The Bite

Big night: There wasn't an empty table at any of the dozen restaurants I visited on Thursday, October 11, during the Dine Out to Help Out fundraiser -- and it sounds like that was the case at many of the several hundred participating eateries around Colorado. In fact, the state was one big party. "It was a remarkable evening," says Mel Master of Mel's Restaurant and Bar (235 Fillmore Street). So was the fare cooked up by head chef Ben Davidson, including seafood crème brûlée and foie gras "two ways" (hot and cold). "There were people here I'd never seen before, and everyone was just in the highest spirits," Master continues. "You could really tell that it wasn't just another night out."

Many Denverites started out the night at the Oxford Hotel (1600 17th Street), which celebrated its 110th anniversary by offering party guests some fabulous snack items, including unlimited oysters on the half shell (and since the food came from McCormick's Fish House and Bar, which runs both a dining room and corner bar in the hotel, you know they weren't those lukewarm cheapies, either). The Denver firefighters who stopped by were a big hit, too, even if we couldn't get them to try on the flag-emblazoned T-shirts that the hotel presented them, or secure a commitment that they'd support a 2002 firefighter calendar (hello to you, Mr. March 2001). And they certainly helped get everyone in gear for the day's cause: relief for the victims of the September 11 tragedies.

Although the final numbers aren't in, by all accounts Dine Out to Help Out was a huge success. "You never imagine the extent to which this will bring out the very best in people," says Adde Bjorklund, whose Bistro Adde Brewster (250 Steele Street) was filled to overflowing with generous folks who engaged in enthusiastic conversations with total strangers at the next table. "But if we needed any proof that this country is going to stick together, all you had to do was stop in a restaurant tonight."

Even before Dine Out to Help Out, I'd heard from many readers who wondered how Denver's Middle-Eastern restaurants were faring. "Given the complicated state of attitudes toward people of Middle Eastern origin lately, I'd like to try to support Afghans or other Middle Easterners who live as contributing members of our community," wrote Sheila Addison. Unfortunately, I didn't have any Afghani-owned eateries to suggest: The only one I'd ever heard of, 1,000 Nites, closed not long after it opened at 9955 East Hampden Avenue back in 1995.

Another reader, Terry Schack, was looking for any Middle Eastern restaurants. "I'm worried that these places are going to be hurting for business," he wrote. "I hope you can print a list of where we should go to make sure they stay afloat." In the past, I haven't made a secret of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurants, including Phoenicia Grille at 727 Colorado Boulevard. The area around the University of Denver is also better known for cheap, ethnic eateries than trendy, upscale places such as Coos Bay Bistro (see review above); two of the more popular are Pita Jungle (2017 South University Boulevard) and Jerusalem (1890 East Evans Avenue). Both offer excellent Middle Eastern food -- and Jerusalem offers that food at almost any time of the day or night.

But when I called several Middle Eastern restaurants to ask how business was going, owners and employees alike asked that I not include their restaurants on any list -- or mention their own names in a story. "I just want my regular customers," says the owner of one Middle Eastern eatery. "I don't want any trouble." Like other restaurateurs, he noticed a significant drop in business just after the September 11 attacks, but since then, things have picked up -- even if they're not nearly back to normal. "I think that's a result of the economy," he adds. "Everyone is saying they are slow, regardless of the type of food or ownership."

At Pita Jungle (which Sam Kraydie recently sold to Yossef El Madhun, who promises to keep the same menu and homemade pitas), employees have been impressed, and some moved to tears, by their customers' support. "People have come in and said, 'I specifically came here to make sure you have business,'" says one server. "They want to know are we okay, have we been affected by this, has anything bad happened here. And nothing bad has happened. Only good, only this amazing good."

Pita Jungle was one of a dozen businesses that participated in a September 26 luncheon at DU sponsored by the Iliff School of Theology; the school had hoped that about 2,000 people would come to sample Middle Eastern food and join in prayers from the Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian traditions. "We got well over 2,000," says Rebecca Laurie, DU's senior media-relations specialist. "It was just an incredible thing, with everybody really being into it."

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner