The Joint is Jumpin' 

Tried and true, the Ritz Grill still satisfies

Sunday at the Ritz. Early dinner. The Sunday New York Times spread out on the bar. Savoring a final, quiet weekend moment. A hefty steak or seafood special, eaten slowly. Down at the end of the bar nearest the door, Harley riders dressed in leather share beers and tales of weekend adventures.

Monday at the Ritz. Steak special -- a full-sized, bacon-wrapped filet plus all the trimmings for $12. Big guys with thick necks hover over their plates. A football game buzzes on the television overhead.

Wednesday lunch at the Ritz following deadline. Our server greets us with a big smile and a ready martini. Half of our huge sandwiches go home in takeout boxes for a late dinner.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Ritz -- pump up the volume. The weekend begins a day early. The crowd thickens. Musicians set up in the corner. Dinners fly out of the kitchen. Bottles fly behind the bar.

Eating -- and drinking -- at the Ritz Grill are time-honored habits for most Colorado Springs downtowners. Even when the street scene surrounding it was a wasteland, the Ritz thrived. And amidst a constant influx of new restaurants, breweries, nightclubs and pizzerias over the past few years, the Ritz steadily remains the place to go when you want a good, reliable sip or a sympathetic sip. It's not the quietest place to go even on its most placid nights. But it is the place where everybody knows your name, and under the direction of executive chef Phil Duhon, the place where you can count on a wide variety of tasty food, reasonably priced and well prepared.

Duhon leans heavily on the Cajun traditions of his upbringing, spicing up the Ritz's menu with an excellent traditional seafood gumbo ($4/cup; $7/bowl). A bowl of this thick, hearty concoction and a basket of the Ritz's crisp sourdough bread make a good quick meal. Chunks of bell pepper and celery swim alongside rock shrimp and hunks of fish in a dark brown broth, thick as mud and redolent with enough cayenne to open your sinuses and bring tears to your eyes -- it's gumbo as it should be.

In addition to the gumbo, a few other appetizers are particularly rousing and worthy of mention. Chef Phil's Crawfish Cakes Cardinal ($8) are among the best in town for my money. Chunks of Louisiana crawfish mingle in a rich, thick creamy cake accented with onion and red pepper, sauted to a crispy brown crust. Another favorite is the Voodoo Chicken ($8) -- sizable breaded chicken tenders, fried then tossed in a very spicy red chicken wing sauce. This is a huge serving, easily enough for two, or big enough to satisfy as an entre with a salad on the side. The Voodoo looks innocuous enough, but look out -- the spice sneaks up on you. Dip generously in the ranch dressing provided on the side to cut the heat.

The menu is vast and varied, offering everything from personal, thin-crusted pizzas to fajitas and quesadillas to meal-sized salads and an array of pasta dishes. The Ritz prides itself on its steaks and burgers, and rightly so. On the forementioned Monday steak night, you can get a perfectly seasoned, perfectly prepared bacon-wrapped filet or a 12-ounce certified Angus New York Strip for $12; and on any night, the Ritz's steak preparation is stellar. And though it rarely seems worthy of mention, no discussion of a Ritz steak dinner would be complete without unadulterated praise of the mashed potatoes -- lumpy and rich with heavy cream and butter, seasoned perfectly with kosher salt, pepper and a touch of Worcestershire sauce.

Among the less calorie-clogging entrees, I particularly like the Tuna Mignon ($17) at dinner, and the Poached Salmon ($9.95) at lunch. The tuna is an eight-ounce, thick filet, mesquite grilled to your specification, accompanied by slivers of picked ginger and floating in a puddle of sweet vermouth soy butter. Equally delicious, but very rich and heavy (I've never succeeded at eating more than half of this entre) is the Eggplant Acadiana ($14), a broad strip of breaded, fried eggplant topped with jumbo prawns and crawfish in a sherried herb sauce, topped with Asiago cheese.

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, Chef Phil and the staff will celebrate Mardi Gras with a Cajun feast featuring shellfish flown up from Phil's stompin' ground of Lafayette, La. Shucked oysters, boiled crawdads and shrimp, po-boys of every variety, toufe with your choice of shrimp or crawfish, and blackened catfish are just some of the special dishes offered. Phil's Seafood Gumbo will be served alongside two Fat Tuesday alternatives -- Chicken and Sausage Gumbo ($3.50/cup; $6.50/bowl) and Crawdaddy Bisque (ditto). For dessert, if you're still standing, indulge in authentic bread pudding drowned in praline sauce. If it's up to the Ritz's usual standards, you can bet it'll be good.

A review of the Ritz would not be complete without a tip of the hat to the outstanding servers. This downtown bar and grill is also a fine place for a family meal, especially on a Sunday evening when the bar is generally quiet. Rest assured your children will be treated like honored guests by the fine waitstaff.


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