Cafe Society


The wait at the Cherry Cricket was twenty minutes, shading into thirty, late that Saturday afternoon. "That's a long time to wait for a burger," Laura said. "How's it look in there?"

"Busy," I told her. "It's always busy." And we sat down on the low wall in front of Cherry Creek's most dependably hot hotspot to wait and watch all the Escalades drive by.

It was a cheeseburger kind of weekend, cool and sunny with miles of blue sky, a Denver winter that would've been considered a very nice spring in most of the rest of the country. Laura and I both had a yen for good burgers, mine definitely more maniacal than hers (as is so often the case). And since I've always been of the opinion that yielding to temptation as often as possible is what makes a man healthy, happy and long-lived, we'd spent most of the past two days consuming Denver's greatest contribution to American culture: dead cow on bread, topped with a slice of cheese.

Denying temptation, struggling against it, thwarting those urges for any damn-fool desire under the sun -- that'll turn you bitter and angry and curl you like a knuckle around the wound of whatever it is you don't do when your brain and heart are at odds over what's best. The brain is a treacherous organ, always preaching denial and sensible abstention from wholesale indulgence in those things that make life worth living. Tacos for breakfast, boilermakers at two in the afternoon, a stand-up quickie with someone you love (or at least someone you love right now), blowing off work to sleep 'til noon, smoking the roach end of an old joint you found in the medicine cabinet and then watching cartoons all day in your underwear -- these are what the heart and gut demand when the brain advises sprouts or a half-hour at the gym. No surprise, but I have always been a heart-and-gut kind of guy.

And my heart and gut called out for a cheeseburger weekend.

We started at Citygrille, a place I've had a love/hate relationship with for years.

Citygrille claims to have the best burger in Denver. It claims this on every wall, every chalkboard, on the menu and on pamphlet-sized promotional material available in a rack by the front door. I wouldn't be surprised if Citygrille employees were tattooed with a variety of glowing recommendations for the house's burgers -- a show of ironclad loyalty not unlike that practiced by the Yakuza and the Hells Angels. And while Citygrille does offer a perfectly decent, wholly serviceable half-pound sirloin burger on an excellent grilled roll reminiscent in taste and texture of the Amoroso's hoagie rolls that are de rigueur for any cheesesteak, "decent" and "wholly serviceable" are not phrases that should ever be applied to anything claiming to be the best.

In boxing, there's this great descriptive used for guys who can hold their own in their class, who can get out there in the ring, stay off their heels, deliver a solid combo, put on a good show and even win with some frequency. In the patois of the boxing fan, these guys "punch their weight." Lightweight on lightweight, welter on welter, they're an even-money bet -- but bounce them up a class, and suddenly they're dog food, on the canvas before the announcer has even cleared the ropes.

Citygrille's burgers punch their weight, but no more than that. Stack 'em up against one of the town's real champs, and it's no contest: Boom, boom, out go the lights.

For starters, these burgers are served with silverware wrapped in a cloth napkin, which always makes me nervous. It makes me think of those gimmicky, fifty-dollar, truffle-stuffed, lobster-topped monstrosities that were all the rage a couple of years back in restaurants desperate for any hook that would put moneyed butts in otherwise empty seats. Truly great burgers are prepared and served with a certain monkish asceticism -- an understanding by both house and kitchen that the burger itself is made nervous by the kind of company that might demand real napkins.

Second, the ground beef is overworked at Citygrille, making for a pasty consistency that I find disconcerting, a texture more like that of a slice of meatloaf than a proper patty. And when I stopped in on cheeseburger weekend, my server -- who didn't bother to put down the phone while she took my order at the bar -- neglected to ask how I wanted my burger cooked. This is a big deal, and it had happened before at Citygrille. Both times the burgers arrived medium, which for me is only borderline edible.

But while the service is dodgy at best, Citygrille's space is just fine. There are high-backed booths upholstered in comfy black leather, six TVs tuned to both sports and news, plenty of ashtrays in the front room and a strangely geometric bar populated by equal numbers of neighbors and Cap Hill VIPs all falling for that "best burger in Denver" come-on. Still, surroundings count for only so much. I'd eat a burger thrown from a moving car if it was good enough. I'd sit on a milk crate behind a gas station to eat a great burger. As with scoring on Iron Chef, the real contenders know that taste is what settles all bets.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan