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Ursa Minor

The first clue that there was something funny about the Giggling Grizzly was this notice on the menu: "If somehow our food and service have not lived up to your standards, please let us know so that we can help lower your standards."

The second was the menu's logo, of a grinning bear lying on his back, clutching his stomach. I now know exactly how he felt: So far, all my experiences at the Grizzly have been laughable at best. I've found the food consistently mediocre, the service indifferent and the overall atmosphere one of confusion and disorganization.

This rustic ski-lodge-meets-ye-olde-pub is by far the lamest effort put forth by Matt Fleming and Dan Shipp, owners of Spanky's Roadhouse, Wazoo's and Bella Ristorante. Like Wazoo's and Bella, the Grizzly sits within whiffing distance of Coors Field. During baseball season, these enviable LoDo locations could stay busy even if they served nothing but stale bread and alcohol; on my evening visits to the Grizzly, I've counted ten drinkers for every diner.

Inexplicably, though, the Grizzly also does a decent lunch business. Obviously, the terrible acoustics in the middle of the dining room don't bother others as much as they did us, two people who wanted to hold a conversation without shouting. The noise was so pervasive, it was like eating on stage during a Metallica concert--and the Grizzly was only half full at the time. We switched to one of the window booths, where things were considerably quieter--but in doing so, we shifted the center of the universe for our waiter, who proceeded to forget to bring anything we asked for (silverware and napkins, another drink, ketchup). And that was in addition to disappearing for fifteen minutes after moving us to the booth. We finally reeled him in as he shuffled past in a fog on his way to doing what, we don't know, because he never went the same direction again after taking our order.

That order included Fatboy Steve's prime rib sandwich ($10.95), a chicken sandwich ($5.95) and Sarah's veggie sandwich ($5.95). The ten-ounce prime rib, which I'd ordered medium-rare, had been cooked evenly medium--brown all the way through--but the beef was a good cut, and it would have been the perfect lunch for two 300-pound men to split (if they could work their way through the thick, too-chewy bread that held the sandwich together). On the side came some killer fresh-fried, barbecued potato chips. More of those chips were the only saving grace for the ho-hum grilled-chicken sandwich and the veggie sandwich, whose components turned out to be one slice of eggplant, two pieces of red pepper, two pieces of green pepper and half an onion.

Sadly, the chips were no longer on the menu when we returned for round two. This time our waitress was a bit more on the ball than our waiter had been, but she still seemed to be operating in a semi-daze. For instance, she didn't say a word when I asked her to remove my barely touched house salad ($2.50). So much lettuce had been piled on the plate that it was almost impossible to eat; one wrong move and the whole thing would come tumbling down like a house salad of cards. The watery blue-cheese dressing, which had the consistency and flavor of skim milk, did nothing to hold things together. I did manage to extract and eat the two red pepper strips, a few of the black olive slices and the tomato wedge, but nothing could get me to touch a huge pile of shriveled, dark-brown mushrooms, whose numbers were so out of proportion to the rest of the salad that I suspect someone in the kitchen had decided to empty a past-its-prime container. I also steered clear of the inch-thick rings of Bermuda onion.

By the end of the meal, it had become fragrantly obvious that onions are a major player at the Grizzly--but hey, at least everyone at the table had to eat them if they wanted any sustenance at all. The guacamole that came with the Griz Griz platter ($7.95) was onion with a little avocado and even less tomato. Everything else on this appetizer sampler featured some form of chile peppers: deep-fried, cream-cheese-filled red jalapenos (the same poppers served at Wazoo's and Spanky's, and now at just about every other joint in town), six buffalo wings that were cold when they hit the table, deep-fried shrimp stuffed with a Velveeta-like substance and diced jalapenos, and two wedges of a quesadilla filled with cheddar, black beans and jalapenos.

But the onions soon returned in force--on the salmon burger ($4.95), on the Grizzly burger ($5.75) and in the venison stew ($5.95). The fish patty sported an unappetizing orange color--there are orange salmon, of course, but not this particular Day-Glo shade--and a processed flavor; there was none of the promised chive aioli (unless there were invisible chives in the mayonnaise slathered on the bun) that might have helped matters. Both the salmon and Grizzly burger--undercooked when it was supposed to arrive medium-rare--came with the fries that replaced those wonderful potato chips; they were so overcooked they could have been used to fire up a charcoal grill. (Perhaps the kitchen needs a remedial lesson in cooking temperatures.) And the venison "stew," whose broth tasted oddly of celery seed and contained more pieces of onion than it did of deer meat, was so thin it was really a soup.

As I hit the ladies' room on the way out, I spied a sign on the bathroom door announcing that the special that night was Big Jerry's Southern-fried chicken dinner for $8.95. Strangely, there'd been no mention of it on the specials board at the Grizzly's front door, nor had our waitress uttered a word about it. It shouldn't be necessary to answer the call of nature in order to secure this information.

We had much more fun at Spanky's, the "roadhouse" near the University of Denver that Fleming and Shipp (along with Wazoo's co-owner Dave French) opened a decade ago. Sadly, Spanky's is starting to look its age--it's not the cleanest spot in town, the fixtures are well on their way to falling apart, and there's little atmosphere to speak of. But if you have a burger-and-beer craving, Spanky's aims to please.

We were certainly pleased by the Spanky burger ($3.15), a third of a pound of lean ground beef charbroiled my way (medium-rare) and served on either a wheat or white bun. Spanky's offers all of its burgers--ten named combinations--plain or "run through the garden," which means pickle, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise. We also tried the "South of the Border" burger ($4.15) with sauteed green-chile strips, cheddar and a generic green-chile sauce; the Blue Moon ($4.15) marriage of bacon and blue and Monterey Jack cheeses; and a sandwich called the Aloha ($4.95), which smothered a grilled chicken breast under slices of deli ham, pineapple and Swiss. We augmented the sandwiches with a generous basket of well-cooked curly fries ($1.95) and an order of beer-battered onion rings ($1.95), beguilingly greasy and perfect with a Rolling Rock. Opinions were mixed on the broccoli balls ($2.50): chopped, cooked broccoli mixed with American cheese, then breaded and deep-fried. The end result was sort of like eating solidified broccoli-cheese soup, but I liked it (although the ranch dressing that comes with it should be avoided at all costs).

Keeping the Grizzly in mind, I'd also ordered a side salad ($1.50)--and this time got a manageable pile of lettuce topped with a blue-cheese dressing that was thick and rife with blue-cheese blobs, as well as sprouts, tomato wedges and mushrooms, all flawlessly fresh, just like the rest of Spanky's ingredients. The real ratings winners, though, were Spanky's great milkshakes ($2.75), especially the Oreo-cookie version.

There's no need to lower your standards for the Giggling Grizzly. Just head across town to Spanky's. Or somewhere--almost anywhere--else.

The Giggling Grizzly, 1320 20th Street, 297-8300. Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday.

Spanky's Roadhouse, 1800 East Evans Avenue, 733-6886. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

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