Retro Dining Part II: Emil-Lene’s

Old-time Colorado steakhouse tucked among the trees

Turn south at this vintage sign for Emil-Lene's..
On Sunday, my husband and I had a bite to eat at Steuben’s (read about here), a hip Denver eatery that studiously echoes the ’40s and ’50s. The following evening, when my pilot brother-in-law had an evening layover in Denver, we picked him up at his hotel and set about finding Emil-Lene’s Sirloin House. I’d read raves about its huge hunks of well-cooked beef and also online reviews of disappointing meals, and this seemed a great opportunity to try it out and decide for ourselves.
Emil-Lene’s is off, yet near, the beaten path. It was established in 1958 as Emmerling’s Sirloin House and renamed after the second owners, a couple named Emil and Charlene Kuchar. Back in the day, this area of Aurora was all ranches and dirt roads. As soon as you leave Smith Road and its conga line of warehouses, showrooms and distribution centers, it still feels remote and rural — except that a large parking lot for the exemplary Sand Creek Greenway is now next to the entrance to the restaurant. A vintage sign about half-way between Chambers and Airport marks the Laredo Street where you turn south, pass the Greenway lot and Star K Open Space Park, and enter a low-slung building that looks as if it might have been a ranch house.
Emil-Lene's front entrance area at twilight.
While Steuben’s echoes the past, Emil-Lene’s is the real deal. A near-life-size John Wayne cut-out greets guests as they enter. Pass the ladies’ restroom (the gents’ is elsewhere). The bar + lounge and ajacent dining rooms are also blasts from the past. Wood paneling, framed Western stuff on the walls, commodious tables, comfortable captain’s chairs, a sound level that encourages rather than drowns out conversation and adequate lighting are clearly not the product of an interior designer. And patrons — many long-time regulars — like the decor that probably hasn’t changed since Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were TV stars. Call it a down-home look that goes with the down-home cooking.

Simple table set with all the necessaries: a relish tray with veggies and olives, wrapped bread, butter, salt, pepper, grated cheese (for the spaghetti) and packets of sweeteners (for later).

There is no printed menu. The waitress recites it: a relish tree brimming with vegetables, a spaghetti appetizer (how Italian!), a choice of soup or salad with serve-yourself dressings, baked potatoes or fries, and bread in plastic wrap to keep it fresh with butter — of course butter. This is not an olive oil kind of place!

Some people ask for freshly ground pepper because they LIKE freshly ground pepper; others because they like to watch the waitress hefting the enormous peppermill.
Salad-size plate of thick spaghetti with a matching thick tomato-meat sauce.
Four dressings -- ranch, blue cheese, Thousand Islands and vinaigrette -- are brought to the table for guests to spoon onto their salads (iceberg lettuce, red onion, red cabbage).
Prime rib as big as the dinner plate. Because the meat is hand-cut, there's no big-name steakhouse uniformity to the pieces. But both orders came out roasted as requested.
Not being much of a meat-eater, I ordered the barbecued shrimp. Eight decent-size and well-cooked shrimp occupied a baking dish. A small ramekin of extra sauce and lemon slices served as garnishes (smile, please).
A baked potato is a baked potato, one might observe. But Emil-Lene's does not come entombed in aluminum foil, which I consider a bonus.

If I had a huge appetite and were a dedicated carnivore, I’d love Emil-Lene’s for the food. What truly impresses me most is the timelessness of the place — the independence and uniqueness that does not bow to changing tastes and changing times. My own tastes run more to stylish contemporary food and interesting ethnic cuisine, but my admiration is boundless for places that stick to their culinary guns and do things the way the have for decades — just because.

Price check: Full dinners (except dessert), $26.95-$41.95.

Emil-Lene's Sirloin House on Urbanspoon