Denver's Top Ten Diners

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I know from diners; they are my natural habitat. And Colorado has some classics. Johnson's Corner was one of the first places I visited when I first went west of the Mississippi, and it remains a favorite even post-renovation. My recent meals at Silver Creek Diner got me thinking about diners again.

The list that follows includes my top ten (yes, Sam's No. 3 counts twice) diners in the metro area:

Breakfast King 1100 South Santa Fe Drive, 303-733-0795. The menu at this classic 24/7 diner is frozen in the early '70s -- long before mainstream American food began taking on influences from other corners of the globe. Like a culinary time capsule, the King still serves Coney Island hot dogs, chiliette (egg noodles slathered in red chili and served with Saltines), biscuits and gravy, and a ham dinner complete with a ham steak, canned pineapple rings and a hot vegetable. The King has atmosphere oozing from every cracked-vinyl seat, and serves its food hot, fast and in trucker-friendly portions. Davies Chuck Wagon Diner 9495 West Colfax Avenue, Lakewood, 303-237-5252. Davies Chuck Wagon was built in 1957 -- maybe one of the best years for diners, definitely one of the last. When it's busy, the building seems to breathe -- taking in drafts of cool air from outside, exhaling customers -- and nothing is ever still as tables turn fast and coffeepots make the rounds. And all day, every day, Davies serves some of the best East Coast-meets-Wild West diner food around, including incredible chicken-fried steak. Although two other Davies have popped up around town, the original is the only true diner. Johnny's Diner 2323 South Havana Street, Aurora, 303-369-8307. No one does breakfast quite like this quasi-cafeteria-style diner, where the bacon-and-egg sandwiches are always greasy, the coffee's always hot, and the waitstaff is non-existent because of the order-wait-and-pick-up style of service. Johnny's has been a fixture in Aurora's Korea-town for years, its popularity buoyed by cheap blue-plate specials, generous portions, decent food, better company and bizarro-Americana decor. Johnson's Corner 2842 SE Frontage Rd. (exit 254 off I-25), Johnstown, 970-667-2069. Over the fifty-plus years that Johnson's Corner has been in business, it's collected accolades of a variety that most restaurants don't even dream about. Its name was read into the 106th Congressional Record as an example of "the industrious spirit and can-do attitude that have made America great." The Food Network dubbed it one of the top five truck stops in the country. And in 1998, it was picked as one of the best breakfast spots in the world by Travel & Leisure. We don't disagree, even though a recent renovation removed most of its physical charms -- but the food, particularly those cinnamon rolls, remains a constant. Rosie's Diner 14061 East Iliff Avenue, Aurora, 303-752-3663. From a distance, Rosie's Diner looks like another one of those '50s-style nostalgia joints. But once you sit down in this perfect replica of a diner, you quickly realize there's more to Rosie's than nostalgia. Great malts, for starters, as well as fast and friendly service. The kitchen cooks fresh every day, serving classic American road food in portions big enough to keep you going no matter what the modern world might throw at you. Sam's No. 3 1500 Curtis Street, 303-534-1927; 2580 South Havana Street, Aurora, 303-751-0347. After more than thirty years, the Armatas family finally returned Sam's No. 3 -- the flagship in a ninety-year-old restaurant empire -- to its original home. The menu at both the relatively new downtown No. 3 and the forty-year-old Aurora outpost is voluminous, with eight pages crammed with specials and sides and extras. Although the core offerings remain the Coney Island favorites that made Sam's reputation back in the 1920, there are also skillet breakfasts, 15 kinds of burgers, 21 breakfast burritos and a full page of Mexican grub. All of it's big food, served in a down-home style. Steuben's 523 East 17th Avenue, 303-830-1001. Steuben's is named after a beloved Boston establishment opened by Josh Wolkon's great-uncles Max and Joe back in 1945; this Steuben's was brought to life over months and years by Wolkon, his wife, Jen, and chef Matt Selby, the same folks who brought us Vesta Dipping Grill. The place looks perfect -- not just like any hometown diner or roadhouse, but like all of them. And the menu, which has been worked and reworked for years, presents the second-best versions of everyone's favorite regional classics. The only better version you'll find is in your own home town. Tom's Diner 601 East Colfax Avenue, 303-861-7493. Among Denver's legendary dives, Tom's stands out; it's the absolute best spot for watching Denver's insomniac-freak community while eating decent diner grub. Sure, there are holes in the windows that may or may not be from bullets, and locks on the bathroom doors. But Tom's also features great servers and a real opportunity to get up close and personal with Denver nightlife. 20th Street Cafe 1123 20th Street, 303-295-9041. Get it hot, get it cheap and get it fast. In operation since 1946, 20th Street has never been anything more than a modest neighborhood diner, offering such working-class fare as eggs-and-bacon plates, cheeseburgers, tuna melts, green chile breakfast burritos, noodle bowls and chicken fried rice. Yes, you read that right: This modest, neighborhood breakfast bar has a history stretching back to the days when nearby Sakura Square was the center of Asian-American (or Asian with no American at all) culture in this city. Sixty years later, those noodle bowls and plates of fried rice are still selling. And the breakfast burrito (served all day, from open 'til close at 2 p.m.) is more or less an institution itself.

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