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A Final Farewell

The last bite of a Cherry Creek institution.

By the time this issue hits the stands, Mel's -- that Cherry Creek institution and stronghold of ever-changing American cookery -- will have served its final meals, poured its final glasses of wine and turned out the lights for the final time.

And you know what? I'm glad to see the place go. Not because I don't love it (I do) and not because I'm not going to miss it (I will, terribly, and for many reasons that have nothing at all to do with food), but because it's time. Twelve years -- that's how long Mel's has been on the scene, has been shaping the scene by training an entire generation of Denver chefs whose names now regularly appear in bold type in this column. And twelve years is a long run for anyone.

Which is a totally ridiculous thing to say, I know. There are restaurants that have survived fifty years, a hundred years. Across the pond, there are dim-lit rooms with elegant sconces hiding the original gas-lamp fixtures -- places that can trace their history back across centuries. In France (Paris aside), a restaurant is hardly noteworthy before it passes its tenth birthday, and some London train stations sell sandwiches older than most of Denver's best addresses.

But Cherry Creek is changing. Denver is changing. Tastes are changing in our city and all across the country. And if there's one thing that Meland Jane Master are known for (beyond the hundred other things they're known for), it's opening hot and closing with style. After all, they were part of a group that first trotted the French around the United States (in his early days, Mel was a shill for guys like Paul Bocuse when no one outside of a very small group of New York Francophiles would buy Bocuse a glass of wine). They were the first to bring Continental sensibilities and La Cuisine, Grenouille Moderne to Denver in the early '70s when they opened Dudley's, where Jane -- a classically trained chef from back in an age when classically trained chefs were still finding work at HoJo's-- cooked nightly for the eleven people in the city actually interested in eating such things. Mel, along with his partner, Jonathan Waxman, walked California cuisine out of San Francisco and Berkeley and Bolinas and took it all the way to New York City, to Jams(Jonathan-and-Melvin's, get it?), where it hit like a bomb, blew up huge and faded fast. Long-lived Manhattan foodistas still remember Jams with the kind of fondness generally reserved for grandparents who made the family fortune or doddering aunts once infamous for running with a fast crowd. But Mel got out before "California cuisine" became a food-world punchline. He opened Mel's -- a New American bistro before there was any such phrase as "New American" -- and served comfort food in the years before it had to come with a side of irony just to be palatable.

And as New Americanism started floundering in a shallow puddle of deconstructionist weirdness, jackleg fusion and imitators imitating imitators, the Masters got in early on the resurrection of California cuisine, with all its beauty and sensibility. Montecito, their place at 1120 East Sixth Avenue (the address that was once home to Dudley's), is unabashedly Californian -- as is its chef, Adam Mali ("California Dreamin'," April 19). Slated to open this week are Montecito South and Annabel's next door, in a complex at the corner of Orchard and Holly in Greenwood Village.

Timing. It's all about timing -- and knowing when to walk away. For example, when you get shafted in a landlord/tenant dispute. (I've heard that Western Property Managementis already deep into talks with someone who wants to rent the old Mel's space at 235 Fillmore Street.) There was no better time for things to go sideways in the Creek than right now, no better excuse for a party than to say goodbye to Mel's one more time.

Which is exactly what the owners, staff (current and former) and friends of the house did last week at Mel's: threw a final bash just four days ahead of last Saturday's last seating. It was a wake thrown for a loved one still very much alive --suitably boozy, occasionally weepy, mostly full of laughs. I won't bore you with the gossip-column details, but instead will tell just one brief story that I found more important and more moving than all of the long night's dagger-staring, speechifying and back-alley misbehavior put together.

At around 8:30 p.m., after the first course of wonton-mounted tuna tartare with avocado and mango salsa (which seemed dull until I realized it was a total California homage -- a wink-and-nod goof on the most overdone app of the revolution) and the second of pan-roasted halibut with sunchokes, sea beans and Meyer lemon-chive broth had both been cleared, Mel came around and grabbed me by the arm. "Jason, come with me," he said. "You must see this..."

He headed for the kitchen at a fast walk, dragging me in his wake. I hesitated, not sure that going into a busy galley full of big-name chefs was the best idea.

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