Cafe Society

The food at Root Down gets a thumbs-down

I don't know where to begin. Should I start with the girl in the full-length (faux) fur over her sundress in the dining room — the one I'd pegged as a Russian mafia princess until I heard her speaking flawless English — or the beautiful people on the patio discussing their recent returns from San Francisco, Manhattan and London, driven home to Denver by the failing economy and sucking down bottomless mimosas to soothe their jangled nerves? Should I start with the menu that I first thought was some kind of clever joke, a parody menu meant to poke gentle, sophisticated fun at the PC excesses and militant locavore urges of so many foodies these days? Should I start with the kitchen — the wide-open, straight-up, short-order diner kitchen pouring billows of smoke and blast-furnace heat into the dining room? Or with the poor fuckers forced to labor in that chrome trench, sweating through their whites, banging out hideous world-cuisine fusions that would've shamed Tower or LaDou or Portale at their coke-fueled '80s freakiest?

No. I'm going to start with what was good about Root Down, because there actually was some good, even amid the terrible trend-humping mess of ridiculously bad ideas. I'm going to start with the good because that's the path to salvation for this restaurant, even if owner Justin Cucci and chef Ryan Leinonen already seem to be packing 'em in every night, making money hand over fist. In this world, there's being successful and there's being good. Being successful only makes you rich, but being good makes you immortal. Every man has to ask himself which he wants to be.

Root Down has an awesome space. It has what might be one of the best spaces in the city — one that dozens of serious restaurant guys are kicking themselves for not picking up years ago. The restaurant opened in mid-December in a converted 1950s garage that had been ignored since the days when the streets of Highland were lined with vintage Buicks and Fleetline Chevrolets. And Cucci was smart. He kept as much of the old service-station detail as he could. The roll-up garage doors that once led into the bays are still there, even if Root Down's bar now sits where the grease monkeys once worked. He saved the tiled walls and plate glass of what must've once been the waiting area and turned it into a private dining room, retained little bits and pieces of sweet architectural detail — railings and posts, sexy curves — and gave even the new building a low-slung solidity so that, at just over three months, Root Down already feels like it's seen a decade or more of consistent trade.

The floor in the main dining room is recycled from a basketball court, the bar top from an old bowling alley lane, both polished to a high gloss. From the tables on the extended patio, customers have one of the best views of the city in the city — the downtown Denver skyline laid out like a postcard and lit up at night like a scattering of diamonds. In its entirety — bar, lobby, main floor and patio — Root Down is just big enough to hold a good-sized rush, yet still small enough to feel comfortably buzzy when only half committed. It flows nicely; no inch is wasted. And even though I have never felt so straight, so old or so blue-collar ugly in my life as when I took my seat on the patio for brunch one Sunday, it's remarkable that Root Down is still the kind of restaurant where you just want to hang out — the kind that makes you feel better and cooler and more connected just for getting a seat.

I liked the service. In their mechanic's shirts, black Ts and blue jeans, the staff was helpful without being condescending, friendly without feeling forced. Everything on the menu was someone's favorite, and they all talked about how much they liked the restaurant. And the bar is just short of amazing. The cocktail list hits the perfect balance between modernity and classicism, pouring a fine Gin Rickey (how long has it been since you've seen one of those?), a variety of mojitos, a Pink Elephant with absinthe and blackberry vodka.

In concept, Root Down operates under a sort of bootstrap culinary communism, with each individual member contributing to the best of his ability, turning all efforts toward the betterment and exaltation of the state. Behind the bar, this works marvelously. But the kitchen is a dystopic example of the worst that can come from such noble urges. Root Down calls itself a "field to fork" restaurant. It is local and organic and "improvisational." It has its own gardens, makes a big deal out of working with local growers. It has a jazz bent (the name taken from a Jimmy Smith song, "Root Down (and Get It)," which references a return to the basics of a tune or, presumably, a dinner) that is supposed to result in "the combined effort of individual strengths coming together to create a rhythmic, interplaying, and improvisational masterpiece. Each player riffs off his or her own talents and history to bring a fresh, new perspective to the ongoing story."

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan