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Kitchen Magician

This just in: Griff's Burger Bar at 742 South Broadway, for which I just professed my undying love ("Cheeseburgers in Paradise," October 2), is no longer serving, well, anything. Early last Friday, just a day after my review hit the stands, Griff's caught fire. It started in the kitchen, quickly spread and by morning had gutted the much-loved little burger stand -- despite all the best efforts of firemen who'd been eating at the place for years.

Representatives from Griff's say that the place will be reopening as soon as possible, but there's no word yet on how soon "soon" might be.

Remember, though, there's still one more Griff's location in the area, at 5770 Wadsworth Bypass in Arvada. If you go, keep all open flames away from the building. This is the last Griff's we've got, and I don't want anyone taking any chances.

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Griff's Hamburgers

742 S. Broadway
Denver, CO 80209

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: South Denver

"In its own subtle way, Mel's is a small museum of recent American gastronomy." So wrote John Mariani, Esquire magazine's globe-trotting, verb-slinging epicure-for-hire, the last time he took a swing through Mel's Restaurant and Bar (reviewed on page 71). The quote is right there on the awards page of the restaurant's Web site, alongside kudos from Food and Wine, Gourmet and just about every media outfit in town. Mel's has been chosen as one of America's top bistros and one of America's top tables (in both 1996 and '97, by Gourmet); it has won awards for its wine list and its food, and while the Mariani quote dates from the days when Mel's was a younger, somewhat more chaotic lighthouse of New American cuisine in the vast darkness of the Midwest, the words still ring true. If anything, the light faithfully tended by Mel's owners, Melvyn and Jane Master, only shines brighter today.

And why? Two words: Jeff Saudo. A young chef near the top of his game who's keeping a few steps ahead of everyone else treading the New American/comfort-food path that still dominates the American culinary landscape.

And I've got two more: Alejandro Sosa. He's Saudo's chef de cuisine and a seven-year veteran of Mel's who started as a dishwasher and has been promoted through every rank in the brigade. Another two: Frank Bonanno. He was a line cook at Top Hat (a restaurant also owned by the Masters, whose former space at 1512 Lawrence Street is today occupied by Max Burgerworks), moved over to Mel's, and while top dog on the line there, met Doug Fleischmann -- then Mel's general manager. Bonanno and Fleischmann went on to partner up on not one, but two of Denver's top restaurants (Mizuna, at 225 East Seventh Avenue, and Luca d'Italia, around the corner at 711 Grant Street) before Fleischmann's tragic death in a car crash this past summer.

Tyler Wiard -- now executive chef at the Fourth Story (2955 East First Avenue) -- actually took two turns behind the grills at Mel's. Melissa Kelly (a student of Alice Waters and Larry Forgione and now chef/owner of a multiple-award-winning restaurant Primo, in Maine) put in time at Mel's, as did Ben Davis, Ben Davidson and Chris Fallon (who was chef when Mariani took his spin through the Rocky Mountain West and is now running bakeries in Boston). Greg Bortz was working as a baker and pastry chef at Mel's when, like Fallon, he got the bug to open his own bakery -- only he stayed in town to do it and called it the Denver Bread Company. Goose Sorenson made his journeyman's bones at Mel's, too: After doing time at Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue) under former exec chef Michael Degenhart, he moved into a spot in Mel's kitchen, was then given the reins of Starfish (another Master outpost in Cherry Creek, at 300 Fillmore Street in what's now Campo de Fiori), which he later bought, then sold. Sorenson is now doing his own thing at Solera (5410 East Colfax) with partner Brian Klinginsmith, where he's winning awards of his own.

And then there are the Masters themselves, the curators of this museum of recent American gastronomy and the proud owners of one of the only places in town that can truly be called a training house. Since they started their working lives in France in the late '60s, they've been musicians, food writers, wine exporters and passionate eaters, as well as restaurateurs. Always a little ahead of the game, these two put Denver on the culinary map back in the '70s when, along with Blair Taylor, they created Dudley's -- "one of the first nouvelle restaurants in the West," again according to Mariani. (Taylor went on to have a long run with Chives in that space at 1120 East Sixth Avenue, which today holds Piscos.) After that, the couple opened Jams, which introduced New York City to the (arguable) joys of California cuisine, Barolo Grill (again with Taylor, who still runs the restaurant at 3030 East Sixth Avenue) and, finally, Mel's -- where all their experience from forty years of immersive, obsessive, expansive restaurateuring is focused.

When I ask the chefs -- both present and former -- why Mel's has been so successful over the years, they give credit to the Masters. When I ask Mel why his place has done so well, he gives credit to his staff.

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