Cafe Society

What's a Belgian cafe doing on Colfax? Serving very good food.

The first time I saw the Cheeky Monk, I thought to myself, "Well, that's going to last about five minutes." An upscale Belgian beer cafe on one of the weirdest, wildest stretches of Colfax? It would be a nice idea somewhere else — like, say, Portland or Antwerp. But as I walked on past the Cheeky Monk, I saw an intemperate fella asleep in the back booth of the Roslyn, his T-shirt riding up over his enormous white belly, then almost got hit by a cop car screeching around the corner in pursuit of ghosts. I figured I could probably make a nice nickel or two laying down a death-pool bet on how long this Monk was going to last. Ten minutes seemed like a safe bet, but I would've been willing to go down to five if the odds were right.

That was two years ago.

The first time I stepped inside the Cheeky Monk, several months after it opened, the acres of polished hardwood flooring were being trod by almost no one except a few dedicated drinkers at the bar and one or two tables on the floor. I was there with another writer, and we joked about the place, inventing back stories for the people there — how this one had gotten lost on his way downtown for a board meeting and was afraid to leave, how that couple considered themselves brave urban pioneers living on the edge: four blocks from the Capitol, drinking only at the Monk (not the Roslyn, certainly) and driving sixty minutes to find a suburban Albertson's rather than shopping at the bodega next door. We had a few drinks (Carlsberg lager, the easiest to pronounce) and then I retired to Tom's Diner across the street, where I re-read the best bits of Down and Out in Paris and London and watched the door of the Cheeky Monk go mostly unused by the nodding drunks and drug dealers, the Roslyn and Nob Hill regulars and night creatures who still populated this stretch of Colfax despite all attempts at gentrification. I wondered how the Monk could possibly attract enough yuppies to keep the lights on, Chads and Buffys willing to brave the neighborhood and mangle the pronunciation of Koningshoeven Quadrupel and Duchesse de Bourgogne and eat sauerkraut. I enjoyed the irony of sitting in an American diner eating crappy french fries while looking at the Belgian restaurant I'd just left.

Here are some things I know about the Belgians:

They invented french fries and waffles — two vital food groups — but the French stole both of them. Every other country in the world has had its national foods co-opted by the French, but for some reason, the Belgians never got over this. I'm fairly sure they fought wars over it. And if they didn't, they should have.

The entire country looks like a film set for some massive historical costume drama. Belgium boasts more castles than any other place on earth, and Belgians earn most of their money by charging tourists to walk up those tall towers — and then amuse themselves by making fun of the fat, exhausted bastards. Of course, they once had a king named Clovis, so I'm pretty sure those bastards have been making fun of Belgians for that (and other things) forever. One of the funniest movies I've seen in years was filmed in Belgium. The reason In Bruges was so funny? It was full of jokes about Belgium and Belgians. It also had angry midgets, and there's nothing funnier than a pissed-off midget.

Belgians make a lot of chocolate. Some people think it is the best chocolate in the world. Those people are idiots.

Belgians also make a lot of beer. A lot of beer. And some people think that the Trappist ales coming out of Belgium are the best beers in the world. Those people are not idiots. Unless they also believe the chocolate thing, in which case they are idiots but probably won't buy you beers if you call them such.

Belgians also invented oil paints, control a large portion of the world diamond trade and have a road system that can be seen from space. But, really? It's the stolen frites that truly have their pantalettes in a bunch.

The first time I actually ate at the Cheeky Monk, I ordered beer and sausages and soft pretzels, but no frites. I thought it was funny to snub the national dish of Belgium, but the kitchen got the last laugh, because what food I did get was really good. The sausage platter came with hunks of cheese (whose national origin I can no longer recall), bits of baguette and a grilled chicken-and-apple sausage that had the loose consistency and snappy skin of something artisan and handmade. The pretzels were buttery and topped with mustard seeds and garlic and coarse salt that made them much better than anything served at one of those pretzel places in the mall. They came with mustard or aioli, which was also invented by the Belgians — and then was promptly stolen by the French. I went with the mustard.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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