In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
A bar and grill is just a grill when you're not drinking. Despite the rows of taps and shelves full of alluring liquor bottles, the cheap mixed drinks and the neon beers signs, the main draws become only the menu and maybe the sporting event on TV. The game tables and dart boards are of no consequence to anyone whose take-all-bets bravado is not boosted by a little liquid courage. So it was on a recent visit to Federal Bar and Grill, which last year moved into the revamped former home of the decidedly grungy Micky Manor -- where heavy drinking was definitely the sole attraction.
Call it a New Year's resolution, a pact based on notions of improved health or maybe just a dare, but Amy and I had decided to lay off the sauce until Super Bowl Sunday. We'd already navigated office parties, dinner-club dinners and some bad moods induced by weather-related rush-hour traffic. But with the Federal's glossy art deco bar and long list of beers, we decided that brunch would provide less temptation than the later hours, when the neighborhood collectively whets its thirst at one of the few true bars along this stretch of Federal Boulevard. Two-dollar mimosas (made with fresh-squeezed orange juice) and four-dollar brunch cocktails (including a housemade bloody Mary) proved difficult to ignore, but the coffee was good and bottomless, which became a form of salvation.
I rounded up a crew from the previous night's dinner club to help us plow through the brunch menu; the Federal opens at 10 a.m. for weekend brunch, so I picked that time to get the jump on any potential lines. I needn't have worried; we were the first customers -- and the only ones for at least another half hour. We took a table toward the back, beyond that long expanse of walnut-hued bar and its many gem-colored bottles sparkling in the slanting mid-morning sunshine, beyond the rows of craft-beer handles and comfortable bar stools with high backs and padded seats custom-built for the long haul.
The menu at the Federal includes a handful of brunch-specific offerings, mostly of the savory variety, but our server let us know that we could order anything on the menu, whether it was designated for brunch or not. We started with a plate of deviled eggs as we waited for our final companion, who rolled in late and bed-headed because we had told him the wrong time.
Deviled egg aficionados come in two camps: traditionalists and experimenters. The former group (including Amy) can never understand why the latter insists on messing with the basic, creamy satisfaction of yolk and mayo touched only with a little mustard and a freckling of paprika. I'm in the second set, so I enjoyed the tapenade blended into the yolk mixture.
Once we ordered, the table soon became cluttered with an assortment of burritos, burgers, onion rings and scrambles. My breakfast burrito -- heavy on sausage and diced vegetables but light on eggs -- appeared to be stuffed with the same mixture that composed Amy's North Denver scramble: chorizo, potatoes, green peppers, onion and a squiggle of sour cream. I was confused by the mild and onion-studded sauce until I looked back at the menu and realized it was ranchero sauce, not the more familiar green chile I thought I was getting. (Reading comprehension is decidedly state-dependent; I can't concentrate when sober in a location where I'm normally at least pleasantly tipsy.)
My friends Jill and Michael both selected burgers, the stand-out being the breakfast version topped with maple bacon, a fried egg and a thankfully light dose of truffle oil, all tucked into a butter-glazed pretzel roll. The breakfast burger came with country potatoes (also heavy on the bell peppers and onions) while Jill's -- ordered from the dinner menu -- came sided with fries. Our companions insisted on sharing their onion rings and fries, mostly so we could sample the accompanying (for fifty cents each) queso dip and picnic sauce -- an odd but addictive mix of ketchup, mustard, relish, mayo and onions.
The food at the Federal was simple bar food, all made by hand and with care. Nothing we ate was mind-blowing or revelatory (although the toppings list for the burgers was exhaustive, including even kimchee). I walked out into a warm January day stuffed, satisfied and not missing the narrowly avoided bloody Mary. The place had filled up a little but I couldn't help but think of the long queues of hungry brunch-goers waiting patiently, distracting themselves with their smart phones, for a meal at some trendy joint nearby.
I'll take the potential of drinks, the reality of well-made coffee, and the pleasure of a decent, lingered-over breakfast over long lines and crowded dining rooms just about any day. And next time, with no self-imposed restrictions, I may just be wandering out into the orange-tinged aura of dusk instead of the vast blue noonday sky of winter in Denver.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.