Denver Bar Association
April 2006
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Better to Serve Food Than Time

by Greg Rawlings

While culinary Denver never stops arguing about where you can find the best burger in town (Cherry Cricket or CityGrille?), legal Denver already knows the answer: The Public Service Grill. Located in the basement of the City and County Building, in what used to be the infamous Cafeteria, it specializes in free-range organic beef, with all the sides and fixings imaginable. And the kicker: it’s staffed entirely by convicted criminals. In a bid to free up jail space (Denver is running 50 percent over capacity as of this date), Denver has opted to convert jail time to public service time, with kitchen duty for those with experience (which is a surprisingly large percentage of the jail’s population). "Criminal KP," one wag has chimed in. The upsides are many: Jail space is freed up, yet the prospective inmates remain in the City and County Building; and there is a direct elevator from the Sheriff’s holding cells on the 4th floor to the basement — these guys are good!

The ever-curmudgeonly courthouse gang sniffed at the idea until the aroma of freshly-grilled meats wafted up from downstairs. As one prominent judge — known as much for his gastronomic expertise as his grasp of the law — told me: "Good cheap food and a staff that will never approach you with, ‘Hello, my name is Bruce, I’ll be your server today.’ What more can you ask for?" As I enjoyed my Double Arson Burger with a side of tasty Felony Fries (there’s some Tabasco in there, I think), one of the staffers said, "Hey, better to serve food than serve time." I personally agreed with both the judge and the crook.

After some initial menu issues, and a less than flattering review in Westword (Jason, how could you?), the kitchen crew decided against some of the more esoteric entrées. The manager, doing time on a coke bust, remarked: "As good as the salmon fish and chips with aioli sauce dish was, these guys are more, shall we say, cod and ketchup." But let me tell you: it’s good cod, quality cod, a cod to write home about, with simple breading and a choice of a homemade tartar sauce or fresh ketchup; it beats Grandma’s any day of the week.

Vegetarian diners needn’t feel that this is a carnivores-only joint. A wide variety of Tofu Trespass salads with fresh fruit and whatever the bakery has whipped up fill an entire wall of the Grill. There’s also the Work Release Wok Stir Fry, where you can go veggie or chicken.

At the suggestion of those health nuts in the Sheriff’s Department, a smoothie bar recently has been added to the mix. Wags have titled this cart "Jailor Juice," but I do recommend the Bad Boy Berry.

My only real qualm about this enterprise is the lack of a liquor license. Hey, with a brewmaster as mayor, why not? A nice cold sauvignon blanc with my Choice of Evils Chowder — now that’s what I call lunch.

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