Who Belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Denver Food? | Westword

Who Belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Denver Food?

Let's debate.
A mural at Pete's Satire features Elizabeth and Pete Contos.
A mural at Pete's Satire features Elizabeth and Pete Contos. Skyler McKinley
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Last month, former Westword restaurant critic Jason Sheehan shared his Biker Jim's memories after Jim Pittenger announced that he was parting ways with the business he'd founded. "On the Mount Rushmore of Denver’s culinary history, there are many enormous heads, many names that deserve to be remembered," Sheehan wrote. "And all I’m hoping is that someday, somewhere down below that towering monument, I’ll be able to pull up and see Jim Pittenger in the parking lot, giving everyone the finger. And selling hot dogs to all the tourists."

Those words sparked the interest of City Cast Denver. When producer Paul Karolyi invited me to join him and host Bree Davies to debate which figures would be on our version of a Mount Rushmore of Denver’s culinary history, I started doing research.

Each of us was tasked with pitching four nominees. Names that were nixed along the way include Chipotle founder Steve Ells, Senator John Hickenlooper and the Karagas brothers, who were the longtime proprietors of My Brother's Bar and the now-closed Wazee Supper Club.

As Davies explained, we considered not only food but also the "impact — economically, as well as historically, culturally, and what it means to each of us."

In the end, we did land on a list of four (well, technically six) people who helped build the foundation of the city's food scene:
a woman next to a man smoking a cigar
Janie and Mel Master in Paris before heading to Pegasos in Switzerland.
Courtesy of Charlie Master
Mel and Janie Master
Jason Sheehan wasn't the only Westword contributor to recently reflect on the city's culinary roots. "If I were to carve a Mount Rushmore of restaurateurs from the history of Denver dining — but in particular the ’80s and early ’90s — the figures might include Cliff Young, Corky Douglass, Thoa Fink, Noel Cunningham or Blair Taylor. Definitely Melvyn Master," wrote Bill St. John last year after Mel and wife Janie, "spouses for some sixty years," rewrote the conventional wedding vow “until death do us part” and joined each other in passing peacefully on September 2 at Pegasos, a voluntary assisted dying association in Basel, Switzerland.

The Masters had helped transform Denver's fine-dining scene. They operated Starfish and Top Hat and were partners in Dudley's. They teamed up with famed chef Jonathan Waxman to open Jams in New York City. They also founded Barolo Grill with Blair Taylor, which is now owned by Ryan Fletter. Many of the city's top fine-dining eateries today can be traced back, family-tree style, to Mel and Janie Master.
fries topped with green chile and cheese
The late Stella Cordova brought green chile to Chubby's.
Molly Martin
Stella Cordova
You can't talk about Denver food without green chile, and you can't talk about green chile without Chubby's. Stella Cordova is the late matriarch of the Chubby's empire. A 2007 story by Adam Cayton-Holland traced the collection of restaurants that grew from what Cordova started.

But regardless of your opinion of the green chile at Chubby's today, or which outpost you're loyal to, Cordova's story is impressive. A mother of twelve, she was born in Walsenburg in 1909. She was 59 years old when she saw a "Help Wanted" sign at the Chubby Burger Drive Inn at 1231 West 38th Avenue, and got the job. Two years later, she bought the place and added green chile to the menu.

She worked at the restaurant until she turned 100, and passed away shortly after, in June 2009, but her legacy continues in the many Mexican restaurants that have been started by family members and former Chubby's employees.
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Bruce Randolph has a street named after him, but his legacy is much bigger.
Courtesy of the Daddy Bruce Randolph Legacy Foundation
"Daddy" Bruce Randolph
Another story of a second act in life, "Daddy" Bruce Randolph moved to Denver in the 1960s after two failed marriages and two failed restaurants in the South. He opened his first eatery in the city at age 63 and is "known as one of the godfathers of barbecue here," Davies noted. Whether you ate at his joint or not, the name is familiar: There's a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of road named after him between Downing and Dahlia streets, as well as the Bruce Randolph School in the Clayton neighborhood.

Randolph was also the official caterer of the Broncos, and started a tradition of feeding people on Thanksgiving that continues today.
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Pete's Kitchen, next door to the Satire, is another longtime staple from the Contos family.
Danielle Lirette
Pete and Elizabeth Contos
Another sustaining staple of the Denver culinary scene is the tradition of dive bars and Greek diners — both of which are part of the Contos legacy.

For six decades, Elizabeth Contos ran the back of the house while her husband, Pete, oversaw the front of the house at their empire, which at one point included six spots plus a nightclub and an ice cream shop. Today, their kids and grandkids run Pete's University Park Cafe, Pete's Central One and two of the most iconic places on Colfax Avenue, Pete's Kitchen and Pete's Satire Lounge. Pete Contos also helped found the Greek Festival in Denver.

Listen to the full episode for more of the debate. Who would be on your Denver culinary Mount Rushmore? Send suggestions to [email protected]
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