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The Belle Starr Restaurant offers history and atmosphere

Having a deep affinity for all things Western and the cowboy/cowgirl culture, the new Belle Starr Restaurant immediately popped up on my restaurant radar, and was quite intriguing.

Historically, the real Belle Starr was one of the most infamous cowgirl/outlaws of her time. Bold, brazen and beautiful, she unapologetically reigned throughout the mid-1800s, often referred to as the female Jesse James.

So namesake and all, the Belle Starr Restaurant should be poised for success. It has several of the ingredients that could easily render it a regular coffee, breakfast or lunch spot for the local downtown crowd.

First, it is housed in one of the oldest and most historic buildings in the downtown area, the City Auditorium. Built in 1923, it's a landmark and a solid piece of Colorado Springs' history.

Second, the place opens up bright and early. Situated across the street from the courthouse, it's ripe with potential to become an off-the-beaten-path courthouse/cop/public representative/pre-or post-court date hangout. You can dine in, but they also do delivery.

It is worth dining in though, because the decor of the Belle Starr Restaurant is as cowboy cute as things get. The hardwood floors have been beautifully redone, the tables sport red-and-white checkered tablecloths, cowgirl-themed pictures and spurs, ropes and saddles adorn the walls, and the menu reads like it was written by a campfire cook named Shorty (or Cookie, as the menu points out). In fact, it seems a great deal of effort has gone into creating a nice and authentic chuck wagonlike atmosphere.

But I am sad to report, not as much effort has gone into the food. Which is too bad.

While service has always been great and the folks inside downright inviting, the food, save for the egg sandwich, the hash browns and some of the baked goods, remains perfectly average. And average is not necessarily bad ... if things are average-priced. But some items on the menu, given that they didn't knock my socks off and leave me anticipating my next visit, seem expensive.

Belle Starr serves breakfast and lunch. Breakfast begins at 6 a.m. offering grub like huevos, biscuits and gravy, eggs, potatoes, French toast and flapjacks. The menu reads well, and these items are reasonably priced.

Egg dishes, French toast and flapjacks range from $3.95 to $4.95. Heartier dishes, like huevos and the 1-pound El Bandito Burrito, stuffed with onions, peppers, hash browns and scrambled eggs, range $5.95-$6.95. Both are covered in green chili, which actually looked and tasted more like red chili with bits of green chilis mixed in. Here I say take the extra step and actually provide green chili. This was my first disappointing experience.

Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Touting the "best darn salad bar this side of the Mississippi" ($6.95, all you can eat), I gave it a shot. The one good thing about the salad bar is that the fixins vary daily, and soup is included. The soup is homemade, hearty and quite good.

The one bad thing about the salad bar is that, beyond the soup, it is perfectly average. With standard bagged lettuce (I recognize the stuff from my days in the catering business) and canned or bagged veggies, (olives, cabbage, chick peas, broccoli, etc.), it is uninspiring. And this I don't understand because the soup seemed to have fresh ingredients.

Other lunch choices run the sandwich gamut, from Reuben to burger to something called the Po' Cowboy. Believing the Po' Cowboy ($7.95) was a variation of one of my favorite meals -- the open-faced roast beef sandwich, mashed potatoes and gravy -- I ordered with glee. It was not to be, however.

The sandwich was served open-face with sliced roast beef accompanied by gravy, but it was also supposed to be served with grilled peppers and onions. They were out of both. The end result was a pile of roast beef on a hamburger bun, accompanied by a side of thin gravy.

Still optimistic, I returned a week later, and had the Rancher's Chicken Sandwich ($8.95, including fries) -- grilled chicken breast topped with Swiss cheese, guacamole and bacon. For six bucks or so, this would have been a stellar sandwich. But for the 10 bucks (after tax) that it was, it should have rocked my world. Ditto for the Green Chili Burger ($8.95). The burger itself was not bad. At 1/3 of a pound, it was a good size. But again, the green chili came out closer to red and did not quite flavor the burger as I'd hoped.

It seems that with just a little more effort, some of these things could be remedied. Because, God knows, I want to like the Belle Starr Restaurant. I'm a sucker for well-decorated, themed restaurants, and quite frankly, it's a cool space. I've been back several times, each time more hopeful. And it is a great place to sit in the morning, read the paper and have a cup of coffee. So here's hoping that things turn around, and that maybe, Belle Starr herself is watching over the ol' campfire.

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