Cafe Society

Dining in Slow Motion

For the first two years, Jeffrey Cleary was delighted to look out into the eclectic dining room of his Cafe Bohemia and see just half of the eight tables full. "It was tough going," says Cleary, a veteran chef who specializes in New American and French cooking, "but at least then we were able to give excellent service, and people came in expecting to spend a leisurely evening with us."

Evenings there are still leisurely--but only because the service can't keep up with the crowds. These days the restaurant is always full on weekends, when dinner is by reservation only; the only other night it's open is Thursday. Cleary once had to offer breakfast and lunch six days a week just to pay the bills; now he's doing so well that he's dropped Monday lunch and all breakfasts except on Saturday. But the increase in business has coincided with Denver's deadly labor shortage--and the good word of mouth on Cleary's flavor-savvy fare has attracted a more, um, impatient clientele.

"Mostly what we had for the first couple of years was neighborhood customers who really did want to come in and have some coffee, read a newspaper or talk with each other before they ate," Cleary explains. "Back then I was able to come out and sit with them and chat, too, and so it really had that neighborhood cafe feel to it. Now, though, I'm way too busy to do more than walk out there once or twice a night, and I realize we have a big problem with the service."

It's not any worse at Cafe Bohemia than anywhere else--not really--but the space is so small that it heightens your sense that everything is going verrrrryyy slowly here...with the exception of the harried, wild-eyed server. The ambience, which is not so much bohemian as casually unconventional--from the Impressionist prints hanging crookedly on the walls to the Early American Thrift Store furnishings of well-worn flower-print loveseats and mismatched high-back chairs--adds to the overall sense of disorder. And the fact that the tables are rather close has a way of bringing diners together not just physically, but psychologically: You have to band together if you're going to get your silverware, get your water and, most important, get your food.

My first clue that things had changed at Cafe Bohemia came over the phone, when I called to procure a Friday-night reservation. "How about 7:30?" I asked. "Hold on," the fellow on the other end responded, and then disappeared for several minutes. "Nope," he answered when he finally returned, then suggested, "What about 6:30?" I knew that wasn't going to work. "Let's go later," I said. "Can we get in at 7:45?" Another significant gap while he wandered off who knows where, and then he popped up again with a counter-offer: "No. Can you come in at 8:15?" At this point, I was about ready to chuck the whole idea, but I said it was fine. "Hang on," he said. "Let me go double-check that."

When we appeared at our negotiated, designated time, the best tables in the house--the ones set up for four and flanked by couches that would provide cozy seating for two--were gone. So we squeezed around a table only slightly larger than a TV tray and about seven inches from the next TV tray. No matter. We would soon be on very friendly terms with every diner in the place.

We certainly had plenty of time to get acquainted before our first course arrived. Cleary offers a semi-prix-fixe menu, with each dinner including an appetizer, a salad and one of several entree choices that vary the price between $18 and $22. The appetizer and salad are the same no matter what the entree, though, and since Cleary tries to do only one or two seatings an evening, he tries to bring each course to everyone at once. So the 8:15 people--us--were left waiting for the 8:30 people to get comfortable so that we could all enjoy the same batch of appetizers. In the meantime, the one server, who was in way over her head, did not bring us so much as a crust of bread to munch on.

We'd been sitting for forty minutes--yes, I was counting--and were faint from hunger when the piping-hot potato latkes finally showed up. Unfortunately, our silverware had yet to make an appearance. After a few more minutes we snagged our server, secured some forks and dug in. One bite and all was forgiven--for the few seconds it took us to gobble down the three silver-dollar-sized potato pancakes, at least. (Since the appetizer was part of an all-inclusive meal and not a separate starter, couldn't the kitchen at least have given us a number divisible by two?) The latkes were small but delicious (see Mouthing Off for the recipe): crispy on the outside, mashed-potato soft inside, and served with a tiny blob of creme fraiche and a dollop of homemade applesauce. I could have eaten a bucket's worth of the latter.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner

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