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Cafe Society

This is important, so pay attention. I'm going to tell you the secret of eternal happiness -- and it won't cost you a dime. You're getting it in a free paper and from a restaurant critic, which just goes to show that you never can tell where or when enlightenment might catch you.

Of course, I'm not going to give it to you right away. No, there's a journey involved, albeit a short one. But at the end of the page, there's the secret -- simple, yet true as anything. So if you're busy -- if you're one of those go-getting grubniks without time in your already over-scheduled day to slog through all these words -- feel free to skip ahead to the last couple of paragraphs. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. Do not waste even a moment of that valuable temporal real estate salivating over the homemade quiche at the Walnut Cafe, over fat omelettes served steaming hot with sides of fresh bread and apple butter, over black coffee and handmade guacamole and huevos rancheros blistering under a red-chile sauce. Time is money. I get that. Just go straight for the payoff.

But know that this little restaurant wasn't built on speed. Since 1984, the Walnut Cafe has held court on the corner of Colfax and Logan, slinging hash for capacity crowds and giving a serene, smirking, one-fingered salute to all those who find their comfort in corporate menus and corporate style, in shiny plastic dining rooms where the chairs all match the tables and the servers match the decor and the cooks exist only as warming automatons, preparing canned and bagged and vac-sealed food analogs for the endless Stepford masses. The Walnut specializes in old-fashioned food (meaning eggs, waffles, sandwiches and the like, with no sushi, no microgreens, no artisan this-or-that, and not a single stalk of lemongrass anywhere on the premises) in an old-fashioned, eclectic setting (meaning cheap but functional, like a Yugo, and comfortable like an old pair of sneakers).


Walnut Cafe

338 East Colfax Avenue, 303-832-5108. Hours: 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Daily quiche: $7.75
Daily sandwich: $7.25
Eggs Marcos: $7.75
Breakfast burrito: $7.25
Stuffed French toast: $7.50

Although it was once associated with Boulder's Walnut Cafe (having some partners and, obviously, a name in common), for a long time Denver's Walnut has been a wholly independent joint. The owners have been here from the start. Some employees have been here for ten, fifteen, eighteen years, and that's nothing to sneeze at in an industry where the average life expectancy of a cook on any line is eighteen months. And over all that time, not much has changed at the Walnut. As a matter of fact, when I get Chris -- one of those longtime owners -- on the phone, he's hard-pressed to come up with anything that's changed. Finally, he remembers something: the breakfast burrito. That was added to the menu later, a couple of years after the cafe opened, once the kitchen had gotten a top-broiler to melt the cheese.

"We are small," Chris says. "It would be difficult to offer too many options. And confusing, I think. People will sense that in a menu. If we were bigger...I don't know. We're trying."

Chris speaks slowly and carefully, picking every word like he's unsure of the language -- but actually, it's me he's unsure of. At first, he thinks I'm trying to sell him something. I tell him I'm a food writer who's eaten a couple of recent meals at his place, and I want to know more about it.

That shuts him down entirely.

"Call me prudish," he says. "But I don't like to, you know, get up on a soapbox or anything. I don't want to talk...about myself, or...." Long silence. "Anything."

Like Chris, the Walnut Cafe is quiet. Or rather, it exists quietly. It doesn't advertise, doesn't employ any PR machinery, does absolutely nothing to draw attention to itself beyond being there and being open every day for the last twenty years. And for most of those days, it's been busy. Sometimes line-out-the-door busy, sometimes just-regular busy, as a diverse and faithful Capitol Hill gang of punks and pols come for the daily quiche special (a huge slice of fluffed eggs and what-have-you baked in a pastry shell), the daily sandwich special, the daily muffin special, then linger over coffee and conversation. Wellington and Wilma Webb used to make a point of stopping in for breakfast at the Walnut. Lawmakers and lobbyists still sit here handicapping the elections (currently running 5:1 for Bush, as long as he has Karl Rove's fist up his ass, working him like a ventriloquist's dummy), debating policy (as evidenced by a long, looping discussion on Hickenlooper's plan for the homeless being discussed in one of the corner booths last week) and talking about their favorite American Idol contestants (Denver's political power elite think Clay Aiken was robbed).

In the limited space available, the kitchen makes from scratch everything it serves (except the bread, which comes from Rudi's Bakery). Always has, always will. And that's not easy, considering the number of customers who move through every day. But still, making everything yourself is the best way to run a kitchen, so every morning the Walnut's cooks cut seasonal fresh fruit for the cream-cheese-stuffed French toast, for the fruit waffles and as a side available with any plate on the menu. Every morning they cook down a fresh-fruit glaze -- a sort of vegetarian glace de viande of apples and cinnamon or strawberries or whatever's good, each sweetly redolent of its constituent parts -- and make their own apple butter. They bake their own dark banana bread and muffins (which too often lean toward that brick-heavy, gritty, whole-grain hippie-muffin model of torturous good health) and quiche. They stir up fresh batches of green chile that's mild by Colorado standards but tasty, thick and dimly fruity. They buy organic when they can, buy locally whenever possible and work with the best ingredients they can get. As a result, every dish tastes distinctly of this kitchen, this crew and twenty years of practice.

In short, the Walnut Cafe does everything right -- and does it successfully in an increasingly fast-casual world. McDonald's can get customers in and out with breakfast in under sixty seconds, sending them on their way with bulging, greasy bags of heat-lamped pap that'll fill the body even as it steals just a tiny bit of the soul. Denny's, Perkins and a sub-industry of faux-chrome diners thrive on hurry and the insidious exaltation of mediocrity and corporate homogeneity as a benefit of living in modern times, times that demand everything happen faster, but rarely better.

It takes more than sixty seconds just to settle into my seat on a busy Saturday at the Walnut Cafe, and I stay in that seat for more than an hour (really closer to two), listening to the waitresses singing along with Carly Simon on the radio, before I finish my breakfast of eggs Marcos -- scrambled eggs with cheese and smoky, thick-cut bacon -- and tortillas, a blocky blueberry-pecan muffin that's dense enough to use as a paperweight, and several cups of black coffee. Two hours is about the right amount of time to spend on breakfast, I think. After all, it's the most important meal of the day and cannot be decently appreciated in anything less than ninety minutes or before, say, 10:30 in the morning.

Lunch is trickier. Some circumstances necessitate a midday meal that can be bolted down in under a minute: That's why Jesus created hot-dog vendors and the Philly soft pretzel. But for a real lunch -- meaning anything that requires the implementation of any utensil more complicated than a stick -- you need an hour, minimum. The maximum depends entirely on the amount of work you're trying to avoid doing that afternoon.

While most of the Walnut's regulars don't hog their tables quite so long as I do, no one who comes to eat here is getting out in sixty seconds, ten minutes or even under half an hour. And they don't want to. Like me, they're attracted by the food, yes, but also by temper, by atmosphere, by the way the place makes them feel. And at the Walnut, there's a distinct lack of hurry in the air. Good eats, good company (even if it's only your own) and a raucous, bright, convivial vibe all conspire to make you want to stay slouched in one of the big booths along the wall long enough for another cuppa joe -- another ten minutes away from the world. Cafes like the Walnut gently demand a little extra time out of your day, and they deserve it.

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For me, a fast lunch was the hour I spent on the Walnut's stacked club sandwich. Sourdough bread cut into quarters, good quality ham and turkey sliced on the thick side, crisp lettuce, tomatoes so fresh they looked like they'd been the victims of a particularly gruesome murder, all served with fresh fruit, a fat pickle spear, and four cups of coffee poured in rapid succession by waitresses who understand that a "bottomless cup of coffee" means I don't ever want to see the bottom of my cup. That and the company of a good book deserved exactly the hour they got.

A few days later, a leisurely lunch over the Walnut's egg, meat, bean and cheese breakfast burrito slathered with that homemade green and topped with gobs of melted cheese stretched longer than two hours. Of course, I had a friend along with me on that meal, and two people need two hours, maybe three if they have a lot to chew over at lunch.

And a meal at the Walnut Cafe provides plenty of food for thought, making you slow down just a little to enjoy something as simple as a good sandwich, a big breakfast on a sunny morning, or watching the tinfoil-hat-wearing Colfax street creature outside the big front windows having a screaming argument with a street sign. This is a rare place. One of the last of its kind.

Oh, that secret of eternal happiness I promised? It is only thus: For an hour or two every day, just stop doing. Stop thinking. Stop whatever it is you're killing yourself over, and just have lunch. Granted, a three-hour breakfast at eleven in the morning might not be for everybody (and if you're going to try one on for size, I suggest stretching first), but trust me--whatever it is that ails you, long lunches are the answer. The longer the lunch, the happier the day. And at places like the Walnut Cafe, those willing to forsake the world's new model of shiny, fast and mediocre dining have discovered that small sacrifices of time are repaid a hundredfold by a sense of peace that only a good, leisurely meal can buy. A long lunch at the Walnut might not save your life, but it could save your soul.

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