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Raising the Bar

Is Cafe Cero a bar, or is it a restaurant? After more than a year in business, Lynne Ida still can't answer that question. "Okay, this definitely is not the place to come for a full-blown menu and sit-down experience," she ventures. "Between 4 and 9 p.m., we're dead for...
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Is Cafe Cero a bar, or is it a restaurant?
After more than a year in business, Lynne Ida still can't answer that question. "Okay, this definitely is not the place to come for a full-blown menu and sit-down experience," she ventures. "Between 4 and 9 p.m., we're dead for food. There's no one doing anything but drinking. But, then again, we do have people coming in at 10:30, 11 at night wanting dinner. So I'm still not sure."

Well, if an owner doesn't know what Cafe Cero is, it's kind of tough for patrons to get a clue.

Your first impression of the place is certainly bar-like, since the ground level of this old house is a bar, filled with people drinking and backed by a room housing a pool table. But as you ascend the many stairs to other levels of this funky building, the view changes. Boldly faux-painted walls and great leather-covered furniture define balcony spaces that prove ideal for relaxed gatherings with friends, with enough room between tables to absorb the raucous laughter. The last level belongs to the aptly named Blue Room, with couches and a coffee table gathered around a window that overlooks the roof next door; it's a setting that cries out for lots of beers and a little something to munch on.

But Cafe Cero's menu doesn't answer the call.
Ida and her video-production company partner, Rich Raney, leased the building in January 1998 when the former tenant, La Casita, finally threw in the kitchen towel after years of serving $2 burritos in the front room. Initially, their plans weren't much more ambitious. "When we first opened, I had these young kids come in and help me with the food," Ida explains. "We had burgers and quesadillas, just bar food, and people were wanting a little more." So last fall she went looking for a real chef and found Rocky Akers, who'd been working in the kitchen at the Capitol Hill Alfalfa's. "I wanted Rocky to come up with a menu that would be kind of casual, so we could still tie it in with drinking," she says. "But I also wanted real entrees, food that people would be able to hang out over."

Oh, we hung out at Cafe Cero, all right, but we didn't have any choice if we wanted to eat--it took forever to get something, anything, to eat. Our first stop was on a weeknight, which just happened to follow an all-day staff party at Elitch's. After a lonely server brought our drinks, she sheepishly informed us that while the chef wasn't in yet, she expected him any minute.

It was 7:15 p.m.
Okay, we said cheerfully, and downed our drinks. But by the time the server stopped back fifteen minutes later, we were desperate for some food. We couldn't have the fruit-and-cheese basket, she said, because someone would have to make that, and the chef still wasn't in--but she could scare up some chips and salsa if we were really hungry. We were. But had we known she'd charge us $3 for the one food item available in a place that, however confused, advertises itself as a restaurant, we might have thought twice; the combo was no more than mediocre.

By 7:45 p.m., someone was cooking, and what he/she was cooking was definitely chicken, since it's all over Cafe Cero's menu. (Cero, by the way, refers to a large mackerel, but there's none of that on the kitchen's lineup.) A few chunks of the bird had landed in the tortilla soup ($2.75 a cup, $3.50 a bowl), a cheap-tasting broth also bearing bits of potato and goo-balls of cheese. More care had been taken with the house salad ($3.50), a mix of greens, carrots, red onions and, oddly, frozen peas; more flavor came courtesy of the clearly homemade raspberry and cilantro vinaigrettes.

Soup or salad is included with the entrees; the salad seems to be a better bet. I'd also go for the Jamaican mama ($10.25). This was one mother of a chicken dish (of course), with a solid crust of jerk spices coating a juicy breast; a pile of vegetables that had been tossed with caramelized pineapple added more interest to the plate. The slurried curried shrimp ($12.95) was less exciting: Sauteed crustaceans, zucchini, carrots and onions had been added to a satis-factory, if not compelling, coconut-based sauce; everything was piled on a bed of orange pilaf that seemed like nothing more than plain rice, alongside still more frozen peas.

The aloha chicken sandwich ($6.75) was an unambitious combo of grilled breast topped with grilled pineapple, bacon, Swiss cheese and teriyaki sauce, loaded onto a sesame-seed bun. The sandwich came with an odd pairing of sides: potato chips and three bites of a decent, creamy potato salad. Although we could have gotten more chicken in the cerveza con queso burrito ($5.95 for one), veggies sounded like a better match for the beer-and-cheese sauce. The good-sized package arrived stuffed with sauteed vegetables but not quite smothered in a sauce that didn't appear to contain either beer or cheese. The side of black beans, though, was truly superior, cooked through and tossed with plenty of cilantro. (The beans may have been Cafe Cero's only dish spared an end-to-end sprinkling of parsley; even the from-the-bag potato chips had been so annointed.)

As compensation for that hour we'd waited before so much as sniffing real food, our server brought a slice of hazelnut torte (normally $4) that was really a delicious cake, not too sweet and right between dry and moist; we also took on a gooey, turtle-type cheesecake ($4). And then we waited and waited--this time to pay the bill. Finally we gave up and went down to the bar. When I asked the bartender--the only staffer in sight--where I should set the credit-card receipt, he replied, "Fuck if I care."

With those classy words still ringing in my ear, I returned with a bunch of old friends, many of whom had slept with one another at one time or another, so we required a casual atmosphere that would be conducive to catching up--and also getting loaded if things became uncomfortable. We also needed to do some noshing, but the only thing on the menu that fit the bill was the fruit-and-cheese basket ($7.95). Since none of the staff had been to Elitch's that day--yes, we asked--we thought it would arrive quickly. Wrong. Twenty-five minutes passed before our server finally reappeared with the alleged starter, a fine selection of gorgonzola, Swiss, brie and dill havarti with grapes and cantaloupe. And our entrees didn't appear until twenty minutes after we'd finished--as in, every last toast crumb--the appetizer. By then, I was ready to go eat at Elitch's.

But we still had a lot of chicken to consume. The bird made its first appearance in a cup of chicken noodle soup; while the chicken was tender, the broth was weak and the noodles in it mushy and overcooked. We'd ordered the soup with the quarter-chicken Tetrazzini ($10.25). A traditional Tetrazzini, named for opera singer Luisa, consists of strips of chicken in a sherry-laced parmesan cream sauce, covered with breadcrumbs and baked until the top browns. This mysterious Tetrazzini involved big hunks of chicken sauteed with vegetables in what tasted like brown sugar, then tossed with angel hair pasta and draped with a harshly alcoholic cognac sauce. No, no, a thousand times no: Angel hair is for soups or solo in thin, thin sauces. We didn't know if we should slurp the dish as a shot or what.

The Tetrazzini would have been better slapped with the name "drunken chicken" ($6.75), another dish we ordered. This bird had a bitter edge--not just from overcharring on the grill but also from the marinade, which had an unidentifiable acrid flavor that I imagined was what antifreeze tastes like. The side of raspberry coleslaw was a nice change of pace, with raspberry vinegar balanced out by a sugary sweetness, but the portion was tiny. And yet one more dirty bird: The el gringo enchiladas ($6.75 for two) consisted of diced chicken rolled into corn tortillas and drenched with a thin, runny white-wine green chile. El gringo, indeed.

Much better were two non-chicken dishes. The prime rib ($14.75), a respectable cut that could have been more moist, had lots of flavor and an innovative gorgonzola-thickened horseradish sauce; it came with fabulous Akers bakers--a potato lover's dream of baked potato slices layered with cheese, sour cream, butter, chives and bacon, like a refined twice-baked with more fat. The "better half" hamburger ($6.75) was also respectable, although our server couldn't explain the name or why it came with the combo of chips and not much potato salad.

Our conversation was proving so meaty that this time no one cared that we'd waited a long time for our food or that the server forgot to even ask if we wanted dessert. What we wanted was to keep talking, so we lingered for another hour over drinks, soaking up stories and the groovy atmosphere that is Cafe Cero's main appeal. It's certainly not the service or the food, which is too heavy for such a casual place. And even Ida recognizes that the kitchen might have gotten too ambitious too fast. "Now we have the old customers coming in and saying they miss the old stuff," she says.

So is Cafe Cero a bar or a restaurant? Fuck if I know.

Cafe Cero, 1446 South Broadway, 303-282-1446. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 5-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.

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