A Denver institution gets another bite.
Rocky Mountain Diner
(1.5 out of four stars)
800 18th St., 303-293-8383
Must-Try New Dishes None recommended
Old Favorites Black-bottom banana cream pie
Ten years ago, tucked into one of the Rocky Mountain Diner's wooden booths, 5280 critic Lori Midson dined on hearty turkey posole, a side of guacamole, and perfect pan-fried chicken. While the meal didn't inspire, it did satisfy her in that basic, down-home, won't-ever-leave-hungry kind of way. For that, plus the whimsical bar stools (posts with saddles) and its colorful Western art, Midson determined the Rocky Mountain Diner to be the restaurant where you could take out-of-towners when they wanted "Colorado" food.
When the Rocky Mountain Diner opened in 1990 on the corner of 18th and Stout, downtown had no Hyatt, no Sheraton, no Chipotle, no Vesta Dipping Grill, and, for that matter, really no LoDo. The diner's menu catered to cowboy boot-clad lawyers and bankers who showed their clients success by way of big lunches.
Today, though Denver has changed immensely, the Rocky Mountain Diner remains virtually the same. Nostalgia could be the diner's greatest strength, if its menus weren't still laden with outdated dishes that neither follow today's culinary trends nor acknowledge the surrounding competition. The battered and browned chicken-fried chicken ($10.99-$11.99), smothered in crackling gravy and served with a heap of whipped mashed potatoes and a buttery vegetable medley, is the kind of meal a wide-eyed freshman might serve himself at the college cafeteria. And the meatloaf ($10.99-$11.49), although made of ground bison and doused in brown-onion gravy, is vapid-tasting and served with the same uninspired fixings (mashers, veggies).
Still, the diner, which is owned by the same group that runs downtown's Trinity Grille and Chopper's Sports Grill, continues to be popular. On a typical weekday, working professionals begin flooding the restaurant just before noon. By 12:30 p.m., there's a 10-minute wait. The diners come because they want a quick, affordable, sit-down lunch delivered by a real server on a real plate, and the Rocky Mountain Diner easily meets those demands. As one waitress told me, the diner's intended lunch ticket time (from order to table) is five minutes. Although that seems next-to- impossible (and makes one wonder about the degree of pre-prep), my lunch of tender, blackened rainbow trout ($12.29-$12.99) and cinnamony apple pie À la mode ($6.48) took less than 45 minutes and practically fed two for the price of one.
To accommodate its steady stream of customers, which has increased as hotels and apartment buildings have gone up downtown, the restaurant added a weekend brunch. And indeed, that meal was perhaps the diner's best during my visits. The Southwest skillet ($8.99)—a melted mass of cheese, potatoes, green chile, eggs, and chorizo—is just the kind of meal to soothe a headache after a long night. And the BLT ($7.99) is a solid version of the old classic, with generous layers of crispy lettuce, dark bacon, and tomatoes stacked between mayo-smeared sourdough slices of toast.
No matter which meal lands you at the Rocky Mountain Diner, be sure to save room for a slice of white chocolate black-bottom banana cream pie ($4.99). With its buttery graham cracker crust, fresh banana slices, vanilla cream filling, and voluminous whipped cream, the pie still isn't the modernized comfort food I wish the diner would serve, but it's grandma-delicious. I'll go back for it when I'm craving an old-fashioned moment. As for Colorado comfort food—I'll keep looking.