Crowded House

Reiver's is one of a half-dozen restaurants on a single block of Old South Gaylord Street. Across the street is Japon, an excellent sushi spot for more than a decade, perfect for its place, custom-fit for its neighborhood and space -- especially since its recent remodel. A few steps away is Devil's Food, which had been one of Laura's and my favorite lazy Sunday brunch stops until sometime last year, when it became overcrowded and understaffed. Although it can still be good, a meal here is no longer as effortlessly fine as when I first reviewed Devil's Food ("A Hell of a Place," November 18, 2004). I had my say about Chi Bistro in last week's "Loveless." The nearby Max Gill & Grill had been known as Hemingway's through two decades and a couple of owners, but last year was forced to drop Papa's name. It has since suffered through the grim business of "re-concepting," turning from a weird, clams-on-the-veranda, saltwater theme restaurant operating a couple of thousand miles from the nearest ocean into a weird, clams-at-the-pied-à-terre urban fish shack (see Second Helping).

The people now running Max also own the Washington Park Grille, which offers historic proof of what change has wrought on this neighborhood. You could cut through the Wash Park Grill like an old oak tree and count the rings, seeing the accretion of good years and bad, the influence of boom and bust. Funny thing, if you look right at the heart of this cross-section, you'll see the Bonnie Brae Tavern -- just six blocks away, but an archetype of neighborhood bar/restaurants everywhere, still doing a great business after seven decades.

Old South Gaylord is a neighborhood not accented by its restaurants, but defined by them. There's something for every taste, from the straight to the freaky, hot soup to cold fish. And while, yes, I know there are other businesses on the street -- salons, real-estate offices, show stores, dog groomers, galleries and whatnot -- who ever heard of a neighborhood defined by its dog groomers? No, it's the restaurants -- both the successes and the failures -- that, when all assembled and snapped tight, make up the complete puzzle-picture of a neighborhood. It's food that tells us where we are -- and, sometimes, who we are.

Leftovers: I was saddened to hear that one of the best neighborhood restaurants I found last year, Tables, in the heart of Park Hill ("Surprise!" August 31, 2006), will soon scale back its scope -- losing half its charm in the process. "This sandwich shop has transmogrified into a kind of idealized neighborhood bistro, the kind of place everyone dreams about finding one night but actually exists only so very rarely," I wrote six months ago, a few months after Tables introduced its dinner menu. Like some kind of weird food-service superhero, Tables was living a double life: by day, an unassuming, rattletrap sandwich shop with lines snaking out the door and people willing to stand and wait for the beautiful, notch-above sandwiches being done by partners Amy Vitale and Dustin Barrett and their crew; by night, a nearly magical bistro where sitting by the windows one rainy evening, eating a simple bowl of Littleneck clams and sausage over pasta dressed in a lemon beurre blanc gutshot with the powerful, sweet notes of a good Reisling, instantly became one of the memories of Denver I will carry with me forever.

I loved Tables. Still do. But come March 3, it will stop serving lunch. "It's sad," Vitale told me when I got her on the blower last week. Sad, but she and Barrett didn't have a choice. They were each putting in more than eighty hours a week, working from eight in the morning all the way through until one in the morning -- and losing lunches will buy them each 35 hours. "We had to make a choice," she said. "But after we did, it was like taking a deep breath. We wanted some kind of life outside the restaurant."

When she and Barrett would go grocery shopping in the neighborhood, Vitale told me, people would see them and say, "Oh, it's Mr. and Mrs. Tables!" But when Mr. and Mrs. Tables went looking for someone with both the skill and the desire to take over lunches and deliver the kind of quality that they demanded, they couldn't find anyone. Finally, they studied Tables' books and realized that it took five full-bore lunches to equal one good dinner. That made the decision easier.

"When we started talking about it," Vitale explained, "Dustin was like, 'Close for lunch? We've got spring coming and the patio. It's going to be huge.' And I was like, 'Yeah. And then where are we going to be? Putting in another 84 hours?'"

With the decision to forgo the sandwiches, Tables' tiny kitchen buys some freedom. Without the space and time demands of lunch prep, there's room to focus on dinner, as well as happy hour and tastings. And so far, regulars have taken the news well. "We've developed with the neighborhood," Vitale said. "They were all happy." Happy that Tables would still be doing those blissful dinners, at least. Happy that Vitale and Barrett will still be in the neighborhood, whereas places like the Cherry Tomato (which celebrates its ten-year anniversary this month), Solera and the Cork House are just a bit too far for a walk.

Restaurants define a neighborhood. They develop and change together. Although sandwiches originally introduced Tables to the neighborhood, the dinners kept people coming back. And at least now Mr. and Mrs. Tables will be able to get a little sleep.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan