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Is Denver Dining a Ferrari Without a Steering Wheel?

In this innovation-driven city, traditional European cuisine is practically a radical concept
June 27, 2014
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by Ruth Tobias

Welcome to Sound-Off, a break from our regularly scheduled programming for a Zagat writer op-ed.

When it comes to our city's reputation on the national restaurant scene, we Denverites tend to do a lot of garment rending and soul searching. Having watched our hospitality industry evolve at an extraordinary pace over the past few years — as our consistent placement at or near the top of national growth rankings attests — we wonder: why can’t we get the James Beard Foundation to recognize us more than once in a blue moon? Why does Boulder continue to get all the accolades? Heck, how come we can’t even make a measly list of America’s 101 Best Burgers

The answers we bandy about vary. Some, of course, blame media bias, arguing that journalists are largely blind to the world between the coasts. Others ask, however gently, whether we’re really ready for our close-up: consider 5280 critic Stacey Brugeman’s thoughtful recent analysis of Denver’s laid-back service culture. A third possibility is that our dining scene is simply too young, dynamic and eclectic for outsiders to get their heads around — too prone to what Laura Shunk once described in Cafe Society as a “libertarian lawlessness” that’s “difficult to replicate” or capture in a tidy narrative. (Try boiling Old Major, for instance, down to two or three words. Even its own tagline, "Seafood, Swine and Wine," doesn't quite do its many quirks justice.) Of course, such arguments aren’t mutually exclusive. My own overlapping theory stems from what an old poetry instructor of mine once said about a classmate’s imagination: “It’s like a Ferrari without a steering wheel.”

To the extent that Colorado has a culinary tradition, it’s located out on the range rather than in the classical kitchen, influenced by rancheros more than French toques. Denver really only began to shed that cow-town image with the help of pioneering chefs like Frank Bonanno, Jen Jasinski and Alex Seidel, who began to make their marks about 10 years ago — around the same time that the nation as a whole was moving away from nouvelle bistros, trattorias and East-West-fusion kitchens toward a more fluid and diverse understanding of American cuisine.

On the one hand, the new approach was market-driven, giving rise to the “local, seasonal” mantra and ultimately to the trend toward cutting out the middleman by farming, butchering and making as much as possible in-house. On the other hand, it brought a far greater range of global influences into play, be they Middle Eastern, Latin American or Southeast Asian. Rather than building steadily on the familiar foundation of French and Italian cuisine that many older cities had, then, Denver went from zero to 60 in a brave and strange new world where a strong DIY ethic and online access to recipes for anything from Basque to Bhutanese dishes could get you as much attention as spot-on mother sauces could. 

At the same time, a brewing industry that had its roots in the late 1800s began to explode, thanks not least to a state legislature with a track record of being friendly to small businesses. (Let’s not forget our own governor was a co-founder of one of Colorado’s first breweries, Wynkoop.) Distilleries followed suit as the craft-cocktail movement blossomed. Lacking the allegiance to wine that comes with a solid grounding in European-restaurant culture, a critical majority of Denver’s bars now put craft beer and spirits first. 

In short, Denver just doesn’t fit the model of most established restaurant towns, for better and worse. Our best chefs revel in its idiosyncrasies, inviting you to sample everything from pickled wild-boar crostini and pad Thai pig ears to Scotch eggs made Southern with smoked coleslaw and peanuts — and we love them for carving out exhilarating niches to inhabit (yes, I'm looking at you, beast + bottle, Euclid Hall and Lower48 Kitchen). But the gaps in between them are somewhat treacherous to navigate.

Take Italian cuisine as a representative example. Don't get me wrong: Denver has some wonderful Italian eateries, especially at the high end of the spectrum — Barolo Grill (pictured below), Luca d'Italia and Panzano, to name a few. And a smattering of old-school bakeries and delis still remain in and around the Highlands. But try finding a true-blue trattoria in this town — by which I mean an intimate, modestly priced affair serving the specialties of one particular region with wines to match, such as you'd stumble upon in virtually any neighborhood in Chicago or San Francisco. Here, they’re few and far between, and the same goes for classic French bistros. Yet they're essential to a well-rounded dining scene, and their absence can’t be explained by demographics in the way that, say, our lack of a Chinatown can be.

A few recent openings lead me to hope that Denver could be ready to fill in those gaps, however. With tightly focused menus and beverage lists to match their tiny dining rooms, these low-key neighborhood eateries are keeping things simple without dulling or dumbing them down in the least. At Mary Nguyen’s P17, for instance, Uptowners finally have a place to stop for a nice plate of roast chicken (pictured top) and a bottle of red. While the food at the plimoth and To the Wind Bistro, at either end of City Park, is fairly eclectic, their smaller scale creates a level of comfort many of Denver’s buzziest places tend to lack. And another case in point is the lovely French-North African Bistro Bistro Barbès in Park Hill.

Granted, owner Jon Robbins points out that the small surge in more modest, bistro-style eateries might reflect economic realities rather than a newfound interest in tradition: “Because of the recession, people wisely stopped investing in restaurants. I grew up in fine dining, and I’ve worked at a bunch of Michelin three-stars in France. But I opened this place on a shoestring budget. You make it happen with what you have.” Places like his, he adds, “make it easier for people to say, ‘I don’t feel like cooking. Let’s jump out to eat’” without having either to negotiate the crowds sampling deviled duck hearts at the latest hot spot or to settle for barroom wings. And they may yet prove to young, up-and-coming chefs that what this town really needs is, say, a perfectly simple plate of spaghetti alla carbonara. 

Right now, the Denver dining scene is like a sexy, powerful racecar. We can take pride in the fact that we built it by hand, and that it goes really, really fast. The only question that remains is whether we’ve got a firm grasp on the steering wheel. With just a few more traditionalists joining the visionaries in the driver's seat, I think we'll be driving steadily enough to head in any direction we choose. 

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