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All bets are off: Westword writers head up the hill to Black Hawk and Central City

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When gambling was legalized in Black Hawk, Crook's Palace became a casino, putting up an addition filled with machines and letting the whir of slots obliterate the convivial barroom ambience. But there was still a stool dedicated to miner Dow Blake, a regular at the bar (and the great-uncle of future mayor David Spellman). As bigger casinos opened up, though, the crowds left Crook's. And in the late 1990s, the now cash-flush town bought the structure, restoring the space, cleaning up the storied bar, polishing the hardwood floors and adding a pool table. For a while, it tried running its own restaurant 24/7, but that didn't work out. And in 2006, Black Hawk put the place up for lease as a turnkey property, offering it to any restaurateur who would preserve the general feeling of the space — and keep gambling out.

In 2008, it was snapped up by Mike and Matt Casarez, who reopened Crook's in its current incarnation. The brothers, both graduates of Johnson & Wales University, are originally from Pueblo; Matt had been chef de cuisine at Isle of Capri. They run a serious operation: no outlaws, no barroom scuffles, and Dow Blake's stool has disappeared. The biggest danger: spiking cholesterol. "See that menu?" asks the bartender. "You'll notice we don't serve dishes that have little hearts next to them."

The brothers' cooking shows deep culinary expertise, applied to such American classics as the Smokestack burger — a flat patty enriched with a little pork and topped with thick strips of house-cured kurobuta bacon, smoked cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and housemade barbecue sauce between two halves of a homemade bun.

The food's about three times better than it needs to be: Strike it rich. — Laura Shunk


2:15 p.m.

"The Ancient Ones Will Lead You On Great Adventures." That's the tagline on the Coyote Moon penny slot machine in Central City's Dostal Alley Brewpub and Casino, and the slogan is apt, because the founders of this gold-rush town continue to shape the lives of the people who live here. Central City has certainly seen more than its share of adventures over the past 151 years, from booms and busts to fires and fistfights, and while change comes in fits and spurts, history remains. In fact, one of the goals of Central City's most recent boom — casino gaming — was to preserve the history of its first one.

But things don't always work out as planned.

About a mile outside of the main business district, the new Prospectors Run housing development, where several of the upstart candidates for city council live, looms above the brick ruins of the Mack Brewery. Built in the late 1800s by businessman Jacob Mack, the brewery was one of six that provided beer to miners in Central City, Black Hawk and other nearby towns. While Central City had planned to restore the brewery building, declining casino revenues mean that won't happen anytime soon, if at all.

But another vestige of the brewery remains intact.

Growing like weeds on the hills and rock-retaining walls around town are wild hops that Buddy Schmalz believes were originally planted upwards of 130 years ago. "It's everywhere," says Schmalz, who grew up in Central City. "I think people grew it and sold it to Jacob Mack."

Standing below his Victorian house on High Street, Schmalz points out tangled masses of vines creeping along the hillsides, over fences and around signposts and electrical lines. "The county considers them a noxious weed, because you just can't get rid of them," he says. "You couldn't kill them to save your life."

Buddy's father, Bruce Schmalz, was the mayor of Central City when Colorado voters approved the measure that legalized gaming in Central City. (Buddy's brother-in-law, David Spellman, is the mayor of Black Hawk now.) In 1991, the Schmalz family opened a small casino in the space where they'd run a T-shirt and rock shop for many years. Six years later, Buddy added a pizza parlor and brewery, dedicating one of his first beers — a sweet, slightly bitter amber ale — to Central City's brewing history, naming it Jacob Mack and using wild hops to brew it.

Today, Dostal Alley continues to attract locals who prefer the family-owned atmosphere and the smaller number of slot machines. And the beer.

Although Buddy, who himself served as mayor for six years and is now a Gilpin County commissioner, does most of the brewing himself, he's hired Dave Thomas, who worked down the hill at Coors for more than thirty years, as his right-hand man.

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