As I sat down to pen another love letter to Casa Bonita, I realized Westword has done that many times, in some form or other. In fact, just as I love Lakeside, other writers love Casa Bonita...certainly far more than regular diners do.
But it wasn't just a trip to Casa Bonita over this past weekend that made me want to write at length about how much I love the parts of Denver that are still very much Denver. Stops at Linger, Dazzle and MGM's Restaurant & Lounge all reminded me -- a crotchety young/old lady who likes her tea hot and her lighting appropriate -- of what gives my city a heart: the atmosphere.
See also: - Casa Bonita is real! And it has a Facebook page! - Comment of the Day: A new restaurant in an old mortuary leaves me cold - Here, transplants, have Denver: It's all yours (except for Hooters)
Prior to my visit to CB -- where I go twice a year, like any normal Coloradoan -- I had dinner at Linger for the first time. As with Casa Bonita, the food did not blow me away (though otherwise, the cuisine at these two very different restaurants have nothing in common). But also as with CB, the ambiance did.
Linger is akin to CB in that it is spooky-feeling -- but Linger is supposed to feel that way. It's a restaurant in a building that housed dead people for the better part of a century, and has a menu written on a toe-tag, embalming fluid-looking bottles strategically placed throughout the place, and lighting so dim it makes the trip the bathroom feel like a walk through Black Bart's Cave (complete with a faux bridge where you pass over a "pool" of billiard balls).
The following night brought me to another place I'd never visited, even though it's fewer than ten blocks from my house: MGM's on Morrison Road. On Friday, I finally went there with some new friends who are regulars at the bar, and I walked into a dream world -- a dream world where Stevie B.'s "Spring Love" was bumping from the sound system and I was given all-you-can-drink club soda.Pretty much exactly what my boyfriend and I look like when dancing in public.
MGM's was rad: The dance floor was packed with couples and best girlfriends dancing in a circle to Jermaine Dupri and a DJ with a sense of humor. (And by sense of humor, I mean that he projected the choreographed dance scene from Napoleon Dynamite on the wall the moment my boyfriend and I -- the two physically whitest people not just in the club but on the planet -- stepped onto the floor.)
I was a regular at Teddy's for the club-in-a-hotel-bar's '90s hip-hop night, and had been looking for a place with a similar feel. MGM's was it -- and part of that it was the atmosphere that grows in a room full of people who don't give a shit about anything and just want to have a good time. That's something I've never found in LoDo. (Oh, and the red lightbulbs in the ceiling fans at MGM's helped with the club's atmosphere, too.)
Saturday night was my trip to Casa Bonita with the Gay Social Club, a family-like group that grew during my work from 2006 to 2013 as a T-shirt and denim slanger at Shirt Folding Store. (If you've ever worked retail, then you know what kind of family I'm talking about -- it's just like your real family, complete with alcoholics, cheating spouses, a constant stream of badly translated, third-hand gossip and, most of all, love.) The lovely pink-on-the-outside-magic-on-the-inside place hasn't changed much (unless you count the looping video at the bottom of the wishing well, which is now a green-faced dude instead of an ultra-scary Max Headroom-style witch). The smell of a public pool and enchiladas wind together as the crashing sound of an indoor waterfall sets the backdrop for some of the best amateur theater and cliff-diving the world has to offer.
Christmas lights hang from plastic palm trees and, above the gift shop, T-shirts and pants hang from a clothesline that belongs to no one. As far as I'm concerned, Casa Bonita has the best atmosphere of any restaurant in Denver. (Unless they seat you in the magic theater, which feels like a scary/sweaty hull of a ship packed with strangers you're actually afraid you may be marooned with if the end of the world totally happens and you end up at Casa Bonita.)
Sunday night, I ended my accidentally-curated tour of Denver's best restaurant ambiance with a stop at Dazzle, to see Ron Miles play. (Another reason to love Denver: Miles was my teacher at Metro once upon a time, and I can still sit in the front row and hear him play on a weekend night for a decent price.)
I hadn't been to Dazzle for a while, and as I walked through the door I again marveled at its near-perfect atmosphere. The booths in the bar are round and welcoming, there's hardly a bad seat in the house in the listening room, the service is on point and the food is delicious. But most important, the music alone is reason to come here.
I sipped my post-dinner coffee like a geezer and sat back and listened, without talking, for almost two hours. (BTW, Dazzle place is also an excellent choice if you're like me and like to be in bed at 9:30 p.m.)
I still have a lot of complaints about the city my Denver is quickly becoming -- like, can we stop using corrugated metal on the insides and outsides of buildings? I know Chipotle started it two decades ago, but I'm tired of a public space having the ambiance of a trash can.
But I've found that if I look just below the surface, sometimes just down the street, there are plenty of places left in Denver with real atmosphere, places where you feel good the second you walk in. So next time you're headed out, ditch that pretentious one-named bar and go somewhere sketchy, or spooky, or unknown to the other people in your yoga/triathalon-training/bootcamp/barre class.
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