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Sixteenth Street has come a long way, baby, since the Rialto Theater opened in 1916. Today the street is a pedestrian mall, where souvenir shops outnumber other retail options, national-chain eateries outgun locally owned restaurants (see "Mall Flounders," August 6), and all the movie palaces closed decades ago. But when...
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Sixteenth Street has come a long way, baby, since the Rialto Theater opened in 1916.

Today the street is a pedestrian mall, where souvenir shops outnumber other retail options, national-chain eateries outgun locally owned restaurants (see "Mall Flounders," August 6), and all the movie palaces closed decades ago. But when the Rialto first set up shop at 1540 Curtis Street--billing itself as "the brightest spot in the world," with "perfect ventilation; air changed every three minutes," as well as Wurtzbach's Concert Orchestra and an "absolutely fireproof building"--16th Street was a major downtown thoroughfare, bustling with business and packed with shopping possibilities. The Rialto was a popular destination and one of the few affordable luxuries during the Depression, when watching a flick in the artdeco palace cost just 10 cents during the day and 15 cents in the evening.

It's going to cost you a bit more than that to spend time at Rialto Cafe, the new restaurant in the renovated Tritch Building that also houses a snazzy Marriott Courtyard; the parking lot next door is the old home of the legendary movie theater. Rialto is the latest venture from longtime Colorado restaurateur and hotelier Frank Day, whose Concept Restaurants also owns the Table Mountain Inn in Golden, the Hotel Boulderado in Boulder, six Woody's Wood-Fired Pizza places and half a dozen other eateries. Day, who was inducted two years ago into the Colorado Restaurant Association's Hall of Fame, also serves as president and CEO of the Rock Bottom Restaurants Inc., which runs fifty eateries nationwide. But somehow, he found the time to open Rialto this past March.

This stylish restaurant is an art-deco delight, complete with a brushed-aluminum bar, a circa-1920s Thompson baby grand piano on the mezzanine, and what the restaurant's press materials call dark-stained, rich maple wainscoting. (Martha Stewart made me aware of the importance of wainscoting, and so I'm able to be impressed by its inclusion in the Rialto's decor.) On top of the wainscoting are black-and-white photos of Denver street scenes from the Thirties and Forties, courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society. Not only should these authentic Denver touches make the Rialto more attractive to tourists venturing in off the mall than some Hard Rock Cafe that looks just like the one in New York, but they should make the place more valuable to locals, too.

But what's most important about the Rialto Cafe is that it takes food very, very seriously. The roster created by executive chef Tim Opiel is New American fresh, with a few fusiony international influences and a lot of Colorado-grown ingredients. Opiel was a sous chef at the Rattlesnake Grill--maybe if he'd been chef, the place wouldn't have died--as well as Zenith American Grill and Rodney's; before that, the Memphis native worked in Dallas at the Star Canyon Cafe under his mentor, the nationally heralded chef/restaurateur Stephen Pyles. Opiel's sophisticated background is so obvious, it might as well be spelled out in foot-high letters on a marquee.

Instead, it's all over the lobster-hash cakes ($10), with rum-soaked mango chutney, American caviar, vodka creme fraiche and saffron butter. Yes, the combination sounds pretentious and frivolous, but it was impossible to stop eating it. The first surprise, considering the elaborate flavor framework that surrounded it, was that the lobster meat actually had a say in the outcome of this dish. It also was amazing that the hash cakes' two rich, liquor-based chaperones didn't compete but instead complemented both the chutney and the creme fraiche.

The salads exhibited the same careful construction. The spinach and portabello version ($9) featured grilled, caramel-edged mushroom chunks, which proved ideal buffers for the slight bitterness of spinach and the bite of a roasted garlic vinaigrette. The Caesar ($4 for a small) was straightforward garlic and romano, with the right hint of salt and just enough dressing to coat each romaine leaf. The lobster-and-shrimp salad ($13) was big enough for two, packed with tender shellfish meat that had been matched with roasted red peppers and other vegetables, then tossed in a mellow balsamic vinaigrette.

Although the prices of the appetizers and salads initially seemed high, they're probably in line considering the caliber of the dishes and their ingredients. And using the same criteria, the entrees are unbelievably inexpensive (and the wine list is more than a match--in price and selection--for the entrees). Imagine, $10 for a very generous portion of penne with wild mushrooms--many mushrooms, many imported, expensive wild mushrooms--as well as kalamatas, roma tomatoes and fresh basil, all served in a dashingly handsome dining room just off the 16th Street Mall. The sassy cavatappi with chicken and prosciutto ($14) was beyond imagining, awash in a rich, bold lemon cream sauce that was a miracle for a lemon lover like myself. The beef tenderloin ($19) was another bargain, ten ounces of manly meat wrapped in prosciutto--why can't we just wrap everything in prosciutto and enjoy life to the fullest?--and then grilled. As a result, teeny, baconlike bits of black-tinged prosciutto studded the rosemary-whacked liquid that blanketed the plate, licking at the sides of soft Yukon gold potatoes and mingling with a warm tomato salsa, which had just enough sting to cut into the richness of the jus.

The dessert course was no anticlimax. Although Opiel caught some flak from a few Westword readers who felt the Rialto's original pastry chef should have gotten all the credit for the restaurant's Best of Denver award-winning desserts ("Mouthing Off," July 23), the concoctions with which we ended this sublime meal were so intricate they should be eligible for awards from the architectural and design industry as well as culinary organizations. The clever Cuban ($6), a chocolate truffle shaped like a cigar, came on a plate that looked like an ashtray and was escorted by a cloud of white chocolate Kahlua ice cream; Opiel's bananas rumba ($7) took the Mediterranean theme one delicious step further by adding a pile of grilled pineapple to the standard chocolate-encased bananas with vanilla bean ice cream and a coconut rum sauce. And his apple-cherry spring roll ($5) was an inspired union of the fruits in two crackly, pastry-like shells, with candied ginger and a plum-wine caramel sauce providing further Asian accents, and odd but compelling shards of hazelnut brittle topping everything off. For a last bit of overkill, all three desserts were adorned with an ornately patterned garnish of imported chocolate.

On a return visit, we settled into one of the charming little tables Rialto sets up on the "patio" that juts out into the sidewalk along the mall. Although the dining room's huge open windows let diners inside the restaurant feel as though they're eating al fresco, on a beautiful day it's hard to beat the outdoor seating for either ambience or people-watching. Not that we did much people-watching: We could hardly take our eyes off of our meal, which proved as remarkable as our first dinner there.

This time we began with the pan-roasted mussels ($8) in a cilantro-kissed, chipotle-sparked, orange-tart broth, and the crispy artichoke hearts and fennel ($6). The addition of fennel took this starter far beyond the now-common deep-fried artichoke; both vegetables had been hacked into hunks and covered with a breadcrumb husk that held every last drop of a caper-studded aioli.

But a Rialto dish doesn't have to be high-falutin' to be fabulous. The charbroiled hamburger ($7) was a great burger, all charred crusts covering a medium-rare--yes, the kitchen actually did it medium-rare, the way it should be, and e. coli be damned--patty that oozed broiled juices that saturated but couldn't destroy the hearty kaiser roll. Also tucked inside were lettuce, tomato and onion, as well as my add-ons of crisp bacon and buttery sauteed mushrooms (75 cents each); thank heavens I'd gone with a side of fresh fruit instead of fries. Whipped potatoes came with the healthier pan-roasted salmon ($10), which counted among its many blessings a gingery cherry chutney and sauteed spinach sopping wet with balsamic.

No disappointments at dessert, either. The chocolate berry tower ($7) was only slightly less of a chocolate overload than, say, a pound of imported chocolate: The cylinder of chocolate-covered chocolate cake came with a sharp raspberry sauce and vanilla-bean ice cream and was unnecessarily garnished with more chocolate (but who's complaining?). Even the lemon cake ($5), normally a dessert-list snoozer, was a knockout, moistened with lemon custard and decorated with fresh raspberries--lots of fresh raspberries.

Rialto Cafe shows that a restaurant doesn't have to follow a chain formula to be a real blockbuster--on or off the mall. The real ticket to success will always be great food.

Rialto Cafe, 934 16th Street, 893-2233. Hours: 5:30 a.m.-10 a.m., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30 a.m.-10 a.m., 11 a.m.-midnight Friday; 8 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-midnight Saturday; 8 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Sunday.

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