The Real Caribou Club

That's right: You're being watched. No sooner do you lift a hot wing or dripping chili-cheese fry to your hungry maw than you feel the hot gaze on your neck. The huge caribou head that dominates the dining room and bar at the Lakewood Grill has got its eye on you, and there isn't much you can do about it. If we can believe the explanatory brass plaque, your smiling host, whose formidable antlers are festooned with white Christmas lights, came to grief in Alberta, Canada, on a snowy night some years ago, when a man went out for cigarettes at 4 a.m. and plowed into the beast with his 1973 Cadillac Eldorado.

No great white hunter stories here. Just the tale of a nicotine fit, a slick country road and an unlucky monarch of the north woods.

The Lakewood Grill, a West Colfax fixture for more than half a century, is similarly unpretentious. Slip inside this sunny, cheery spot for lunch and you may find yourself ordering something called a "Slopper" -- a big, half-pound burger drenched in green chile -- or a Reuben sandwich piled high with corned beef, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. It's good, solid saloon fare to which the likely accompaniment is an ice-cold draft beer, anything from a Rolling Rock to Great Divide Porter. Reliable food -- that's the ticket. The only unsatisfactory item we've tried is the artichoke dip, a clot of mystery goop with jalapeño slices sprinkled on top that seems to have escaped from the pages of Family Circle.

Depending on your point of view, the kitchen is either astonishingly versatile or suffering from multiple-personality disorder. It offers a variety of burgers, Mexican fare, half a dozen Italian specialties (our favorite is the nicely stuffed "Paisano Pie," which another establishment might call a calzone), a smattering of deli, and a specialty salad alleged to feature "Thai chicken."

Look even more carefully at the menu and you'll find concessions to California health-consciousness: The "Santa Barbara" sandwich, for example, contains shaved turkey breast, avocado, sprouts, shaved onion and homemade cranberry-orange relish. Hey, we've even had a nice version of gazpacho (cold raw-vegetable soup) in here.

Prices, as you might expect, are gentle: Entrees and sandwiches are all $5 to $8. Desserts are homemade; one recent weekday's offerings included a rich bread pudding injected with a jolt of whiskey sauce and an oversized brownie sundae.

But food is only half the story. The Grill is an exceptionally genial neighborhood hangout that features decent rock-and-roll bands on Friday and Saturday nights and low-key bonhomie the rest of the time. The pleasant bar/dining room features a broad-plank wooden floor covered with peanut shells (that's so yesterday, you gotta love it), half a dozen graceful, wainscoted booths and a dozen tables, usually occupied by eager beer drinkers and dancers. If you've got Game on your mind, four television sets blaze away in the rafters.

Happily, the Lakewood's so-called sports annex is just that -- a separate room. Those who care to indulge in the clatter of pool balls, jukeboxes and video games may do so, but no one in the main room, not even our friend the caribou, need be disturbed by their devotions.

We've always loved the vintage design of the Lakewood. The brown-brick exterior is smartly set off by blue-and-green-striped awnings, and the interior walls are a vista of glazed yellow tiles, translucent glass bricks and broad windows. In other words, the place is stone 1955, and so are a few of the employees. One cheery, extremely competent bartender we chatted with told us the place has had many owners in fifty years. "I've gone through four of 'em," she announced, a little rise of triumph in her voice. "And there were two before that."

We'll be very surprised if this classic neighborhood bar and its stick-to-the-ribs food don't thrive and prosper for another half a century.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo