The Dead Pool

This time last year, I was taking complaint calls about my review of Max Burgerworks, which had opened a few months before at the corner of 15th and Lawrence streets. Because the principals involved in its founding were Greg Waldbaum and Gerard Rudofsky from Zaidy's, Denver's preeminent Jewish deli, Max's arrival had been treated like the second coming of the cheeseburger messiah. So I went, I ate, and the burgers were nothing to write home about -- much less inspire a rave review. Instead, in the issue dated January 1, 2004, I wrote this: "A burger is a burger -- dead cow on bread -- and too much fussiness does nothing but insult the food gods of our grandfathers, for whom a rare patty on a supermarket bun with American cheese and maybe a couple of pickles was just fine."

After my review meals were done, I never had even a fleeting urge to go back to Max. And apparently I wasn't the only one who'd come seeking transcendence and left disappointed, because a couple of months ago, Max went dark, with Rudofsky promising to put a second Zaidy's in its space.

Thinking about Max got me thinking about all those other places we lost over the past 365. I talk a lot about how brutal things have been recently for the chefs and owners in this town -- how the soft economy, the profusion of chains, the death of fine dining and high-rolling expense-account dinners, the aliens, the Broncos and the Trilateral Commission have all contributed in their own special way to the murderously high percentage of die-off in both the top and bottom strata of the restaurant industry. When I see a place I love (like Clair de Lune, as discussed ad nauseam in my review of Somethin' Else on page 45) suffering from an undeserved dearth of trade, I've been known to throw all professional scruples out the window and beg, cajole, threaten and try to embarrass people into going and dropping a few shekels in the register. And when I see a place I hate (like Three Sons) changing hands? Well, I'm certainly not above breaking the neck on a bottle of Jameson and drinking a celebratory toast.

While the restaurant losses have been rough, there's an upside to all the carnage that I don't talk about nearly enough: The rash of closures, bankruptcies and sudden, inexplicable vanishings have kept our dining scene remarkably vital. Yes, the loss of any good restaurant is a blow. And sure, it's sad for the owner who's sunk every dime into keeping his place afloat, and also for the chefs who've given up their days and nights and weekends and holidays trying to bring their art to the masses, but you know what? If Sean Kelly hadn't been forced to close Clair de Lune, we would never have gotten Somethin' Else. Had Sean Yontz not been beaten by the market at Vega, his uppity Nuevo Latino, ultra-swank Seventh Avenue spot, odds are we wouldn't have the decidedly lowbrow and thoroughly excellent Mexican joint Mezcal, where Yontz now consults. Every time I talk to him, he swears he's never going to do fine dining again because, in his words, "There's just no fucking point."

True, Denver's market is oversaturated with highline attempts at fussy four-star dining replete with linen tablecloths, silver service and way too much frisee, but for every place we lose, it seems that two more open, so diners never have to worry about where they'll go for their next fix of ill-considered French-Asian fusion or below-market slabs of seared foie gras in fruit sauce. And if you find yourself getting sick of hearing about this chef's tasting menu or that chef's poached-quail-egg salad, not to worry -- just wait a few weeks, and the odds are good that the place in question will have closed, been remodeled and reopened by some other sucker willing to risk all in an attempt to introduce to Denver the multitudinous joys of upscaled Inuit cuisine or high-concept Alsatian-Cantonese.

For example, this year we lost Indigo, a restaurant with smarty-pants New American leanings, but in the fracture between owner Larry Herz and chef Ian Kleinman, we got one new restaurant (Go Fish Grille, now rocking hard in Indigo's old home at 250 Josephine) and one old one back (Hilltop Bistro, in the space formerly occupied by the Hilltop Cafe in Golden), where Kleinman's now working. When the Beehive, never the most beloved restaurant in town, closed at 609 Downing Street, it made space for the eventual opening of Table 6, currently one of the most beloved restaurants in the country. In Boulder, we lost Triana but gained the Kitchen -- proving that not every trade is a good one. In LoDo, we lost Brasserie Rouge, leaving the door open for the next shmuck with more money than brains to move in, make the scene and ultimately fail when it becomes obvious that trying to fill that many seats on a Tuesday night on Wynkoop Street is a sucker's bet.

A few blocks away in Larimer Square, we traded out half of Josephina's and got Rioja -- a great deal. In Aurora, we traded the original Kathy and Bill's Diner (it moved around the corner) in exchange for Grace's Home Cookin', with its bizarre Greek-Korean-American format. I lost my favorite pho restaurant, Pho 2000, but found a new favorite at Pho 79, just a couple of miles away at 1080 South Havana Street. And while I may have danced a drunken jig when Three Sons flipped, I only wish the best to Three Sons version 2.0, opened and owned by former waiter Michael Scarafiotti.

So what big events did I forget? To be honest, I'm sitting here writing this list in Rochester, New York (my home town), crouched at the counter of a straight Italian diner/breakfast bar that has been here for as long as I can remember and is famous for nothing so much as serving the most rubbery fried eggs and most flavorless hot-beef sandwich on the entire East Coast. Each table is set with ketchup, A-1, salt, pepper, Tabasco, jelly, sugar, mustard and creamer, and were I to add all of these to the pork chop sitting in front of me, it still wouldn't rescue it from tasting like a plastic doggie chew toy. Next to this spot is a Chinese dive that I remember eating at once when I was about fourteen; I don't think they've cleaned the woks since. And around the corner is a steak joint that my dad used to go to when he was a kid, when he wanted to shoot some pool and eat a couple $1.99 T-bones.

Talk about a stagnant scene. I had drinks with some food-service brats from the neighborhood and asked them to name the five top restaurants in town. Between the two of them, they could only come up with three that were even decent, one of those a place that was around (and wholly mediocre) the last time I lived in Rochester. Writing a restaurant column here would be a lot like being the weather girl for a TV station in San Diego: Nothing ever changes, and things are the same as they ever were.

So even though times may be tough in Denver and the road to long-lived restaurant success lined with the darkened windows of the also-rans, I can't wait to get home and into the scrum. While I was away, I heard that Cielo, at 1109 Lincoln Street, closed abruptly last week. To balance that, Michel Wahaltere, formerly of Moda (just a block down Lincoln from Cielo), will soon get back in the game with a new tapas restaurant called the Ninth Door at 1808 Blake Street.

It's a great time to be an eater, folks. As the old Chinese curse says, "May you live in interesting times."

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan