Cafe Society

This Note's for You

It was Saturday night in Littleton, and the wife and I were arguing. She was upset because she couldn't find her favorite pair of black strappy heels, so she'd fallen back on the black Doc Martens that dated from her days as a Philly punk-rock girl, and one of our cats had gotten into the trash and thrown up on the only jacket I own. Plus, ignoring her advice, I'd refused to put on a tie and had made no dinner reservations.

It was Saturday night 'round seven in old-town Littleton, though, and Main Street -- when we finally found it -- was deserted.

"You see, sweets," I said. "Not exactly a bustling metropolis, is it? I don't think we'll have too much trouble getting a table."

But because sometimes life is like a bad sitcom where the bumbling husband is never right, I said those words as we rolled past the big front windows of Opus -- centerpiece of a three-concept project that includes the more casual Main Street Tavern on one side and the Aroma Cafe, a full-service coffee bar and patisserie, on the other -- and discovered that the restaurant was packed. The valet sat on a folding chair beside the door reading a two-inch-thick paperback, every hook on his board hung with a set of keys. Through the glass I could see heavy white linen tablecloths, the gleam of polished silver, and well-pressed waiters hurrying back and forth through a full dining room. Apparently, there was no one on the streets of Littleton because everyone in town was having dinner at Opus.

As we drove by, my wife gestured broadly out her window like a game-show beauty showing off a lovely washer/dryer set. "You ever think that maybe you picked the wrong career, Jay?" she asked, exuding that sort of smugness that is the sole provenance of wives who are always right. "Because it's been a couple years now, and you really don't seem to have the hang of this one yet."

I didn't dignify her comment with a response; I parked the car myself, and -- in an attempt to give every appearance of a young couple in love -- took her arm as we strolled right through the front door of the restaurant. No reservation? We'd bluff it, I figured, because really, how busy could the place be?

At the hostess station, I learned exactly how busy the place could be. Confidently, I walked up and asked, "Two for dinner?"

The hostess smiled. "Reservations?"

I smiled right back. "No, but could you find us something anyway?"

She stopped smiling. "I'm sorry, sir," she said, pursing her lips and running a finger down the list in front of her. "Perhaps you should have listened to your wife and called ahead. And worn a tie."

Okay -- she didn't really say all that, but she might as well have. The hostess actually was very polite, but I was up against something increasingly rare in Denver's fine-dining scene: a reservation book with the second seating fully committed. It would be an hour, possibly longer, before there would be an open table, she explained, but did I want to go ahead and put my name in the book?

Honestly, I was ready to cut my losses, pick up a couple of Chipotle burritos and try again another night, but before I could say 'No,' she added, "I think it'll be worth the wait."

That stunned me. Granted, any hostess trying to shore up a dead spot in her reservation book would have told me the same thing, but I'd gotten a look at her book, and there weren't any dead spots. And while I also know that most front-of-the-house people have such responses programmed into them like messages on an answering machine, it wasn't what she said that stopped me from walking out, but how sincerely she said it. She truly believed that a table at this new restaurant (just three months old -- a baby on my critical timetable) in Littleton (hardly a hotbed of culinary action) was worth more than an hour's wait on a Saturday night. That said a lot -- I was intrigued.

And she was right.

Close to ninety minutes (which we spent next door at the Main Street Tavern; see page 74) had passed before we were ushered through the side door that connects the two very different spaces and shown to a table in Opus's still-crowded dining room. We were met at the table by a server bearing an amuse bouche -- a complimentary tease from the kitchen, like getting a peck on the cheek from a pretty girl before you even buy her a drink -- of skewered, marinated beef and cucumber lying across a puddle of spicy satay peanut sauce. It was a bite, no more, but a good one: a warm hello to welcome us into a room that I found almost instantly jarring in dozens of small details. The space itself was annoying -- too cold where it should have been warm and stiff where it should have been smooth. The soft colors of the walls, the flowing curtains and the honey-colored chairs didn't match the hard tile floors and the high ceiling with its exposed ductwork. The gentle glow spilling from hanging lamps that looked like alien flower buds was ruined by harsh point lighting, and odd acoustics made it hard to hear my wife but all too easy to hear everything at the table behind me. And while the tables were well-spaced -- giving diners a measure of privacy and waiters room to move -- the setup seemed more distant than open. This was a deadly serious room, lacking any humor at all. Like a set dressed by a very well-funded high school drama class, it boasted all the artistic elements necessary to let you know that you were in a nice restaurant waiting to be served an elegant meal, but none of the talent that would pull the pieces together into a seamless background. It was clumsy at best and absurdly pretentious at worst -- especially the miniature stage curtains flanking the window onto the open kitchen, which are thrown wide every night at the beginning of service, then drawn closed again at the end.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan