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On the Pleasant Side of the Street

Relaxed atmosphere, healthful food define the Dale Street Café

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A confession: I used to love to go to Dale Street Café to eavesdrop on the conversations at surrounding tables. It's an occupational hazard. Listening is my business.

College students on dates, lefties discussing politics, worried parents discussing their Colorado College student's future -- Dale Street was a haven to all of these, to school teachers, to same sex couples out on a first date, to singles like me and more.

Besides, it's quiet inside the funky little purple house on Dale Street, between Nevada and Tejon. The cozy decor and soft music invite you to stay and make you feel like part of a close-knit family.

But since confession is in order, I must confess that after years of enjoying their predictably pleasant but relatively bland menu, I stopped going to Dale Street Café. A couple years back, management changed and rumors emerged of a new menu. I hurried back, only to find the same old dishes, same old names on the menu, same smells, nothing new. Again, I quit going.

Then came the unusually early, hot summer of 2002. Long, languid afternoons, late sunshine and an overheated kitchen posed the perfect invitation to have dinner out, especially at a place within walking distance from home. I found Dale Street physically unchanged with the exception of the now mature Xeriscape border between the outside tables and the street, where shrub roses mingle with purple salvia spears in a lush, drought tolerant mini-landscape.

And finally, real changes on the Dale Street Café menu. While the restaurant has maintained its emphasis on Mediterranean ingredients and still offers a significant number of vegetarian dishes, the recipes have changed -- some for the better and some not. Still, the mere hint of variety had me chomping at the bit to return to one of my favorite little hidden downtown havens. The patio here is one of the nicest outdoor eating settings in the city.

Dinner Day One: Wild at Heart, a reworked Dale Street classic of pasta topped with artichoke hearts and wild mushrooms in a red pepper puree. Very fresh and light, but it needs salt -- easy enough to remedy with the shaker on the table. A basket of soft, house-baked bread and nicely softened butter is far too tempting. The soup of the day is a light but creamy tomato herb -- perfectly balanced, the acidity neutralized by a hint of cream, the herbs fresh and finely chopped. Rosemary dominates. Everything is washed down with excellent iced tea.

Iced tea? you say. So what?

Here's a sad truth about summer in the Pikes Peak region. Folks out here don't know how to make iced tea. They pour hot tea into a glass filled with ice cubes and dilute it to tepid brown water. Or they keep it in a plastic pitcher for days, not understanding that tea goes bad if kept too long. It's no small compliment to say that Dale Street Café offers some of the best iced tea in town -- cold, fresh and brewed to the proper strength.

Dinner Day Two: Tortellini carbonara, another variation on an old classic. The creamy white wine and Parmesan sauce is substantially seasoned with smoky pancetta. The tortellini could have been a little more tender, but I'm not complaining. Soup is a mushroom bisque, lightly seasoned but complex. I beg my son to try some but he's too intent on gobbling down his New York strip. Before he inhales the whole thing, I steal one tiny morsel that includes a divine, miniscule portion of the white truffle-scented caramelized onions that top the dish -- sweet, juicy, delicious. We share the last drippings of the fine house vinaigrette left on his salad bowl. We try to guess the ingredients, but our imaginations are overactive. Our waitress tells us the mixture is simple -- olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic and a little bit of honey. We resolve to try to re-create it at home.

Dinner Day Three: The chevre pizza. These little thin-crust Mediterranean-style pizzas are a long-standing Dale Street tradition, and I'm happy to report that with a little more aggressive seasoning, they are even better now than before. This one is topped with ample goat cheese, melted mozzarella, roasted garlic, tomato slices and chopped fresh oregano. My son has the chicken Parmesan, a gargantuan portion of tender, boneless chicken pieces served over capellini and drowning in a rich marinara sauce beneath a volcano of cheese. He eats it all to our waitress's astonishment.

Another day I try the gnocchi, an old Dale Street standard with a new recipe that's overwhelmed by large, tough slices of sun-dried tomato and too much balsamic vinegar. But I am pacified by another excellent soup -- 15-bean in a vegan preparation -- more soft bread and a killer dessert of triple-layer chocolate cake with caramel sauce and pecans. The serving is large enough for four people, no exaggeration.

Overall, I'm more than pleased with the changes at Dale Street Café. A well-chosen wine list offers a nice, modest variety of five white wines and five red wines, all $7 a glass. Prices for entrees range from $10.25 for a simple pasta dish to $18.95 for the steak. The waiters are pleasant, efficient and non-intrusive and the atmosphere is still warm and homelike.

And hey, come winter when I have to eat inside, I promise, no more eavesdropping. I swear on my mother's fried chicken, or Dale Street's chocolate cake. The food will more than deserve my full attention.

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