If you’ve lived in Denver for a while, you’ve heard this: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. The same is now true of our city in general. Blink and that brick warehouse is a food hall, that empty lot/historic home/you-name-it is an apartment complex. The debate over old versus new is getting more heated by the day, and even restaurants — once an escape from real life — are caught in the crosshairs. Exhibit A: the Campus Lounge, a remnant of old Denver that changed hands in 2016, only to be cleaned, contemporized and promptly hated by neighbors. It shut down within months.
Exhibit B, Ship Tavern, a remnant of even older Denver and the most senior of the Brown Palace’s three restaurants, has taken a different tack. This 84-year-old hangout never seems to change, unless you count the eyebrow-raising addition of diner-esque tables a few years back. Model clipper ships, famously gifted to the restaurant because Mrs. Edna Boettcher didn’t want them in her house (now the Governor’s Residence), still line the paneled walls. The dark, wood-shuttered room remains full of charts, rope and the kind of crow’s nest you’d find on a mast. Friends who have been going for decades still eat there, as do movers and shakers walking down from the State Capitol for lunch. When I asked people who have lived in this city for generations and whose families have influenced our city directly (through politics) or indirectly (through business or higher education) to name spots that epitomize old Denver, Ship Tavern — not Buckhorn Exchange, not My Brother’s Bar — was the one restaurant to land on everyone’s list.
How to explain its longevity? On my first visit last month, I chalked it up to hotel guests (captive audiences do wonders for the bottom line) and tradition — or, more precisely, nostalgia, since the room was full of gray-haired groups, and you can’t discount what Ship Tavern might mean to them: a familiar calm amid the storm of changing dining habits. It’s getting harder and harder to find restaurants like this, with servers wearing embroidered blue-and-white uniforms and gold pins with their names. The menu hadn’t changed in years, offering a tried-and-true mix of sandwiches, salads and staid, high-priced entrees typical of this kind of hotel, which prizes history and atmosphere over cutting-edge anything.
Shown to a vinyl stool at one of the new (last year) round high-tops, I began with a complimentary bread basket, actually a plate of housemade melba toast and pull-apart rolls, half wheat, half white, with whipped butter to soften the bread’s overbaked edges. That was followed by Mediterranean vegetables, which in any RiNo restaurant would’ve been retooled and retro but here were taken at face value, a farmers’ market of cut vegetables and a trio of dips that brought to mind my parents’ cocktail parties. I’m now more of a fan of raw zucchini than I was as a kid, but my attitude toward onion dip — onion dip! — hasn’t changed; thankfully, the platter also came with hummus and pesto.
The French onion soup was traditional, too, but that’s no surprise; it’s one of those dishes that chefs don’t tinker with, simply because there’s no reason to. This version was just the way you want it, with dark, onion-thick broth, toast that had softened for easy spooning, and browned strands of Gruyère draped over the crock’s edges. It was also steaming, quite a feat given the distance to the kitchen, which is down a flight of stairs. (The banquet team also uses the space.) Other dishes didn’t journey as well, but the slip-ups didn’t mar the meal as they might have at the Palace Arms, the hotel’s fine-dining option, which is much more centered on food than atmosphere. So what if the whipped potatoes were on the cool side? The slab of nicely pink prime rib they accompanied would have outshone them anyway. Ditto for the increasingly limp steak fries with the fish and chips, a dish that nonetheless seemed a perfect fit for this oddly nautical spot.
But in new Denver, after five minutes (give or take), things change...even at an old Denver spot. When I returned to Ship Tavern for lunch, someone had fast-forwarded the place a decade or two. Appetizers had morphed into “Shareables.” More salads had been added to the predictable wedge, Caesar and Cobb. Salmon had been lightened — out with beurre blanc, in with chive oil! — while a new entree touted Colorado lamb.
Wood-and-leather menu covers were new, as was the stylish typeface. The TVs were still there, though (wisely, since their removal had become a flashpoint at the Campus Lounge). So were the prime rib (sandwich and entree), French onion soup and macarons filled with almond paste, which have been on the menu from day one.
Credit the soft revamp to relative newcomer Timothy Ralphs, who took over as executive chef of all Brown Palace dining a year ago, when the hotel celebrated its 125th anniversary, and understands the narrow line he has to walk. “We have that balance of wanting to maintain our history and reputation,” he says, while finding a way to “evolve and reach out to newer demographics and age groups.”
Replacing the onion dip with chermoula hummus, fried artichokes and skewers of olives and pickled peppers was a good start, since nothing says outdated like the word “dip.” So was the addition of chicken caprese with mozzarella and marinated tomatoes on ciabatta, a low-risk/high-reward option that’s already caught on. The new spinach salad with quinoa, apples, feta and almonds is hardly groundbreaking, but it fits its assigned role: It lightens up the menu and is easy to customize. People used to walk in and say, “Well, it doesn’t look like there’s anything for me,” Ralphs explains. “We certainly don’t want that.”
Then again, he doesn’t want to alienate longtime guests, either, so such fresh-faced ingredients as naan, harissa and lavender are cushioned by familiar ones, and only a third of the dinner menu is new. That percentage drops even lower at lunch, when locals — who heavily outnumber out-of-towners during the day — come in expecting their favorites. Thus the Reuben, a well-crafted textbook version, is still on offer, as is the buffalo burger, with deeply caramelized onions and smoked cheddar on brioche. If only the halfheartedly grilled pork belly had been jettisoned with the redo; that’s a trend whose time has come and gone.
Whether tackling old recipes or new, the kitchen falters more the farther it sails from casual tavern fare. Crab cakes were damp and soggy, either from the orange-spritzed frisée on top or the long walk to the dining room. A grilled cauliflower steak under a terrific piece of salmon was cold to the core. Un-battered deep-fried artichokes with the new hummus plate had all the springiness of dried apple slices.
But what Ship Tavern does well it does very well, like the Shipwreck sundae in a dinghy-shaped serving dish, with heaps of ice cream, fresh berries, bananas and waffle sails hanging from chocolate masts. Give that dessert to a kid of any age and you’ll make a friend of Ship Tavern for life. Grand desserts are one thing we can all agree on, even as we wrestle with the right mix of old versus new in Denver.
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Still, wait another five minutes and things could change again. Last week, the $125 million sale of the Brown Palace by a Trammell Crow affiliate, which bought the hotel four years ago, to Dallas-based Crescent Real Estate was finalized. Before the 2014 deal, the Brown Palace had only changed hands three times in more than 120 years.
If new Denver has plotted the right course, though, Ship Tavern should be able to find safe harbor.
Ship Tavern, 321 17th Street. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Find out more at 303-297-3111 or visit brownpalace.com/dining/restaurants/shiptavern.
Select menu items:
Chermoula hummus $12
French onion soup $10
Apple quinoa salad $17
Buffalo burger $19
Prime rib $37
Fish and chips $28
Altantic salmon $37
Shipwreck sundae $11