Sheehan's up in arms over changes at the Palace Arms

I just got a note from the Brown Palace regarding the Palace Arms' participation in Denver Restaurant Week — which calls for meals priced at $52.80 for two, a nice trick at this high-priced spot. But the announcement went on: Palace Arms restaurant has created ways for guests to pinch pennies while still enjoying a taste of luxury at one of Denver's premier fine dining restaurants.... Regular menu items have also been altered to offer more economical options. Appetizers now start at just $9 and entrees start at $29. Dishes such as chicken ($29) and monkfish ($42) have replaced more costly choices like Wagyu beef ($20 per ounce) and abalone ($60), while classics like lamb and bison have been discounted by up to 20 percent.


No, no, no.

Look, I know things are bad. I know that we lost a half-dozen restaurants last week and that there are probably dozens more on the bubble right now. And I know that everyone everywhere is worried that one more piece of bad news will send us into some kind of Road Warrior-style dystopia where we're being chased down the street by dudes in chaps and lacrosse pads, trying to kill us for our gold fillings and pocket change. I understand that people right now are feeling like paying for any luxury — a second cup of coffee or a new oxygen tank for Grandma — might send them over the edge and have them burning Citibank stock certificates to stay warm and eating cat food out of the can. I see that it's a weird time, and that businesses — all businesses — are looking for ways to economize. But this is not the way.

Denver has never been a town known for its high-tone restaurants. As a matter of fact, it's been a town primarily known for its refreshing lack of such hallowed bastions. The Palace Arms has long been the sole dignified holdout of old-school fine dining in a sea of casual, dressed-down, flip-flops-and-Jams modernity (and one I've visited every Christmas). Denver is a city where every day is casual Friday. And while I love that about this town, I have also always drawn comfort from the Palace Arms, because it's been so monolithic in its refusal to change. For years, it had been the last man standing — an exemplar of a style of both cuisine and dining that had been dead for decades, avatar of fineness and class and truly ridiculous expense. It did not compromise. It did not go chasing after every dollar-driven fad and trend filtering in from the coasts. It was Denver's one Fine Dining Restaurant — capital F, D and R — and it existed, for me, like a touchstone back to the days when everyone used to dress for dinner and all men wore hats, back to the days when dining out really meant something.

The foundation of this rock of non-compliance started to crumble a few years ago, when some genius at the Brown Palace decided that the thought of wrapping oneself in a suit and tie was keeping people from considering the Palace Arms as a dinner destination. Up until that point, I'd never set foot in the place without a jacket, without having my boots polished, my top hat blocked and my monocle shined (okay, that's an exaggeration). It seemed like the least I could do, because the servers wore tuxedos and manipulated everything from the salad to the table bread with the double-fork touch — like French chopsticks and a foundation of French-style service. I'd sit beneath the matched set of Napoleon's dueling pistols (one for him and one for Josephine — what I still consider the perfect wedding gift from a husband to his new bride) and imagine myself back in the day when one of the Red Baron's ex-wingmen manned the maître d' stand and the Palace was the only place in the city (maybe the state) to get foie gras, truffles or wine that didn't taste like brake fluid and kerosene. I have dropped hundreds of dollars on dinner for one and near a grand on dinner and drinks for four, and it's always been worth it because the Palace Arms is the last of a dying breed.

And now this — a surrender, an acquiescence to the market, to the recession and to the devil of the median. It saddens me to think of the Palace Arms with nine-dollar appetizers and monkfish instead of abalone. I can get monkfish anywhere. I can get chicken from a KFC. The Palace Arms was something special. It wasn't cheap because it wasn't meant to be cheap, and it wasn't common because it held itself to a higher, dustier, more old-fashioned standard. You want nine-dollar jalapeño poppers and a cheeseburger? Go across the lobby to the abysmal Ship Tavern, where a Brown guest goes to fuel. The Palace Arms is where you go to dine.

But maybe not for much longer. Far be it from me to tell someone how to run his business — to say that someone cannot or must not change this or that just because I liked things the way they were. It's a bad time, and the management must do what they think is best with the seats and square footage they have available. But as a customer, I have the right to say what I think — and I think this is an incredibly dim and shortsighted plan. The one thing that has always set the Palace Arms apart has been its refusal to compromise or to sacrifice its vision of the luxurious past on the altar of progress. And now that's gone.

Maybe next year, I'll just go to KFC.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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