Husband And Wife Re-Discover Lost Restaurants Of Denver’s Past

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An ad for Murphy's Chili Parlor at 5 Broadway in Denver circa 1920s.

This story first Aired on 10/12/2015.

There used to be a restaurant near the state Capitol where Marlon Brando was turned away because he wasn't dressed appropriately. There was a Ringside Lounge run by an ex-boxer named Joe "Awful" Coffee. And the old Denver Dry Goods department store had a tea room where ladies in Chanel suits dined on stuffed tomatoes. Those places are among the "Lost Restaurants of Denver," which is also the title of a book by husband and wife Bob and Kristen Autobee. They spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Read an excerpt from the book:

The town’s first business directories strongly indicate that the first Denverites were more drinkers than diners. Saloons outnumbered places to eat by ten to one throughout Denver’s first two decades. Newspaper accounts, letters to eastern homes and diary entries show that there was a better chance at finding bad home-brewed whiskey than good home-cooked meals. Mrs. Samuel Dolman deserves credit as Denver’s first female restaurateur, as she sold pies to hungry miners tired of their own cooking. Mrs. Dolman used her earnings to build a boarding house.

By the late 1860s, a pair of French frères—Fred and Louis Charpiot—introduced continental delights on Lawrence Street between Fifteenth and Sixteenth. When history and hot meals meet on the printed page, more often than not, the maître d’ is French diarist Marcel Proust. Americans might recognize the author of À la Recherché du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) as a reference in a food magazine article or book that drifts back to a recollection of a great tuna sandwich or a five-course meal. Proust probably never consulted an atlas to find Denver.  Nevertheless, a contemporary, Louis Simonin, came to Denver in 1867 and wrote that a restaurant operated by one of his countrymen rivaled the boites, or cafés, that Paris had to offer.

 At the same time, and a few blocks from Charpiot’s Hotel and International Restaurant, Chinese immigrants served whites and other Chinese along “Hop Alley” in Denver’s Chinatown, before a race riot wiped most of it from the city in 1880. African Americans ran restaurants downtown and, increasingly, in the Five Points neighborhood by the close of the century. African American James Cole should be remembered as Denver’s first “celebrity” chef. In other cases, the town grew so fast that stereotypes got in the way of making money or a good meal. Or so the African American women who ran their own restaurants could attest.

Between the dawn of the twentieth century and the Second World War, the city boasted several noteworthy restaurants. Pell’s Oyster House, The Manhattan, Bauer’s and The Edelweiss Café were pillars of Denver dining. Like the city itself, they were not too fancy, but they were respectable and guaranteed a good meal reasonably priced. Concurrently, Denver’s hamburger stands, chop suey joints, chili (or sometimes chile) parlors and Mexican restaurants provided cheap and (for the time) somewhat exotic alternatives to what the “Big Four” offered every day.

One troubling reality of this history reveals that Denver’s restaurants were a stage for racism. The Manhattan, the most celebrated restaurant of its day, excluded African Americans from 1903 until it closed in 1941. Denver’s ethnic cuisines receive little recognition as they relate to the study of the north side’s Italians and Mexicans, Five Points’ African Americans and the Japanese along Lawrence and 20th Streets.  These business owners adapted as Japanese served the Chinese-American hybrid chop suey and Greeks, not Mexicans, first popularized chili.

Reprinted from "Lost Restaurants of Denver" by Robert and Kristen Autobee, permission of Robert and Kristen Autobee.