It would be so easy to make fun of the Royal Hilltop. It's just another theme restaurant, after all. A British pub theme restaurant. A non-smoking British pub theme restaurant, tucked away in the back of a strip-mall so far out in southeast Aurora that it might as well be in Kansas. I could mock it for the ridiculous English references on the menu -- calling an appetizer platter the Picadilly Circus, for example -- intended to make everything sound British. I could laugh over such abuses of the artes culinaire as loading down potato skins with cheese, corned beef and sauerkraut, or deep-frying dill-pickle spears (both far from your standard East End fare). I could snidely comment on the interior design, on the faux-coach-lamp-and-framed-rugby-jersey decor typical of all such joints from Provo to Jacksonville. I could easily make a joke about enterprising Brits who sell all the old clock faces and faded Oxford pennants they find in their attics to this one warehouse (probably located in the industrial slums of Decatur, Illinois), which then resells this junk to any American rube who wants to open an "authentic" British pub in his home town. Even worse, a non-smoking "authentic" British pub.
With a nudge and a wink, I could get very snarky and superior about it. Why, anytime I choose, I can drive into LoDo and pay forty dollars for fresh-strangled squab in a styrofoam demi-glace or a salad of warm frisee topped with olive oil cold-pressed by blind virgins in an Italian mountaintop nunnery. On any night of the week, I can get artisanal cheese made from the milk of artisanal goats, transported to Denver by artisanal truck drivers -- so why would I go to the Hilltop for a salad of pure iceberg lettuce topped by shredded yellow and white cheddar?
Because sometimes a salad like Mom used to make back in the days when iceberg lettuce was the only kind of lettuce that existed in America's culinary consciousness is exactly what you want.
Because not every meal needs to be "challenging" or "intellectual." Not every plate needs to illustrate the fluctuating influence of forced colonization on the indigenous peoples of such-and-such. And an entree doesn't need to be made with heirloom this and barrel-aged that to be worth eating.
And most important, because James and Tina Pachorek, owners of the six-month-old Royal Hilltop, did something brilliant when they opened this place: They created a casual, laid-back, non-threatening restaurant that people want to return to again and again.
"A simple, comfortable, neighborhood place, that's what we wanted," James says, sitting at the bar. "We tried to bring just a little bit of the city out here, but not too much, because people don't always want to drive all the way into the city."
"Or drive back," adds one of the Hilltop's regulars.
Here's a tip for any would-be restaurateur thinking about having a go at a business that chews people up and spits them out worse than male modeling and pro football combined. If you want to make it, do what the Pachoreks did. For starters, that means research. Find a newish high-density residential area (and the Front Range has plenty -- this area sprouts tracts like kudzu); pick a shiny, fresh strip mall where the rents won't cripple you (also not tough, because they grow like Darwinian offshoots of every new housing development ever built); measure out five miles in every direction. If you find any chain restaurants -- the sort that serve booze and deep-fried appetizer platters, such as Bennigan's or Applebee's -- start over again at step one. If there are no chains, sign that lease immediately. Stock your bar with good liquor; weight your menu toward the cheeseburgers and chicken-fingers end of the culinary spectrum; hang a few TVs in the corners; buy the ESPN sports package, and start raking it in.
That's what James and Tina did -- more or less. They spent three years studying new developments and checking out potential locations. They visited every neighborhood bar and pub they'd ever heard anyone say anything good about, and they tried to figure out how they could make their place better. And after all their exploring and conceptualizing and scouting out the competition, they picked their spot. Now, on some Friday nights, it's standing-room-only at the Royal Hilltop, with eager suburbanites stacked three deep at the bar.
Hell, on a Monday night the Hilltop is so busy that by 7 p.m. the friendly waitresses are starting to get that glazed look, like they can't quite remember which table had the double order of artichoke dip (another just-like-Mom, Tupperware-party classic, made with chopped 'chokes, mayonnaise and melted cheese) and who had the Royal with cheese (a burger that tastes like it just came off the backyard grill, with your choice of cheddar, Swiss or provolone on a soft kaiser roll with fries or that iceberg salad on the side). The place has twenty tables -- including six high-backed booths with brass foot rails that look like the sort you'd find in a real British pub -- and fifteen seats at the bar overseen by three, four, sometimes five servers, plus a bartender or two, which still isn't nearly enough to handle the weekend crowds. There are families with toddlers in tow; office workers getting sauced on twenty-ounce royal pints from the well-stocked, Brit-heavy bar; old men sipping aged Scotch or Murphy's Stout (no Guinness here; it's a Murphy's bar, and thank God for that) from pewter steins with their names on them, and old friends knocking back stiff Beefeater martinis with names like The 007.
They all come to the Hilltop because James and Tina did their research and found a neighborhood sorely in need of a neighborhood bar. This part of Aurora hasn't yet been overrun by chains. There's no Chili's or Flinger's or T.J. McPtomaine's to suck up all the trade, just an Old Chicago and a couple of diners to service a booming population with an obviously desperate hunger for jalapeño poppers and bangers and mash.
Speaking of which, the Hilltop does all the classic Brit pub food you'd expect at anyplace worth its weight in lager -- and does it very well indeed. The bangers are actual Scottish sausage, split and fried up in the pan, mild in flavor but tasting of all the meat and grain they're stuffed with. And the mash is made with real red-skinned potatoes, smashed up good, then whipped smooth with butter and cream, topped with strong stout gravy.
The shepherd's pie is simple and straightforward, combining big chunks of stout-soaked ground beef with a few cubed carrots, some celery, a little onion, simple spices and a dash of Worcestershire sauce for kick -- then the whole mess is topped with a generous roof of mashed baby reds. For some reason -- my guess is the lack of a top-broiler in the kitchen -- the Hilltop doesn't bake the shepherd's pie to brown it, but that's not too bothersome. It still more than adequately accomplishes the two tasks for which the dish was invented: First, one serving will fill you up more solidly than any three endive and mission-fig salads, and second, all that beef and mash works wonders for absorbing the excesses of a six-brew beer-tasting flight.
And finally, there's the fish and chips. Made by hand every night from fresh (not frozen) cod fillets and fresh (not frozen) thick-cut fries, the Hilltop's version is the closest you're going to come to the fare served at chip shops on the other side of the pond without booking a flight and slumming it through the grayer quarters of Manchester and Liverpool. The piping-hot chips are dosed with black pepper and coarse-grain salt, the fish's batter is light and slightly sweet, and the cod inside warm and moist, greasy enough to seem bad for you, stiff enough not to crumble to pieces, and wonderfully, perfectly, authentically bland as hell.
Bland? Absolutely. Cod is the stay-at-home insurance adjuster of the undersea world. The prudish bookkeeper. The toll-booth attendant. No other fish is going to be jealous of the cod. No red snapper or salmon or black-tip shark will ever offer to swap flavors for its dull, innocuous essence. And that's why cod is the perfect fish-fry fish. You can keep your brash haddock and halibut, and your monkfish, too -- that poor man's lobster substitute is too greasy and weak to hold up in the heat of the fryer. For a truly great fry, you need the quiet strength of the soft-spoken cod.
If, as a worldly and well-traveled grownup who's had the chance to sample the more risqué bounties of the sea, you still love to the point of junkie-dom the simple, piscine pleasures of the Friday fish fry, this tells me one of three things about you: You're either British, were raised Catholic under threat of eternal damnation for eating meat on Friday, or grew up under some other religion in one of the rust-belt towns of the industrial Northeast, where the fry is a way of life -- and so just hearing the words "Friday fish fry" can evoke the warm nostalgia of childhood.
However you got hooked, the fish fry is a psychological affliction akin to addiction, with the same kind of genetic component as alcoholism. You love fish fry because your father before you loved fish fry, and his father before him. You love it because it's in your blood.
For me, it was growing up in upstate New York with a German-Irish Protestant mother and an Irish Catholic father. There was no talk of biblical damnation in our house -- we were screwed from the get-go -- so eating meat on a Friday wasn't much of an issue. Still, it was a heavily Catholic area, so Friday dinners were always a toss-up between sinful red-hots from Schaller's, pizza from Ferrara's (the agnostic option) or fish fry. As a kid, I remember thinking that everyone in the country must eat this way -- with fathers coming back from work every Friday bearing styrofoam boxes of greasy battered fish and thick, limp fries. And it wasn't until I left home, left the East Coast, and realized that in other places people eat tamales on Friday or reubens or egg foo yung that I began to miss the comforts of home.
The world is a big, weird place -- bigger and weirder than any of our home towns. But if, like me, you know the quickest and surest way back to childhood is through the foods that shaped it, then the Royal Hilltop has your fix, seven days a week.
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