Cafe Society

EASY KIDS' STUFF

Longing to feel unwanted? Tryn walking into most restaurants with your kid in tow. Faster than you can say "high chair," the place will put out the unwelcome mat. Assuming you stick around, you'll be alternately ignored and stared at. When the waitpeople aren't busy sighing by the side of your table, you can overhear them discussing different ways they'd like to handle children that make the Hansel and Gretel oven treatment sound tame.

Granted, kids can be a pain for servers. Rings of half-chewed food on the floor around peanut-butter-smeared booster seats, constant demands ("Please, could you get our little nightmare his fifty-seventh package of saltines?") and tips that never quite make up for the hassle leave the waitstaff understandably sour. Although parents might consider throwing in a few extra bucks on the grounds that tipping big is still a heck of a lot cheaper than hiring a babysitter, I find it's better to seek out places that want your business--restaurants that understand that welcoming children is a way to keep you coming through their door instead of heading for a family-friendly, food-unfriendly chain.

At the Grand Slam Sports Cafe, owner Jack Hogan goes one step further by training his staff to be especially good to diners under the age of sixteen. But then, they already knew how to cater to adults. When the original Grand Slam opened in Lakewood two years ago, it was little more than a testos-taurant for game-watching, beer-guzzling menfolk. Slowly, though, word got out that the food was good even if you weren't drunk, and the addition of a killer Sunday brunch (recipient of the 1995 Best of Denver award for "Best Place for Brunch With Kids") clinched the Grand Slam's reputation as a winning family spot.

A second Grand Slam opened two months ago in Englewood, and it was an instant hit. The place was packed during our visit; half the customers were kids, and the rest were acting like kids (there's plenty of beer on tap). There's a lot for youngsters to love about this restaurant: It's loud, colorful and filled with televisions showing every sporting event imaginable, and shorter diners receive balloons suitable for popping with a fork in Mom and Dad's faces. And there's the occasional visual treat for the parents, such as when two nerdy jock types walked in with their "dates," bleached blondes wearing spike heels and garterless stockings that stopped three inches below their mini (short for "minuscule") skirts. It was a great time for that talk with the kiddies about, oh, how there are all kinds of people in the world and God loves them all, or something like that.

But with the exception of that brief show-stopper, at Grand Slam the focus was on the family. Staffers even stopped to chat with kids at tables they weren't responsible for. And the "little league" menu, while brief, was a bargain (as is the adult menu) and included all the important food groups: hot dog, cheese, soda. The cheese came grilled and it came quick; with the storm clouds of a temper tantrum threatening, the waitress hurried the kid's order while we continued looking over the menu. As we did, we wound up eating more of the huge sandwich than our child did. This was the grilled cheese we remembered from our own childhoods: two extra-thick slices of heavy-crusted white bread coated with butter and oozing hot American cheese. Lightly seasoned, super-crunchy fries came with it, along with a drink and dessert, a cup of bland, frozen vanilla yogurt. Not bad for $3.50.

Grand Slam's adult fare didn't score as high as the grilled cheese. The Buffalo wings ($4.95), while not as hot as we'd been led to believe by the menu's warning that they were "basted with our 911 sauce," still had plenty of kick and a side of sauce to fuel the fire. But our next course struck out entirely. While the dressing on the Caesar salad ($4.95) tasted like mayo, the onion soup au gratin ($3.50) tasted a little like canned vegetable soup with sugar added. Enormous breadsticks took up half the bowl; they looked like a fat plumber's fingers trying to unplug the drain.

The entrees arrived about five minutes after the starters, but that gave me time to send back the burger ($4.50) that I had ordered medium-rare and that came rare-rare. The waitress was good-natured when I pointed out the problem, and the kitchen even cooked up another batch of bacon and threw on a new slice of provolone cheese (each topping added fifty cents to the basic burger price). After all that, the burger was pretty good, bigger than the half-pound it was supposed to be and accompanied by a fresh and simple slaw.

The Southwestern filet mignon sandwich ($6.95) was a real hit. Four big chunks of filet had been broiled, then stuffed inside a flour tortilla overflowing with chopped jalapenos, roasted green bell pepper strips and Jack cheese. This spicy, flavorful, filling dish went great with a pint. (Not of Guinness, though--Grand Slam's pouring was pathetic. The beer had a three-inch head, half the brew slopped over the sides of the glass when the waitress set it down, and what remained tasted watery.)

But the game was almost over before Grand Slam truly lived up to its name--with the ice cream brownie delight ($1.95). We fought like kids over the warm, gooey, fudgy brownie covered with an explosion of melting ice cream, runny chocolate sauce and cheap whipped cream. Although we also tried the raspberry cheesecake ($2.95), a wonderful adult dessert, our spoons kept returning to the brownie.

At Annie's Cafe, it felt like we started our meal with dessert: thick, lumpy milkshakes, including a chocolate version ($2.75) that was impossible to put down. Given Annie's decor--including old-fashioned soda-fountain relics and antique metal advertisements--we weren't surprised to find that the shakes were marvelous. But the staff, too, reminded us of the days when being a waiter meant serving people rather than treating them like a private audience for personal reinvention ("I'm Sterling, and I'll be your vivacious yet petulant server tonight"). When I'd called to ask if children were welcome, the voice on the other end of the phone had told me that they "cater to kids" at Annie's. Even so, I hadn't anticipated that the busboy would dance with my daughter to a reggae tune in order to give us time to eat, or that staffers would anticipate our needs for extra napkins and a quick milk refill.

Annie's kids' menu is extensive, but the grilled cheese ($2) would work better with American than cheddar--the cheese dried up too quickly. At our request, the kitchen substituted mashed potatoes for the fries; the potatoes arrived slightly chunky, just-mashed and drenched with brown gravy. We appropriated the gravy for the soft, salty, skin-on fries that came with our adult burger--the combination was incredible. The burger itself ($5.25) was one of the best I've had in Denver, with a great diner flavor that was hard to pinpoint (sort of greasy-tasting but not greasy; sort of cheap but not really). We also sampled the cream of broccoli soup ($1.50 a cup) that's a staple of Annie's menu--with good reason, since it's made with fresh broccoli and tastes so hearty and good that you feel guilty for not having a pot of the stuff simmering on the stove back home.

The salad that came with the chicken chipotle ($7.25) also smacked of home; it had peas in it, for heaven's sake. And the rice alongside the tender chicken had a depth of flavor you don't expect to find in a diner setting. The grains were as green as grass (June grass, not the stuff we see now); they had been tossed with the perfect blend of parsley, cilantro, onion and garlic. The black beans, too, were exceptional--soft but not squishy, and intensely seasoned. The portion was so big that we could manage only one dessert (but then, we'd had all that ice cream at the beginning), a large hunk of homey carrot cake ($2.75).

Whether or not you arrive with a child, both Grand Slam and Annie's make you feel right at home.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner