There hasn't been a day in the past year that road cones or lane closures or both haven't clogged Brighton Boulevard at 38th Street in the RiNo neighborhood — except, perhaps, June 21, 2018, the day the city chose to mark the completion of the "first phase" of the overall improvement of the Brighton corridor with a small celebration and an appearance by Mayor Michael Hancock. Immediately after the dignitaries departed the scene that day, though, the traffic delays and congestion reappeared.
Steady business has been tough to maintain in the neighborhood, but one eatery is soldiering on much the way it has since 1995, long before the area was dubbed RiNo, and way before it became the hottest part of town. That's the year the Michel brothers added an outpost of their north Denver breakfast and lunch joint, the Butcher Block Cafe, at 1701 38th Street. They'd opened the original in 1979, at 5002 Washington Street, and another at 4605 East 74th Avenue.
All three Butcher Blocks open early; even on the longest day of the year, 5 a.m. is still before dawn, so the glowing windows and brightly lit parking lots guide bleary-eyed customers toward bottomless cups of good, strong coffee and homemade cinnamon rolls dripping with butter. Inside the 38th Street spot, co-founder Mickey Michel can often be seen — and heard — in the kitchen or behind the counter, directing employees or giving a wave to regulars (of which there are many). His presence isn't the only thing that distinguishes this location: Unlike its siblings, the 38th Street eatery stays open for dinner Monday through Friday, at least until 8 p.m.
Coffee is the strongest drink served at any of the Butcher Blocks, so happy hour isn't really an option to draw customers during the slowdown after the breakfast and lunch rushes, which still see a full dining room, even if many of the diners filling booths in the back room or perched on stools at the counter are wearing yellow or orange construction vests. Instead, the Butcher Block has figured out a way to get at least a few hungry, traffic-fighting diners in the door for dinner: a burger deal that just might be the best in town.
On the sidewalk outside, a white sign with movable letters swings in the constant breeze created by trucks trundling by on 38th Street. It advertises a $6 special, which includes a hamburger, fries, drink and a cookie, but only after 4 p.m. Inside, a waitress calls it "the Fourth Down," an appropriate name for a last-ditch effort tinged with a hint of desperation.
You can get the same setup at lunchtime, but it'll cost you four dollars more — and is also likely to earn you a look of confusion from the staff. After all, there are other lunchtime burger specials, though none are as cheap, since they cater to heartier appetites craving fatter patties and piles of toppings.
The Fourth Down is simplicity on a plate: a quarter-pound of meat, hand-formed, cooked to well-done and served on a plain bun with a side of lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles. A slice of American cheese will run you an extra fifty cents. You'll also get a reasonably sized pile of skin-on fries and a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie wrapped in cling film. If soda's not your thing, you can ask to sub in a cup of coffee.
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There aren't many places left in town where $6 will get you something made to order and filling enough to count as a full dinner, not just a snack to get you through to the next meal. And you can enjoy the special in a quaint and lively dining room where there are enough signs, photos and other pieces of art on the walls to keep you entertained without having to pull out your cell phone for company. Orders are written on a ticket pad, and tickets are pinned to an order wheel in the pass between the kitchen and the counter. There's a steady stream of call-and-response between the cooks and the front of house, so it's never quiet, even when the crowd in the dining room thins out.
Dinner isn't just burgers and fries, though. Sausage sandwiches, towering club sandwiches and filling French dips are available, along with "Western style" chili, a chef's salad and even liver and onions. Steaks and chops often find their way onto the specials board, but no matter what, be sure to tack on a cookie.
The surrounding neighborhood is being transformed by new office buildings, apartments, hotels and restaurants drawing destination diners (or at least trying to). Across the street, Rebel Restaurant closed earlier this year, and the property just sold for $2.5 million; yet another multi-story apartment building is slated for the site. But the construction crews doing all that work — and the residents and other local employees who have been around for years — still need a cheap place to fuel up before a shift, during a mid-day break or after punching the clock at the end of the day.
A fourth down is always a long shot in football — but it's a sure thing at the Butcher Block Cafe.