Food News

Best Wishes: After Seven Years, I'm Pushing Back From the Table

The author bit off a lot during his years as Westword food and drink editor.
The author bit off a lot during his years as Westword food and drink editor. Carolyn Jaeger
Every year for the past seven years, I've simultaneously looked forward to and dreaded the production of Westword's annual Best of Denver edition. Helping to choose the best things to eat and drink in dozens of categories is a thrilling exercise, but it's also exhausting — and more than a little stressful. How do I explain to people in the industry whom I respect and whose culinary contributions are important to the city why they didn't win a specific award? How do I choose between two outstanding places when only one slot exists?

The truth is that if you're open and selling food and your customers are coming back, you're already the best. You and your team of cooks, dishwashers, servers, bartenders, managers and other workers deserve recognition every day for your dedication to excelling in one of the most difficult industries in which to succeed — now more than ever before, because of the increased strain of the pandemic.

On May 6, Westword released its Best of Denver for 2021. As soon as it was published, as in each of the previous six years, I immediately thought of a dozen restaurants, bars and dishes I could have included. And as in each of those years, I then moved on, because restaurant news keeps happening and there's never time to sit back and reflect on work already finished. But this year I didn't just move on to new stories: I left the building and my job as the food and drink editor. The decision wasn't easy, but I have new work to look forward to as the communications manager for the Colorado Restaurant Foundation, and new stories to look forward to from Westword's great team of writers and the person chosen as the new food and drink editor.

In seven years, I've tasted many bests and shared many meals with wonderful people in the restaurant industry — and I've shared hard moments with those who have lost jobs, businesses or loved ones. My goal from the beginning was to shine a light on independent restaurants and other food-related businesses that might not otherwise get attention, and to balance that with news of big openings and the major players who help shape Denver's dining scene.

But what is Denver's dining scene? Before I was offered the job of editor, I wrote a weekly series in which I ate at every restaurant on Federal Boulevard that wasn't a national chain. I stayed within Denver city limits, eating my way south to north, from West Hampden Avenue up to West 52nd Avenue. It was a good way to delve into all the family-owned eateries and hidden places that I drove past every day and had wondered about. In many ways, Federal Boulevard represents Denver as a whole, with a diverse array of restaurants that offer Mexican, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese and American cuisines. It's also a very working-class stretch of the city, so most of the restaurants offer value as well as flavor.

I learned so much in the year and a half it took to eat at 75 restaurants one week at a time, but if I had to do it again, I'd do it differently. As a full-time food writer, I've found that the food isn't the entire story; the people who make the food and run the restaurants are equally, if not more, important. Sure, I talked to some of the chefs, managers and servers at those 75 eateries, but not as much as I could have. Since then, I've become more outgoing — before, I'd always thought it annoyed people when you asked too many questions or bothered them while they were trying to run a business. But listening to people open up about their food, their background, the importance of sharing their cooking with others made me realize that the story wasn't about me eating something: It was about the people, their culture, their experience offering something to the city.

Once I figured that out, I still sometimes got the cold shoulder; after all, why would some white guy with a camera and a notebook be asking questions unless he was selling something? I often had to tell restaurant owners that I wasn't trying to sell them banners or new services or ads, and I often showed them recent stories — with my cartoon avatar under the headline — to reassure them that I wasn't just trying to get a free meal. I always ordered and paid for my food before introducing myself, and if conversations went well, I would return on my own dime to try dishes that the chef or owner was particularly proud of.

Talking to people — rather than just ordering from a menu — landed me some of my most memorable experiences. At an Ethiopian restaurant, the chef popped a bite of food into my mouth with her own hand — a sign of hospitality and connection. At a Korean restaurant that had no English menu, the server informed me that I had just ordered a family platter big enough to feed eight hungry diners; she deftly steered me toward options better for a solo customer, and I ended up with one of the best seafood soups I've ever had. At a high-end cocktail bar, I had my first taste of pechuga mezcal simply because I struck up a conversation with the bartender and he wanted me to try it. At a Russian cafe, the owner sent me home with an extra container of pierogi after I told her they reminded me of my Ukrainian grandmother's cooking.

The memories of the food I have eaten and the restaurant people I have met during countless hours driving around the city, spotting new eateries in unlikely locations, chatting on the phone (especially in 2020!) and attending opening parties, chef dinners, charity events and food festivals (which will someday return) will be part of me forever.

Food brings us together as a community, whether you're celebrating at an upscale destination or sharing plates with friends at new places serving dishes from a part of the world you've only dreamed of visiting in person. Going to a restaurant isn't about adding a checkmark to a list, and it's seldom about just fueling up with another meal. Meeting the people behind the food has been the biggest part of the adventure for me, and it has opened me up to new cultures and new ways of understanding the importance of welcoming new people to our city and to our country, and integrating their offerings into our common culture.

Pulling together the Food and Drink section of the Best of Denver is a difficult endeavor, because I can never lavish enough praise for everyone who deserves it, and there's always something left on the table. So I'll just add two more to the list here:

Best City in Which to Be a Food Writer — Denver

Best Job I've Ever Left — seven years as the Westword food and drink editor.
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation