In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
Should I be embarrassed to admit that I've lived in this town as long as John Elway but have never been to Columbine Steak House and Lounge? (I'll bet Elway hasn't, either, but he has an excuse: He owns a bovine bistro with his own name on it.) My excuse is a little less glamorous; I'm just not really a steakhouse guy. Before you pull my red-blooded-American membership card, let me add that I do love a good steak -- preferably something on the bone, like a T-bone or rib eye. It's just that I can turn out a pretty mean cut of beef from my grill or Lodge pan at home without the painful price (even for prime, dry-aged cuts). If I'm slapping down real American money for restaurant food, I want something on my plate that says more than "Hey, we know how not to ruin something this primal and delicious!"
I've hit obligatory dinners with out-of-town guests or family where Denver's cow-town reputation engenders a trip to the above-mentioned Elway's, someplace kitschy and evocative like the Fort or the storied Buckhorn Exchange, or even expense-account drainers like Morton's that can be found in every major market. But I've generally avoided the no-frills dives and lounges because of fears of inferior meat quality, as well as a hint of straight-up apathy. I had convinced myself that a place like the Columbine must be getting by on reputation alone or had somehow landed the kind of hipster low-brow cachet reserved for Pabst Blue Ribbon and trucker caps.
But enough of my friends and colleagues have vouched for the place over the years that I was genuinely excited, or at least curious, about the prospect of finally checking the place off my list of Denver culinary landmarks.
My friend Jill joined Amy and me on an otherwise dreary Tuesday in the crowded and bustling Columbine foyer, where customers queued to place their orders. I immediately admitted to the cook/order-taker that this was my first visit and said we were interested in alcoholic beverages, so he directed us to the lounge side of the building -- where drinks and full table service were available - while the flames of the open grill leapt behind him. Other more experienced customers simply stepped up and named their cut and color and shuffled along to choose their sides and seating.
Despite over fifty years of continuous business (since 1961, according to the restaurant), the Columbine remains brightly lit and clean as any hospital cafeteria, with a touch more character owing to low-slung, mod-era chairs, wide diner windows with a view of nothing in particular, and a few random wall ornaments accumulated over the decades.
The lounge had a little more ambiance: It was dimly lit and dominated by the walnut-colored wood of a long and curvy bar. Black leather booths that seemed designed for precisely three people (four would have been hopelessly crowded) lined the opposite wall, with a few tables floating in the space between. Signs everywhere informed first-timers that this was a cash-only operation. It felt like home, or at least the wood-paneled basement of your grandparents' home -- chock-full of vintage furniture and memories. A painted portrait of the restaurant's founder (so I assumed) hovered over the bar with a modest OK of approval. We ordered quickly from the one-page menu with its litany of beef-board standards. My T-bone conformed exactly to the meaning of that hand gesture in the portrait - absolutely OK. I had to add a little salt to bring out the flavor, but it was cooked to my liking and offered minimal resistance to a few swipes of the steak knife. The slabs of Texas toast may have even been saturated in real butter and my pile of iceberg lettuce was rocky with chunks of blue cheese, even though a thin pool of water and dressing formed at the bottom of the bowl. Amy's filet was misshapen but otherwise tender and juicy. Jill, whose preference leans toward sandwiches, ordered a burger with an obviously hand-formed and well-charred patty cloaked in a slice of that superlative burger topping: American cheese. What else was there? Let's see: two kinds of beer on tap (Bud and Bud Light!) available by the glass, pitcher, or precious half-pitcher; fried shrimp that can be ordered individually; and complimentary roasted jalapenos hot off the fire. So what was it about the joint that made me want to immediately return? I was right with my initial concern: I can, in fact, cook a steak just as good at home. The steaks were a good value, but good value is the trademark of virtually every restaurant on Federal. But where else does the guy who cooks your food welcome you, spatula still in hand right there in the entrance way, before you've even had a chance to shake off the cold? It must have been the slightly flustered, no-nonsense joviality of the waitress; the warmth of the lighting as it mingled with the faint but unmistakable vapors of char-grilled meat; the working-class clientele with not a bow tie, pair of skinny jeans or curled mustache to be seen. It must have been the music from the jukebox, just loud enough to cancel the din of clattering silverware and overstimulated children waiting for their parents to finish their beers. It must have been a half-century of patience and good cheer and quiet conversations stockpiled in every nook and corner of the space. It must have been simply that every molecule accumulated in the air bounded by those walls just breathed "welcome." I may not be a steakhouse convert, but I'm a Columbine Steak House convert.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.