Meat of the Matter

When the people behind Prime 121 decided to bring yet another steakhouse to this crowded cow town, they were taking on quite a challenge (see review). But it's been done very successfully a couple of times in the past few years, by operations that managed to jam yet another top-shelf filet mignon into Denver's already overstuffed steak hole and become an integral part of the dining landscape.

Any list of successful Denver steakhouses must necessarily begin with the Capital Grille (1450 Larimer Street), arguably the best in the city. The chain — Capital Grille is part of the Darden Restaurants group, responsible for such horrors as the Olive Garden and Red Lobster brands — came into Denver with a reputation for catering to nouveau-riche, pre-bust dot-commers, savage yuppies and expense-account millionaires, and poured in excess of $4 million into a buildout in what had previously been open land in the middle of Denver's most booming restaurant block. More important, though, Capital Grille came with a deep understanding of what a steakhouse customer wants and a sharp awareness of what it takes to thrive in an overcrowded market. The owners, managers, chefs, cooks, servers, hostesses, busboys, even the contract valets, all knew exactly how good they had to be because Capital Grille told them how good they had to be, then trained them — often paying to have prospective employees sent out of state for sink-or-swim educations in one of their already operating locations. The result? From the minute the door opened, no restaurant in Denver had service like Capital Grille's. From door to bar to table and back again, theirs was the best — the kind of service where, when you drop a fork, someone's there to catch it on the first bounce and has already called in three friends as backup: one to replace the fork, one to polish the floor and a third to apologize profusely, assure you that such a mishap was entirely the fault of the house and offer you a cocktail to calm your nerves after such an ordeal.

This was the first place I ever noticed the padding on the tables, ever saw color-coordinated napkins offered so that a white linen napkin wouldn't leave fuzz or an errant string on a customer's black trousers. And then there were those knives. Trouble is, it's often difficult to notice all these niceties because Capital Grille is often so busy that all you see is an endless, throbbing sea of yuppies and their ilk. No lie, I've been to the place on nights when I could barely get five feet inside the door before running up against an immovable press at the bar. And though I am not above throwing a few elbows to get to the man with the whiskey, it wouldn't have mattered here. The only difference between Friday happy hour at Capital Grille and the stage-apron mosh pit at a Revolting Cocks show is that the crush at Capital Grille smelled a little better and not quite as many people were getting punched directly in the face.

Even so, Capital Grille has amazing front-of-house skills. It makes every single customer (no matter how runty, Irish or drunk) feel like they're special just because they had the taste and wisdom to come here, as opposed to going anywhere else. That's a nice trick, and one that quickly made Capital Grille a destination beefateria in a town that already had plenty.

A year later, Elway's (2500 East First Avenue) managed to pull off a similar maneuver. Of course, Elway's had an unfair advantage: namely, Big John himself. In this town, John Elway could open a business where he'd kick your grandma for five dollars, and he'd have a line out the door and around the block. Still, Elway's did not hang all of its hopes on celebrity. The partners also managed to put a rare (and distinctively Colorado) spin on the standard steakhouse concept. This is a steakhouse with a sense of humor (shrimp cocktails served over smoking dry ice, do-it-yourself s'mores), one that has foregone the traditional clubby, dark wood trappings of steakhouse decor in favor of a lighter, brighter and more modern approach, and positioned itself as the Everyman's steakhouse — provided, that is, Everyman has enough scratch to cover the tab. At Elway's, the service may not be as flawlessly exacting as at Capital Grille, but it is more personable, occasionally more charming. I've had waiters tell long and seemingly pointless stories about their children, others who've sat with me quietly mocking other customers who, a few too many Scotches to the wind, were grossly hitting on cocktail waitresses young enough to be their daughters. And while the steaks are good, some of the non-steak menu items are unbelievably good. The tacos, for example.

When Elway's opens its second restaurant inside the new Ritz-Carlton at 1881 Curtis Street in a couple of weeks, Ben Davison will be in the kitchen, after having spent six or seven weeks under Tyler Wiard at the original Elway's. According to the Ritz's Aubrey Strong, when Davison was asked what he would change in his own kitchen, he said, "Not one thing." Good instincts.

If all goes well, the new Elway's could easily present some serious competition to other steakhouses downtown, where the competition began more than a decade ago, back when the country's most venerable chain opened the Palm at 1672 Lawrence Street in 1996. (Scott Fickling, who now runs Prime 121, was there at the start.) For more than a decade, the Palm has remained a go-to place for power lunches, power dinners, power cocktails and power everything else. Morton's (1710 Wynkoop Street) has that fat-cat, Captain of Industry thing down, too. This is where you go when you're less concerned about being seen, and more concerned with a great steak — sided with a martini or a tall bourbon. For a shot, a beer, a cigarette and a great bar burger? Sullivan's, at 1745 Wazee.

And then there are Denver's unique steakhouses. The Buckhorn Exchange (1000 Osage Street) was founded by one of Buffalo Bill Cody's scouts and has been a Denver institution since 1893. It's decorated like a taxidermist's wet dream and serves just about any animal too slow or too dumb to avoid being turned into dinner. The menu is a boon for those (like me) who like going to the zoo just to see how many of the critters they've eaten, and the place does a lot of business with German and Japanese tour groups who want a quote/unquote real taste of the Old West — but it's just as popular with the locals. For more faded glory paired with a nine-buck T-bone, check out Club 404 (404 Broadway), where Denver knickknackery takes the place of stuffed bears and wombats, and guys who've been regulars for fifty years will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about women, football or muscle cars over seriously cheap steaks and seriously powerful drinks.

I absolutely love Cowbobas (2991 West Evans), because I simply don't know where else I could get a $10 steak, a boba tea, a Vietnamese coffee and a corn dog all off the same menu — and I don't know where else I'd want to get that sort of thing. And then, on those nights when I'm feeling more Bogart than Graham Greene, I've always got Bastien's (3503 East Colfax Avenue), which pulls it all together — service and food, booze, decor and history — into one seamless, inimitable, only-in-Denver whole. For dinner here, there's the sugar steak — a clubland favorite rescued by Bastien's from the annals of steakhouse history — as well as shrimp cocktails served in martini glasses and hand-carved specials. The place has been serving (in one form or another) since 1937, and it looks as though it hasn't been updated since Hugh Hefner banged his first bunny. From the street-side neon to the indoor twinkle lights, the paisley carpets to the battered martini shakers and veritable acres of wood paneling, Bastien's stands as not just a great steakhouse, but one of the best, most honest, most revered restaurants in town.

Leftovers: I just got word from Peter Karpinski, senior vice president of the Sage Restaurant Group and the guy responsible for creating the Corner Office concept, that Sage has plans for another Denver restaurant: Second Home Kitchen and Bar is slated for a March 2008 opening in Cherry Creek. And Louisville got what looks like a great new restaurant last month with the opening of Tibet's Restaurant & Bar, at 321 McCaslin Boulevard. I just snagged a menu from the place, and it's fantastic — full of momo and samosas, Indian curries, Tibetan thukpa and chili-rubbed lamb. Owners Kami Sherpa and Pasang Sherpa both come from Nepal, and their chef, Uttam, not only spent fourteen years as a Tibetan monastery chef, but even cooked for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

That's what you call some heavy street cred.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan