Mouthing Off

Along Champa Street in downtown Denver, institutions are dropping like flies at a greasy diner. First the Changing Scene, the avant-garde theater that shocked audiences for thirty years at 1527 Champa Street, closed its doors at the end of 1999; Johnny's Newsstand, at 1555 Champa Street, will be shutting down before the summer ends.

And on March 31, you can say so long to VIC's Yankee Dollar Restaurant and Lounge, which has occupied the storefront at 1531 Champa Street for 23 years (and cooked up a storm in another location for fourteen years before that). Like other businesses along Champa, it's a victim of rapidly rising rents. But in VIC's case, the restaurant didn't even have a chance to shell out the extra dough. Notified by the landlord on February 28 that the building was going to be remodeled, VIC's learned then that its lease that expired at the end of March would not be renewed.

Which means there's only one more day to sink into VIC's orange vinyl booth and dig into one of the best Mexican hamburgers in town, smothered in credible green chile, with one of their great chocolate shakes on the side. There's only one more night to enjoy VIC's spaghetti with wine special. Yes, unlike the sterile eateries and eggeries that have replaced downtown's classic diners, VIC's even has a bar. So stop by and give the place a proper sendoff.

Once VIC's is gone, Duffy's Shamrock Restaurant & Bar (1635 Court Place) stands almost alone as one of downtown's true old-timers. And stand Duffy's does, despite another rollicking St. Patrick's Day. The doors opened at 7 a.m. that Friday, when news crews from Channel 9 tucked into what could be the town's only offering of pepperoni and eggs. At a nearby table, one early reveler received an order of biscuits and gravy so huge that greasy sausage gravy covered the entire plate. "Ewwww," commented the server as he set down the plate -- but it built a hell of a base for the rest of the day.

Things to do in Denver when it's dead: It's easy enough finding action on March 17. But five days later, friends who spent about twenty minutes at the lame cast party for Burn the Floor -- it was held at Sevilla (1801 Wynkoop Street), which served pizzas, of all things -- found themselves wandering around LoDo desperately trying to find some food. At four minutes to 11 p.m., the group went to McCormick's Fish House & Bar (1659 Wazee Street), a late-night standby (and another hopping joint on St. Patrick's Day, even if a bathtub did overflow into the breakfast festivities during Peter Boyles's live remote). But even as they watched a McCormick's server set a tray of food down on one table in the bar, another server told them flat-out that the kitchen was closed. Wynkoop Brewing Company (1634 18th Street) had also shuttered its kitchen, and so the party wound up at the Denver ChopHouse (1735 19th Street), where they were welcomed with open arms. Still, the experience prompted one member of the group to call me and ask, "So, when are we going to become a big city?"

Labor pains: I've received many calls -- a dozen, and counting -- from people who agreed that the service sucks at Cucina Leone, the gourmet to-go place I recently revisited for a Second Helping ("Slow Food," March 2). Bonnie Brae residents apparently think this spot at 763 South University Boulevard should do a better job of making the neighborhood happy -- and that includes making it possible to pick up a take-out dinner and get it home before 10 p.m. "Thank you for writing that -- I couldn't agree with you more," said one neighbor, who added that he had stopped going to Cucina Leone because "it just got ridiculous to wait so long." Another reader drove the point home: "If they want this area to hand over our money to them, they need to deliver in return."

Surprise! Dan Shipp, one of the principals of Boulder Concepts, the owner of Cucina Leone as well as Wazoo's and Bella Ristorante (among others), feels your pain. "Maybe that article will turn out to be a positive thing," he says. "But it's not like we weren't already aware of the problem. For four years, we've been trying to lure competent people into those counter positions, but the thing is, they are hourly wage-earners, so there's no tip there to give them an incentive to do better, and the good, quality people can simply make more money as a regular server."

Now that they've finally come to the conclusion that they're going to have to pay better to get better employees, the problem should be solved, Shipp says. "That's been a seven-, eight-, nine-dollar-an-hour job," he explains. "So we said, 'Okay, it's going to cost us more,' and that's how committed we are to making it work. We've hired two new daytime managers who are more responsible and understand the problems, and we've made it their objective to work on it."

I wish them luck: Food this good deserves better treatment. But until the counter help gets up to speed, I'd recommend you enjoy Cucina Leone's cuisine in the small dining room, where service is always good.

Open-and-shut cases: A sign outside the now-defunct Diamond Grill (845 Colorado Boulevard) says the space soon will become a second location for Swing Thai. The original is still doing a big business at 301 South Pennsylvania Street; fast-food Asian will probably do better in that transitioning part of Colorado Boulevard, too, than Diamond's almost-fine dining. Winning a prize in 1999 for the town's Best Argentinian food wasn't enough to save the Santa Fe Grill; its former home at 571 Santa Fe Drive will soon be Thoa & Thuy, a Vietnamese joint.

Back-to-school special: Cooking School of the Rockies is offering a cooking class for athletes that chef/instructor Jason McHugh has based on his own experiences as an athlete -- namely, he ran in a marathon and couldn't believe the garbage his friends ate before and after the race. "The consistency of your performance really suffers if your diet is monotonous or unhealthy," McHugh says. "You'll do well in one race but bomb in the next." He promises that he'll not only offer recipes for healthy foods, but instructions on how to prepare them quickly; he'll also provide formulas for creating your own sports drinks. The class, which costs $40 per person, is slated for 6:30-9:30 p.m. April 28 at the Cooking School, 637 South Broadway in Boulder; call 303-494-7988.

Good food, good deeds: Congratulations to Project Angel Heart, whose March 9 Dining Out for Life benefit -- its sixth annual -- raised $135,000. Most participating restaurants reported that they were packed to the rafters that evening (more than 30,000 diners joined in) and some restaurateurs even proclaimed it their busiest night ever.