The first time I stepped into Elway's Downtown at the Ritz-Carlton, I immediately wanted to turn around, get in my car and drive somewhere more my speed: some greasy taquería, perhaps, a dive bar where I could get into an argument with a midget about Irish versus Scotch whiskey, even the original Elway's in Cherry Creek.
I didn't, but that was my gut instinct — the fierce pull of some internal mechanism saying that this place, with its big leather chairs and liveried staff and business-suited clientele, was not for me. It just reeked of money and the out-gassing of business travelers giving off a steam of jet rage and dry-cleaning. If I'd scratched the wall with my fingernail, it would've bled ten-dollar bills.
Still, it's become my habit to ignore such impulses, to fight that sense of displacement that tempts me into retreat. I've had great meals in rooms where I didn't belong, and have only rarely been treated with the derision and disregard some part of me seems to think I deserve when I roll into fancy hotels in blue jeans and biker boots and a T-shirt with a picture of Boba Fett on it. So I smiled at the host, standing stiffly at his station, pointed at the bar and then followed my own finger before he could say a word. I found a seat on a busyish Friday, claiming twelve inches of space on the bar top and a menu, then started drinking. There were no midgets, so I drank my Irish neat and undisturbed, listening to graying men in double-breasted jackets discussing flat-screen TVs and the market in compressed industrial gases. It wasn't comfortable, exactly, but it was what it was: the upscale bar of an upscale hotel filled with upscale clientele traveling on expense accounts. So why, I wondered, was the Muzak playing Queen and U2? It seemed odd, as discordant in this room as I was.
I started with the crab cake with miso beurre blanc, which didn't bowl me over but was perfectly serviceable — lump crab, a little heavy on the breading, a sauce that was, delightfully, mostly butter. I didn't understand how a steakhouse could devote nearly half its menu to soups (including an excellent steak chili) and salads (ten, by my count), but they were easy to ignore — and everyone did. Every table in the joint was graced with lamb chop fondue, with shrimp wrapped in bacon, with fat, bloody hunks of cow in various states of deconstruction. Feeling lightweight, I went with the petit filet (eight ounces), which is the worst thing to order in any steakhouse — tender, sure, but flavorless relative to the more big-daddy cuts: the New York, the ribeye, the bone-in anything. Still, it was a decent steak. It looked a little bereft on the plate, so small and forlorn, but the cut was good, the flavor preserved as much as possible. The creamed spinach on the side leaked cream and butter like I imagine Emeril Lagasse would if you poked him with a cocktail fork, and the bearnaise showed the skill of a talented saucier in the back, with just the right balance of tarragon sweetness.
While the meal was fine, Elway's was no fun at all. I didn't flee when I finished, but neither did I linger in the hermetic comfort of the bar — immediately in the mood for the vivid life and pleasant grunginess of, say, Club 404. Or the bus station just a few steps away.
Elway's — the original Elway's — spawned this second location, which opened this past January. The Ritz management, its F&B people and chef de cuisine Ben Davison all spent time poking around the kitchen and dining room of the Cherry Creek restaurant. In one of those quirks of synchronicity that I have come to see as completely de rigueur in Colorado's scene, Davison and Tyler Wiard (who became chef at the original Elway's after the departure of Charles Schwerd in 2006) had worked together at Mel's back in the day. A Colorado native, Davison later went east (doing time at both Le Bec Fin and the Striped Bass in Philly) before being tempted back to the mountains. And the menu that he and his crew cook downtown is a straight lift of Wiard's updated Elway's menu, with just a few minor derivations. Because the Ritz wasn't just after Big John's name. It wanted the whole package — food, folks and fun, to coin a phrase. But, like an accident in packing, somewhere on the trip downtown, the fun got lost.
Denver is a town filled with steakhouses. They come and go like herpes. And in 2004, when the first Elway's opened, we were already overstuffed.
But Elway's carved out a niche for itself by offering a crazy-good floor (would-be staff members had to take a personality assessment test before even being interviewed) and a goofy, completely un-serious attitude typified by Ding Dongs on the dessert menu and shrimp cocktail served over wells of smoking dry ice. It was a comfortable spot: a cougar preserve in the bar, an all-comers joint in the dining room. Never mind that dinner here could easily run into the triple digits — it wasn't the kind of place that felt like the kind of place where you'd drop forty or fifty bucks on a steak-with-nothing, and made that casualness and easy absurdity work for it.