Planet Lowdown

I am sitting in a local bar, and I am thinking that I would like to punch Bruce Willis in the nose.

The bar is a block from where the world's billionth Planet Hollywood will make its debut next year. The 33rd opened in Seattle this past weekend, and according to newspaper stories, part-owner Willis was there to yap his trademark "Yippee-ki-yay." When he isn't trying to re-create the success of the Die Hard series or launching $12 hamburger joints, Willis stays busy remaking the small town of Hayden, Idaho, into a more pleasing plastic replica of itself. Presumably, though, he will still have plenty of yip left at the end of 1997, when Planet Hollywood is scheduled to turn the 1800 block between Blake and Wazee streets into heaven on earth.

When the 32nd Planet Hollywood opened in Australia in May, part-owner Sylvester Stallone was there to remind the assembled masses that he was a movie star, "not a god." I am thinking that I would like to punch Sylvester Stallone in the nose, too.

I realize that I am playing out of my league. But when the big boys come to town with their proposed eatertainment centers that are just as calculated and packaged as this summer's cinema blockbusters, the home team doesn't have a chance.

The reason I am sitting in this local bar is because it is almost the last joint left in lower downtown where a buck buys you a beer and decades-old atmosphere. It is the ideal place--just about the only place--to raise a glass in salute to another old-timer that is giving up the ghost.

As of this week, the Mexico City Lounge is on the market. "I hate to give it up," says owner Esther Garcia, "but I'm getting up in years." She is not exaggerating: Esther is 83 and has owned the Mexico City for twenty years. At the moment, while daughter Loretta is on vacation, daughter Linda is running the place, but no matter who's in charge at the restaurant, Esther's home phone rings every few minutes with another question.

At one point, Esther and her husband, Willie, thought their kids would want to keep the place going. In fact, it was their son, Eddie, who in 1969 originally took over the storefront at 21st and Larimer streets, just across the street from where his parents owned the Juarez Lounge. But Eddie now has his own spot, El Toro, over on Colorado Boulevard, and while Esther and her girls and grandkids have kept the Mexico City cooking, it finally seems time to sell.

The landscape of downtown Denver has altered dramatically in the two decades since the Garcias took over the Mexico City, but life on upper Larimer--in the shadow of Coors Field--remains surprisingly unchanged. A block down the street, Johnnie's Market is open for business, and even though Johnnie hasn't owned the store for decades, he still stops in almost every day. La Casa de Manuel, two doors down, has made it to at least forty--and so far, the restaurant is holding. And even though one of the walls of the old Elbow Room on the corner crumbled last month, it's holding on, too, in hopes that someone will want to renovate the century-old storefront just two blocks away from the future home of Planet Hollywood. The neighborhood has worked hard to hold fast, even as the adjoining LoDo has received the lion's share of attention from developers and the city. "We're the forgotten people in these two blocks," Esther says.

Not entirely. Every Wednesday, when steak tacos are the lunchtime special at the Mexico City, crowds line up outside the door. But even at other times--the restaurant is open from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day--business is still steady, with customers just as likely to order a red beer and bowl of green in the earlier hours as in the later. And on Sundays, pigs' feet remain the special.

Some of the Mexico City's customers are new, having recently discovered the joys of stuffing down deliciously greasy tacos before heading to a ballgame. Most, however, are the faithful who've been coming here year after year, taking food and friendly guff from one Garcia or another. The stories are legion: of the time Pete Coors, in for a taco fix with some friends, descended into the bowels of the place to find out why the bartender was having a problem with the Coors tap; of an adman's campaign to torpedo one attempt to upscale the Mexico City by exchanging "Cafe" for "Lounge."

Owning a neighborhood spot had been the Garcias' dream. Born in Trinidad, Esther and Willie came to Denver in 1929. Willie found a job as a waiter and worked his way up to manager. "That was his life," Esther says. "That's what he looked forward to. He was a workaholic."

By the Sixties, they were able to buy the Juarez Lounge, which Willie "ran with an iron fist," Esther recalls. She helped out, too. And then in 1976 they moved across the street into the Mexico City, which Eddie had taken over from Mary Martinez--the first Mexican woman to own a restaurant in that rough-and-tumble part of town, Esther remembers.

The Mexico City has made some concessions to changing times. For example, it carved a six-seat addition into a niche near the front. But Esther can't do anything about the burned-out building next door, and parking is getting more and more difficult (the lot across the street went from two bits to $10 on game days).

And so last Tuesday she signed the papers to sell her place. "I wanted a million dollars," she says, "but I guess that's not going to happen." Not when the building is a Victorian storefront far from code on one 25-x-150-foot lot.

But a lot of memories are packed into that small space. Watch out, Bruce. The old neighborhood has some fight left in it.


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