I like community-oriented restaurants, places that hang their existence on serving one specific subset of society but also gladly welcome others from outside the targeted demographic — seeing them as so much gravy. Hamburger Mary's, the gay-themed burger joint transplanted from San Francisco is one of these, but so are neighborhood restaurants that, by dint of excellent service, exemplary kitchen crews and powerful word of mouth, start attracting customers from far outside the hood. Fruition (1313 East Sixth Avenue) is such a neighborhood restaurant; so is Frasca (1738 Pearl Street in Boulder).
The guys behind Swimclub 32 (3628 West 32nd Avenue) had wanted their small-plates/sake bar concept to be a neighborhood restaurant, but it quickly grew into a destination and special-occasion restaurant — bringing in crowds from Boulder, from Highlands Ranch and elsewhere. When this finally became too much to bear, they decided to close Swimclub and reopen it as a pizza place (as discussed in a June 24 Cafe Society post), harking back to owner Chris Golub's days as a pie man in Philly. Look for the reconcepted Swimclub to open later this month.
Denver has a lot of highly specific ethnic restaurants that were opened solely to serve their community — Ghanaian house restaurants, little Eastern European markets and strange spots all around Russian Plaza on Leetsdale. I've been to Japanese restaurants in my own neighborhood where I couldn't get served at the bar, Korean joints where the servers looked at me with guarded suspicion until it became apparent that I really was there to eat the kimchi and bulgogi and crab soup, a dozen different places where I might not have been the owner's idea of the customer he was expecting, but where I was warmly welcomed and generously fed and (in many cases) educated along the way by the folks for whom the restaurant was opened — the immigrants, the families, the lonely people looking for nothing more than memories triggered by a taste of home.
There are bars out there for bikers, diners built for the long-haul trade, fine French bistros meant to attract guys like me with a yen for snails and goose liver and champagne. And, of course, a vast panoply of crappy chain and fast-food restaurants meant to serve the dim, the rushed, the dead of palate, and those who, as yet, simply don't know any better.
I complain a lot about the fact that Denver has never come up with a solidly cook-centric, late-night joint for guys in the industry — a place where an exhausted grillardin can collapse at the end of a long night's service, pour a few beers down his neck, eat a little something and get weird without fear of intervention by civilians or law enforcement. As much as a cook can get by just fine with a couple of drinks at the bar on the corner and a cheeseburger at the Breakfast King early Saturday morning, what he really wants and needs is a place made for him, filled with fellow travelers and with a really killer juke. The hippies and alternative-fuel fans have the Mercury Cafe (2199 California Street). Vegetarians have WaterCourse, still open behind the scrim of construction at 837 East 17th Avenue, and hipster sprout devotees have City, O' City, in the old home of WaterCourse, at 210 East 13th Avenue. Although Izakaya Den (1518 South Pearl Street) is nice for chefs and there are many cooks who've done terrible things at Dixons (1610 16th Street) over the years, this town still needs a joint like the Irish bar I remember from home — a place with New York punk and rockabilly in the Wurlitzer, its own crowd of dedicated sluts and drug dealers, drink specials for industry brats, and nothing but white jackets and house livery as far as you could see at midnight.
Just like Denver's same-sex crowds needed a place like Mary's. What's more, Mary's may end up being a sort of de facto industry hangout on some nights, because just as the industry could not operate without its armies of Mexican line cooks, Cuban bakers, Filipino runners and Vietnamese prep specialists, neither could it survive a night without its aspiring actors on the floor, its lesbian bartenders (whom I used to fall for with alarming and tragic frequency back in the day), gay captains, stylish floormen and French service teams full of johnson enthusiasts. Frankly, if a place like Mary's makes these folks happy, we need to open a hundred more of them immediately — as many spaces hung with pictures of Audrey Hepburn, serving brunch and blasting S&M-era Madonna tunes as we currently have D.F. and Michoacán-style taquerías — in vain hope of attracting more gays to Denver. Christ knows the service in this town could use the help.
Bad ink: Owner Scott Tallman (ex of Bistro Vendôme) and chef/partner Scott Hybbeneth (ex of Barolo, Wynkoop Brewing Co. and elsewhere) had big plans when they opened Gaslamp Grill at 9199 West Alameda in Lakewood eighteen months ago. But last week, Tallman pulled the plug. "We shut the doors last night," he told me when I got him on the phone Thursday. "Restaurants fail, you know? It happens. I thought Lakewood needed another independent restaurant, but..."
His voice trailed off, leaving the apparently it didn't hanging in the air.
There were a lot of factors leading to the sudden closure, Tallman explained, but they all added up to the same thing: not enough money. The economy sucks, sure. It's summer, and summers are always rough on restaurants (though some would argue that summer is their best season). Gaslamp was hit hard by the "June swoon" — the first serious wash of heat that tends to drive people indoors and keeps them close to home (and their own backyard grills) at night. Gas is expensive, supplies are expensive, everything is expensive. "Go to the grocery store," Tallman said. "Tell me why we closed."
Still, it wasn't all bad. "I loved the concept," he added. "Loved the remodel we did. And we had our regulars who supported us." But those regulars just weren't enough, and for some time, Tallman had been paying the bills out of his own pocket.
"I got sick and tired of writing checks," he explained.
The closure came less than a week after a bad review in the Rocky Mountain News in which critic Lori Midson mistakenly laid a lot of blame on Hybbeneth — even though he'd been gone from Gaslamp for a few months. But Tallman told me that the review (and all the ugly fallout over the Hybbeneth error) was just the last straw; he'd been looking to sell the place for months. As a matter of fact, after Hybbeneth left, Tallman had decided to run the restaurant without a chef — which might explain why Midson had a less-than-stellar experience there. And when I asked Tallman who was running the kitchen, he said, "The usual Mexicans. My Three Amigos and a Johnson & Wales grad."
Now the kitchen is empty. "I'm gonna work for someone else for a couple years," Tallman told me. "Get my ducks in a row. And then I'll be right back at it. I love this business, you know? I've been in it for twenty years in Denver. It's all I know."
Leftovers: Gaslamp Grill is not the only place to pull the plug. I just learned that Mee Yee Lin has gone dark at 2295 South Chambers in Aurora — where it moved after closing its original spot at 3090 West Alameda Avenue a couple of years back. The dining room is still set, but the door is locked, the lights are out and the phone has been disconnected.
While I would normally lament the closure of any Asian restaurant, Mee Yee Lin deserves special mention. In its first home, it served Denver's best dim sum before Super Star Asian (check out "Going My Way," on page 13, for more details) exploded on the scene at 2200 West Alameda. And it was still a contender, serving dim sum all day (along with a more standard Chinese menu) and making this Shanghai shrimp dumpling soup that was one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life. Every time I ate a bowl, I thought I was going to die. My throat would close up, my head would pound, my eyes would swell — but I kept ordering it anyway, kept eating it, kept taking my chances. It was that good.
So, needless to say, I'm going to miss Mee Yee Lin. But the closure of this new location isn't a big surprise. Many nights when I went looking for Shanghai shrimp dumpling soup, I didn't see a single car in the parking lot.