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A Taste of Old Milwaukee

Colorado Springs gets real with downtown pub



So what if we're one of the only cities with a population of 500,000 in the country that doesn't have a convention center? Until Dec. 17, we were possibly the only mid-sized city in America without a good downtown burger joint and funky neighborhood bar.

A city has no right to call itself a city without such a bar. Sure, our town has plenty of upscale bars and theme bars, places with their own microbrews, places that serve enormous plates of food, artfully arranged and garnished, and priced to match. But until now, downtown patrons hungering for a plain old burger and fries and a cold, cheap beer have been out of luck.

Take heart, burger lovers. Tony's has arrived.

For six years, my co-workers and I have wished for a joint where we could pass a quick lunch hour with a classic greasy burger on a grilled bun, with maybe a basket of onion rings to share, and now we've got our wish. Tony's appeared as if out of nowhere in the pretty old brick building that used to house the Lotus Eater boutique, next door to Colorado Co-op. We saw signs of construction but could hardly believe it when the sign went up and the doors opened. The place looked at birth as if it had already been there a decade or so, the doors opened with no fanfare, and a crowd of regulars just naturally gravitated there.

A month later, we can barely remember life before Tony's, and here are but a few of the reasons why.

First and foremost, there are the burgers. Practically everything at Tony's is grilled or fried, and that includes the buns these juicy quarter-pound babies sit on. Four bucks will get you a hot burger on a warm, grilled bun, served conveniently in a waxed-paper sleeve so you can avoid drips down the front of your work clothes. All burgers come with the cheese of your choice -- American, Cheddar or provolone -- and are served with a side of crunchy pickle slices and your choice of fries, macaroni and cheese, or coleslaw. First time out, try the fries -- they're salty, long and chewy. When you tire of them, go for the mac and cheese, which is better than Mama's -- fat and tender macaroni swimming in a creamy white sauce. The coleslaw is perfectly serviceable but fairly standard. Add bacon for 75 cents, or double the meat patties for an extra buck. My absolute favorite dish at Tony's is the onion burger -- the burger described above, piled with mounds of sweet grilled onions.

Of Tony's daily specials, I've tried two. Monday's buffalo wings were vinegary and firm, served with a side of blue cheese dressing. Tuesday's tuna melt sandwich would get my nomination as the item that should be placed on the everyday menu -- a hefty scoop of freshly mixed tuna salad (tuna, onion, celery, mayo) comes served on grilled rye bread with a thick slab of just melted swiss cheese. I've been told Saturday's Reuben sandwich is good and the corned beef is not fatty; and when I inquired about Wednesday's special -- steak and draft beer -- I was told "too bad" if I didn't want the mug of Pabst Blue Ribbon (the house draft beer), so I ordered the regular menu item of steak and eggs instead.

Oh yeah. A tender, grilled 6-ounce. steak came with the eggs perfectly prepared to my specification atop a pile of peppery hash browns and grilled toast. Three or four dashes of hot sauce and a Jack Daniels on the rocks and I had the perfect, no-nonsense, late-night dinner.

A few other dishes at Tony's should not go unmentioned. The excellent mac and cheese becomes the foundation for a sinfully soupy and heartwarming dish called chili mac -- topped with Tony's mild chili con carne and slices of onion. The fish and chips are dark, golden brown -- exceptionally filling and tasty. And both the foot-long hot dog and the bratwurst are top-notch -- the dog comes with chunks of fresh tomato, chopped onion and pickle (chili and cheese for $1.25 extra), and the brat comes on a grilled bun with warm kraut, generously dotted with caraway seeds, and melted Swiss.

Two television sets perpetually tuned to sports channels but not overly loud are perched at both ends of the long bar, and an outstanding CD jukebox stands off to the side at Tony's. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday during happy hour and early dinner, a couple of cheerful guys who call themselves "Just Enough" play classic soul and rhythm and blues live. Both the dcor and the menu contain friendly nods to Wisconsin, presumably proprietor Tony's heartland -- signs for Leinenkugel's beer, "Pride of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin," dot the brick walls along the bar; beer cheese soup is the only soup on the menu; and a Green Bay Packers tapestry hangs on a back wall.

Downtown Colorado Springs has graduated to city status since the arrival of Tony's. When and if the convention center comes to town, and those contractors or accountants from Milwaukee find themselves longing for a downhome pub, you'll know where to direct them for a burger and fries and a pitcher of PBR. As for me, Wednesday night steak and eggs and a Jack on the rocks sounds like a keeper.

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