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The Bite

Pierre Wolfe chases down Denver's dining history.

Pierre Wolfe, who opened The Normandy in its original location in 1958 with his cousin, Heinz Gerstle, and shuttered its last home earlier this year (the spot is now occupied by Rose's Cafe, reviewed above), isn't exactly sitting around playing bridge now that he's retired. Anyone who's ever spent ten minutes -- okay, that's impossible, I mean ten hours -- chatting with this 75-year-old bundle of energy knows that Wolfe can't stay still long enough for a minute egg to cook. So it's no surprise that he's about to embark on a monthlong cruise to Sydney, Hong Kong, Manila, New Guinea, Vietnam and Singapore, on which he'll be a featured chef. Just in case that gig doesn't tire him out, he's also working on a book about the history of dining in Denver.

Titled The Rise and Fall of Denver's Restaurants, the book isn't due out until late next year. Until then, Wolfe is collecting recipes from current restaurants as well as memories from old-timers about restaurants -- and restaurateurs -- long dead and buried. "The intent is to bring a story out as to who was what in the restaurant field," Wolfe explains. "I want it to be an old-and-new thing, with information and menus from long-gone places juxtaposed with recipes from vital restaurants."

The book idea came from a patron at the Normandy who told Wolfe he should write his autobiography. "I thought, that's too much," he says. "I don't want it to be all about me. And I don't want to work that hard, trying to make myself sound interesting. But as I was driving home that night, I thought, 'Why not a book about the history of Denver's restaurants?' That was something I could sink my teeth into."

He began his search for information at the library, where an 1890s article from the Colorado Sun caught his eye. "It talked about dining in a way that sounds so modern that you wouldn't believe it," he says. "The food they were eating then! The restaurants there were! It's so fascinating, and it's been amazing to see how cyclical it all is." Collector Max Donaldson, who saw an article about the upcoming book in one of the dailies and called Wolfe to offer his services, has already contributed more than 300 original menus from restaurants dating back to the turn of the century. (Donaldson also wrote an essay for the book titled "Down the Ziti Trail: Confessions of a Menu Snatcher.") The book's cover photo was provided by another collector, who offered up 285 matchbook covers from Denver restaurants. "People just keep coming out of the woodwork," Wolfe says. "I'm having so much fun talking to them."

Luckily for Wolfe, many of the folks who've owned restaurants in Denver over the past several decades are still around, and some of them are current restaurant owners. "I have to talk to everyone, because, for instance, Blair will tell me one thing, and Mel and Jane will tell me another," Wolfe says, referring to Barolo Grill owner Blair Taylor, and Mel's Bar and Grillowners Meland Jane Master, all three of whom once owned the defunct but still legendary Dudley's. "Now, don't get me in trouble, because I don't mean there's this great controversy or anything, but people remember things differently, don't you think?"

One thing Wolfe can't remember is the last time he sat down to Christmas dinner with his whole family, which has grown to include not just his wife of forty years, Jean, but their daughter, Karen Wolfe Hermann, who ran the Normandy and its restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Chez Michelle; son Ron Wolfe; and five grandchildren. "I think it was fifteen years ago, before this one," he says. "I can't tell you what a delight it was to relax with them. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were always the busiest days of the year for the Normandy, and we were all always there."

Chez Michelle closed along with the Normandy. Today, Wolfe says, Hermann is enjoying time with her children. "I wasn't sure how she would feel when it was all over," he adds. "Basically, closing put her out of a job. But she called the other day and said shutting down the Normandy was the best thing I'd ever done, and she thanked me. That makes me feel good, that she's going to really take pleasure in the kids. Do I miss it sometimes? Sure. But there's still a lot I want to do."

Definitely on his list: a visit to the small hotel that former Denver restaurateur Cliff Young (Cliff Young's, Napa Cafe) is now putting the finishing touches on in the Cote d'Or, in the heart of Burgundy's wine country. (The hotel, named Domaine Montagny, is described by Young as "a luxurious small-scale hotel, winery, restaurant and bar," and is expected to open this spring.) Wolfe has been interviewing Young, who plans to write an article for the book and is in Denver right now doing some restaurant consulting for his buddies, including Bobby Rifkin, whose biggest local project these days is the Diamond Cabaret(1222 Glenarm Place) -- the steakhouse/strip club that's recently been trying to overhaul its image as well as its kitchen.

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