All in the Family

Some restaurants that serve family-style, like Buca di Beppo (see full review), actually welcome families. One of the best -- although the fare is American rather than Italian -- is Uncle Sam's (5946 South Holly Street in Greenwood Village), which does a remarkable job of making even the toddler set feel welcome and fries up a mean chicken, too. Uncle Sam's founder, Larry Herz, first got into the family way at Carmine's on Penn (92 South Pennsylvania Street), which is revisited in this week's Second Helping. While I wouldn't take really little ones there, older kids are comfortable at Carmine's, a restaurant that makes Buca look like the crawl space beneath Joe's basement. Another good family deal is Bella Ristorante: Although the original space, which opened at 1920 Market Street in April 1995, was sold just this week (in a $2.6 million deal to a chain out of Texas that owns Buffalo Billiards, among other eateries), a second Bella, added down south at 8401 Park Meadows in December 1996, was not included in the deal. That Bella, part of a local group that also includes Cucina Leone (763 South University) and the Giggling Grizzly (1320 20th Street), will continue to serve family-style. Santino "Sonny" Rando, Herz's original chef at Carmine's, brought more family-style servings to LoDo at his Santino's (1939 Blake Street). And while Santino's recently dropped family-style dining in favor of single-person servings, it continues to hold its own in the hot LoDo market.

LoDo lowdown: LoDo wasn't so hot on New Year's Eve, however. Although the dismal reports are still trickling in, generally speaking, the only LoDo restaurants that did really well were steakhouses, which promised valet services (although where, exactly, did they get those drivers? At driver education classes?) and such big-ticket fare that diners had to look no further for entertainment. (A good thing, too, because the streets outside most steakhouse doors were empty.) Sullivan's Steak House (1745 Wazee Street) reported that it did three times better than its next-best night -- ever. Morton's of Chicago (1710 Wynkoop) sold out its three seatings; The Palm (1201 16th Street Mall) and Ruth's Chris (1445 Market Street) were also packed. But beyond the beef, even restaurants that usually draw big crowds took a hit. For example, on New Year's Day, servers at P.F. Chang's (1415 15th Street) were still grousing about how the usual two-hour waits had dwindled to next to nothing the night before. Adding insult to injury, a certain daily-newspaper gossip columnist (whose initials are Penny Parker), there to celebrate the first day of the new year, received not one, but two fortune cookies that were completely devoid of any fortunes -- good or bad.

Outside of downtown, business was much better. The Buckhorn Exchange, at 1000 Osage, enjoyed its best New Year's Eve in 106 years; employees there espouse the theory that "people were so afraid of downtown Denver that it actually made the projects look good."

Really looking good was Cherry Creek, where I ventured into Mel's Bar and Grill (235 Fillmore Street) on the evening of December 31. There I swooned over one of the best meals I've had, ever, prepared by chef Frank Bonnano. (The other half of Mel's dynamic cooking duo, Tyler Wiard, worked Christmas and so had New Year's Eve off.) Bonnano was offering two menus that night, one for $125 and one for $65, and since it was my dime, I opted for the latter. But it would have been worth any price just to get at Bonnano's fois gras, the best preparation I've found -- and that includes in the Périgord, baby. He actually did the fois gras both hot and cold, with one pan-seared until the exterior flesh had just begun to caramelize, the other a delectable terrine.

The rest of the meal was only slightly less stunning: black truffles shaved over potato raviolis, a succulent pheasant served over a Belgian-style waffle drenched in confit juice, flawlessly cooked sea scallops arranged with white asparagus and drenched in lobster-infused chive butter. The amuses bouches consisted of a simple, solitary oyster spiked with Stoli and garnished with beluga caviar, and a tuille rolled around onion-scented, delicately smoked salmon.

Mel's theme that night, a re-creation of Maxim's in Paris, was delightfully carried out via many balloons and feathery decorations. But I could have eaten that foie gras out of a Styrofoam container in a bus station and been blissfully content.

Party hearty: So far, the best food event of the new year was the tenth annual Blue Ribbon Reception, a spread for legislators put on by the Colorado Restaurant Association on January 5 at the Top of the Rockies (not to be confused with the former eatery of the same name, this is the space at 555 17th Street once known as the Denver Petroleum Club). While lawmakers and lobbyists munched food from fifteen restaurants ranging from Trinity Grille to Old Chicago (pizza and crab cakes, always a good combo), state Senate president Ray Powers offered an overview of the 2000 legislative session. Getting a handle on growth will be a big issue, he promised, then looked at the restaurateurs filling the room and added: "You folks don't want to cut back growth a lot."

They also don't want meals at restaurants subject to a 3 percent food tax, and so the CRA will be pushing for that tax to be lifted during this legislative session. Bartender, pour the senator another drink.

Open-and-shut cases: We've barely had time to mourn the restaurants we lost last year, and already replacements are rushing in. Coming in early February: Two-Fisted Mario's, which will take over the space at 1626 Market Street vacated by The Moondance. The proud parents are John Skogstad and Kevin Delk, who promise New York-style pizza, calzones and slices, as well as really good hours: Mario's will be open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner