The Kitchen Table Cafe opened on a cold day in December 2013, serving hearty, warming Midwestern comfort food from a twenty-seat space in the underserved City Park West neighborhood. The first customers were neighbors and health-care workers from the Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center just a couple of blocks away, and although owner Dave Kilroy didn’t have much of a budget for advertising or marketing, word slowly spread about his homey meatloaf, textbook Kansas City barbecue and down-home attitude, leaking out like wisps of hickory and mesquite smoke from the cabinet smoker Kilroy uses to slow-cook his pork and brisket. Soon the social-media crowd got wind of the place and propelled the tiny, cafeteria-style cafe to the top of Yelp’s Denver restaurant listings.
And that’s okay with Kilroy, who treats his Yelp customers — from tourists visiting Denver to local restaurant explorers — like an extension of his neighborhood guests rather than an annoyance. After all, they’ve put him on the same list — Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S.” — as a favorite from his home town, Kansas City Joe’s Bar-B-Que (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s). “The fact that I’m on any list with them is amazing,” he explains. “I’m just a crazy kid from Kansas.”
While most of Kilroy’s youth was spent in Kansas City, his grandparents had a farm in Kansas near Hoisington, a tiny town off the main interstate highways, and he spent a month there each summer, riding along as his grandfather delivered gasoline to farms from his gas station and learning how to cook from his grandmother. “During meals, I always had a job: stirring the soup pot, chopping carrots — or sometimes just getting out of the way,” Kilroy recalls. The dishes he helped make — many of which now appear on the Kitchen Table’s menu — are from the heartland of America, dishes his grandmother learned while growing up during the Great Depression. “They’re not Southern,” he explains. “They’re Midwestern.” Her German heritage and rural lifestyle translated into solid farmhouse food. And while Kilroy wouldn’t put her beef tongue with stewed red cabbage on his menu, her cucumber-and-dill salad has proved to be among his customers’ favorite sides.
Kilroy’s childhood wasn’t all homemade, farm-grown meals, though. In Kansas City, his parents didn’t have much time for cooking. “One of my parents always worked two jobs, so I grew up on fast food,” he explains. But even at the age of ten, he knew he wanted to someday own his own business. In high school and college, he worked in restaurants — mostly the front of the house — and watched and learned from the owners and managers. “They didn’t know it, but they were training me to be an entrepreneur,” he says.
After high school, Kilroy enrolled at Southwest Missouri State University to study finance, moving to Denver halfway through to finish up at the University of Colorado Denver. He focused on the business side of his degree more than finance, but began a career in asset management after graduation. He always gravitated toward entrepreneurship, though, and eventually was part of ten different startups, two as the owner.
The last startup was the Kitchen Table Cafe, the culmination of his goals to own his own business and serve good Midwestern food in the Mile High City. “I’ve lived in Denver for twenty years. I love it and I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “Denver has had good culture for years, and now the food side is finally catching up.”
Kilroy began planning the Kitchen Table Cafe in earnest five years ago, sensing that the time was right to take the leap into running his own restaurant. He started practicing those old family recipes and teaching himself new techniques, working his way through online instructional videos from the Culinary Institute of America. “A cheese sauce is a Mornay sauce,” he remembers learning. “Once I figured that out, I could do different things with it.” He also honed his knife skills and delved into slow-cooked meats. “I ruined thousands of dollars’ worth of meat learning to braise and smoke,” he laments.
Kilroy chose City Park West because he realized there wasn’t much in the way of locally owned, fresh-cooked food in the area; many old neighborhood favorites had closed over the years, and at the time he started scouting locations, the only eatery within easy walking distance was a Burger King. There seemed to be a clear need for a good, simple lunch place. Now over a year in, with lines often forming at the door during peak hours, Kilroy thinks he made the right decision. “If everyone here just wanted chain restaurants, I would have failed a long time ago,” he points out. He attributes the popularity of his food to his insistence on care and quality. Although he can’t get organic ingredients year-round, that’s his goal: “I’m really picky about what I bring in. If it’s not good, I’ll send it back and leave it off the menu for a week.”
He also listens to his customers, using the Internet as a sounding board. Occasionally he’ll ask customers on Facebook what they want; one of the most frequent requests he got was for collard greens, which weren’t part of his upbringing. “It’s more popular in the deep South, where they can grow greens year round,” he explains. But even though the dish wasn’t Midwestern, he put it on his menu, cooking the collard greens with ham hocks, cider vinegar and chicken stock — and now it’s one of the most requested items.
Family is still important, too: He recently hired his cousin, Jesse Weiser, who moved to Denver four months ago. Weiser is a trained chef and Cordon Bleu graduate with ten years of experience cooking professionally. Since joining the kitchen team, he’s added a chicken-and-sausage gumbo and a beer, potato, cheese and bacon soup. While Kilroy is drained by the time he heads home from the cafe at the end of the day — “I just want to sit on my couch and drink a beer,” he admits — Weiser cooks for fun in his spare time (what little he has), and often ends up trying out new recipes on Kilroy, staff and friends.
Because of the hours Kilroy puts in at his restaurant, meals away from work are generally at locally owned businesses, which he loves to explore. While he declines to name favorites for fear of offending the ones he leaves off, he says he likes pizza places in obscure, suburban strip malls; torterias in hole-in-the-wall spots and sandwich shops that often sell out by mid-afternoon. “I just want to promote the mom-and-pop side of it,” he explains. “Somewhere other than McDonald’s.”
A combination of his grandmother’s influence and his overexposure to fast food has made him particularly aware of the current state of food production. “What I don’t like is how disconnected we’ve gotten from our food. These petrochemical companies are now agriculture companies, replacing food with chemicals and calling it food,” he says, hypothesizing that many modern food allergies have come from genetically engineered crops, selective breeding and pesticides and herbicides. “That’s the revolution we’re about to have.” He points out that his smoker, a hybrid unit with a thermostat that keeps a small amount of wood burning for long periods of time, makes more sense than more traditional offset smokers, which he calls unsustainable due to the amount of wood they use and the volume of soot they produce. “For a twelve- to fourteen-hour smoke, I can use a handful of chunks and chips,” he notes.
And instead of Coke or Pepsi products, the Kitchen Table Cafe serves Boylan’s, a venerable East Coast soda that has gotten traction in Colorado because it’s sweetened with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. (Tea and fountain drinks are the only option right now at the Kitchen Table, as Kilroy’s landlord doesn’t want a liquor license in the building — though Kilroy would like one.)
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And just as he takes care with his food, Kilroy takes care with his customers. On Yelp, he responds to criticism with apologies for anything less than perfection and invitations to come back and try again — offers not often seen on a platform that virtually encourages users to complain after the fact rather than give restaurateurs feedback in person. Kilroy doesn’t shy away from personal contact, either: He chats with everyone in the tiny dining room (those twenty seats include a two-top Ms. Pac-Man video game), just making friends or asking what they’d like to see on the menu. “I just want to be the best lunch place in town,” he says.
That’s a lofty goal for a comfort-food kitchen in a sleepy neighborhood, but it’s a goal that many think Kilroy has already achieved. And that group includes Yelp, which crowned the Kitchen Table Cafe as the only Colorado restaurant worthy of its list of the country’s top hundred places to eat.
Kitchen Table Cafe
1426 East 22nd Avenue