In a brave new world crowded with look-alike business parks, convenience centers, gated communities and shopping malls, restaurants are a refuge. Not the chains with their prefab buildings and instant dcor, but restaurants sprung from the imagination of creative minds, local joints with individual identities, competing for customers and jammin' to keep their doors open.
Colorado Springs has more than its share of chain restaurants, including the upscale eateries recently and soon-to-be located in the new Briargate shopping complex. Rumor has it the food's excellent at P.F. Chang's, Biaggi's and California Pizza Kitchen, and there are definitely good meals to be had at some of the other high-end chains like Buca di Beppo. But give me a soft corn taco from one of the hundred or so new taquerias that have popped up all over town, and I feel like I'm biting into a new and exciting piece of the city's cultural history.
In the past 10 years, since the Independent came to town, the dining scene in Colorado Springs has gone from homey and humdrum to new, nervy and nifty. Many classics survived the '90s and still feed us when we're looking for the familiar: ice cream at Michelle's, steaks and big-band music at the Broadmoor Tavern, down-home Italian at Luigi's or Antonio's, fried chicken at Juniper Valley Ranch, veggies and rice at Adam's Mountain Caf, massive sandwiches and slices at Poor Richard's, crepes at La Creperie. Praise Buddha and pass the granola, we still have Mountain Mama.
But change also defines the Springs' food scene.
Downtown, what was once Joe's European Bakery, serving pierogis and delicate Polish pastries, is now Everest Nepal serving curries and momos. On the spot where a leggy blonde named Lou used to sling hash and bake muffins at The Date Bar, we now have Hunan Springs serving exceptionally good Chinese food. From the Independent offices on Pikes Peak Avenue, we've watched with interest as the restaurant downstairs morphed from Rosie's to Hollywood's to Manhattan's to Trattoria de Angelo. We felt like proud parents when we watched our favorite bartender Johnny Nolan, (formerly of The Ritz where young chef Jason Gust has sure spiffed up the menu) open his own place, Southside Johnny's. And we cheered for former Indy sales rep Alexius Weston as we watched her put together her dream coffeehouse/bar/bistro, Shuga's (now serving Sunday brunch and a full menu until 11 p.m.).
Phantom Canyon started the local brew pub craze around the time the Independent started shaking up the Springs, and Il Vicino followed soon after. Farther south, Raffi Sassower opened his Warehouse and Palmer Lake Brewing Company, still going strong with chef James Africano running the kitchen.
Down south on Nevada Avenue, Sencha grew from a teahouse to a full-fledged restaurant with an innovative menu and a wacky staff that occasionally pretend they're actors.
West Side diners have witnessed the elegance and excellence of Gertrude's and the continuing traditions of fine dining at the Briarhurst and the Craftwood Inn. Manitoids welcomed Mona Lisa with its sultry fondues, and the exquisite Cliff House. Old City Caf became Paravicini; a noodle house became Front Range Barbecue; Corbett's became Rita's; and Sweet Georgia Brown's begat Sir Joe's which begat Las Enchiladas.
Joe Coleman's Blue Star started on West Colorado then moved, expanded and blossomed down on South Tejon. Farther south, beloved Bell's Deli became Joe Coleman's Del's Beli, then the snazzy Cerulean Grill, and is now Breadheads where, I hear, Gina Solazzi's superb pastas, formerly found at Pasta di Solazzi, are sold.
Chain restaurants dominated the area around the newly built World Arena and the Tinseltown megaplex, but on the shaded end of Janitell Avenue, just a few blocks away, Frenchman Nicky Serbanescu opened an Old World charmer, Nicky's at the Vineyard (a great place for an outdoor end-of-summer meal and a glass of wine).
Up north, Marigold's scaled up and moved and still packs a crowd at every meal. Mayfield's went Mexican, Salsa Brava started turning out killer salsa, and India Garden, thank goodness, hung steady. Mirch Masala spiced up the Indian food scene and Jun, the champion of sushi in the Springs, still wows us every time we eat there with their ultra-fresh fish and gorgeous presentation.
What does Colorado Springs have now that it didn't have then? Everything. Ethnic markets like Saigon Market where you can buy papayas the size of footballs, long Asian eggplants and green tea popsicles. We have a Mexican supermarket down by the Home Depot on East Pikes Peak and we have stellar Mexican family restaurants like La Carreta where the mole sauce is made by hand and every dish smells like home. We have chefs like Brent Beavers of Sencha and James Africano of The Warehouse and Walter Iser of Walter's Bistro and Victor Matthews of Green Mountain Falls' excellent Black Bear Restaurant championing Colorado-grown produce and meats.
We have Greek food at Jake & Telly's on the West Side and Zorbadillo's on the border of Memorial Park. We have Wild Ginger Thai and Saigon Caf. We have Korean noodle houses and Japanese grills. We have a state-of-the-art gourmet cheese and fish market at Par Avion. We have more restaurants and bistros and delis and markets than I have the space to name here.
The bar has been raised in Colorado Springs. We have enthusiastic, serious food lovers encouraging enthusiastic, serious young chefs. We have a bona fide food scene.
What don't we have? A downtown diner, a greasy spoon that serves fried eggs and toast in the morning, a good BLT, and a meat and three vegetables at lunch. With cornbread or biscuits. And pie. Come on somebody. Please?