The sign dangling from the door of Wolfe's Barbecue plainly says "closed," but at 3:15 p.m., fifteen minutes after barbecue nobleman Louis Wolfe has closed for lunch to prepare for the impending dinner rush, in walks an optimistic latecomer who orders two pork dinners. "We're out of pork," laments Wolfe, and the lady sighs. She orders chicken instead, patiently waits for Wolfe to pack up her order and thanks him profusely. Wolfe returns the gratitude as he watches her walk toward the door through the modest dining room clouded with the primal smoke and char of what many insist is Denver's best barbecue.
"It's been a helluva good run -- a wondrous run," says Wolfe, "but it's time to move on." On Saturday, after Christmas day dinner, Wolfe will shutter his iconic barbecue joint for good, more than twenty-five years after he opened the doors on a wing and a prayer and no bank to make change. "I opened on a Wednesday, and I had friends come in and work with me all night, but I didn't have any change, so one of the guys who had a laundry mat had to run over there to get change for a bank," remembers Wolfe, who's been slinging ribs, sausages, baked beans, chicken and pork and barbecued tofu -- the only reason to be a vegetarian in this town -- to grateful Denverites since April 10, 1985.
"I've been blown away and honored by all the attention -- by everyone who has supported me over the years -- and you have choices when you do this: I could have just closed, locked the door and walked away, but I couldn't do that," insists Wolfe. "It's really humbling when people say that they're going to miss me; I'm going to miss them, too, but I'm getting older, the equipment is getting older and I'm ready to explore the rest of my world," which, reveals Wolfe, includes traveling, spending time with his grand kids, camping and cruising to the mountains in his Geo Metro convertible, taking advantage of the health club membership that comes with his Kaiser Medicare Senior Advantage Program and harassing the Democrats. "This has been an extraordinary experience with lots of joys, but getting out now is absolutely the right thing to do. I'm going to reinvent myself, and tinkering will be the fun part."
The decision to close had been swirling in Wolfe's head for the past year, and while he admits that he considered staying open through the first of the year, continuing through the busy legislative session -- an opportune time to harass the Democrats -- he stopped short. "The end of the year is a good time to wrap things up, and I've been wonderfully rewarded over the years by my customers whose taste buds agree with mine."
Which begs the question: What are Wolfe's village of devotees going to do now? "One of the greatest things about this whole thing was that I could get good barbecue whenever I wanted to, and people keep asking me where they should go now that I'm leaving, and I honestly don't have a good answer for where to find good barbecue," confesses Wolfe. "I wish I had an answer, but I just don't."
But the lines, which have been staggeringly long ever since word leaked of his imminent closure, have convinced Wolfe that while his loyal customers will soon be forced to move on, they're not ready to do make the leap until the barbecue lord smokes his last brisket: "The lines and warm comments tell me that these people aren't going to stop eating my barbecue until I lock the doors."
Wolfe's will be open for lunch and dinner on Wednesday, lunch only on Thursday and closed all day Friday so that the barbecue baron can prepare for Saturday, when he'll open at noon and feed the masses until the barbecue runs dry. " I opened on my own terms, and I get to end it on my own terms," says Wolfe. "We'll stay open until the food is gone or I fall down."
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