Punch Bowl - Social Food & Drink: From bowling to burgers, there's a lot to like

I don't often read writing scrawled outside bathroom walls, but something at Punch Bowl - Social Food & Drink caught my eye. In the back of the restaurant, not far from metal racks stocked with ketchup, mustard and packets of sugar, someone had scribbled in pencil "I wanna love you." The words resonated, not because I'm pining for an unrequited love — my husband might have something to say about that — but because I want to love PBS.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Punch Bowl - Social Food & Drink

Lots of people already do, judging by the cars clogging the side streets — much to the vexation of Baker residents — since the repurposed Big Lots space opened last November. Parking is nearly as hard to come by on a Tuesday night happy hour as it is on weekends, when waits can exceed two hours and people pass the time playing shuffleboard or downing peach punch at the bar. I like what it says about Denver that PBS can thrive here before the concept is transported to cities like Portland and Austin (both are scheduled to open within the year), and I like the options the indoor play space brings to Broadway.

But too much time had passed since our okra had left the fryer, and the cold, grit-crusted vegetables weren't going to sweet-talk any skeptics into liking this Southern belle. Warm bacon dressing had been enthusiastically applied to my spinach salad, and short ribs, a new addition to the menu, were far from the tender, Tabasco-spiced morsels our server had described, though he'd never actually tried them. Needless to say, it wasn't love at first sight.

So I went back again. And again. I ate waffles with caramel-rum sauce and peanut-butter cheesecake. I tried deviled eggs and turkey sandwiches, pot pie and burgers and grits. And while I did enjoy many dishes far more than that okra, I never once left the 24,000-square-foot space feeling like the PBS restaurant, rather than the cavernous rooms behind it, is where the party is.

In some ways, the deck's not fairly stacked. How could food ever compete with a round bar big enough to seat hundreds, cushy bowling lanes with couches and fox-hunting pictures above the pins, ping-pong tables, darts and video games, all in a cool space decked out with marble-topped tables (as in shooting marbles, not the stuff you put on countertops), blue-tufted stools and black Victorian sofas? And yet founder-owner Robert Thompson wants the diner — his term for the 106-seat restaurant to the right of the door, on the other side of the photo box — to be as much the attraction as the drinks and games beyond it.

Despite the bowling ball that sat on Thompson's desk for years as a reminder of the alley he hoped to open one day, bowling was only part of the dream. Just as important, he says, was "to elevate the food component of the concept. I'm not really a bar guy, I'm really a restaurant guy." To that end, he tapped Sergio Romero, opening chef for Argyll, Thompson's lauded but now-defunct gastropub in Cherry Creek, to run the kitchen. (Thompson also owns Le Grand Bistro & Oyster House, and previously ran Brasserie Rouge, as well as billiards parlors both in and out of the state.)

Maybe the sticking point is the volume. If you've spent a few hours — or even a minute and a half — at PBS at night, you might assume I'm talking about the high-volume music, which rages like a snowmelt-flooded river out of the bar and into the diner, making it hard for servers to hear you when you try to flag them down for more of the beer-spiked fondue for your puffy pretzels. Most people don't seem to mind the decibels, but those who do probably walk in and walk out, or come earlier in the day, when the rest of the place (staff included) seems like it's trying to wake up. But I'm not referring to that kind of volume. I'm talking about business, which has exceeded Thompson's projections by a nifty 100 percent. A flurry of hiring has ensued, which likely explains why our server had never tried the ribs, why our dessert order was met with, "Yeah, totally," and why that okra showed up past curfew.

Unlike Tom's Urban 24, the spot I reviewed last week that feels like a diner even though it isn't, PBS is a diner that doesn't look like one. Other than the red neon "diner" sign by the kitchen, the place feels like a nightclub, with scuffed concrete floors, a long bar with nearly thirty dark-wood stools, and a row of flared, six-person booths. Planks salvaged from a barn in Longmont front the bar. Bulbs hang from the ceiling and grow dimmer with passing hours.

But it was conceived as a diner, so the menu includes turkey pot pie, served in a cast-iron skillet with a flaky, golden crust. Nearly every table seems to order one, but almost as many tables wind up asking for a takeout box, in part because the skillet is huge and in part because the filling is as runny as bisque. Sandwiches are also oversized, not to Carnegie Deli proportions, but big enough to warrant more boxes, especially the Reuben-like pastrami, with house-cured meat, scratch-made sauerkraut and melted Gruyère, and the open-faced Thanksgiving, which reminds me of green eggs and ham: You're sure you don't want it on a train or in a plane (Thanksgiving is seven months away, after all), until you take a bite of your friend's and decide that you actually do. Skip the deviled eggs, with a micro-dot of bacon jam and a filling nearly as dense as the whites. But do go for the burger, with grass-fed beef and your choice of spices (mouth of the South, Chinese 5 spice or 6-pepper) blended into the juicy patty. Enjoy the hot, skin-on fries that come with the burger; they're included in the price, which is more than many burger joints can say, and they're better than the lumpy grits. Top off your meal with a wedge of peanut-butter cheesecake with a crushed-pretzel crust, if it's available. Rachael McKinney's selection of pies, cookies and cakes changes daily, and it's worth feasting your eyes on the offerings in the display case before you order.

Like any diner worth its salt, PBS serves breakfast past morning, in this case until 3 p.m. Pop in for an excellent egg sandwich, with fluffy scrambled eggs, smoked Gouda and two strips of crisp Tender Belly bacon, or the bananas Foster waffles, with sweetness drizzled over the top in the form of caramel-rum sauce, not front-loaded into the batter. Work off your meal by bowling; there's no wait during the day, and no one will care if you bowl all gutters and no strikes. Then you might feel the love.

But if you never venture past the diner, you might identify more with the other "L" word, those dreaded four letters that no lover wants to hear: "I really like you, too."

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