Cafe Society

Bang! is still doing a bang-up job of serving affordable comfort food

When you hear of a restaurant that's been around for decades, it often sounds like a candidate for Restaurant: Impossible, because the place has been run into the ground and will require plenty of blood, sweat and tears from restaurateurs, not militaristic host Robert Irvine if it's to survive. But that's hardly the case at bang!, which is still so busy after seventeen years that I found myself waiting more than half an hour for a table on a Tuesday night.

I would have expected a full dining room at any number of Highland's newer and hotter spots. I also would've expected it at bang! ten years ago, when I had just arrived in town and would eat there with neighbors who couldn't get enough of the meatloaf and mashed potatoes. But not now, not in this post-recession economy, with restaurants reproducing faster than rabbits and using all sorts of tricks sessions! games! to draw in diners.

See also: Behind the Scenes at bang!

But bang! has been doing a bang-up business from the start. "When I first told my mom that I was starting a restaurant with my friends, my mom who also owned her own business said, 'It's a bad idea, it will never work out,'" recalls co-owner Cissy Olderman. It was Olderman who got the ball rolling, spotting an empty space on West 32nd Avenue (down the street from the current home of bang!) and convincing Jeff Oakley, with whom she'd line-cooked at Cafe Annie in Houston, to move to Denver and take a chance on the place of their own that they'd long talked about opening. Jeff's brother Chris, who had also worked in restaurants in college, joined them in the endeavor; today he still runs the front of the house. And against all odds, bang! was a hit, with the kind of run that many envy and few would have predicted.

It helps that they now own their building, which they moved into four years after bang! opened. The space is quirky, with a kitchen visible from the street and a back-door entrance at the end of a dark, narrow passageway that looks like a shortcut to the dumpster. As we approached that door, a friend who'd joined me for a recent meal couldn't help but ask, "Are you sure this is right?" Inside, tables are scattered throughout several small rooms, walls are painted shades of orange and green normally reserved for kids' bedrooms, and the noise level is very high. With no curtains, upholstery or tablecloths to soften up the place, and art that could be coverage maps in wireless commercials (the curated show changes regularly), the interior isn't cozy. In other hands, it could even be uncomfortable. But with this trio, all now in their late forties or early fifties, at the helm, bang! exudes the settled-in self-acceptance associated with life on the other side of ladder-climbing. Everyone is welcome here, from friends eating off each other's plates to grandparents beaming over sleeping (and sometimes crying) newborns.

After all this time, I thought bang! would feel dated and in a way it does, since the owners have refused to keep up with the Joneses in both decor (no reclaimed barn wood) and menu (no seasonality). But instead of feeling worn out, like the impossible restaurants that end up before Irvine, it feels well worn, like your mom's favorite recipe cards, the ones that have been pulled out so many times that they're tattered and faded. Some of these recipe cards are no doubt stained or at least they would be if Olderman could find them, considering that such dishes as toasted sweet-potato bread, spicy gingerbread with whipped cream, and meatloaf have been on the menu from the get-go. "People flip out when you change things," she says, adding that when she took the gingerbread off "to give me a break for one cycle, people walked out."

Homey, spicy and full of nuts, the breads still make a satisfying start and end to a meal. But I wouldn't flip out if executive chef Jeff Oakley, who spent time in New Orleans (at NOLA) and San Francisco (at Rumpus) before opening bang!, changed the meatloaf a little, slicing it thicker, nixing the carrots and slathering the top with homemade ketchup. Mine always seems to come with a scant squiggle of that sauce, a disappointment because the condiment an improbable mix of raisins, tomatoes, vinegar and guajillo chiles is what distinguishes the dish.

Fried chicken has also spent more time on than off the bang! menu, probably because it gives grownups an excuse to do what we secretly do anyway, which is eat kid food. (Who hasn't taken a bite of that boxed macaroni and cheese?) Rather than serving it as you would in a Southern joint, with skin-on, bone-in dark and white meat, or over a trendy waffle with syrup, here it's treated like a giant nugget: pounded thin, coated with seasoned panko and fried until crisp. Smothered in bacon gravy and served with mashed potatoes and snap peas, it epitomizes the comfort food that keeps bringing people in the door.

Not every dish seems suited for Sunday dinner in another era, though. A goat-cheese croquette comes nestled in a bright pool of lemony beurre blanc. Grilled salmon over jasmine rice is accented with a wasabi cream sauce. Duck confit snuggles next to roasted potatoes glistening with duck fat. Admittedly, some plates work better than others: The salmon, for example, is far more interesting than the duck, dragged down as it is by an orange gastrique that crosses the line into candy.

Then there's the grilled shrimp, an appetizer with entree aspirations. Seasoned with paprika and herbs, the crustaceans play ring-around-the-rosy, falling down around fried polenta and a Momofuku-inspired sauce of ginger, scallions and soy sauce. Perfect with a salad (perhaps the arugula, thoughtfully tossed with just enough almonds, apricots, goat cheese and dressing) and a slice of Olderman's standout coconut cream pie, the dish makes a perfect meal, and explains the restaurant's success even better than the comfort food it's known for. "Our whole philosophy is to serve what we like to eat," says Olderman.

Bang! may not be up with the times, but in a way that's what makes it timeless, serving affordable, unpretentious fare that the owners and nearly two decades of patrons still like to eat.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz