If you've lived in Denver at any time over the past 25 years, chances are pretty good that you've eaten at one of the Broker restaurants.
Maybe it was for prom, or a tenth wedding anniversary, or a big business meeting, or a nooner. Maybe grandma took you there when you got your braces off, or your granddaughter treated before you had hip-replacement surgery. Or maybe you're one of the dozen or so loyal (and likely wealthy) diners who have eaten at the Broker nearly every week since it opened.
Whatever the occasion, the Broker has been ready to help you celebrate since Ed Novak and a partner opened the original restaurant in 1972, in the old Denver National Bank (circa 1903) building on 17th Street, the first concrete skyscraper west of the Mississippi. The occupant just prior to the Broker, also called the Broker and owned by the guy who did all the "Hungry" eateries, had already set the stage, but Novak turned the scenery up a few notches, adding Japanese cherry wood and ornate knickknacks, rich fabrics and black-and-white photos of Denver in the old days, all of which underscore the Wall-Street-in-the-1900s feel. Stalls in the vault that once offered privacy for bank customers examining the contents of their safe-deposit boxes were transformed into private booths--complete with phones for those last-minute negotiations--and strategically placed tables throughout the rest of the dining areas were as conducive to pursuing pleasure as they were to doing business.
But what made the Broker different from the other fish in the growing sea of Denver restaurants was the shrimp bowl, Novak's twist on the Seventies tradition of complimentary relish trays. People still love the shrimp bowl--all one and a half pounds of shell-on, iced Gulf crustaceans--which is second only to the servers in speedy arrival at the table.
As the free-shrimp deal bowled Denver over, Novak opened five other Brokers, three of which are still alive: the Boulder Broker (1976), the Airport Broker over by Stapleton (1976) and the DTC Broker (1991). To promote his restaurants, he resorted to bold stunts that industry insiders deemed expensive risks but which Novak considers part of a long-term customer-relations program. For example, he's twice taken out ads in the dailies that cost him big bucks. The first presented an anonymous coupon for $10 that diners were to take to their "favorite restaurant," a ploy that garnered Novak a few phone calls from competitors who demanded ten bucks back from him. ("Hey, if you don't want to be their favorite restaurant, we sure will," Novak claims he told those restaurateurs.) The second, and also anonymous, ad was a poll on what diners were looking for in Denver restaurants; in exchange for filling out the questionnaire, they received a $20 gift certificate--this one good only at the Broker. Novak received 24,000 replies, which meant he was out up to $480,000. Then there's the Broker's birthday club (membership totals more than 70,000), which offers an annual voucher for the celebrant and includes a follow-up thank-you note from the server who takes the voucher, and the gifts, such as etched wineglasses, that are given to diners on each Broker's anniversary date.
Obviously, the Brokers have made a few friends. But how have four locations managed to survive the decline of fine dining in a town suffering from a bad case of national chains? The answer is not a promotion, not a pair of wineglasses, not even a bowl of free shrimp. It's the food.
Quite simply, the Broker's food works. It's fat-packed, heart-choking, Everyman fare, the kind that became popular in the Fifties and has hardly waned in appeal since, the kind that doesn't need much more than the bloody juice from the beef or a metal bowl of warm clarified butter to enhance it. Of course, the gracious, efficient, unbelievably knowledgeable staff--career waiters! I love them!--hasn't hurt, either.
The menu is the same at every Broker, but the original has the best ambience. At lunch one day, I settled into a leather-covered banquette with a co-worker who used to come to the Broker in the Seventies when he was just a wee lad. The two things he remembered, the shrimp bowl and the French onion soup, were both still on the menu, and at least the price of the free shrimp hadn't gone up (onion soup is now $4.95). We tore into the crustaceans--to heck with our colleagues who would have to suffer the smell later--and then I wrapped a few yards of Gruyere cheese around a soup spoon wet with salty, strong beef broth. Our other starter wasn't on the menu in 1972, but the respectable Caesar salad ($6.95) proved that the Broker not only has staying power, it also has the ability to bend (somewhat) with the times. The bread back then probably wasn't an herb-flecked focaccia, either, and if an early-Seventies server had brought a bowl of olive oil with a blob of balsamic floating in it, the average businessman would have wanted to know what the hell it was.
Our server had worked at the Broker for only ten years, but the guy was a gem, seemingly one in a million (at least until our second visit, during which a second waiter was just as exceptional--what are the odds of that?). He could intelligently discuss wines and the lack of decent Moroccan restaurants in Denver. He also brought me a better, more expensive glass of wine than the one I'd ordered when he discovered that they were out of my choice, then charged me the price of the cheaper one.
We thought wine, a bowl of shrimp, soup and salad would slow us down, but there's something about the Broker's power atmosphere that inspires a powerful hunger. We didn't so much as pause before we dug into the prime rib ($12.95) and the petite filet and lobster ($19.95). Both steaks were excellent: one a slab of pink-centered, dry-aged, slow-roasted juicy prime rib, the other a hunk of perfectly medium-rare, soft-as-buttah filet mignon. But while the lobster was fine, the drawn butter strangely lacked flavor (and really, isn't lobster just an excuse for sucking down 55 fat grams of butter?). A smattering of steamed vegetables--broccoli, carrots, cauliflower--made both entrees somehow seem healthy, so we polished off the meal with an enormous slice of creme de menthe-enhanced frozen mud pie ($5) and a densely packed apple pie a la mode ($5).
Then we stumbled, stuffed, up the stairs, through the lobby of the Colorado Business Bank that sits on top of the Broker and out into the sunshine, all the while thinking of how soon we'd be able to return.
Very soon, it turned out. The next day I was back for lunch, the real deal at the Broker, since entrees run between $10 and $20 during the day and in the $30 range at night. This time my companion and I were torn between trying to keep the total cholesterol count down and having fun, so we compromised by starting with the escargot appetizer ($5.95) and then split a cobb salad ($9.95) and a Monte Cristo ($8.25).
The escargot could have killed us right there. Six snails had been individually wrapped in puff pastry before being drenched in garlic butter and baked. Squeeze these bundles and stand back! Too much butter. Too much puff pastry. Sad little snails.
The main event was much better. The first cobb was created at Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant, another classic, and the Broker does an excellent, generous take: fresh tomatoes, field greens and avocado, crisp bacon bits, good-quality smoked turkey and ham, hard-boiled eggs and bleu cheese, all of which would have been killer covered with bleu cheese dressing, except that this bleu cheese dressing was packed with dill, which was a first (and also potentially deadly, since I'm allergic to dill). So I settled for the decent ranch and looked to the Monte Cristo for the real fat. No disappointment there--this three-inch-thick sandwich of ham, turkey and Swiss had been evenly coated in beer batter and deep-fried, then served with three kinds of jam. Monte Cristo fans will love it, at least until they go into cardiac arrest.
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On a third visit, I was determined to find heart-healthy fare. Unless you go with a salad for lunch, you're looking at steaks, Reubens, Alfredo and Newburg, and just two vegetable-based dishes; dinner offers a wider variety. But it was hard to order the Rocky Mountain trout grilled with toasted almonds ($24) when I could instead suck down tournedos Oscar ($34), two beef medallions topped with crab meat and asparagus and smothered in textbook-perfect bordelaise and bearnaise sauces. And although I liked the baked smoked salmon ($32) on a bed of fettuccine sauteed with garlic, shallots, tomatoes, portabellos and white wine, I could have married the filet Wellington ($34), so in love was I with more buttah beef wrapped in puff pastry and covered with more bordelaise.
Dinners include not only the shrimp and bread, but also soup or salad (the green salad is a bit austere, but whaddaya expect?) and dessert, a choice of cheesecake, ice cream or sherbet. Naturally, we went with the cheesecake, and it was exactly the kind of cheesecake we expected from the Broker--dense, rich, filling, dependable.
Just like the Broker.
The Broker Restaurant, 821 17th Street, 292-5065. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.