"I still hate dining alone. That's probably the hardest part. Figuring out how to sit comfortably in a restaurant without a date by your side. Some restaurants are good for it, others are terrible. You adjust, I guess. But I avoid it if I can."
I'm sipping a Campari on the rocks at Rodney's in Cherry Creek with Lillian Wood, and we're talking about a less-than-cheery subject: divorce. This spot is conducive to our discussion. It's a dark, subterranean enclave that, most nights, finds a crowd of divorced men from the Baby Boomer generation huddled around the bar, sipping Scotch and talking shop while watching sports. Lunches see those same men entertaining clients around back tables while ex-wife counterparts, dripping with diamonds from the settlement, eat wedge salads in plush booths with friends.
At just over thirty, Wood's a little young for this crowd — but her six-year marriage dissolved a year ago, and she's still coping with the fallout, negotiating custody of her three-year-old daughter and determining whether she's allowed to move back to Louisiana to be closer to her family. "When you're in the midst of it, divorce consumes your life," she says.
I nod. I've never been divorced (or married, for that matter), but I can relate: My parents split last year after 28 years of marriage, a classic case of two people who married too young (both were twenty) and survived because admitting failure while child-rearing wasn't an option for either of them. Once both kids were out of the house, though, the challenges of empty-nesting proved too great to overcome and, unsurprisingly, they decided to end things.
The actual divorce was the easy part. What I hadn't counted on was the inevitable lessons my parents would have to learn once the dust of separation settled. They hadn't been single for three decades, and neither was entirely sure how to proceed. My mom, especially, could have benefited from the website that Wood is helping bring from Manhattan to the West: DivorceCandy.com. Started by two divorcées, the website is similar to such online wedding hubs as The Knot, listing everything you could need to start over, including legal advice, dating tips and divorce registries for anything the ex might have gotten in the aftermath, amassed in one sassy spot on the Internet. Wood was inspired by the women's willingness to talk about life after failed marriage, and she jumped on board to help sell the concept here. Now she's scouring Denver, making lists of attorneys, babysitters, support groups and restaurants that are comfortable for single diners.
Cherry Creek is a good place to start. Wood ticks off a roster of restaurants in the area that attract divorcées, good spots for venturing back into the social world. Friendships emerge over weekly dinners, and bonds are formed when solo diners encounter each other at the same time and same place, making connections to fend off loneliness. There are different places for different age groups. Rodney's seems to cater to people my parents' age, searching for comfort and comfort foods.
Rodney Utz opened this basement spot 27 years ago, and since he planted himself in the neighborhood, he's watched 72 restaurants (by his count) come and go, along with the marriages of many of his patrons. Eighteen years ago, he expanded his empire to Tamarac Square; nine years ago, he opened a third Rodney's in Castle Pines. Utz has since sold the third branch, but the other two are going strong, serving nightly specials — which include a lot of all-you-can-eat deals on spaghetti and ribs — as well as country-club dishes of a past era paired with a heavily California wine list.
This flagship spot channels Utz's love for what he calls the old boys' bars of Chicago and New York, and it attracts the old boys of this city: Denver Country Club members, mostly men who are over forty and divorced, who come down so that they can get out of the house and get cocktails and burgers at better prices than they'll find at nearby restaurants. The restaurant's first regulars, men from the World War II generation, used to listen to Frank Sinatra and smoke in this cavernous spot, but all that's left from those days are burn marks on the bar. Utz doesn't mind the ban that forced him to disallow cigarettes and cigars; he says business went up 21 percent once Rodney's went non-smoking.
Rodney's is really a bar first and foremost, and the food is nothing to write home about — even if your home isn't broken. Over the course of three meals here, I had only one thing that I would characterize as good: a loaded baked potato, stuffed full of butter, sour cream, cheese and bacon. But then, it's tough to mess up a baked potato when it's laden with that many dairy products. The massive club sandwich wasn't bad, though, with layers of floppy bacon and turkey on triangles of toasted white bread, held together by long toothpicks. And the menu's Mexican offerings, Americanized versions of burritos and nachos and enchiladas with a little kick to them, would be sufficient if I were sitting at the bar, looking for basic nourishment while watching a big game.
But most of what I ordered at Rodney's was very, very bland. The side order of spaghetti that accompanied a sandwich was both watery and oily. I assume there were tomatoes in the sauce because it was tinted red, but I couldn't taste them. My burger tasted like ketchup; I'd doused the thing with Heinz to give it any flavor at all. And my most anticipated dish, the "famous prime rib," looked pink and juicy on its big oval platter but had no seasoning that I could detect — and even after I salted it, I still felt like I was eating it to appease some invisible mother who'd made a mistake in the kitchen, not wanting to insult her ability to put food on the table for the family.
Some of what I tried was downright inedible. The Mandarin chicken salad, recommended by a lunchtime server, was like watered-down fast-food roughage, with a terrible, astringent sesame dressing. The prime rib sandwich was much worse than the prime rib entree, with overcooked meat that not even the accompanying au jus could revive.
The kitchen maximizes efficiency and cuts corners. There's vinaigrette and blue-cheese crumbles instead of Gorgonzola dressing on the wedge salad, for instance. The horseradish had lost all its pungency because it had been grated days earlier. Our friendly server told us that the calamari was "a little different" — strips of the body rather than rings, battered and fried. But given the texture, which was spongy and tender instead of springy, I'd say it's more likely this dish was different because it wasn't calamari at all, but frozen fish dropped into the deep fryer.
The kitchen must also believe that more is always better: Each dish could have fed at least two people. I imagine patrons taking grandchildren here to give them a lesson on the value of money, or silver-haired bachelors carrying out a to-go box to make two feasts out of one.
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Meals end with huge slices of chocolate cake or cheesecake, or a softball-sized scoop of coffee ice cream rolled in Heath bar bits and doused with Hershey's syrup. The desserts are sweet and rich and satisfying — until they're forgotten altogether.
Really, though, I don't think people come to Rodney's for the food (and if they do, it's because they're craving that mediocre cooking that characterized the hometown restaurants where they once enjoyed several cheap meals a week). As Wood and I finish our weak post-dinner coffees, we agree that for the regulars, the meals don't really matter. People come to Rodney's because they're welcomed, often by Utz himself, who mans the door several nights a week.
Because they feel at home here — maybe more than they do at their own broken homes.
How many defunct Cherry Creek restaurants can you name? E-mail your list to firstname.lastname@example.org; we'll buy a prime rib dinner for the person who comes closest to Rodney Utz's list of 72. Contact the author at email@example.com.