Cafe Society

Jason Sheehan's State of the Plate

For the past week, I've been collecting answers to an impromptu poll dealing with the current state of Denver's restaurant scene. It tracked the way that people are feeling right now about their city's food and restaurants, and played a little with their expectations for the future. It discussed what we love and what we hate and what we would like to see more of -- if not today, then certainly tomorrow. And yes, my poll was originally inspired by one done by the good people over at -- but mine quickly took on a life of its own and sparked some very interesting conversations about the current state of our plates, so to speak.

Now I've attempted to tabulate all the data and come up with a final draft for Denver's foodistas -- those truly militant members of our little grubnik community who really like having their voices heard when it comes to the present and the future of food in the Mile High. This, of course, was a little easier said than done: The answers were so scattered among so many competing impulses, and everyone seemed to have different answers for what was best about Denver, what was worst, and what must happen immediately to make everything better. Still, a lot of answers are absolutely better than no answers at all, so in the interest of science, I did my best.

The good news? The overwhelming gestalt proposed by the responses as a whole is that Denver is doing very well, restaurant-wise; that our people love the small, the weird, the cheap and the ethnic more than they love the fancy, the staid or the formal; and that there are several well-known chefs in town who people are sick of, and would like to assault in the street. Oddly, one of the fondest desires of the people of Denver is to have more hyper-regional and fine-dining Mexican food (in a town that already has some of the greatest Mexican food in the country, according to responses). Less oddly, there didn't seem to be a lot of big name, out-of-town chefs anyone was interested in having come to town to save us from ourselves. We're doing pretty well, according to the most vocal of this town's gastronauts. And we don't need no help from nobody.

That's the general stuff. Now for the best and/or most popular answers to several of the questions I posed in my original 1st Annual Café Society Poll about Food and Chefs and Stuff.

Question: Who are the three most important chefs or owners in Denver today?

Answer: Alex Seidel (Fruition) hit big in this category as the one guy in the city capable of proving to everyone that Denver has what it takes to support great local restaurants that serve more than just cheeseburgers and beer. Honorable mentions go to Justin Cucci of Root Down (for not the nicest reasons in the world); James Rugile of Venue; Joe Vostrejs of Larimer Associates; the Wonder Twins, Sean Yontz and Jesse Morreale; and Keegan Gerhard of D Bar Desserts who, according to commenter Ian, "says to some people that we're not all driving Dodge Rams in 10 gallon hats with rubber nuts swinging from the back." I assume he meant that the nuts were swinging from the trucks, not from our hats. Because that would just be...weird.

Question: What is Denver's most important restaurant neighborhood?

Answer: Federal Boulevard, between Mississippi and Alameda won this one in a walk, though Lower Highland, the Ballpark neighborhood, Pearl Street and my neighborhood--Aurora's Asian triangle--all got some love. The basic idea was that any neighborhood that sees the collision of cultures is a good one for the food-obsessed, and I couldn't agree more.

Question: What Denver chef do you kind of want to just punch right in the face?

Answer: This question had a broad range of answers, but let's just say that Teri Rippeto (Potager), Troy Guard (TAG), the next chef to try and open a gastropub, the next chef to try and "save" the Juicy Lucy's/Go Fish/Indigo space, and the next chef to blame his failing restaurant on the people of Denver "not getting it" ought to watch their backs. For that matter, so should I, as I was told by a couple of folks that they'd gladly hang one on me before going after anyone in this town who "actually works for a living."

Question: What food trend should Denver jump on next?

Answer: Fast food, Chipotle-style dumpling restaurants. I am so down with this suggestion...

Question: Does anyone care about fine dining anymore?

Answer: Best answer, by far, came from commenter Kat, who wrote simply: *crickets.* I will say, though, that several people (myself included) have become a little sick of the "paucity of professional servers in this town" (Kat again). This has been an issue in Denver for quite some time, and though I'm not sure what the solution is, I know a good start would be for all restaurants above, say, Griff's to start taking service more seriously. The only way you get better service is to train better servers, after all, and the only way to train better servers is to instill in them young that serving is a noble pursuit, one worth giving your whole heart to, and not just the thing you do to make a little beer money while you're finishing your communications degree at the University of Denver.

Question: What would you like to see next out of some of Denver's big-time chefs?

Answer: An Italian deli from Frank Bonanno like Salumi in Seattle, a real Spanish restaurant from Jennifer Jasinski. Several people wanted Alex Seidel to open a restaurant in their basements/garages. More street food, more chili parlors, more real ramen shops. Sean Yontz going back to doing high-end Mexican (or possibly a street taco stand, again in people's basements/garages). Matt Selby making Steuben's 24/7. Sean Huggard doing anything. Lachlan and Bobby from Frasca opening a place in Denver. Ian Kleinman opening his own restaurant. A real Japanese restaurant from Jeff Osaka (of Twelve). The suggestions went on and on. And you know what? Every single one of them was a great idea. We do dearly love our hometown boys (and girls) here in Denver. And barring the few that people want to punch, all we want is for them to do more.

And move in with us, in many cases.

Question: Which out-of-town chef would you like to see come to Denver, and what should he cook when he gets here?

Answer: This was the one that surprised me the most, because the winner was Rick Bayless. And people wanted him to do more Mexican. Although the die-off in high-end Latino and Mexican restaurants a few years back was fierce, the people are looking for a resurgence. Or maybe folks in Denver are really just impressed with Bayless's commitment to the one thing he seems to so truly love. I know I am. And this town could do a lot worse than attracting a chef of Bayless's character and talents.

So you hear that, Rick? In case you ever get the urge to move beyond Chicago, we're all here waiting for you. And there are several people in town who would be more than happy to have you live in their basements or garages while you're looking for a space.

Provided you're willing to pay your way in tacos, that is.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan