Steaking a Claim

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Barry Fey has braved the LoDo crowds still celebrating Colorado's victory over the Yankees -- "I hate Coors Field because of what the scores have done to baseball," says the concert promoter and sports fan -- to try the town's latest steakhouse. Self-professed steakhouse, that is.

"This is not a steakhouse," says Fey, perusing the menu at The Keg Steakhouse & Bar (1890 Wynkoop Street). "This is a restaurant."

Fey, himself a self-professed expert on meaty issues, points to several clues. For starters, the menu is too broad. "This is a Midwestern menu," he says. The prime rib listed is not served on the bone. And other stuff -- vegetables, starches -- arrives on plates that, at a real steakhouse, would be devoted to the sole and sacred duty of transporting a slab of beef.

On the other hand, there are some promising signs. Fey requires steak sauce -- in his case, Heinz 57 -- with every steak, no matter how prime, no matter how choice, no matter whether it comes on or off the bone. On Fey's last Westword steak-testing mission, his hankering for Heinz sent him on a quest from the non-sauce-stocking Gallagher's Steak House to a nearby 7-Eleven (ditto) to the Palm, a few blocks away, where the manager loaned him a bottle ("We Came, We Sauce," May 31, 2001). That dining adventure also resulted in odd rumors that Fey was flakking for another steakhouse, Sullivan's, where his son was allegedly the best friend of the manager. His eight-year-old son. "My son knows no one," laughs Fey. For the record, Fey doesn't have any restaurant conflicts -- other than the fact, of course, that food is his primary addiction.

Steak is Fey's drug of choice. Soon after this meal, he's scheduled to start a no-red-meat diet. Go cold turkey, as it were.

So first things first: Fey ascertains from the Keg's accommodating hostess that sauce will not be a problem; in fact, a side of Heinz 57 is soon delivered, in a discreet ramekin. The hostess also suggests the baseball sirloin, a bargain-priced ($16.95) chunk of choice beef that, on a previous visit, had indeed been both baseball-sized and a hit right out of the park. She even survives Fey's grilling about the prime rib, which is boneless. "A steakhouse doesn't have to have prime rib," notes Fey, "but if it does, it always has the bone-in cut. People who want to eat gigantic steaks are pigs. We want the bone to suck on for the memories."

"We used to serve it on the bone, but that stopped in the mid-'90s," the waitress says.

The Keg itself started back in 1971 in Canada, and today boasts over eighty North American outlets. This Keg, the first in Colorado, opened in April, a lavish outpost on the ground floor of a new loft building that occupies what just three years ago was the Westword parking lot.

One of the fellows responsible for the transformation of the neighborhood, restaurateur John Hickenlooper, joins us; he and his wife are in the process of moving into their new loft two blocks away. Hickenlooper and Fey once explored opening a restaurant together, over in the Auraria Parkway building that now houses a second Brooklyn's. Their venture would have been a homegrown answer to the Hard Rock Cafe, filled with Fey's rock memorabilia.

But the Fey/Hickenlooper concept never got off the drawing board, no doubt inspiring sighs of relief from their accountants, given the hugely competitive nature of the LoDo restaurant scene. From the Keg's corner at 19th and Wynkoop streets, Morton's of Chicago and Sullivan's, two well-regarded steakhouses, are each just two blocks away; Hickenlooper's own Wynkoop Brewing Co. is even closer, as is Rodizio Grill (featuring meat, and lots of it -- on skewers, even). And catty-corner from the Keg is the Chophouse, the popular restaurant/ brewpub that keeps packing in the fans and has a menu even broader than the Keg's. Fey, for his part, turns thumbs down to the Chophouse. "When I go to a meat market, I want meat, not meet," he says.

But it turns out there's a problem with our meat of choice. Despite the hostess's enthusiastic endorsement of the baseball sirloin, our server now says it's unavailable: The kitchen had run out the day before and apparently neglected to get word to the front desk. The otherwise affable servers also fumble drink orders and occasionally forget to supply cutlery -- but such snafus are secondary to the meat of the matter.

Fey finally goes for the rib steak (grilled, bone in); the rest of us split between the New York striploin and grilled sirloin. All steaks come with potatoes -- garlic mashed, twice baked or simply baked and Keg Size•. Why, exactly, is the spud's size trademarked? The waitress doesn't have an answer, but no other "Keg"-tagged item on the menu bears the trademark bug, not even the martini that has just blinded Hickenlooper with an olive splashback.

Taking advantage of the interruption, Fey orders appropriate steakhouse appetizers: crabcakes and calamari, which are uninspiring as dinner starters but work just fine as snacks in the lavish, and very lively, Keg bar. Fey picks at the seafood and moves on to a weightier subject: Widespread Panic.

House of Blues Concerts is bringing the group to town, and Fey needs to take its members to dinner. Over the years, his meals with musicians have become legendary -- over two decades later, everyone remembers the Rolling Stones' stop at Little Shanghai, for example -- but Fey needs help. The collective Widespread Panic's favorite food used to be sushi, but lately the musicians have been eating beef.

"Take them to Domo," says Hickenlooper, touting the town's country-style Japanese restaurant that is also a cultural center.

"I don't want to pray, I just want to eat," Fey responds.

The salads arrive just in time. The Caesar and house salads have been ordered to split, but each arrives on one big plate, with two forks, making for a communal dining experience worthy of Domo -- but worrisome, since steaks are not a sharing experience. Fey also catches an unnerving glimpse of a neighboring table's accessorized entree plates arriving. "This isn't a steakhouse, it's a restaurant," he repeats, warily eyeing those plates.

But then his own perfectly cooked steak appears, along with "a regular-sized potato," which he ignores. (The rest of us give high points to the three-cheese butter that accompanies the spuds.) Before Hickenlooper's wife gets her replacement steak (the New York striploin had arrived well beyond the ordered medium), Fey's polished off his rib steak -- as well as a heated discussion of the inheritance tax. Fey's interest is heightened by his current bankruptcy action, Hickenlooper's by the fact that the birth of his first child is imminent. "Steaks and inheritance are important," they ultimately agree.

Fey gives the steak, if not the steakhouse, a rave review, adding bonus points for the seasoning.

"The only thing wrong with the steak is the expectation of what you'd get in a steakhouse," he says. "It would be a pleasant surprise if you just walked into a regular restaurant and got a steak that good." Then again, Fey doesn't eat at a regular restaurant very often.

And he won't be taking Widespread Panic to one, either.

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