Denver is what I consider a relatively accomplished culinary town, as is Boulder, where I live. And sometimes perspective is necessary to really appreciate your surroundings.
This is a roundabout way of saying I went to Grand Junction for the weekend.
The drive is always beautiful, ascending into snowy peaks and cruising across the oil-rig-spattered desert. A trip to visit my girlfriend, who goes to Mesa State College down there, also left me with a few BBQ-sauce-covered nuggets of wisdom:
1. THERE IS NO RECESSION!!! I have come to this conclusion despite 'facts' and 'logical conclusions' because of what I saw in Grand Junction. There can't be a recession until the Texas Roadhouse
in the Junk Town goes dark. It was incredible. On Friday night, I met a group of friends to celebrate someone's 21st birthday and was blown away by how busy the joint was. The parking lot was full, as was the overflow lot next to it. I didn't know if this is because everyone's F-8000 pickup takes up sixteen spots each or if the Roadhouse was really packed. But after the 15-minute wait to talk to someone to get on the wait list
, I decided it was indeed crowded.
(Quick tangent: I get how you can put peanuts on the floor -- 'Come on and throw those bad boys right at your feet! You can be comfortable here, just like back in the olden days when they did this everywhere!' -- but I was wondering about etiquette. Could I throw a piece of paper on the ground? What about gum? Maybe the weird apple cinnamon butter that comes with the rolls?)
I learned from a waitress that this was an 'average' night, and the Roadhouse could have easily served around 500 people. I thought the food was generic, not terrible and nothing unexpected, which I'm guessing is the exact reason many folks from Grand Junction frequent the place. After a BBQ pork sandwich and the simple pleasure of watching someone take a whip cream-covered shot called the 'blowjob' without using her hands, I went off into the night.
2. If you're not Texas Roadhouse...uh-oh. In this awful economy, it's interesting to see how local places do in these smaller towns (GJ has around 50,000 people, so it's not tiny). The chains can slash prices, advertise like crazy and pretty much drag people in, but it seems like the small local places are the ones taking the real hit. We'd just weathered a tough week of closings in Denver, but it seems like every fourth or fifth business in Junction has a 'going out of business' sign.
Last fall I ate at a Junction restaurant called BIN 707 Food and Wine
, one of the best on the Western Slope, where I had a delicious mini-pizza thing. I was curious to see how things were going now for this 125-seat restaurant, started by chef Eric Olson and manager Josh Niernberg in March of 2008, with an emphasis on using the bounty of produce from nearby Palisade on their menu.
BIN 707 is not doing well. A few Mondays ago, I heard it had a total of sixteen people. Last Friday, they had a 'decent' night of around fifty people. But restaurants usually hope to turn their dining rooms at least once on a weekend night of service.
I realize fine-dining places everywhere are getting hit hard right now, but it's got to be especially hard when you're in a town that has a reputation for steak and potatoes and pickup trucks.
3. On my way out of town, I walked into a fantastic little bakery cafe called My Favorite Muffin at 683 Horizon Drive. It's a locally based chain, immaculately clean, and serves a perfectly affable bagel sandwich. Expect to see more of them, and visit one now if you live near either of the Centennial locations (201 East Arapahoe Road and 8719 East Dry Creek Road).
I'm hoping smaller places in smaller towns will weather this storm, because it's THOSE places in THOSE towns that give American food culture its persona, not the Texas Roadhouse, Chili's, the Olive Garden and so on. At least, I hope.