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Restaurant Reviews - July 2006

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The Floradora Saloon - Telluride, CO                                        

Back in the day, when we were barely goliards and perpetually searching for ourselves and new places to be, we remember loading up the bus one steamy summer evening and rolling out across the desert determined to keep driving until the sweat on our bodies dried. Using somebody's mom's gas card for snacks and beer, we crossed the Big Rez and eventually made our way into the mountains of southwestern Colorado where we climbed and wound until it felt cool enough outside to start looking for a place to shut it down and get some sleep. We eventually pulled off the two lane and bounced up a dirt road until we found a spot to throw our bags next to what sounded like a good sized creek. We fell asleep in the pitch black with no idea of the surrounding scenery other than knowing that the air was brisk with pine needles and the climate seemed like it might finally suit our clothes. We awoke in the morning to find a horizon replete with jagged snow capped peaks, a clear burbling river skirted with evergreens, and an adjacent meadow peppered with grazing elk. As we drank our camp coffee and looked over the topo maps, we realized we were just a ways outside of Telluride, Colorado. Nobody else seemed to be around.

Telluride didn't have the name recognition it does now back then but we'd heard of it at least as a place off the beaten path. We'd heard as well about challenging expert ski runs with no lift lines, a funky mountain feel, and a summer bluegrass festival that was a few years old and gaining steam. As we blinked awake that morning, we'd been pondering where to go next to stay cool and had talked about maybe heading up to one of the more heralded ski areas like Aspen or Vail in search of the summer scene. The grandeur we were waking up to however was making us think we might as well drive up the box canyon and check Telluride out. If the surrounding countryside was any indication, it couldn't help but be a pretty scenic place. We had just decided that we had a plan and were going to break camp when we heard twigs snapping behind us and a bearded ruffian wearing long coats and weighed down with other gear came crashing out of the underbrush. He didn't seem to see us at first and was making his way down to the creek when he suddenly stopped and began sniffing the air like dog on a hike. He then slowly turned our way and stood blinking at us for a minute. He had a full yellow beard and a leather hat that made his face hard to see but as his eyes drifted over to the fire his teeth broke through in a smile. "Thought I smelled coffee," he finally said. "Got any left?"

We did as it turned out and the ruffian shed some of his leather bags and coats to get comfortable and untied a tin cup which he held out to be filled. He then took his place against a rock near the fire and stretched out his legs holding the coffee with both hands. "So," he said. "What's the deal with you fellas."

It seemed to us like he probably had more of an interesting deal to discuss then we did but we told him our names and where we were from. "Just passing through trying to get out of the Arizona heat," we explained. "Yourself?"

"I'm between jobs." he offered finally, after giving it some thought.

"What line of work are you in?" One of us asked.

"I'm a dentist," the ruffian said. "Or at least I was when I lived back in Michigan. I don't have a practice set up out here yet. Obviously."

One of us went down to the creek to fill the pan with water and dumped in more coffee grounds before stoking the fire and putting the pot back on it to boil. After a spell we pulled it off and let the roiling settle before refilling our cups with the rich brown chaff on top. "You thinking about opening an office in these parts?" we ventured, once we all got settled again with our full mugs.

"Not sure really," said the ruffian taking a steamy sip. "I came out this way on vacation a few years ago and just never got up the strength to go back. Out of money now of course. Wife won't be sending any more cash my way that's for sure."

"Been living off the land huh?"

"Sure enough. A man can find plenty of stuff to eat out here with the wild mushrooms and little river trout. Small game and such. Get a hankering for a good cup of Joe once in awhile though. And a Nikoloshki." His eyes got a faraway look. "Yep I sure miss being able to afford one of those Nikoloshkis once in awhile."

We looked at each other. "Nick of what?"

"Nikoloshki. Lord above don't tell me you boys haven't tried one of them yet? A Nikoloshki is what a man's simply got to have as soon as he rolls into town. This fella camping nearby when I first got here was the one that took me into town and convinced me to give one a try. Said it was the obligation of every traveler to toss one back just as soon as he first sets his boots down in Telluride. Starts every new trip off right."

"A drink?"

"More than a drink. It's a .... well Hell I don't want to ruin it for you fellas. My advice is to git yourselves into town and imbibe one just as soon as you possibly can. Head in to the Floradora Saloon on Main Street there and ask the bartender. And just see if it doesn't do a recalibration number on ya."

The ruffian ex-dentist got to his feet shortly after that, tossed the cup's dregs into the rock cobble at the edge of the creek, and tied the mug handle to a satchel with a leather string. He then gathered up the rest of his stuff. "Well it's been nice meetin you boys. Thanks for the mud. Maybe see you on down the road a pace." He then disappeared back into the underbrush from whence he had come.

So into town we went. We had been in a bit of a rut lately and had come north seeking new adventures but we weren't sure a "recalibration" of such a grand scale was what we needed. On the other hand it seemed unlikely that a drink, at least one served in a public bar, would have the life changing effect on us that it seemed to have had on the ruffian. We weren't dentists for one thing and even though Arizona is miserable for about six months of the year, we'd been able to travel and sleep through enough hot days to not let it get us too down. We coasted slowly along the main drag and saw the flowery lettering of the Floradora almost immediately. We swung around to park in front and hopped out to admire the scene of the street. A waterfall was visible at the end of the box canyon and the bare ski runs jutted up to the right. We finally turned to approach the swinging doors with some trepidation but finally just sacked up and went banging on through. Once inside, we stood blinking to adjust to the dim and saw that a guy had stood to greet us. "Two for lunch?" said the guy, who looked and sounded like he should be manning the counter at a New York deli rather than greeting folks in a mountain town.

"Just looking for a couple Nikoloshkis," we said, realizing as we uttered the words that it was 10:30 in the a.m. and that, depending on what exactly a Nikoloshki was, the request was likely to seem a little strange.

The guy didn't bat an eye however and ushered us to the bar where he said, "Two Nikoloshkis Billy. Got a couple weary travelers here in need of a wake up."

As we climbed onto our stools we watched Billy closely to see what type of bottle he'd reach for from the numerous ones displayed. Instead, he ducked under the back bar and headed for the kitchen. When he returned he had a small tray with a couple lemon quarters. He then stopped at the beverage station where he took a large spoon and shoveled coffee grounds on top of each wedge of the citrus. He then shaped the concoction into mouth sized mounds and, after sprinkling a little sugar on top, he came back down the bar and set the tray in front of us. 

We looked at each other thinking we might be the butt of some joke and half expecting the ruffian to appear from the back room with his arm around our host and with Allan Funt in tow to explain how we'd been japed. Billy didn't show any signs of kidding around however when he grabbed a couple of large shot glasses and filled them to the brim with a rich amber liquor.

"There you go boys," he said, wiping his hands with a towel. "Enjoy."

Not wanting to rush the experience we took a few moments to contemplate the scene. The Floradora itself seemed a cross between a sports bar, a western steakhouse, and a mining town saloon which, on reflection makes sense since, that's exactly what it was. The rich wooden walls were adorned with college banners from most of the top schools, the bar was brawny wood with a brass rail and the likeness of an old time saloon girl was featured on the window and mirror. Smells of meat being cooked emanated from the kitchen and a couple healthy looking waitresses stopped by to chat as they readied themselves for the lunch rush. We looked back at our Nikoloshkis. The host appeared again and climbed up on a nearby stool.

"So what are you gentlemen up to today?" he said, paying no mind to the oddly adorned tray of liquor and grounds which remained in front of us. "Where are you in from? Don't tell me, let me guess. Tempe?"

"Nope. Close enough though."

"Aah more Zonies. I knew it the minute you guys ordered. Place is getting pretty popular with you folks." The guy definitely had a New York accent.

"Actually we got the drink recommendation off a local. Some guy in from the creeks. Said we needed to come in here and drink one of these Nikoloshkis before we could do anything else. A dentist he was. Met him out the road a ways."

"Really. A dentist huh. Not sure who that would be. Only one of those in town that I know of. Usually you Arizona folk are the only ones who order Nikoloshkis. Name's Howie by the way." He extended his hand. "Better get back in the kitchen and make sure the cooks are awake. You guys gonna eat any lunch? Of course you are. Billy, take a lunch order from these boys. And get them another round of drinks. There's a great day a wasting."

Billy came down the bar with a note pad and took the pencil out from behind his ear. He stood before us with a sardonic expression. "You guys need some help?"

We did.

"Chew up the lemon and coffee and throw back the brandy," he explained. "That's what I'd do at least. Couple mushroom and Swiss burgers then?"

Sounded good. The burgers not the Nikoloshkis but chew and throw back we did and a tradition was born. The drink went down better than we thought it would with the bitterness of the lemon and piquancy of the coffee grounds serving to prep the mouth for the shock of two ounces of a 90 proof brandy that would normally be shudder inducing. The whole ritual has the effect of leaving one both warm and numb at the same time. Our mushroom and Swiss burgers came along with two more Nikoloshkis which we poured back in the same fashion as the first. We quickly ordered a couple beers to go with our lunch and Howie reappeared to tell us how he started at the Floradora as a busboy, married one of the waitresses and came to own the place instead of returning to the east coast with everyone else he knew. We stumbled out through the swinging doors about five hours later as a thunderstorm left a double rainbow across the bridal veil falls at the end of the street. We wondered then why we didn't live in Telluride. Not too many years later, one of us did.

This all took place quite some time ago obviously and Telluride, the town, has seen a bunch of changes since then most of which involve getting soft around the middle like most of the real estate agents that seem to make up the majority of the people currently residing there. First they started grading the runs, then a big hotel came, then the celebrities got wind of it and assholes like Sylvester Stallone and Tom Cruise started buying up land and the whole place sped downhill like a long board rider on the previously untamed Plunge. Soon, the locals that gave it the character for which it had become known, couldn't afford to live within thirty miles of town anymore and parking meters with Hummers next to them took the place along main street of the mountain bikes and dogs that used to be there.

We'd been in and out of town through most of the changes but the Floradora and Howie had stayed pretty much the same during it all and no matter what the circumstances, rain or shine, summer or snow, night or morning, we'd always make The Floradora our first stop when we rolled into town. And Howie never disappointed. One time, with a mudslide blocking the highway, we got stuck there and the bartender locked up and we played poker and drank until dawn. On another stop, with the Grateful Dead scheduled to play in the park and all the trappings that accompany that scene, we found Howie out in the middle of the crowded and cordoned off street trying to get people to their tables when he spotted us. "Two Nikoloshki's" we joked not really expecting anything but damned if he didn't disappear through the doors and show up a few minutes later with them fully laid out on a tray. We threw them back and chewed our grinds and rinds while the deadheads gawked. 

Howie and the Floradora went through countless bartenders and waitresses of course due to the seasonal nature of the beast but they didn't change in that the former were usually polite and respectful and the latter attractive and healthy if not always efficient. Billy hadn't stuck around too long, behind the bar at least, but remained integral to our Telluride experience since the next time we saw him he was part of a musical twosome playing on a makeshift stage in one of the Floradora's front windows with a girl named Liza who had these really cool eyes. Not long after that we saw Billy on a real stage in town park playing with his new band called The String Cheese Incident. We remembered him complaining to us once that he was the one who drew the original Floradora girl featured on the tee shirts and window and how he never got anything for it. Probably doesn't care much about that now with Bob Weir warming up for him at a sold out Red Rocks show.

The menu at the Floradora didn't change much over the years either with sort of a something for everybody theme. Burgers, pasta, black bean this and southwestern that. Howie would take trips down to Arizona or out to the coast during the off season and pick up some of the trendy cuisine and try to mix it in once in awhile but he always sort of stuck with the same formula. A couple good beers on tap, a braless rock climbing waitress in awesome shape, sports on the TVs, the little salad bar. No matter how different the town looked or what type of festival was going on, Howie and the Floradora made a goliard feel like there was at least one place to sit and relax after a long drive or rigorous bike ride. And a Nikoloshki always awaited if a little recalibration was needed.

We hadn't spent much time around Telluride in recent years but weren't really surprised when we rolled in recently to find that Howie was gone. The Floradora was still called the Floradora and looked somewhat the same but instead of Howie, a soft looking fellow came forth to greet us and showed us to seats that were in the same place as before but now had been shrouded with white tablecloths. The greeter said in a congenial way that he hoped a waitress would be over soon. None showed up for quite some time and the place seemed a little too bright and the salad bar was gone. Eventually, an uncomfortable librarian looking woman came over to take a drink order apologizing first for the delay and then for the fact that they were out of every beer we wanted. She brought us a beer we didn't want and a crappy iced tea. The seats were only about a third full but the staff seemed completely swamped as the host hovered about helplessly, wringing his hands and looking forlornly as his two waitrons stood socializing in the coffee station and his bartender leaned sullenly against the counter. A server named Abigail with a southern twang eventually showed up to tell us several more things that we couldn't have because they were out of them. Once we did get some food, it was tasty enough but the whole experience was off putting and things just didn't seem right. Maybe we should have had a Nikoloshki or two to start the meal off.

Reflecting on it all, as we sat around the fire that night at our down valley campsite, we realized that, perhaps inevitably, the Floradora had gone the way of the town. Instead of a funky unique character like Howie, a soft hapless simp with money had taken over. Instead of a naturally attractive gritty rock climber thankful for a job that would help make her rent so she could climb another day and party another night, somebody's daughter, shapely but not in shape had taken the floor with a disinterested attitude and not much to gain by being an efficient server to the likes of us. Instead of a struggling musician like Billy hiding out in the mountains to hone his craft, or a likable ski bum like Dave, or a hang gliding enthusiast, or a balls out Mountain biker manning the taps, a disingenuous and bored bartender was biding his time until he could go back to his condo and tell himself how he was living the life he wanted to live. Realtors, traffic laws, parking fees, day spas. Telluride has become what the cash clowns who can afford to live there now missed about the places they came from. Shops that don't sell anything any normal person would want, restaurants with expensive food and ambivalent service, rules and regulations everywhere you turn. Though they were originally attracted to the area for the same reason we were, most of the current residents just can't seem to leave well enough alone and instead strive to institute the comforts and constraints of Manhattan and La Jolla to make their exclusionary playground complete. As a result, what was one of the coolest places in the country is now mostly just another crappy place and the old mining town with character that we discovered all those years ago is almost completely hidden under the gondolas, gas guzzlers and garish grottos that have sprung up in its stead. 

We should have realized all this last winter when we were heading up to Crested Butte to visit some friends and decided Telluride would be a good halfway point so we pulled in to see if we could get a Nikoloshki and a little recalibration before pitching an icy tent. It was a snowy stormy night and the Floradora was dark and closed so we headed back out of town and in so doing rolled through a stop sign on one of the side streets at about one mile an hour at about one in the morning. We did this for no other reason then we thought it was safer than hitting the brakes and risking a sideways slide on the ice. Back in the day, there would have been hearty revelers and powderhounds everywhere stumbling home and shouting into the night about the awesome powder day they would wake up to. Instead, the only person that was around on this night was a cop named Jonnie Miller who pulled us over and cited us for failure to come to a complete stop. On the black ice? At one mile an hour? Good job buddy! Way to keep the peace. And so long to the Floradora and Telluride. It was nice knowing you. The surrounding scenery is still awe inspiring though so go ahead and pull into downtown and take a look at it if you get the chance. And then turn around and drive right the hell out. Make sure to obey each and every new traffic device on the way.

 

Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved.