Bite Me

January 23 marked another small victory for the forces of clean air and intrusive legislative fanaticism, as Denver's Board of Environmental Health voted 4-0 in favor of a resolution recommending amendments to a circa-1986 city smoking ordinance that would drastically increase limitations on smoking. (Chairman Leo Goto recused himself because of his involvement in the restaurant industry: He owns the Wellshire Inn.) The recommended amendments include the removal of exemptions for small businesses with fewer than four employees or 25 seats; a ban on smoking within twenty feet of any entrance or exit to a public place (which, mind you, makes it technically illegal to have a smoke while you're walking down the street or on a sidewalk almost anywhere in the city); the inclusion of a whistleblower clause granting legal protections to anyone wanting to snitch on his neighbors; and a blanket ban on smoking inside any public place except in a walled-off, separately ventilated fish tank with no access to the outside world.

Before the vote, Celia VanDerLoop, director of the Denver Department of Environmental Health, presented a summary of the public comments her department has collected over the past few months on the proposed smoking ban. The statistics broke along unsurprising lines -- 80 percent of the respondents, give or take a few, apparently think that all smokers should be rounded up and put in camps, and the remainder merely want them publicly stoned to death. One interesting figure did emerge, though: 71 percent don't support government intervention on this issue. Oh sure, they still want smoking banned and all smokers forcibly relocated to one of those smelly countries like France, but they don't want the government to have a hand in it.

Regardless of this majority opinion, the board's resolution will now go to the Denver City Council, where, thus far, the idea of a citywide smoking ban has been getting a rather chilly reception. Maybe, for a change, the government itself will decide that there are some things it should keep its grubby hands off.

That message came through loud and clear in Pueblo earlier this month, where -- despite the screeching and stomping of lobbying groups, political action committees, allegedly grassroot citizen assemblies and roving packs of deep-cover Phillip Morris operatives -- the people have spoken (or written, in this case) and gotten their city's new smoking ban suspended. The Pueblo city clerk's office verified about 3,500 signatures on various petitions demanding that the ban, which took effect January 1, be lifted; the matter now goes back to Pueblo City Council, which must decide whether to revise the measure's language, put it up for a public vote or simply ditch the ban altogether. But as things now stand, it's okay to light up in Pueblo.

Let's hear it for representative democracy.

Press Club blues: "We don't have a restaurant, I can tell you that much." Those were almost the first words out of acting Denver Press Club president John Ensslin's mouth when I asked for the scoop on the board's recent decision to bail out of its deal with restaurateur Adde Bjorklund (formerly of Bistro Adde Brewster, which is now known as just Adde's -- even though Bjorklund is no longer involved). "I think he's a good operator," says Ensslin, a longtime friend of Bjorklund's. "We went down a long road together, and in the end, we went our separate ways. That's all I'm going to say."

And that's enough, because the big news here is that Bjorklund is out and a whole new crop of local operators are vying for the chance to take over the kitchen at the newly renovated Press Club, which occupies a prime piece of real estate at 1330 Glenarm Place. Ensslin says the club's received calls from about a dozen interested parties, and the board will consider offers in early February in anticipation of an announcement to be made by mid-month.

Leftovers, fast-food style: Taking a page from McDonald's Corporation's acquisition of a majority stake in the homegrown Chipotle chain, another Colorado original has landed in the arms of a rich sugar daddy promising to turn it into a star. Qdoba Mexican Grill -- which grew from just one Denver location in 1995 (originally called Zuma) to 85 restaurants now spread over sixteen states -- has been bought by San Diego-based Jack in the Box for $45 million. In cash.

Meanwhile, Mickey D's holds the leash for not just Chipotle, but also Denver-based Boston Market -- both of which are trying to rewrite the book on fast-casual restaurant service. And Wendy's owns the Baja Fresh chain, which is running neck-and-neck with Chipotle for the title of Queen of Casual Mexican. With Qdoba now poised for a breakout, it may soon be easier to find a burrito on every street corner than it is to find a big, fat, grease-soaked, all-American burger.

In my opinion, it's about time.

Special bonus for bargain lovers: The Qdoba store at 1400 East 17th Avenue -- and only that store -- is currently featuring a $1 bottled-beer special (including buck Coronas) from 3 to 7 p.m. Take that, Chipotle.

Still, Chipotle is a bright spot in McDonald's otherwise glum landscape. The corporation's stock prices are dropping, and new chairman and CEO Jim Cantalupo actually stood up in front of the press recently and admitted that both the food and service at the beleaguered fast-food behemoth suck (in a word).

Or, as he put it, more and more customers have been telling the company that it needs faster service and better-tasting food to pull out of the slump it's been in for years. So what's Cantalupo doing to turn things around? Closing restaurants. Underperforming locations in the U.S. and Japan will be shuttered in what the company is calling a "strategy shift." In the stores that remain open, the $181 million "Made for You" system of cooking burgers to order will be scrapped in favor of the new "Screw you -- you'll eat it and like it" system of pre-cooking burgers and keeping them warm under heat lamps. Cantalupo has also challenged the food scientists at McDonald's R&D labs to come up with a way to make the burgers and buns taste better. My suggestion? Throw them away and eat the box.

Best Of or bust: Yes, it's that time of year, and our taste-testing is well under way for the Best of Denver 2003, which hits the streets on March 27. Crack gustatory commandos from Bite Me World HQ are fanning out across the city even as I type, hunting high and low (sometimes very low) for the best that Denver has to offer.

You, the good people of Denver, have a responsibility in all of this, too. Next month, the Best Of Denver Readers' Poll will appear, giving you the chance to pick your favorite restaurants in town (and giving the more snobbish members of the Bite Me staff something to laugh about when they see how many people pick Red Lobster as best seafood restaurant).

In the meantime, you can help by sending Bite Me news of your personal favorites. And the sooner you let us know about this city's hidden treasures, the better.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan