Thy booths for evermore will silent be.Aranami at Flickr
It was a ravished diner of the night’s quietness, a foster child of silence and slow time. A Denver historian that expressed a culinary tale more sweetly than this rhyme. Okay, it’s no Keats, and the already-mourned Breakfast King — which closed suddenly and without much warning, even to its employees, on January 3 — is no Grecian urn. But as Keats’s arguably most famous ode is about timelessness, so, too, was the Breakfast King.
For nearly fifty years, though, Breakfast King has had that sense about it that it’s been around forever, like it sprung up bearing green chile right there on South Santa Fe as soon as the road was built. It was good to be the King. If you know diners, you knew the Breakfast King. It’s been a stalwart on best-of lists for years, always in the top ten of any diner list that any publication might print. It even gained national attention back in 2009, when Esquire magazine lauded the Breakfast King as one of the Best Breakfast Places in America, praising the “country-fried steak, smothered in sausage gravy and so tender you can cut it with your fork.”
Of course, Denver didn’t need Esquire’s imprimatur to recommend Breakfast King. Anyone who’s been up at three or four in the morning, either starting their day or ending it, has probably been there, and probably loved it. It wasn’t that the food was amazing (though it was), or that they knew how to fill a cup (though they did), or that they knew that customers came back time and again because of the welcome they felt coming through the door any time of day (though we did). It was all of that and more. It was quintessential Denver, and unlike the White Spot restaurants of years past, it hung on. It survived. Hell, it was a place that locals even wrote songs about.
Which is why I'd already known the place for almost a decade by the time Esquire got around to recommending it. It was one of the first places I found when I moved to Denver in 1999, a place I saw along the road and made a mental note to check out. I'd long been an advocate of the position that you can tell a city by its diners — that's where the history is, along with the old-timers that not only know it but like to talk. When I made it there that first morning, with a copy of the Rocky Mountain News and a hope that this place was going to be good, I had no idea.
When I walked in, I remember feeling as though the Breakfast King was a place outside of time. There had been no years — which was saying something, because back in 1999, all we were talking about was time. Y2K, the millennium, the end and the beginning. But here was a place where none of that seemed to matter. I sat in an orange booth by the window, a seat that would have made sense in any decade, from stylish in 1975 to charmingly outdated by the ’80s and ’90s, and what would become kitschy cool after the turn of the century. I’d heard good things about the green chile, but I’m from the Midwest, so country-fried steak it was.
I remember loving the gravy and the steak. And my waitress, who could have been cosplaying Flo from Alice and winning a gum-snapping Best in Show. And the people-watching — it was a menagerie. Always was. This beautiful melting pot of perspectives. What men or gods were these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuits, what struggles to escape? What pipes and dime bags? What wild ecstasy? It was anyone’s guess. Two guys could be passing each other the hot sauce, wearing earrings for completely and utterly different reasons. When I left that first time, I knew I'd be back — and I was, though clearly not enough. It's never enough when it's too late.
Still, when I went back, I went back as much for the place and its people as for the fare. Heard conversations are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter; therefore, I wanted that strange and hungry crowd to please murmur on. It was the gentle cacophony of the place that somehow added to the quietude. It was the sort of place where you could talk with the folks in the booth next to you, but you could also be comfortably alone, solitary in a room full of Denverites, each one going about their day, living out their own stories. It was a warm-belly pastoral of the Mile High life, captured anew every day in the remains of omelets and biscuits and gravies left on plates like grease-built found art. It both marked time and refused it.
Until January 3, 2022. Breakfast King became another victim of the pandemic, though the specifics surrounding cause of death have yet to be determined. It folded like the house of cards of which so many American cities seem to have been made; we avoided a stiff breeze for decades until COVID came around and blew everything down. Denver still has some wonderful diners serving food worthy of their own odes. But the city has lost so many: Tom’s, Nick’s, Denver Diner, 20th Street Cafe and now Breakfast King.
If only the Breakfast King were a little more like Keats’s urn; it remained in the midst of other local woe for decades, while old age and progress both did generations waste. Its doors stayed open for us, and though now they're closed and the steaks have stopped being country-fried and smothered in sausage gravy or green chile, the coffee cups never again to be refilled, the orange booths forever empty of Denver’s spectrum of strangers, the fact will remain that the Breakfast King was here. It was here, as it was always here, and in the hearts and stomachs of multitudes, it will remain. That is all we know in Denver. And all we need to know.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.