks ago, Whitcomb appeared in Esquire's annual restaurant issue, where Table 6 placed on John Mariani's list of the 21 best new restaurants in the United States. Making Mariani's list is huge. You only get one shot -- in your restaurant's first year of business -- and usually only one meal to give it all you've got. If you're a chef at a joint on Mariani's itinerary, you know he's coming -- so imagine the pressure. You know he's booked a flight, gotten a room, come to town specifically to eat dinner at your restaurant. You know he's out there, judging you, deciding your fate. And while not being mentioned by Esquire's legendary palate-at-large has never killed a place, being included on that annual list brings more fame than a half-dozen Beard House dinners, more notoriety than a hundred good reviews. It makes a restaurant famous overnight and on a national scale, makes the chef a recognizable commodity and brings the crowds like you wouldn't believe.
Potentially crushing crowds for a small place like Table 6, which opened in the nicely broken-in Beehive space eight months ago, and a heavy burden for a guy like Whitcomb who, until he got his legs under him here, was known as just a member of Bryan Moscatello's brigade in the kitchen at Adega. He worked there in virtual anonymity, sous to the guy who was winning all the awards and kudos last year.
Now Whitcomb's the celebrity. The Big Name. And on this Saturday night, he's swamped, hammered by a crowd two, maybe three times too large for the space. The trouble with fame is that after you've been recognized for doing good once, you've got to keep doing good every day after. There's no going back.
I've arrived early for a quick commando strike, a fast visit under the radar. I'm curious to see how a place like Table 6 -- a simple, casual-swank neighborhood bistro -- handles the sudden boost of fame. It's a solo scouting mission. I plan to stay an hour, tops.
But at 5:15, every table is filled, save one -- a six-top by the windows, pressed up against the bare, exposed brick. Table 6 has a sidebar area, though -- a corner by the waitress service station that's been set with two rows of bar seating, one facing out toward the sidewalk, and another, shorter bar with comfy sling-back chairs running along both sides. It's set up rather like an elementary-school cafeteria table, in a communal environment that's my nightmare dining arrangement. Like Gulbenkian once said, my ideal number for dinner is two: myself and a damn good waiter. At a shared table, I'm crammed in all higgledy-piggledy with anyone who walks through the door. I never know who I'll be having dinner with, but it's almost inevitably someone awful, an accidental companion so disagreeable that by dessert I want to shank him with a sharpened demitasse spoon.
To shield myself from the unwanted conversational advances of traveling plumbing- fixtures salesmen, white supremacists or Republicans, I always bring a book -- the more grim and dour, the better. I've had great success with Down and Out in Paris and London, with Hell in a Very Small Place, by Bernard Fall. Tonight, I've come strapped with Elie Wiesel's Night. Pull out that old chestnut and no one's going to fuck with you, guaranteed.
So I take my seat at the sidebar, on the side facing the kitchen, and take the book out of my back pocket. At this point, there's only one other diner in the area, an older man in the far corner protected by a fan of newspapers, slowly working his way through a bowl of P.E.I. mussels in fennel-garlic broth. He's clearly an expert at this dinner-for-one game, and I briefly think that everything will be okay.
(Thinking back on it, I see myself as the dumb guy in the zombie movie who decides to hide out in an empty hospital. Walking down the quiet hallways, he wonders aloud, "How bad can it be?" as he passes through a door that he doesn't notice is marked MORGUE.)
By 5:30 p.m., I have a beer in front of me (from a wonderfully artisan/lowbrow list that offers everything from PBR cans to Fat Tire to big bottles of Belgian "Delirium Tremens"), a basket of sliced Denver Bread Company boule, a soufflé cup of sweet butter, and company. A steady beat of duos and trios has been coming through the door, a new party every couple of minutes. Table 6 doesn't take reservations for any group smaller than six -- if it did, there would never be an open table for walk-ins. Ever. By 5:45 p.m., the crowd has started to tangle at the door. The sidebar area is filling up fast. I'm clinging to my seat, to my shrinking bar-top real estate, like the captain of a ship lashed to the wheel during a storm. I've ordered, but my first course is nowhere on the horizon.
By 6 p.m, enough people are waiting to fill an entire new turn, but the tables already seated in the dining room show no sign of breaking up. And now larger parties start arriving. Five-tops. Sixes. The wait is already up to an hour and a half, and moving to two. The waitresses and floorman are making conciliatory noises. They offer use of the house phone to disappointed recent arrivals, offer to secure them tables somewhere else. They apologize and shrug, like, who knew? They tell people that if they want to get a drink across the street at Piscos or wherever, someone will call them when a table frees up. Provided they are no more than five minutes away, their seats will be held. The whole neighborhood has become Table 6's waiting room.
A five-top from out of town walks in; they've driven in just for dinner. They tell the floorman (Adega vet Aaron Foreman) they'd made reservations -- special circumstances -- but the reservation book has gone missing, and when it's finally found, their reservations have gone missing. The floorman apologizes, says they can wait, says he can promise a table for tomorrow. The party's spokesman hangs his head. They're only in Denver for the night.
Behind them, a seven-top with no reservations, and no pretense of having made them. But they know Moscatello, they know the floorman. They're dripping money and are obviously unaccustomed to having to wait for anything, ever, but they, too, are brought up short at the door. There's simply no room. Flustered, a portly, gray-haired swell in a three-piece and thick glasses makes a lunge for the house phone. He calls Barolo Grill -- addressing owner Blair Taylor by his first name -- and talks briefly, then hangs up.
"Five-minute wait at Barolo," he announces, loudly and annoyed, and then stalks out the door with a look like he expects half the room to follow his gustatory Pied Piper act.
No one does.
At the sidebar, I'm surrounded. I've given up on my book. Someone has taken my water. Strangers are eating my bread. But I'm actually enjoying this communal experience. I've made temporary friends with the couple next to me, the woman across from me, the people behind me. The vibe of the place -- knowing that you're in, that you're on the list for a table or waiting for that first course -- is infectious. With every extra body that pushes into the jam out front, the feeling of being in the right place at the right time, of being special, increases.
As my first course arrives, jealous eyes track its progression to the table. Rounds of grilled, house-made seafood sausage come mounted on white cabbage jazzed up with coarse grain mustard, with cold crab and tarragon salad as a capper. It's simple, rustic, plated plainly in a shallow white bowl -- and excellent except for the crab, which was shelled poorly. As I pick bits of cartilage off my tongue, I worry that the guy behind me with the starchy hair and Crazy Joe Gallo leather jacket is going to reach over my shoulder and steal bites.
Through gaps in the crowd I can see the kitchen, which occupies what had been the Beehive bar. Whitcomb and his crew have crammed stovetops, a fryer, flat grills and speed racks into a space once occupied by taps, bottles and tenders. It's a great arrangement -- compact, efficient and beautiful. The magnet racks are lined with Wustoff steel, offset spats, an ancient wood-handled Sabatier, brand-new Globals that look untouched. And every station is sandbagged with prep, set with an artful mise, lined with squeeze bottles and speed pourers. Not an inch is wasted, and none of the four cooks on the line have to take a step to get anything. Turn around, and there it is.
Despite the crush, they all look calm. They're in the zone. Coming up on the second turn, they move with the easy speed and strength of marathon runners, knowing that more than half the race is still ahead of them. The service staff isn't nearly so composed. They're getting murdered on the floor, with no end in sight. So they rush; they have no choice. If there were twice as many on the floor, they'd just trip over each other. Instead, they go all out, sprinting through the night.
By 7 p.m., I'm in a three-way conversation with the couple beside me and the couple across from me. We share our bread. We discuss what we're eating and what we'd rather be eating and where else we've eaten lately. The woman to my right evaluates resort properties for a living; her husband is a photographer just back from a shooter's tour of Vietnam. The woman across from me is a former film reviewer for the Boulder Daily Camera, in from Boston to meet her fella at Table 6 for dinner. We've all read Esquire. That's why we're here.
Together, we study a plate of delicate, delicious melted leek and rock-shrimp spring rolls, bias-cut and crispy, mounted over spicy-smoky charred tomato purée; a Humboldt Fog salad with watercress and poached pears that's rather dull; and golden broiled chicken balanced on a ring-molded step of fried potatoes and onion, topped with a single fried egg. "Mother and child reunion," the photographer says, laughing. "Just like the Paul Simon song."
I've ordered the roasted lamb, and it comes, finally, to the bar. From all around me, questions. "Should we order that, too?" "How is it?"
It's good: Six medallions of perfectly roasted lamb loin, splayed in a fan around a single, split goat-cheese biscuit that's filled with a fall of lamb-sausage gravy, all set on a mound of nutmeg-spiced spinach. The lamb is beautiful, but imperfectly butchered -- a tendon or bit of something as tough as shoe leather runs along the back of each piece. And the gravy is heavy as hell. Although I tell my transitory confidants to order something different, that's mostly because I want to see as much as I can, taste as much as I can.
At 7:30 p.m., I give up on trying to find my own waitress in the scrum of the dining room that's now moving into a third turn and simply grab the first server I see, asking for a dessert menu. I get the chocolate beignets, which are lovely, fun and deadly good -- a white coffee mug filled with little, hot fried dough balls, crusted with confectioner's sugar, and filled with warm, melted chocolate. On the side comes a tiny bowl of sour crème fraîche for dipping, and a dessert fork that I ignore in favor of using (and burning the hell out of) my fingers.
Dinner should be over after that. I should be satisfied that I've had a great meal, been the envy of all those turned away at the door, even got to catch that look on Whitcomb's face. But that's when the drag queen sitting across from me -- who'd taken the place of the couple that finally got a table after nearly two hours -- hips me to the secret pie list, and I'm pulled right back in.
"It's not on the menu," he says. (Turns out he's Brian Burris, Table 6's patissiere, having dinner in drag before heading downtown for a Halloween party.) "There's this lady across the alley who makes pies for us, but we never know what they're going to be until she brings them."
Tonight it's a pumpkin-spice pie with homemade ice cream and a candied pecan topping. The resort critic and her shooter husband order a slice and three spoons so that I can taste it, too. While we wait, I quiz Queenie, asking what things have been like at Table 6 since the Esquire article came out.
"You know, I think our best night before was 140 covers," he says. "We would do three turns, sometimes four." He looks out over the dining room. "A hundred and forty covers," he continues. "That's a lot for a space this size. But now? I don't even know how many we're doing. It's too many to count."
I look past him into the kitchen, where Whitcomb and his crew have things well in hand. They rotate out the back door for quick smoke breaks, throw rabbits into the oven, sear salmon with roasted pumpkin and pumpkin-seed pesto, restock their mise and coolers whenever they have a free minute. They rarely do. By now I've been here three and a half hours, and I haven't seen a table open a second longer than it takes the floorman to track down the next party on the list. The waits are monumental, the noise level deafening. And yet, every single person in Table 6 on this Saturday night is smiling.
The pie arrives and offers more reason to smile. It's gently spiced and exactly sweet enough to be a proper end to a great night. While it may be good to be the king, being one of his subjects isn't bad, either. And after nearly four hours, I say goodbye to my single-serving friends, good luck to Burris (those heels must be murder on the legs) and make for the door. Outside, people are still waiting -- and more are on their way.
Table 6, 609 Corona Street, 303-831-8800. Open nightly at 5 p.m.
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