Talkin' Turkey

On Thanksgiving Day, I was in the middle of moving and couldn't find the refrigerator, let alone a roasting pan and baster. But I did manage to locate a decent breakfast -- at Chef Zorba, 2630 East 12th Avenue.

Other than a sign announcing that the Greek eatery would be serving turkey that night, Chef Zorba wasn't decked out in any holiday finery. But my meal at this divey, smoke-filled diner with its torn-upholstery booths turned out to be a special occasion nonetheless.

"Good morning, and happy Thanksgiving!" the server said the second we walked in the door. "You sit wherever you want." As we walked past the grill, the hash-slinger manning the homefries called out, "Hi, there! Happy Thanksgiving!" Four people were working that morning, and all of them stopped by the tables to joke with the customers, many of them obviously regulars. We weren't, but we were still treated to the same cheerful banter and service.

One daughter wolfed down a pancake in the shape of Mickey Mouse ($1.95); the other devoured a ham-and-cheese omelette ($1.50 for a kid's size). That omelette and my breakfast pita ($5.25) -- a well-stuffed sandwich of nicely seasoned gyros with scrambled eggs, feta and a thin but tangy tzatziki sauce -- both came with slabs of killer homefries that were like lumpy mashed potatoes on the bottom and had a thick, faintly greasy crust of beautifully grilled golden-brown spuds on top.

While we ate, we learned that our server's eighteen-year-old son was at home taking care of her five-month-old and cooking the turkey. "We'll see what Thanksgiving's all about by the time I get home," she said, chuckling. She told us the orange juice was on the house, then wondered aloud about an eighty-something woman making her painful way out the door. "I hope she's okay," the server said. "I wonder if I should go out and watch her walk down the street just in case."

She did, but not before refilling my Coke, cleaning up a water spill and telling some twenty-something guy that he still has time to quit smoking before it takes over his whole life. "You'll never regret smoking," she said. "You'll only regret not quitting."

And just when it couldn't get more like a Hallmark card, a neighborhood group stopped in to yell "Happy Thanksgiving!" en masse. Norman Rockwell really should have hung around a few Greek diners.

Although Chef Zorba was full that morning, the crowd was nothing compared with what we found that afternoon at The Fort, the thirty-year-old replica of Bent's Old Fort at 19192 Highway 8 in Morrison. When we arrived ten minutes early for our 3 p.m. reservation, we were greeted by a host who haughtily informed us that we'd have to wait until the appointed hour. At 3:20 we were still waiting, though, and I thought I'd better check on our table. I'm pretty sure the host had forgotten us, but he covered it up by saying, "Oh, yes, you're next."

Just us, and 994 other people that the Fort served on Thanksgiving Day. I was delighted just to get my party of four on the reservation list, and I had no complaints about the food or the setting, which included a roaring fire in the courtyard and the kind of glowing, candlelit interior that can't help but capture the warm essence of the holidays. But the service left something to be desired.

Actually, it left so much to be desired that you have to wonder why a restaurant that's known for offering exceptional service executed by very nice staff members would set itself up for such a crush -- but then, if you do the math, 998 times entree, wine and dessert (five bucks for the smallest piece of pumpkin pie ever, by the way) equals a cornucopia of cash.

Although most of the employees were trying hard to be cheerful -- with the notable exception of the heavily pierced busgirl bitching in the ladies' room on a cell phone about how she couldn't believe she'd earned a mere $40 -- it was obvious from the get-go that the restaurant was too packed, too busy and too harried for anyone to relax and enjoy himself. Let alone anyone who, like me, had thought that paying upwards of $200 for two adults and two kids would buy a hassle-free meal.

But hassles there were, from the crowd of unseated customers blocking the way into -- and out of -- the bathrooms, to the forgotten entree, to the half-hour between courses, to a kid-unfriendly stuffing so spicy it made the tyke at the next table scream at the top of his lungs (and at least a third of the parties included kids). More evidence that the Fort was overloaded: We were charged $65 for a bottle of wine listed on the menu for $42, and the usually heavenly, death-by-chocolate Negrita desserts ($5 each) had been made ahead and chilled so long that they were impenetrable by a knife otherwise sharp enough to carve a buffalo.

It was a shame, because the Fort has always been one of my favorite Denver-area restaurants, and this could have been a marvelous meal. The turkey dinner ($19.95, or $9.95 for kids) was a deal: four thickish slices of moist bird paired with cornbread poblano stuffing, walnut-studded cranberry sauce, Cha-Cha Murphy potatoes (hand-mashed with cheese and salsa) and succotash, along with a tiny, dressing-drenched dinner salad (that blue cheese could well be the best I've ever had), pumpkin muffins and Indian flatbread. I'd ordered the venison ($32.95), but when the turkey was trotted out for the other three diners at my table, my dish was nowhere in sight. To the Fort's credit -- and probably to the detriment of some other table, because otherwise I can't figure out how the kitchen cooked a piece of meat to medium-rare so quickly -- a plate bearing a four-inch-thick chop coated with a so-so port-blackberry sauce, as well as succotash and a to-die-for sweet-potato purée, arrived after a relatively short wait.

The wait for the check, on the other hand, was excruciating -- especially since by then the little fellow at the next table had begun his ear-piercing, stuffing-hating shriek. As soon as it started, several members of the waitstaff gathered at the end of the dining room, where they rolled their eyes in unison and sighed.

Average tip for Fort employees per table that day: $40. Average tip for Chef Zorba employees per table that day: $2.

Yes, I was thankful to be able to eat at both places. But I'm really giving thanks that Chef Zorba is in my neighborhood.