Willie G's caters to the classes and the masses

Happy hour can absolutely be the happiest time of the day for three reasons: cheap booze, cheap food and free people-watching. Which makes the patio at Willie G's Seafood & Steaks a place of unmitigated joy from 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays, when happy-hour specials keep flowing out of the kitchen and bar while a parade of humanity pours down the 16th Street Mall.

There's no better people-watching in Denver, and it's unique to this Willie G's location, one of three (the others are in Galveston and Houston). But Willie G's is part of a much bigger empire: the Landry's Inc. group of restaurants and hotels, which includes such big names as Landry's Seafood, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Rainforest Cafe, Joe's Crab Shack, Saltgrass Steak House and the Golden Nugget casinos, among others. The chairman of the board, president, CEO and primary shareholder of Landry's Inc. is Tilman J. Fertitta, a former vitamin salesman and home builder in Galveston who got into the restaurant business in 1986 as a real-estate specialist for Landry's. He wound up buying the company, which went public in 1994, and has continued to acquire restaurants that cater to the masses, if not the classes. But he's also brought some higher-end spots into the fold, including McCormick & Schmick's Seafood & Steaks and Morton's of Chicago, both of which were acquired late last year. Fertitta immediately closed the Morton's in the Denver Tech Center, but he kept the McCormick's there, as well as the one in the Oxford Hotel, and he now owns more than a dozen spots in town, including the Downtown Aquarium, Simms Steakhouse, the Chart House...and Willie G's, which has been on the mall for close to two decades.

While Tilman J. Fertitta was busy conquering the Denver dining scene, I was conquering the happy-hour menu at Willie G's, thanks to Chaz, my mellow yet attentive server.

"Is Chaz your real name — I mean, did your mama name you that?" I asked.

"Yep — it's my actual birth name," he replied. We were off to a good start, Chaz and I.

The first point of happy-hour happiness at Willie G's was the cheap booze, which included $2.75 Coors Light and Miller Lite drafts — it's Miller time, dammit — as well as $3 specialty drafts like Denver Pale Ale, Fat Tire, Sunshine Wheat and New Belgium seasonal, and $4 wines by the glass, including Smoking Loon Merlot, Glass Mountain Chardonnay and Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling. I'm old enough to remember when ordinary-hour cocktails were under $6 — but that was the era when dinosaurs and grunge bands roamed the earth. At happy hour, Willie's $6 cocktail list features a few interesting, even bougie, concoctions: White Pear Cosmo, Mexitini, Blackberrini and Thyme Collins. I opted for the last one, since gender-stereotyping has its limits. Besides, the only real way to fuck up an anything-Collins is to short-pour, and the bartenders didn't. This was a well-made drink with a lovely cherry-orange-thyme sprig garnish.

The second happy-hour happy-maker was the selection of cheap eats: $3 spinach artichoke dip and fried pickles with herbed sour cream, $5 Kobe beef sliders with skinny fries, tempura-shrimp skewers with sweet chili lemon butter, coconut-shrimp satays, and sautéed mussels in either white-wine or marinara sauce. I ordered all of them.

And the third happy thing about happy hour? The 16th Street Mall people-watching. Denver hipsters are a real treat to observe, because they seem to have absorbed many environmental influences, causing them to dress in a hipster/granola combination. While waiting for my feast, I catalogued mountaineer fuzzy hats with faux-snakeskin tights, as well as rainbow yarn knit caps worn in July next to yak-bone gauge earrings and skull-patterned Steve Madden rain boots — just to be ironic. I dubbed this pure, inclusive Colorado construct "Granipster."

Even Chaz weighed in on the fashion scene. "How do they manage to sag those skinny jeans?" he pondered out loud, while dropping off my large load of small plates.

I haven't been surprised by a spinach-artichoke dip since the mid-'90s, but Willie G's managed to come up with a welcome variation on that ubiquitous theme. The dip was a creamy, turbo-whipped version, with the consistency of hummus and a nice Parmesan crust on top; the hefty portion came with tri-color tortilla chips that were housemade and spoke to the extra effort to which this kitchen occasionally goes. The fried pickles said the opposite, though. The thin slices of sweet pickles were overwhelmed by their unwieldy cornmeal crusts; thicker-cut, garlicky dills with a lighter cornmeal dusting would work much better.

The very idea of Kobe beef sliders hurts my heart. While I understand the economic realities of using every scrap of the expensive beef, I have yet to experience anything made with Kobe beef leavin's that comes close to the oral splendor of a medium-rare Kobe steak or raw Kobe carpaccio. And these sliders added insult to injury by serving up dry, lumpy patties with a noticeable lack of flavor. Kobe beef should have a delicate, salty taste; I could not distinguish this ground beef from the regular kind. But at least the miniature burgers came on soft, lightly toasted baby buns, artfully garnished with melting cheese and a folded pickle held in place with a pick; the crispy, seasoned shoestring fries on the side were better than decent. And I have to give Willie G's credit for not over-charging just for the use of the name "Kobe."

Willie G's definitely hits the right note with its seafood. Both the tempura-shrimp skewers and coconut-shrimp satays were well worth ordering. The tempura breading was airy and light, the coconut breading golden-brown and perfectly crisp — and the shrimp beneath both large and plump. The mussels were another hit; they tasted like organ meat and sea water, as they should, and I liked the fragrant, garlicky broth they'd been steamed in almost as much as the mussels themselves. The appetizer-sized portion was at least eight ounces and included toasted bread to suck up that wine sauce.

Another aroma wafting off the mall intruded on my appreciation of the mussels: the official state smell of marijuana smoke. You know you are truly a Denverite when you lean your head slightly to one side, inhale deeply and say, "Damn good weed" whenever someone walks by smoking a joint.

The contact high was enough to revive my appetite, so I took a look at the dessert menu and discovered yet another reason why people in other countries hate Americans: a chocolate layer cake stuffed with cheesecake. At $7.99 a slice, it was pricey, but there was no way I was passing up the chance to try the turducken of desserts. While waiting for Chaz to deliver it, I saw yet another heartwarming 16th Street Mall sight: two teenage goth kids, both sporting requisite raccoon eye makeup and Tripp bondage pants, one leading the other down the sidewalk on a leash attached to a collar.

But the cake soon demanded my full attention — both for the slice's enormous size and for its complexity. The cake, from Lakewood's Cake Bubbles, sandwiched layers of chocolate, white and red-velvet cake between layers of chocolate ganache, with thick, chocolate-decorated ganache icing and a layer of cheesecake right through the middle; the whole thing was drizzled with fudge sauce. Every bite seemed to put me closer and closer to the grave — but this would be a death I welcomed.

Compared to the laid-back patio, the dining room inside Willie G's seems like a different, much stuffier world, all dim track lighting, dark wood walls covered with impressionist-meets-art-deco paintings, and rows of tablecloth-draped tables. I sat down at one a few nights later for a light — but oyster-heavy — supper. The regular dinner menu is predictably pricier than the delicious, slumming happy-hour menu, but the raw, cold-water oysters on the half-shell were absolutely fresh Blue Point. I also tried the Oysters Rockefeller, the classic combo of broiled oysters, creamed spinach and a hint of anisette. They were well made, and my civilized indoor dinner was fine, even if I preferred the pedestrian barbarism — and much less expensive prices — of happy hour on the patio.

Well played, Mr. Fertitta. You've obviously learned how to appeal to both the classes and the masses. Happiness can be cheap, and I'm buying.

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