Cafe Society

The Empire Lounge still has a way to go

It's one of those things that has come to define a floor that's actually concerned with the happiness and comfort of its guests, a little thing that shows a staff out for more than just tips and a night with no complaints.

Fixing a wobbly table.

True, a restaurant that really had its act together would have no wobbly tables at all. Before the start of service, one of the junior servers would walk the floor, laying a hand gently on the edge of each of the tables in the room, making sure that they're all steady and stable. He would check the lay of the tablecloth, the polish on the silver and all that other stuff, too. I know this because I've worked in restaurants, under chefs and owners who were that focused on perfection. I know it because I've watched the server whose job it was to check the tables.

In a perfect world, of course, there would be no shaky tables. There would be no spots on the silver, no stains on the tablecloth; everything that came out of the kitchen would be ideal in every way. But we do not live in a perfect world. And even if the best restaurants in Denver and Boulder sometimes approach the outer boundaries of flawless rightness — the borderline that separates, say, the exhausted boredom and careless slack of a Denny's night shift or Olive Garden Friday night from a place where the staff realizes that careful attention and a nicely wiped plate is something worth aspiring to — Louisville is still something of the Wild West. The last time I was there, it was for a wop burger at the decades-old Blue Parrot, an Italian joint that, along with the equally venerable Colacci's, was the town's dining claim to fame. But then Colacci's became a Pasquini's and, finally last December, The Empire Lounge and Restaurant.

At the entry to the Empire on a Saturday night with an over-full house and spillover crowds starting to pack the bar, the host gave me a dinosaur (a large plastic Tyrannosaurus rex) that would mark me as first or fifth or tenth in line waiting for a table. I felt less ridiculous than I perhaps should have, sitting in the lounge (comfy couches, green shag carpets, glass coffee table) with the dinosaur guarding my beer. The host checked on our party several times, assuring me that it wouldn't be too long, but we were fine. The vibe at the Empire is warm, comfortable, flashier than your average neighborhood tavern but still relaxed. If you were ever a fan of the show Northern Exposure, imagine the Brick redone by the guys behind Snooze: a kind of retro, wood-and-brick joint with a little neon, a little accent lighting. And dinosaurs. Besides, in the lounge I was close to the kitchen's pass and could watch and listen to the crew at work.

That crew: young guys, mostly. Up-and-comers led by Jim Cohen, a serious, heavyweight chef with historical ties to the fledgling regional-food movement of the '80s and to Colorado through Tante Louise, where he was the chef more than two decades ago. As a matter of fact, Tante Louise was where Julia Child found Cohen before naming him one of the top chefs in America and inviting him to be her first guest on Dining With Julia in 1983. He went on to cook in Vail (at the Wildflower and Cucina Rustica), in Arizona (at the Phoenician in Scottsdale) and Las Vegas (at Terrazza at Caesars Palace), and he got a James Beard nomination for "Best Chef Southwest" in 1991.

But the food in this kitchen actually harks back even further, to the kind of experimentation Cohen was into back in the dark ages of American gastronomy, when he cooked at the Plum Tree Cafe in Denver in the 1970s. And while it might seem weird now to call American regional cooking an "experiment," back then it really was. When beef Welly and coulibiac of salmon and Jell-O fruit molds and ham with pineapple rings were the norm, even a polenta cake could be seen as revolutionary.

So when we were finally taken to our table, handed our menus and told to take our time (even though the bar was shoulder-bumping close and the floor starting to back up), the old insurgent dishes were what interested me — the local veggies with romesco, the house-cured gravlax and homemade mozzarella. These simply didn't exist when Cohen started his line time. Certainly not in Colorado. And the grilled polenta with prosciutto? That probably wasn't seen anywhere outside the Bay Area.

It could be the French Laundry effect, but I love it whenever I see a place with the potential for greatness that's off the beaten path, outside the normal concentrations of restaurant excellence. And the Empire definitely qualifies. It has a blooded chef, an owner (Brendan McManus, partners with Cohen) who's also a food guy — an ex-cook, a 25-year industry veteran who spent a decade as a manager with Dave Query and his Big Red F restaurant group — and a staff that knows enough to shim the tables when they get off-kilter.