Cafe Society

Racines reaches thirty by sticking to tradition, not following trends

Over the holidays, I caught part of White Christmas, and what struck me wasn't the hilarity of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye lip-synching to "Sisters" behind blue feathered fans, but the elegance of the Miami nightclub where they were performing, with intimate cocktail tables, big-band music and couples in dressier attire than what we wear to weddings today. The film came to mind over a recent dinner at Racines — not because there was entertainment (unless you count football on one of the bar's flat-screen TVs), or because women were wearing strapless gowns (more like jeans and sweaters), but because Racines, like Crosby's film, is a product of another era.

See also: A Closer Look at Racine's

Founded thirty years ago last month, the restaurant is still run by two of the original partners, Lee Goodfriend and David Racine, who met at a fern bar where Goodfriend was a server ("it was called a 'waitress' back then," she says) and Racine was a bartender. That popular place, now long gone, cooked out of a microwave, and the duo had a hunch they could do better. "We thought there was a need for a high-quality restaurant that cooked from scratch," recalls Goodfriend. "In the '70s that wasn't so common, but it sounds a little silly now." So they opened Goodfriends, and then a few years later Racines, which quickly earned a reputation as a power breakfast and lunch spot, one it maintains to this day among influencers of a certain age. Racines still attracts big enough crowds to warrant valet parking at lunch, brunch and dinner on Friday and Saturday, and during most meals the dining room has the buzz of a very successful restaurant, with silverware clinking, ice in glasses tinkling, and the comforting background hum of so many other conversations that your own is safely private.

That Racines manages to stay so busy day in, day out, is quite a feat, especially in an industry where turnover is common and restaurateurs know the challenges of filling new restaurants a fraction of the size. (Racines seats 275 inside, plus another eighty on the patio.) How does this Denver institution stay relevant when the premise it was founded on — scratch cooking — is no longer a novelty but the norm?

Breakfast wasn't always so busy at Racines, but it's hard to imagine the place without it. In part, that's because the restaurant has the nostalgic feel of a diner, with prices ending in .99, and servers who swing by regularly to top off a cup and seem surprised to take an order from someone who needs a minute to decide. Not that the decor evokes a diner; this custom-built space, which opened along with Racines' own parking garage in May 2004, eleven months after the restaurant left its original home at 855 Bannock Street, blends steakhouse-style tufted red chairs with a central wood bar, enough padded booths for anyone who wants one, and wall art as varied as butterflies and vintage posters. But the lengthy, laminated menu is certainly diner-esque, rambling from Mexico to Greece, Santa Fe to the South. The encyclopedic sweep helps explain the restaurant's perennial appeal, with something for everyone among the 25 egg dishes, thirteen from the grill and pantry, and an à la carte section with the likes of Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and a grapefruit half. And that's just at breakfast; there are another eighty-plus items at lunch and dinner.

Skillets came highly recommended, with eggs and veggies atop hash browns in a porcelain skillet. But ours, with housemade corned beef so mild it could've been mistaken for ham, was outdone by the bandito burrito, stuffed with crispy tortilla strips, eggs, black beans and cheese, and a satisfying smother of pork green chile. A word on that chile: It's thick, given its flour base, but the chiles aren't house-roasted in a drum out back as so many are these days, so while it was good as an accent, it was less so by the bowl. Similarly, the biscuits lacked a tender puffiness (they're not house-made) and wouldn't tempt anyone to slather them with jam, though they did just fine sopping up peppery, sausage-heavy gravy. Pancakes varied in quality, too, from the somewhat dry buttermilk with baked-in bananas, nuts and seeds and the equally dry buttermilk with bacon to the fantastic gingerbread, with enough molasses to keep the plate-sized discs as moist as cake.

Though the holidays are over, that gingerbread pancake will stay on the menu all year. Then again, so will everything else, since the menu changes annually. This lack of seasonality is one area where Racines shows its age. Another is the lack of emphasis on local sourcing. "We want to be local to a point," says Goodfriend, "but we're not a fine-dining restaurant where everything has to be local." Such distinctions, however, are less and less relevant in a climate where even burrito joints tap local farmers, and meats at fast-casual meatball eateries are sourced with care. Would I have enjoyed the bacon burger at lunch a little more if it had been made with Tender Belly bacon on grass-fed Colorado beef, or the club sandwich if the turkey and ham had been antibiotic-free? Yes. But the burger was tasty all the same, well-portioned and properly pink inside, and the club had plenty of mayo and thick layers of shaved, house-roasted turkey and ham.

Racines has always been known for its salads, and many power-lunchers I know stand behind them. But one night I found the nutty cheese salad a little weak, with enough greens for twice the amount of cheese, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds and bananas. (The combination sounds as odd as free Wi-Fi would've to the earliest patrons, but both work well, provided there is sufficient coverage.) On another occasion, the Oriental chicken salad was loaded but uninspiring, with wilted snap peas, awkward hunks of carrot and red pepper, and dressing that tasted more like watered-down soy sauce than ginger-soy. Enchilada and creamy marsala sauces also seemed diluted, making the chicken enchiladas and chicken marsala pasta both a little flat.

Clearly, there's more to Racines than the food. The welcoming atmosphere goes a long way toward winning people's hearts, as does the menu's scope and predictability. Goodfriend modestly chalks up the thirty-year run of Racines to the fact that "we stuck to what we knew how to do." She and Racine could also take credit where credit is due: If they weren't talented, devoted restaurateurs, they wouldn't be celebrating the big 3-0. But even if the restaurant doesn't want to operate locally and seasonally, the kitchen should take more care to ensure that all plates come out as intended. Maybe like a couple holding a recommitment ceremony, the kitchen should rededicate itself to executing what it has shown us for years it knows how to do. Racines is too much a part of Denver's fabric not to be a product of this era, too.