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This week’s feature, “Denver Disappearing: Looking Back at Buildings We Lost,” recalls old favorites – from the Tabor Grand Opera House to the Celebrity Sports Center – that shaped Denver’s architecture and entertainment scene before they did gave way to the forces of modernization.
Restaurants have come and gone too, as Denver chef Renee Marton once reminded us. Marton lived in Colorado for a short time in the late 1970s and wrote to us about what had become of Cafe Promenade, a high-end European restaurant in Larimer Square, where she got her first managerial job. This is what she asked:
I am trying to find out information about the above restaurant. I worked there (in the kitchen) in 1978 and 1979. I had big trouble finding out about the restaurant: the history of the restaurant, who owned it, how long it took, and any other information that might be traceable.
The Cafe Promenade was below street level in the room that now houses the milk and honey from the chef / restaurateur Michael Shiell. It originally opened in 1966, and in 1969 co-owners Fred and Hertha Thomas threw the first Denver Oktoberfest in front of the cafe, a tradition that continued in Larimer Square until 2007 when Oktoberfest moved to 20th and Larimer Streets.
When Marton got a job preparing vegetables there, she was interviewed by the other owner, Tish Kllanxhja, an Albanian immigrant (hence the unusual spelling of his last name) whom Marton remembers as a “gentleman”. She told him that as long as she didn’t have to chop carrots, she would be willing to work at any station. “He told me, ‘Miss Marton, you will learn humility on this job,'” she recalls – and she did so by ending up working every station on the line, asking to fill in every time someone quit .
Chef / restaurateur Michael Shiell in the former Cafe Promenade during the construction of Milk & Honey.
Courtesy of Milk & Honey
According to restaurant consultant John Imbergamo, Cafe Promenade continued into the 1980s. “The maître d ‘was Fred Thomas, a sturdy and lively man who remembered everyone who walked through the door,” remembers Imbergamo. “The epitome of the host. If he didn’t remember your name, he’d call you a nickname. Mine was ‘The Hat Man’, although I never wore a hat for Cafe Promenade.”
Imbergamo also notes that ownership changed to Charles Callaway during this time; The cafe eventually closed well before 1990 when a restaurant called Bibelot opened, owned by Denver dining mogul Cliff Young. Bibleot didn’t last long, but the year it opened Westword gave it awards for Best Bartender (Male) and Best Grappa List. In 1984, when it was Cafe Promenade, the place was named the best after-theater restaurant. Kllanxhja died this spring at the age of 93.
Bibleot didn’t last long and the space was home to some memorable eateries before being owned by Pam Savage-Sims and Curt Sims to Lime Mexican Cantina, which drew large crowds from 2001 to 2012. After that, Shiell took over the space, which was reduced entirely to dirt and rafters, to bring a restaurant that hadn’t seen significant improvements in more than forty years.
A Matchbook cover by Bibelot, which took over Cafe Promenade in the early 1990s.
Marton attributes a lifelong passion for cooking to her time at Cafe Promenade. After her brief stay there, she bought a Subaru and moved to Aspen, where she worked for a few months before returning to New York. She ended up head chef at two restaurants for six years each, including Florent, a restaurant as famous for its 24-hour French menu (which we haven’t seen in Denver) as it is for its commitment to LGBTQ equality . She then returned to school and earned a Masters in Gastronomy and Food History. Today she works at the Institute for Culinary Education.
Do you have fond memories of Cafe Promenade or would you like to learn more about other restaurants from Denver’s past? Let us know in the comments section below or email [email protected]
A Cafe Promenade menu from the 1980s.
Courtesy John Imbergamo
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Mark Antonation is the Westword Food & Drink Editor. He began eating and writing about every restaurant on Federal Boulevard, and continues to report on Metro Denver’s diverse international food scene and the city’s rapidly changing dining landscape. Mark was named an Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association in 2018.