I thought my review of Encore had gone so well. I had a couple of fine meals there, found the town's Best French Fries, identified a problem or two, and filed with a clean conscience — happy for partners Steve Whited and chef Sean Huggard, because I knew how many headaches they'd had to deal with to get the place open last December. Contrary to my reputation as someone one who delights in slamming restaurants over the littlest things, I really do love it when a hardworking team pulls everything together. Every good restaurant in this town adds to the overall quality of the scene, and I only delight in meanness when I catch someone slacking, shortcutting, falling down on the job or flaunting an obvious lack of talent and calling it genius. In those cases, I pull no punches and enjoy watching the rats panic as the ship goes down.
And you know what? In those weeks when I really put the screws to someone (which I haven't done in some time, now that I think about it), I almost never hear much in the way of argument. Oh, sure, some cook's mom will sometimes write in demanding that I lose my job for being a potty-mouthed jerkoff. But nine times out of ten, I'm not telling anyone anything they didn't already know. Kitchen guys know when they're in a bad place, when they're in a house going sour. They know better than anyone when things are being done wrong, when the food going out the door is embarrassing, shameful or ridiculous.
It's the reviews that I think went smoothly that always seem to come back and bite me on the ass. Encore's, for example.
For starters, I spilled some ink over the restaurant's bad tables — describing how Whited and Huggard, in their attempt at greening up the place and keeping everything as earth-friendly as possible, had bought a bunch of center-section four-tops made out of recycled materials, tables that had immediately started to warp and crack and twist in really amazing ways. I actually used the idea of recycling as the entire theme of the review — tortuously extending the metaphor to cover Huggard's resurrection of cedar-plank salmon and all sorts of other things.
But even as the April 3 issue was leaving the press, the Encore crew was taking delivery of its brand-new tables and rushing to get them on the floor for dinner service. And then, as people who'd read my review came in and started asking about the tables — asking what in the hell I'd been talking about because the tables looked just fine to them — Whited and his managers answered by shrugging their shoulders, rolling their eyes and claiming that there'd never been anything at all wrong with the tables and that I'd obviously been drunk, or worse.
"Literally, the tables were replaced the day the newspaper hit the stands," Whited told me when we talked last week. "When people asked, when they said, 'There's nothing wrong with these tables,' we just agreed and said that we had no idea what you were talking about."
Was I pissed? Hell, no. In the restaurant business, you're only as good as this seating, this service. Past is past, and anything you can do to make yourself look better, look smarter, look cooler than the next guy — that's fair game. And when the next guy happens to be a restaurant critic who just took a shot at you? All the better.
Encore's other design problems won't be as easy to fix. I'd also found the place punishingly loud during busy seatings, owing to the low ceilings (a compromise between the designers from Semple Brown and the dictates of the Lowenstein's historical landmark designation) and the composite stone floors in the dining room. Even those savvy Encore owners couldn't pull off the trick of getting the place carpeted between when the review came out Thursday morning and the first seating Thursday night. Carpeting is in the works, though. In keeping with their earth-lovin' principles, Whited said that he and Huggard have ordered some special "recycled content carpeting" that's due to be laid in a couple of weeks — right around the time they're hoping to get a new patio open for spring.
And they've made another aesthetic fix: In response to my comment that the black, muffin-top toques the kitchen crew wore made them look like the cast of Strawberry Shortcake: The Musical, they got a new batch of hats knocked up — pictures of which can be seen on my blog, From the Gut.
Light 'em up! Regular readers already know that I am a filthy, degenerate smoker. You should also know that I am an obdurate and pig-headed fellow who doesn't like being told what to do. Therefore, when Colorado's fun police decided to ram their nanny-state anti-smoking ordinance through the courts, I took it upon myself to find every way possible to get around it.
Actually, I first took it upon myself to whine and moan incessantly for a few weeks, and then I started looking for loopholes, willful non-compliers and places where I could still combine three of my favorite pastimes: drinking, smoking and dodging work.
I'm a big fan of doing all three at the Churchill Bar at the Brown Palace. I mean, if you're gonna do a thing, might as well go all out, right? And beyond the Churchill's history (it was named after Sir Winston, who reportedly used the hotel as his Western headquarters during a spin through the States during WWII), its crowds (local captains of industry, bewildered business travelers, gazillionaires on golfing vacations staying in the suites upstairs), and the biggest, leathery-est, most comfortable seats of any bar in the city, I just dig the fact that I can hang out there, drink too much Wild Turkey, smoke a half a pack of cigarettes and, even if I'm wearing a T-shirt, jeans and my cowboy boots, still feel classy doing it.
Other people might need something a little more lowbrow, though, since the Churchill can be intimidating and parking costs a fucking fortune. So recently, I've been ducking out of the office to get my fix at Charlie Brown's (980 Grant Street), a considerably more casual spot for a smoke, a beer and a shot in the middle of the day. And while you can't light up at the bar here, there are two quote/unquote patios where you can. One is an actual patio — meaning you'll be sitting right out there in the open, exposed to the elements. But there's also a second, interior "patio," which is where you'll usually find me. It's covered, walled and roofed. There are TVs and service stations. It looks for all the world like just another dining room, but apparently it passes legal muster as a legitimate patio because there are also ashtrays and usually half a dozen tables full of people happily enjoying cigarettes, beers and snacks from the wide-ranging menu.
One joint that should've been given a pass by the anti-everything Nazis is Phil's Place, at 3463 Larimer Street. A good old-fashioned neighborhood dive with really good Mexican food, Phil's is the kind of place that attracts precisely no one overly concerned for their health or the health of those around them.
Still, the law applies — and so, as at bars across the state, smokers at Phil's have been ducking right outside the front door for their fix. Or at least they were until a few weeks ago, when Phil's got popped because people were violating the fifteen-foot rule, the one that says not only can you not smoke inside any public building, but you've got to stay fifteen feet away from any door when lighting up. Now there's a big sign nailed on the front door of Phil's memorializing the ridiculous bust and reminding all of us addicts that we've got to stand in the gutter in order to comply with the law. And while you'd think that the Denver cops would have better things to do than hand out tickets to people who forgot to bring their tape measures along for their night out drinking, I guess all real crimes in this state were solved while I wasn't paying attention. I think I'll go celebrate with a couple of drinks and a smoke.
If anyone needs me, I'll be at Charlie Brown's.
Leftovers: Two of the area's best, (though very different) restaurants are expanding their service hours. Last week I got a call from Paul Attardi over at Fruition (1313 East Sixth Avenue), named Best New Restaurant in the Best of Denver 2007, who said that he and partner Alex Seidel will open for dinner on Monday nights starting May 5. "A lot of people from the neighborhood are asking for it," he explained, "and we're thrilled to accommodate them."
Toast (2700 West Bowles Avenue in Littleton), an award-winning breakfast/lunch joint, is also getting in on the dinner game. "We're going to run with the regular menu," owner Bill Blake told me, "and slowly increase it as we go, add just a couple of plates at a time." Those plates will be comfort foods — roasted chicken, meatloaf, some ribs.
Toast will unveil those new items on April 28, the same day it introduces expanded hours — until 9 p.m. seven days a week. The restaurant has also expanded its space, turning what had been a next-door dance studio into a second dining room. "And we needed it, too," Blake said.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.