Cafe Society

Happy days are here again at the Squeaky Bean

How in the hell am I supposed to eat this?"

It was a perfect summer night in Denver. Inside the Squeaky Bean, a lively crowd was watching the Celtics and the Lakers battle it out on the bar TV, cheering over the freak folk and remixed indie rock coming from the speakers. Outside, where the sun was setting over Highland, the patio was buzzing. Sitting amid the amusing din, Rob and I had a pressing issue: how to get a towering mountain of foie gras into our greedy mouths. The dish, a six-inch tower of deconstructed peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, looked like a delicious joke: a stack of sweet rhubarb gelee, crispy brioche, savory and creamy torchon of foie gras, then more gelee, this one strawberry. We finally drove in our forks, toppling the mountain, then scooped up the remnants — and savored the flavor and texture of the sexiest rendition of that particular lunchroom classic ever invented.

There are a lot of jokes at the Squeaky Bean, which was named for the sound a fresh green bean makes between the teeth and captures owner Johnny Ballen's love of both seasonality and quirkiness. So many jokes, in fact, that you could never hope to get all of them. You've got a better chance, though, if you're a fan of 1960s and 1970s TV shows. Then you'll understand why the platter of cured pork is called the Arnold Ziffel, why you might want a "Rerun" of a fruity cocktail named the Fred Berry, why the short pour of beer is called the Gary Coleman. Otherwise, you might miss out, as I did, on the Pinky Tuscadero reference, homage to a minor Happy Days character who appeared in just three episodes.

If you believe that puns are the highest form of humor, you'll eat up the endless examples of Ballen's wordplay. "Explore your inner bean," says a stencil on the window. "It was meant to bean," cries the website.

And if you're into cultural kitsch, you'll appreciate how the space feels like a jolly throwback to lunch counters past, complete with a stainless-steel bar and tiny black-and-white hexagon tiles, the original floor of the drugstore that first inhabited this corner space. There are artifacts that you could probably dig up in your grandma's basement, too: an old Bingo board above the bar, eclectic black-and-white photographs on mustard-colored walls, and a couple of ancient Easy-Bake Ovens mounted on a shelf above the bathroom.

Actually, those Easy-Bake Ovens have a deeper meaning at the Bean. Chef Max MacKissock gave up vast, ambitious kitchens (he did a stretch at Chicago's Alinea after leaving Vita, which is just down the street) for the opportunity of a lifetime here: to turn out decent fare from the smallest kitchen imaginable, using only a couple of electric ovens, a couple of George Foreman grills, and some camping equipment.

"We call the kitchen MacGyver," says Ballen. "And we call the ovens Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris, because they do all of the heavy lifting."

All the jokes have a point. "There's no sense in not having fun when it comes to dinner," explains Ballen, who's also a partner at Solera. "The Bean draws from my own personal dining experiences and gives people something to talk about. Even if you're here on a first date, there's a way to break the ice."

Inspired by restaurants he'd seen in the Italian town of Palmanova, Ballen decided he wanted to create a neighborhood joint that would feed people three meals a day, morphing from a cheery breakfast and lunch café into a vibrant dinner spot. And he decided to do it here, in an old northwest Denver drugstore that had no kitchen. He didn't have any operating capital, either — and he wasn't likely to get any, since he opened the Bean in May 2009.

Still, just over a year later, his place is turning out those three meals a day. During the day, the Bean is a true cafe, with MacKissock's crew using MacGyver to cook up steel-cut oatmeal, cinnamon toast, beet salad and sandwiches. What they lack in equipment they more than make up for with creativity, which elevates many of the offerings beyond working-lunch mediocrity. The croque monsieur, for example, is hard not to inhale, with thyme bechamel and cave-aged gruyere and thin prosciutto sandwiched between two slices of crispy bread. If you can handle a drink during business hours, the beverage program is like the food — simple, but thoughtful. Good, tart Vouvray white wine is offered by the glass, as are local beers on a rotating tap. And warm days see at least a couple of Squeaky Spritzes, the bar's take on the aperol spritz, a bittersweet apertif, heading out to the patio.

At night, MacKissock likes to play with his food. The dinner menu features lighthearted takes on American classics — but not the classics you'd expect. There's no hamburger and fries, for instance. No meatloaf, either. But there is Shake 'n Bake — sort of. MacKissock makes his own version of the cornflake batter and coats sweetbreads with it, serving the crispy, tender offal with sweet pineapple, frisee and cucumber. There's spinach and artichoke dip here, too, but it's not the gooey blob of cheese proffered in nouveau Californian restaurants across the country. MacKissock's is a literal translation, a deep green savory sauce made of the pureed vegetables, served with thin, brittle crackers.

The chef doesn't stop at putting a fresh twist on cultural throwbacks. He also plays with notions of seasonality, creating dishes that aren't exactly what they appear to be from ingredients grown in the Bean's own garden, located in an alley just steps from the restaurant, and supplemented with produce from farms such as Aspen Moon, which supplies a farm stand at the Bean on Thursdays during these warm months. I was surprised to find shepherd's pie on a summer menu, but the braised lamb, served in a tomato broth, was so tender that you could cut it with your tongue, and the pie had been left crustless, with potato mousse rather than chunks of starchy vegetable making it light enough for even a hot June night.

While MacKissock's experimentation results in some great dishes, the kind that make me want to clap my hands and squeal like a five-year-old duped by a trick candle on a birthday cake, he also turns out plates that simply feature good technique and flavor combinations. A delicate seared hiramasa comes with artichoke salad and a couple of thin, crisp slices of guanciale, the cured pig cheek. The Malachi Crunch is named for another Happy Days shtick; it's a classically indulgent chocolate brownie topped with bits of chocolate streusel and foamed milk. Occasionally these combinations don't work, and there are other culinary kinks. The tuna conserva, a fancy tuna salad sandwich served open-faced with fried capers and pine nuts, was underseasoned and dry both times I had it. And while the presentation of the strawberry rhubarb dessert — layers of pink and white in a beaker — was delightful, the execution bordered on terrible. This vat of soft, sweet mush exhibited none of MacKissock's strengths with texture complements and flavor balance.

But when he's on — and he usually is — MacKissock does big things in that little kitchen. With food this impressive, it's easy to forget that the Squeaky Bean is essentially a cafe, with the service you'd expect at a cafe: warm and friendly and surprisingly knowledgeable, but definitely not doting, leaving you to a long, ambling meal without disturbance — even when you need disturbance, for a refill or a clear plate. Forget that, and you might find yourself occasionally feeling like the butt of a joke.

Otherwise, though, Ballen has created a restaurant that seriously lives up to its goal of making a meal fun. Regulars gather here for breakfast, lunch, dinner, meetings, reunions, dates and nail-biter championships, lazily letting afternoon turn into evening with a laissez-faire attitude more common to dining on the other side of the Atlantic. But the Squeaky Bean also exhibits a fervent reverence for American culture and a respect for place so deep, it seems like it's been serving diners for decades. This is a quintessential neighborhood joint, contemporary and timeless, both breaking the rules and playing by them — all while managing to look pretty cool.