The Joint

The sultans of sirloin who blithely run up $300 dinner tabs at gilt palaces like Morton's and Del Frisco's would never deign to set foot in the Columbine Steak House & Lounge. At the scruffy Columbine, on scruffy Federal Boulevard, they've been tossing skinny slabs of beef on the fire for four decades now, and this remnant of days past looks and feels every bit its age. From the softball trophies in the pitch-dark bar to the overt glare the cook gives you when you tell him how you want your T-bone done, the joint screams time warp. Think about it: When did you last eat in a place that refuses both checks and credit cards? When did you last see a grasshopper or a whiskey sour listed on a cocktail menu? By the way, what year did somebody last order Ballantine's Scotch in here? Judging by its yellowed, peeling label, the Ballantine's bottle must have gotten opened the night JFK was inaugurated and remained untouched ever since.

In other words, this is hardly the place to discuss your latest dot-com venture or sign the papers for that new BMW. Ask the waitress for Chateau So-and-So and she'll probably call the cops.

So what's the attraction? Well, you can still get a handful of peanuts for a quarter from the machine next to the jukebox. The barmaid brings your drink without telling you her life story -- which would take a while. You can sink into one of the black Naugahyde booths with your pals, order a cold one and not worry too much about how your hair looks. Best of all, you can get a booze-absorbing steak, a baked potato, a salad and a slice of Texas toast at one o'clock in the morning for under ten bucks before going home to beat the dog and turn up Mario Lanza really loud on the hi-fi. The Columbine is nostalgia through and through. There used to be dozens of these no-nonsense, short-order steak joints in Denver; this is one of the few survivors.

Food quality? Let's not examine things too closely, okay? Management claims, right there on the front of the menu, to be "nationally known for fine steaks since 1961." But you'd be hard-pressed to write home about the thin T-bone ($8.45), the big, tough porterhouse ($10.95), the watery blue-cheese dressing on the iceberg lettuce or the semi-mushy baked potato in the little aluminum-foil jacket. We haven't ordered the "deep fried cod fish steak -- two pieces" since Gerald Ford was president, but odds are it hasn't changed much, either. The Columbine's food is ordinary, edible and fairly priced for what you get. Besides, in a pinch, the handy squeeze bottles of ketchup, barbecue sauce, mustard and Louisiana hot sauce can obliterate just about any crime the chef has committed.

"Your satisfaction has been our pleasure ...for over 30 years," the motto on the menu reads. So be it. Just don't expect any culinary wonders from a place where, if you insist on eating in the dreary dining room, you grab a tray and order at the counter while the short-order man scowls and sprinkles shredded lettuce onto hamburger buns with his bare hands.

Better to recline in the inky recesses of the bar, preferably with a tight ballgame on the boob tube, and let the waitress bring a steak you can't see too well, then eat it in a spirit of not caring too much. And don't forget that postprandial grasshopper.