Cafe Society

Pour Me

From the Fifties coffee shop where a sandwich, a piece of pie and a cup of joe was the standard order, to the smoky Sixties coffeehouse where you could wave your clove cigarettes in time with the bad Kerouac, to the gleaming chain-owned coffee emporiums of the Nineties, food and coffee have a historic synergy that goes beyond mere sustenance and something to wash it down with. There's picking at a tuna-fish-on-whole-wheat while drinking java and arguing whether Mick and Keith are singing "shoo-be-do" or "sha-doo-be" in "Shattered." There's a shared grilled cheese with fries and espresso after a romantic movie. And, of course, there's gooey cherry pie and coffee at midnight before midterms.

But when the current coffeehouse craze first hit Denver--later, of course, than it reached other urban centers--quite a few places opened with the intention of serving nothing but coffee drinks, from Americana to Vietnamese and everything in between, with maybe a few pastries and some bran muffins. They only woke up and smelled the coffee when their profits turned out to be a pittance; adding soups, salads and sandwiches added to the bottom line.

I've been to many of the metro area's coffee spots--they're great places to get away from the kids, watch interesting folks who don't want you to tie their shoes, and pretend you're one of those people who could be writing a novel. And some of them--including the four reviewed here--are even decent eateries, which don't try to pass off plain-old grimy as trendy grunge.

The eight-month-old Bump & Grind Cardio Cafe is a combination java joint and aerobics studio, with a fabulously funky eating area that's not traditional coffeehouse--it's all metals and mosaics, sharp edges and stylish decor--but is appealing nonetheless. Maybe owner Cliff Trubowitz is afraid customers will fall asleep if they're too cozy after busting their buns in aerobics class. Those who'd rather work out vicariously can watch the action through a window while munching through such fare as a "Don't Let Your Meat Loaf" sandwich ($5.50). The thick hunk of moist meatloaf came topped with grilled onions, tomato and chewy chards of cheddar, all piled on hearty wheat-nut bread; on the side was a healthy helping of loose-leaf spinach, another tomato slice and crispy low-fat bagel chips--the same generous grouping that comes with all of Bump & Grind's cold sandwiches.

Like many other coffeehouses, Bump & Grind has also discovered panini (that's the Italian word for sandwiches--which is why menus that claim to offer "panini sandwiches" look so silly). Most panini feature typical sandwich ingredients stuffed between rectangles of focaccia, which is then grilled in what looks like a waffle iron on steroids, giving the flat Italian bread a groovy pattern of lines along with a greaseless, toasty quality. At Bump & Grind, this process elevated such combinations as Black Forest ham and blue cheese ($5.95) and roasted red pepper, eggplant, zucchini and mozzarella ($5.95) into grilled cheeses of the gods. The kitchen also cooked up an intense, roasted-vegetable pie ($5.75) covered with a sharp, tangy cheese crust and a surprisingly filling knish ($4.95) pungent with roasted garlic and sided by a simple green salad tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette.

The brews were more than a match for Bump & Grind's food. In fact, they're about the best I've found in the metro area. Trubowitz gets his espresso beans from Colorado's Daz Bog and his coffee beans from Panache out of Washington; both companies purvey top-quality beans that haven't had the heck--and the taste--roasted out of them. Bump & Grind's regular coffee ($1 for an eight-ounce with one refill) was rich and flavorful, with a nutty quality and no bitterness. The single espresso ($1.10) came out hot and sporting a nice, even crema--the creamy, dark-beige froth that's supposed to float atop a well-steamed espresso rather than border the inside of the cup.

Also among the crema the crop is Lakewood's Gallery Coffee House, which offers more variations of coffee drinks than any other place in town. Opened by the husband-and-wife team of Mel Tennant and LaRonna DeBraak a year and a half ago, Gallery uses Scottish Roasters, which surprised me, because I haven't always been thrilled with the brew made from this Colorado company's beans. But Tennant, who says he's "very serious about coffee," apparently has mastered a technique that injects more flavor into his regular coffee ($1 for a mug with one refill, $3 for a bottomless cup) and espresso ($1.25 for a single). Gallery also does a fine job with sandwiches, although it stopped serving the popular panini, Tennant says, "because I couldn't find a reliable source of good, fresh focaccia that was also affordable." Instead, the couple puts innovative fixing mixes on inch-thick slices of sourdough that are then slicked with butter and cooked on the panini grill. Whether generously stuffed with prosciutto, provolone, roasted red peppers and tomato pesto, or turkey, roasted green chiles, pepper Monterey Jack and Dijon-enhanced mayo, or turkey breast, provolone, roasted eggplant and basil pesto, each "grill" sandwich costs $5.95; they came with a parmesan-studded spinach salad dressed with a fetchingly tart vinaigrette.

Gallery's food and coffee are so good, and such a bargain, that it's a shame the space doesn't have more character. The owners have made a start with the eye-catching tables topped by such famous works of art as the Mona Lisa, framed and covered with glass, but the rest of the decor is drab. And during my two visits, an unappetizing dirty plastic garbage pail sat in plain view next to a table holding coffee paraphernalia.

The atmosphere at the four-and-a-half-year-old Java Creek also leaves a little to be desired, but in otherwise overdone Cherry Creek North, its spartan design and high-school-castoff furniture boast a certain charm. So do the beverages. The regular coffee (98 cents with one refill), made from Daz Bog beans, was strong but had a soft quality, and while the espresso ($1.19 for a small) needed a thicker crema--sometimes the thinness means the beans weren't ground finely enough--it had a sturdy, straightforward taste.

Java Creek owners Zac Hanson and Kate Haney offered sandwiches from the start. "The profit on coffee, well, we're talking nickels and dimes here," Hanson explains. The turkey with the usual trimmings on a baguette ($4.95) was a solid value; instead of the requested chips, it came with a decent salad of herb-flecked pasta, tomatoes and mozzarella. But there was nothing solid about the turkey Katerina ($5.95), a squishy mess of meat, alfalfa sprouts and avocado that obviously had been pre-sliced, because it was brown and mushy. A layer of cream cheese added an interesting note but quickly turned the wheat bread into something closer to Cream of Wheat.

Because owner Joe Taylor is often the only one on duty at the comfy, tidy Java Hut Coffee Company, you may have to wait for your sandwiches--but they're worth waiting for. Although Taylor and his wife, Staci, only offered baked goods when they opened Java Hut four years ago, they quickly expanded their repertoire. (They had another Java Hut downtown but sold it.) "I started doing sandwiches about six months after we opened," Taylor says. "I needed a filler for the afternoon, because Denver isn't like Seattle--the days aren't as dreary and people aren't into making an afternoon out of coffee." Two years ago he replaced the sandwiches with panini (each $4.50), which are superb. My favorite was the Siciliano, a sublime stack of turkey, tomato, red onion, Swiss cheese, artichoke hearts and mayo and mustard; the artichokes had been marinated in a tangy liquid that gave this sandwich the feel of an old-fashioned East Coast hoagie. Almost as good was the panini club, with the customary roster of ham, turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayo benefiting from some time in the panini grill.

I was less impressed by the regular coffee ($1 for twelve ounces; refills 25 cents), which had a thin, watery taste and little body. I took home a half-pound of the Sumatra beans (Taylor uses Scottish Roasters) and came up with the same results, so I have a feeling they were stale. But that's no excuse for serving up a less-than-perfect cup of joe. After all, there's a reason these places are called coffeehouses and not sandwich shops.

Bump & Grind Cardio Cafe, 439 East 17th Avenue, 861-4841.

Gallery Coffee House, 6035 West Alameda Avenue, Lakewood, 202-2024.

Java Creek, 287 Columbine Street, 377-8902.

Java Hut Coffee Company, 6603 Leetsdale Drive, 333-0655.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner