On the Road, a Clean, Well-Lighted Place in Eagle
by Seth Cagin
May 01, 2008 | 708 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
My stomach was still iffy following anesthesia just two days before, but a reporter has to do what a reporter has to do, so I dutifully ordered the Grilled Three Cheese and Chorizo Sandwich on sourdough, served with chipotle aioli ($7.95). Now, it isn’t only that I really wanted that item, but the proprietor of the Broadway Café in Eagle has listed it as the very first item on the lunch menu. This was a sandwich with pride of place.

Marta and I had been to the Broadway Café two weeks earlier, on our last trip home from knee surgery (hers) in Vail. That time, I ordered the Cheese-Steak Sandwich ($9.95) – shaved prime rib, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, sautéed peppers, on a hoagie – and was stunned at how delicious it was. Before arriving for our second visit, I anticipated taking the easy way out and simply ordering it again.

Years ago we travelled around the state with the Colorado Small Town Restaurant Guide, last published in 1991, in our glove compartment. It was useful, though not all that effective in actually procuring for us a decent meal. There really weren’t many places you could eat enjoyably between Telluride and Denver, and in most locales, to the best of my knowledge, there still aren’t. But along with the gentrification that is changing Western Colorado quicker than snowmelt in May at a time of global warming, that is changing. There’s the proliferation of chains, some of which actually serve edible fare – I’m thinking of the Qdoba just of the I-70 exit in Glenwood. Glenwood is almost precisely at the halfway point between Telluride and Denver, and so the perfect spot for a meal stop. But, then, Eagle is only another 32 miles east, and while it has the usual chain eateries off the interstate exit, we stumbled on the Broadway Café by driving just a quarter-mile further, to the town’s exceedingly quiet downtown.

Marta and I will undergo four knee surgeries in Vail this year. We are halfway through, two more to go in the fall. Over the years, elective surgery has afforded us some of our best vacations. In Vail, the oh-so-comfortable Sonnenalp Resort is just a block or so from the Vail Valley Medical Center, and at off-season rates, it can’t be beat. (A few off-seasons back, for Marta’s shoulder surgery in Aspen, we enjoyed the Little Nell at a similarly great rate.) Now, I’m not suggesting that you need to schedule surgery in order to eat at the Broadway Café in Eagle, or at Restaurant Six89 in Carbondale, where we had an outstanding dinner on our way to Vail for the first of the four surgeries. I’ll simply submit that being able to enjoy a satisfying lunch or dinner en route from Telluride to or toward Denver makes the trip far more agreeable, whether surgery is the purpose of the journey or not. There are, believe it or not, even some good choices in Grand Junction nowadays.

As a side note, Marta and I don’t usually face the same hunger driving home from Denver, because we’ve made Whole Foods our last metropolitan area stop, and are loaded down with munchies. Our discovery of the Broadway Café at the halfway point may have changed the calculus, however, because now, along with a craving for a second shot at a Broadway Café Cheese-Steak, I’ll be thinking ahead to the Grilled Three Cheese and Chorizo that I’ll want to order. Most likely, next time we do stop in Eagle, I won’t order either. What makes the Broadway Café such a find is the sheer appeal of the menu. We didn’t inquire about the ownership or cooking philosophy, but you know as soon as you sit down that you’re in a place where someone both understands and cares about food.

I found myself thinking of Hemingway’s “clean, well-lighted place,” a café that provided comfort to the suicidal precisely because and only because it was clean and well-lighted, in Hemingway’s time and place, or in his cosmology, at least, a marker of pride, of a proprietor who cares, thus of meaning. I will not kill myself today, for I can drink brandy at the clean, well-lighted place, the old man thought. At the Broadway Café, which is both clean and well-lighted, the marker is the softened compound butter served with the bread. When is the last time you were at a casual restaurant that went to the trouble of seasoning the butter served with the baguette, given how much simpler and cheaper it is for any kitchen to toss out a couple of those rock-hard butter patties wrapped in foil? Nobody will complain.

Eagle is one of those down valley Colorado towns that are rapidly morphing into modern suburbs of Vail and Aspen. Soon enough, downtown Eagle will have a plethora of cafes and art galleries, but for now the new subdivisions are outside of the historic downtown, which is just starting to awaken after decades of sleep. The Broadway Café occupies the ground floor of a century-old, two-story brick structure, thoughtfully preserved.

Part of the pleasure here is that you wonder if the other people enjoying their meals realize how good it is, or if they assume that food this smart just sort of happens by itself.

Now, I realize I’m at risk of overhyping what should be an everyday experience: a modestly priced restaurant where somebody really cares about what they serve. On our two stops, Marta and I have only begun to sample the offerings. Her Goat Cheese Veggie Wrap ($7.95) – Portabello mushrooms, spinach, red bell peppers, goat cheese, onions, tomato and balsamic vinaigrette – was first rate, as was a Green Chili Corn Chowder, whose base was a rich cheddar potato soup. I’m thinking we should plan a trip whereby we find ourselves in Eagle at dinner time. I’ve got my eye on Braised Beef Short Ribs, served with mashies and a fennel arugula salad ($20.95), or maybe something as simple as a Crispy Half Chicken, with sherry onion jus ($12.95). My lunchtime experiences have primed me to believe that it would be an outstanding bird, if simple, and reminiscent of, well, of a clean, well-lighted place.

This new phenomenon, really good food in the rural West, is something to celebrate, isn’t it? Even though it comes with the population growth and development that so many of us lament? Is this the time to mention the Cookin’ Books café in Chama, New Mexico, another clean and well-lighted revelation in another place where not so long ago even the burgers were pretty dismal and no small town restaurant guide could offer much in the way of hope?

No. And that’s the good news. Because Cookin’ Books is another story for another day and another road trip.

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