Wheel a Meal

In most other cities, a restaurant with a name like the HandleBar & Grill would immediately evoke images of leather, lowriders and lots of tattoos. It'd be the place the cops visited nightly to break up fights, where the drink of choice was beer with a shot of tequila and, aside from holding up barstools, the patrons' most common form of exercise would be kick-starting their bikes.

But this HandleBar is in Denver, the largest city in the second-healthiest state in the nation, where the number of mountain-bike riders is second only to the number of wannabe mountain-bike riders. Both have come to call the HandleBar home--along with plenty of people who think the only definition of "draft" is the one involving beer.

The owner of the HandleBar is the real thing, though. As a cyclist, Mike Miller regularly competed in road races while working as an executive manager, general manager, concept developer--or whatever you want to call it, he says--for several national and local chains, including Jackson's Hole, Mr. Steak's Firegrill, The Ore House and the Brick Oven Beanery and Market. It was during the Beanery's slow demise that Miller finally got his fill of working for someone else.

After twenty years in the restaurant business, he knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to do it. "After taking a few years off from school to establish a career and such, I decided to go back and get both my bachelor's and master's degrees in business at DU," Miller explains. "I really love the DU area, and so I knew I wanted to be fairly close to there. And while I've been an avid cyclist since 1970, it was really the fact that everyone, at one time or another, has been on a bicycle--and so then can relate--that I came up with this concept. And the Wash Park area used to host one leg of the Coors International Bike Classic, so that made it a perfect area. Plus, everyone in this neighborhood rides bikes."

And now they can ride them to the neighborhood place he opened last year. Of course, Washington Park isn't just any neighborhood--the entire metro area uses it as a backyard playground--so the neighborly types who eat in this clean, casual eatery come from all over Denver. Some even come in cars. "We don't intend for this just to be a cyclists' hangout," Miller says. "I think it really appeals to anyone with an outdoor lifestyle. That's who we want to cater to."

And they do so not just through the decor--bikes hang from the ceiling, the walls are covered with photos of local heroes who have ridden their Schwinns to glory, and the entryway holds racks of local race information--but also with the menu. "When I say we ain't no chain, like I put on the sign out front," adds Miller, "I mean it."

No chain would work so hard to tailor its menu to not only a neighborhood, but a lifestyle. Created through the joint efforts of Miller, chef Josh Slater--whom Miller hired by calling the University of Denver's hotel management program and asking for help--and Jimmy Peters, a longtime Denver bartender and restaurant veteran whom Miller calls "my right-hand man," the roster leans toward the healthy, with a heavy emphasis on Caribbean. "When I put this whole deal together, we had numerous meetings before we signed," says Miller. "I said I'd really like to have a Caribbean bent to it, with lots of jerk spices, nutmeg, cumin. But I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. So we went through cookbooks and decided what looked good, and then tested it and tweaked it until we had the kind of dish we wanted. And I wanted it to be fairly healthy."

One of his most adamant requirements was that the kitchen could never use vitamin-less iceberg lettuce, which helps explain why the salads included with the entrees are so fabulous. Very few restaurants, even those with more upscale ambitions, put much effort into salads. But at the HandleBar, these huge sides (the size, really, of many places' entree salads) feature fresh mixed greens augmented with mushrooms, carrots and red onion slices and, in the case of the salad with blue-cheese dressing, globules of cheese. We alternated forkfuls of greens with finger food from a sampler platter of appetizers ($9.99): spicy BBQ-slathered "big jerk" wings; two-inch-thick bracelets of onion rings coated with crunchy beer batter; unusually tender, thinly breaded chicken-breast strips; cheddar-blanketed and bacon-speckled potato skins; and two wedges of quesadilla filled with a smartly spiced salsa and loads of cheese. Nice selection; excellent preparation.

We backed away from the platter just in time, though, because our entrees were sizable. The tuna ($13.95) was a meaty steak coated with a sweet and spicy mixture of Caribbean spices and then grilled; the flesh was left medium-rare in the center, which kept it moist. A nest of summer squashes and carrots shared the title of side dish with a colossal helping of soft-cooked wild rice. The same sides arrived with the skewered shrimp ($13.99), which had been polished with the HandleBar's thick, molasses-sweetened barbecue sauce, then broiled.

Something about the spices on both entrees called out for ice-creamy desserts, so we went with the "chocolate, chocolate and fudge item" ($3.99), in which the chocolate took the surprising form of a pudding cake, nearly obliterated by vanilla ice cream and awash with hot fudge sauce. Similar in oversize and taste was the hot-fudge sundae ($3.99), with a brownie substituting for the pudding cake, and even more fudge sauce.

Ice cream still sounded good on my second visit, a solo flight that found me sucking down a thick chocolate milkshake ($2.95) and scarfing up a Red River classic burger ($5.99). The half-pound patty had been coated with an interesting mix of spices that seemed to be dominated by allspice, with maybe a hint of ginger; it came cooked my way (medium-rare) on a poppyseed kaiser roll alongside craggy, crispy French fries. Somehow I also managed to spoon up a bowl of Bayou gumbo ($5.99), a straightforward spicy stew bulked up with rice and the Louisiana triumvirate of green peppers, onions and tomatoes.

The third time out we had the kids with us, and the only place that might have made them feel more welcome than the HandleBar was maybe McDonald's. But then my kids--who were no problem for the blond Tom Cruise lookalike who was my waiter on two visits--would have missed out on Josh's artichoke dip ($5.99), a warm, gooey version served in a bread bowl. ("Are they out of regular bowls?" my almost-four-year-old asked.) They also split an order of beer-battered jumbo shrimp ($13.99), which were crunchy and slightly greasy and were sided by wild rice and steamed asparagus. I went for the veggie burger ($5.99), which seemed to be made out of a delicious compound of ground vegetables (heavy on the red bell pepper) that benefited from a soaking of teriyaki sauce; the burger came with more good vegetables, sweet potatoes this time. My husband chose a regular baked potato to accompany his "Kingston" rubbed beef ($12.99), a tender ten-ounce sirloin that could have used a bit more jerk. All this and those salads, too.

Still, we couldn't resist dessert--that chocolate thing for the kids and the carrot cake ($3.99) and creme brulee ($3.99) for the grownups. The carrot cake was a beautiful quilt of grated carrot and nuts sporting a thin, subtle cream-cheese frosting. But something had gone seriously wrong with the pudding cake this time, because its inedible edges had the texture of bricks. And the creme brulee was not a creme brulee at all but an overcooked, curdy custard cake; the sugar that normally would have been blowtorched into a crust had melted into the mess. Bleccchh. Mr. Cruise took both off the bill.

While we were settling our tab, several biker types, helmets in hand, cruised up to the front door. They'd obviously been there before, since the waitstaff greeted them even more enthusiastically than they had greeted us, a family of weekend (if then) bikers, with one member who rides what technically qualifies as a Big Wheel. But then, this place is so cheerful that they probably would have been happy if we'd ridden in on Harleys.

"My buddy, Rob Quinn, is the one who came up with the name when I told him I wanted something that tied in the biker theme but sounded kind of neighborhood-friendly," Miller says. "He's a good buddy of Greg LeMond's, and Rob and I ride together all the time. We were on a bike ride in Jefferson County about two years ago, and he just turned to me and said, 'You oughta call it the HandleBar and Grill.' It was perfect, with the right kind of connotation."

It's the wheel thing.

HandleBar & Grill, 305 South Downing Street, 778-6761. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday; 8 a.m.-midnight Saturday; 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.

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