Cafe Society

A Rocky Romance

So here's Laura and me, handling the logistics of dinner: I call; the phone rings; she picks it up.

Me: "Okay, sweets. How's dinner tomorrow at Tante Louise?"

She: "On a Friday night?"

Me: "Yeah, tomorrow. Nice romantic dinner on a Friday night."

She: "French food...." She sounds...unenthused.

Me: "Denver's 'Premiere' French food. Says so right here on the Web site. You know, I've been told some wives enjoy a nice romantic dinner on a Friday night."

She: "And I've been told some husbands actually act romantically and don't spend the whole night poking at their food and looking around like they're casing the place for a robbery."

Me: "Can you make the reservations, please? Call me back and let me know."

She: "Got it." Click.

I don't know what writers did before the invention of the Internet, but it was probably something that seemed a lot more like work than what I do. According to www.tantelouise.com, we're to "imagine a romantic evening in a quiet French country inn, with glowing fireplaces, stained glass windows, elegant table settings, fine cuisine, vintage wine and gracious hospitality...the perfect setting for comfortable, sophisticated dining in an atmosphere of quiet elegance." Displayed prominently at the bottom of the page are the AAA four-diamond and Mobil Guide four-star ratings that Tante Louise earned under the tenure of its previous chef, Duy Pham, and a long list of kudos from the press, both local and not.

But Tante Louise has a new chef in the house these days: Marlo Hix, who did time here both as garde manger in the early '90s, when Michael Degenhart was executive chef, then later as Pham's sous chef, before she headed out for a stint as chef de cuisine under Rick Kangas at the Grouse Mountain Grill in Beaver Creek, and another as executive sous at the Eldorado Hotel in Santa Fe. She's an inspired classicist, a devotee of the rustic French canon, and now she's back and wearing the big hat in the kitchen where she first earned her bones as a pro.

My phone rings.

Me: "Westword. This is Jason."

She: "You pick up your phone too fast. Makes you sound desperate."

Me: "Efficient is what I'm going for. We have reservations?"

She: "Yes. We had a choice of 6:30 and 8:30. I took the 8:30."

Me: "Good choice."

She: "Yeah, and get this. I asked if there was a dress code. The guy on the phone was very snotty and he said" -- her impression is dead-on, capturing the breathy, murmuring voice of a veteran fine-dining waiter exactly -- "'Certainly, many of our gentlemen choose to wear jackets when visiting us for dinner, but it's not required.' Made me want to punch him."

We arrive right on time for dinner. Tante Louise has free valet parking, but because I'm inherently distrustful of valets, we park on the street and walk up to the door. We're greeted warmly in the bar by owner and manager Corbine "Corky" Douglass, who's run the Denver landmark since July 1973, and, if the rumors are to be believed, never leaves his beloved restaurant -- overseeing, personally, every table, every guest, every server and every plate that comes out of the kitchen. He is an old-school champion floor-man, with a voice like liquid velvet and eyes like a casino pit boss. Nothing escapes him. I think he probably sleeps standing up in a utility closet so as to never wrinkle his flawlessly pressed dark suit.

Corky: "Yes. We have two of you for dinner" -- carefully not referring to us as Mr. and Mrs.: The wife and I didn't wear our wedding rings, and, like I said, he doesn't miss a thing --"and if you'll just wait a moment, we're preparing your table right now."

Me, the uncultured boob with mismatched tie and shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow: "No problem, man. Can we get something from the bar?"

Corky, without missing a beat: "Anything we can do for you sir," stretching out the 'anything' like a proposition. "Just let me know."

A server is at our side immediately and we are provisioned with drinks, which is good, because we're in the bar for twenty minutes, waiting. After almost thirty years in business, this place still packs 'em in on a weekend night. I'd say the joint was jumping, but that would be misleading: By the look of the clientele, any overly enthusiastic leaping would result in a whole lot of broken hips.

Tante Louise has a reputation for romance. It says so right on the matchbooks, the menu and the Web site: "A Very Special Restaurant." When she made the reservation, Laura was asked if there was a special occasion the staff should know about, and we were asked the same thing by our bar server. Over the course of two meals, we witnessed several birthdays, anniversaries and the like (no marriage proposals, but Valentine's Day is coming).

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan