New York has the Carnegie Deli. San Francisco has the Fog City Diner, Chicago has Geno's, New Orleans has Commander's Palace, and Philadelphia has Pat's. Every city has a restaurant that reflects the people, the culture, the reality of the place -- not the town you see in a tourism brochure, but the town that folks actually live, work and eat in.
Denver has the Mercury Cafe.
Denver's had the Merc for 26 years this month, although not in its current location and not with its current name. Owner Marilyn Megenity and then-partner Dan Wilson opened their first, funky Elrond's on 13th Avenue back in the mid-'70s, and over the ensuing years, the restaurant moved several times, transmogrifying at one point into the Mercury Cafe. Along the way, Megenity and Wilson parted company, live music was added to the mix, vegetarian food became less of an aberration, and swing dancing hit big again. Today the Merc is a funhouse mirror that emphasizes everything entertaining about Denver: It's health-oriented, artsy and eccentric, socially and politically aware, slightly self-conscious regarding its charms, and not so old as to be set in its ways -- but old enough to have seen a few things.
2199 California Street
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
9 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Zapatista coffee: $1.50
Mixed grill: $6
Turkey stroganoff: $10
Large green salad: $6
Lentil soup (cup): $2
16-oz. T-bone: $15
Shrimp fettuccine: $14
Vegetarian enchilada: $6.50
Butternut squash: $8.50
Leiza's tofu breakfast: $5
Vegetarian omelette: $7
Over the years, the Merc's menu has expanded from the basics to a wide range of starters, small plates, soups, sandwiches, salads and entrees, but the food remains a well-balanced blend that pleases carnivores and vegans alike. And while Megenity relies primarily on her head chef -- named, appropriately enough, Gypsy Sarow -- she still gets a kick out of cooking. "I cook regularly in my kitchen -- whenever I feel like it, really," she says. "Sometimes I just need to, and sometimes Gypsy just needs a break." Like so many past and present employees at the Merc, Sarow started out in his troubled teens busing tables and moved his way up. "I taught him how to cook," says Megenity, who's renowned for her generosity and den-mother-like compassion. "But like everyone, he blossomed into his own wonderful person."
And celebrating wonderful people is another Merc tradition. Servers are well-tattooed, artfully pierced, colorfully dressed -- no white shirts or Armani ties here -- and as free to express themselves as decency will allow. Although different nights bring different entertainment, open-mike acoustics, poetry readings and lots of sharing are frequent features, all performed to the accompaniment of a tango beat coming from the large dance floor overhead. And on weekends, a tarot-card reader helps diners predict their futures.
You can bet their meals will be good. The recipes are Megenity's, and she's learned a thing or two over the years about Denver diners. "I feed the picky and the fanatical," she says. "I'm 99 percent vegan myself, but I will taste anything that's cooked in my kitchen, and I've been known to eat a piece of fish or fowl, very rarely. But the point is that the food has to make a very fussy clientele happy."
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The carnivores in our group were quickly made happy by a mixed-grill starter: shrimp, thin slices of beef, tender chunks of lamb and grill-caramelized veggies served with a chile-fired black-bean dipping sauce. Meat-eaters and vegetarians alike dug into the enormous green salad, which was augmented by fresh tomato wedges, cucumber slices and carrots and sided by a grainy but rich Gorgonzola dressing. The soup of the day earned the kitchen more kudos: While many lentil soups come out dry, pasty and bland, the Merc's partially puréed version had a thick, creamy texture and a deeply flavored vegetal stock that permeated delicious bits of the good-for-you legumes (lentils have more than their fair share of calcium, vitamins A and B, iron and phosphorous). Also ranking high on both the taste and health charts was the hefty vegetarian enchilada, which was filled with soft-cooked beans, mushrooms and fresh spinach, then smothered in Megenity's famous, fiery vegetarian green chile. And while the regular menu offers plenty for vegetarians to choose from, a special of half a butternut squash filled with spicy tempeh proved to be just that: a very special combination of velvety squash and nutty, chewy fermented soybean cake that had been crumbled and cayenne-fired. Back on the meaty side of the menu, the turkey stroganoff proved to be an innovative take on a classic, tossing fettuccine and large pieces of moist turkey breast in a mushroom-packed cream sauce remarkably lacking in saltiness. Too many stroganoffs made from dry sauce mixes resemble salt licks; the Merc's had a fresh taste that relied on little more than turkey, mushrooms and cream. Garlic and hot peppers added depth to a simple, spicy pasta dish of shrimp sautéed in olive oil. And the thick, juicy, sixteen-ounce T-bone steak from Maverick Ranch (that means organically fed and hormone-free) was perfect, grilled until the edges were nicely charred and the inside reached my specs of medium rare, and served with steamed vegetables and crispy-edged grilled potatoes.
Out of three recent meals at the Merc, only one dish was a disappointment. We encountered it during Sunday brunch, an otherwise reliable standby for smart people nursing their hangovers in the dim light. But the lights weren't low enough to hide the fatal flaw in Leiza's tofu breakfast, a pile of tofu that had been sautéed with tomatoes, onions, green peppers and mushrooms, along with enough parsley to make pesto for all of southern Italy -- and dried parsley at that, so bitter that the dish was hard to stomach. But our other breakfast item was delish: an omelette stuffed with avocado, tomatoes, mushrooms, kalamatas and lots of gooey, melty cream cheese that came with a side of grain-heavy, soothing homemade toast. And by the time we'd consumed cup after cup of the Merc's tasty organic Zapatista coffee, we were ready to face the day.
First, though, one more eye-opener: The Mercury Cafe doesn't take credit cards -- but it does take personal checks. Does this place march to the beat of a different drummer or what? "Yeah, we've been burned a few times," Megenity says. "But most of the people who come in here are good people, and the bottom line is that I can give them better prices if we don't do the credit-card thing. If people aren't okay with that, nobody's forcing them to come here. Just like I can do my own thing with my place, they can do their own thing, too."
How very Denver.