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5280‘s Restaurant Critic Looks Back on Meals Past

Writer Scott Mowbray pines for the pre-coronavirus communion and showmanship that came with dining out.

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One thing made clear by the weird, smooth sameness that characterized the nontragic aspects of the pandemic lockdown was that the “out” part of dining out is as important to me as the food itself. The fact is, during quarantine, I ate better than in most 10-week periods of my life, seeking refuge in cooking as a salve against lost income and lost connection.

But even as I cranked out dishes that could reasonably be rated as “restaurant quality” (the term used in our family since my children were growing up in New York City, because that’s how obsessed with eating out we’ve always been), I was pining for the flow and performative nature of the restaurant experience. Restaurants are theater, at every level, from food truck to omakase temple. The leading role may be played by a cook at El Taco Veloz on Federal Boulevard as he carves al pastor off a seething cone of spicy meat or by the pizzaiolo running traffic control for the 900-degree wood oven at White Pie in Uptown. Even the scenery may be the star: If you’re privileged enough to score a penthouse-level balcony seat at El Five, with a glass of Cava in your hand and an order of patatas bravas on the way, you may happily think to yourself, This is exactly where I need to be, in the midst of the call-and-response experience of good food with good friends and a lucky perch, as the room behind you roars with energy.

It’s this theatricality, mixed with nostalgia, that made me fall in love with the kitchen-facing counter seats at Q House on East Colfax Avenue. There, chef Christopher Lin’s expert technique results in flashes of fire exploding in air as aerosolized fat ignites when woks are tilted toward burners. Watching that action always reminds me of eating in Hong Kong as a kid, where the woks were huge and the burners sounded like rocket engines—amazing to a prairie boy whose mom cooked with an electric frying pan.

We who like to eat out tune and tweak the experience to our own dramatic tastes. When I go to Q House, for example, I like to arrive an hour early so I can drink a G&T in the funny lounge at venerable Bastien’s Restaurant, a block away, where the sunken living room meets theater in the round vibe dates to a 1958 rebuild which, according to its website, was “designed by Mr. Bastien himself.”

Counter seats near White Pie’s pizza oven. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Pre-COVID-19, Denver contained a multitude of these dining-drama opportunities. So many that we took them for granted. For me, almost as much as dining with friends, I relished the pleasure of dining out alone. Few restaurants know how to properly treat the solo diner, but Beckon in RiNo is one, with its horseshoe-shaped chef’s counter, at which you watched the preparation of fine, small dishes while the sommelier whispered into your ear about each matching wine.

Tavernetta is another, although subtly different. There, eating at the bar, you felt completely immersed in the swirl and buzz of carefully curated sophistication. The servers were attentive in exactly the right way, so that you felt not isolated or pathetic but, in your own mind at least, an important contributor to the urbane mix. Yes, I will have another glass of Brunello, thanks very much, for there is nowhere better to be right now.

As reopenings approached in late May, I talked with friends about missing the performative aspect of restaurants, hearing variations on the same longing in response. The nostalgia wasn’t for prix-fixe multicourse extravaganzas but for the simple gift of the restaurant moment, the anticipation and contentment of being nourished in some nook or corner of the public square. One friend, a ramen nut I figured would be jonesing for a bowl of spicy chicken noodles at the bar at Uncle, instead mentioned Ed’s Best Edibles, a meticulously run if improbably named hot dog stand that was located in the covered exit area outside the Lowe’s store in Louisville.

“I will get a hot Polish,” he said, “or maybe a standard dog with a can of Coke and a bag of chips. Ed will make sure that I fully understand my condiment options. He will round down the bill. He will assure you that the drinks are ice cold out of the cooler but offer fresh ice if you like. And as I sit next to the push mower display and savor my few stolen minutes between chores, I will enjoy the entertainment of listening to Ed deliver the whole routine again to the next customer.”

I, too, was missing Ed’s, and when it did not reopen in early June, I called owner Ed Zeaphey to see what his plans were. I got a short lesson on the fragility of food service entrepreneurialism, pre- and post-virus. His hot dog stand was his sole income, he said, and sufficient for a living. But scant savings and the temporary closure forced him into the ever-expanding arms of Amazon and, later, UPS. At that point, he hoped he could continue his hot dog business sometime in the future at a new location after raising enough capital to open a brick-and-mortar store. Godspeed, Ed: There must be thousands of similar hardscrabble stories like his in the wake of the pandemic.

As June began, early reports were encouraging: Grateful customers were ordering and tipping large. These folks, who presumably did not lose income during the lockdown, will be crucial for the local hospitality industry in the months ahead. Personally, I rushed out three times in the first week, to two patio-friendly restaurants and a fancy cocktail lounge. Patios in Highland and RiNo looked as crowded as they could legally be. Consumer exuberance, which economists call “animal spirits,” was running high; young people, in particular, apparently needed to be out on the town. (Soon enough came the second closure of bars, for 30 days at least, and industrywide nervousness that restaurants might be shut down next.)

At one place, I had my temperature taken at the door with one of those guns, which was kind of fun. After a few minutes, I more or less stopped noting the bizarre fact of servers wearing masks as if in a surgical theater. In two places, I spoke to owners. Their basic message was: We’re glad that we’re open, but this can’t go on too long. Reduced-capacity rules simply didn’t provide enough revenue, even with the state’s welcome easing of to-go liquor rules and allowance of expanded outdoor seating. So, while I was happy to be out, the food was mostly good, and the service was relaxed and cheery in the Denver style, the experience felt fragile and fraught.

Few businesses, however, are more hopeful than independent restaurants, for they contain within them the energy of both performance art and hospitality. It’s a low-margin activity in part because there are so many people who want a shot at the spotlight on that stage; we diners have always been the beneficiaries of their foolish, beautiful dreams. As local restaurants close in the next year, others will surely open to take their places. Eventually, and sooner than might seem possible, I’m betting that the trajectory of the Denver dining scene will resume the upward path it was on before the lockdown. But fragile and fraught is the current reality for both restaurants and their customers. To those who feed and serve us, good luck. I hope to dine at both Ed’s Best Edibles and Beckon, and a lot more, this summer and fall as we all face the coming winter.

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