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A Happy Ending

Carmine's on Penn proves that fairy tales can come true.

Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, there was a restaurant ruled by a king named Larry.

Now, King Larry wasn't an evil king. He wasn't cruel or ruthless, as kings so often are. He didn't abuse the peasantry of Hotcakesland, didn't cut off peoples' heads. He didn't even wear silly hats, as most kings are wont to do (at least, he didn't wear them in public).

No, all King Larry wanted to do was run a good place, collect a decent paycheck and not catch a lot of shit from the locals about his very New York vision of what an Italian restaurant should be. He served sausage and peppers like the kind found at street festivals and St. Joe's carnivals back home, fresh chicken and veal parmagiana (made with real meat, not something a short step from becoming cat food) and giant bowls of pasta, each one big enough to feed three fat guys and still send them home with leftovers. Because King Larry was a good owner, his restaurant flourished and the neighbors were all happy. They wished his reign could last forever.

Carmine's has new owners, but the food is as good as 
it ever was.
Mark Manger
Carmine's has new owners, but the food is as good as it ever was.

Location Info

Map

Carmine's on Penn

92 S. Pennsylvania St.
Denver, CO 80209

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: South Denver

But then one day, a funny thing happened. King Larry got it in his head to abdicate the Italian-restaurant throne and move on. And though there was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth among the people who'd come to love Carmine's on Penn, King Larry would not be dissuaded.

Meanwhile, in his kingdom was a man named Chris Linker, who thought that maybe -- just maybe -- he might be able to rise to the lofty spot left vacant by the king and keep Carmine's going. True, he was just a lowly waiter, but he loved Carmine's and thought (correctly, it turned out) that King Larry was somewhat premature in leaving. After consulting with lawyers and contractors and all the other wise men of the kingdom, Chris the Waiter (along with his wife) decided to step up and buy Carmine's from King Larry.

And everyone lived happily ever after.

Almost.

The story of Carmine's on Penn is as close to a fairy tale as you get in this business. The notion of a waiter buying the restaurant where he works when its owner grows tired of the place is one of the oldest, most pathetic cliches in the restaurant industry. It happens all the time, believe it or not, and the waiter's brave purchase is almost always immediately followed by two things: First, the rush of wind as the smart employees all make a simultaneous run for the door, stealing everything that isn't nailed down as a hedge against their last paychecks bouncing; and second, the steady hammering of a sheriff tacking on the "Premises seized pending bankruptcy arbitration" notice. Almost never do these sagas have a happy ending. Almost never do these transfers of ownership last long enough for the ink to dry on the contracts that inevitably doom the uppity waiters to lives of penury and regret.

And yet, waiters (and chefs and waitresses and bartenders) keep trying, hoping against hope that their experience will be different from everyone else's. Waiters and chefs and waitresses and bartenders keep buying restaurants, because they want very badly to believe in the fairy tale -- the dream that they will be the ones who beat the odds and make the impossible leap from salad carrier to boss -- and hold tight to the same kind of faith that children have in the Easter Bunny and born-again Christians have in the Rapture. Because every now and then, every once in a very long while, a fairy tale actually comes true. It's like the story of the kid who started out in the mailroom and one day becomes the CEO of the company. But for every Jimmy the Mailboy who makes good and becomes president of WidgetCorp, there are a thousand other Jimmy the Mailboys who labor in anonymity for decades, develop drinking problems or weird obsessions with their supervisors, then show up for work one day with a rifle and settle all bets.

Carmine's on Penn is one of those rare success stories that will forever inspire the unprepared, inexperienced and underfinanced into taking their shot at the restaurant bigtime. When Larry Herz decided to move on in 1996 -- two years after he opened the almost instantly successful Carmine's -- waiter Chris Linker and his wife bought the place, and Linker went from servant to king just like that.

But the story doesn't end there. A couple of years later, when Linker and his wife divorced, she got the restaurant and held on to it until last August, when another longtime Carmine's employee, veteran ops guy Jay Joralemon, bought the keys to the kingdom. Joralemon and his partners, Shannon and Steve Bangert, closed Carmine's while they remodeled -- a round of repainting, some kitchen work, new floors and new fixtures -- and then reopened this fall. Since then, Carmine's has been as successful as it ever was during the reign of Larry Herz, even busier than it was under the Linkers, and a testament to the fact that for every hard-and-fast rule of the restaurant industry, there's always an exception. Every now and then, fairy tales do come true.

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