In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
My journey up Federal Boulevard has taken me far enough north that I have a hard time visualizing the exact order of restaurants from week to week, or even remembering which one is next. The streets above Speer are unfamiliar, aside from the right turn onto West 32nd Avenue -- which leads to a hillside of trendy bars and award-winning menus -- and the iconic 38th Avenue, which offers even more of what makes Federal so appealing, with its cross-section of regional Mexican fare, Den-Mex standbys and family-run establishments. Nick's Diner sits roughly midway between those two streets, capping a block of early-twentieth century mansions, most of which have seen better days.
Nick's, like the rest of its neighbors, has not been without renovations and makeovers. Until recently, the address was the home of the Breakfast Queen, a neighborhood joint with a reputation for greasy spoons (and equally greasy floors and walls). The new owners have updated the exterior with a buttery yellow facade and cleaned up the interior with fresh paint and tidy decor. But walking into the dining room, past a low counter and open kitchen, is like stepping into the 1970s, replete with dark wood, a red-tile and faux-wood laminate bar, and avocado-tinted glass room dividers. The low ceilings, burgundy accents and quaint wall hangings give the space a homey and welcoming feel, lightened considerably by a sunny expanse of windows. The main advantage of a restaurant breakfast is that you don't have to make it yourself. The most satisfying dishes are not complicated or difficult. Eggs over easy, glistening with fat and punctuated with exclamation points of crisp bacon; a skillet full of quick-seared meat and veggies brought together with a mild red chile sauce; pancakes tossed together with a few pantry ingredients and a couple of quick turns in the mixing bowl: these aren't the signatures of haute cuisine but rather the hallmarks of a simple, homestyle breakfast. Even country gravy requires minimal technique (although biscuits are best left to experienced hands). Nick's does all of these well, and without much wait or fuss. The biscuits are of the square-cut, fluffy variety, rather than round and flaky; the gravy lacks the peppery kick of sausage that can take a simple slurry of milk, flour and fat from good to great. But the coffee keeps coming and the food arrives in quantity and variety vast enough to require multiple plates -- always the sign of breakfast done right. Keep reading for more on breakfast at Nick's Diner. The dining room is busy but not packed; customers come and go -- families pushing tables together, a teenager incongruously dressed as the pope on a dare or a bet, solo cowboys at the low counter up front -- but there's no rush and no pressure to give up a table to waiting patrons. Amy and I enjoyed our morning meal in relative silence, catching Olympics updates from Sochi on a wall-mounted TV, stealing bites from each other's plates (those simple pancakes sport just the right hint of vanilla), sipping refill after refill of coffee. So breakfast out is more about letting someone else do the work than of finding the next a.m. culinary masterpiece. I've still never been able to replicate the country-style potatoes churned out by the ton every weekend in diners around America -- Nick's nails the balance of crispy crust and fluffy interior -- and I don't think I'll be setting up a rotisserie of gyros to slowly crisp for the sole purpose of stuffing an omelette, as they do here. Most weekend mornings, I'm perfectly content to scramble or fry my own eggs, flip my own pancakes, brew my own pot of coffee.
But there will always be those mornings when I'll just want to swing my feet out of bed and point them toward the closest diner with the knowledge that no one is going to judge my bedhead or my rumpled sweatshirt. With other, closer options, I may not risk a bleary-eyed drive to Nick's too often, but it's comforting to know that it's there and that Nick's cares enough to let you make yourself at home.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.