Colfax Avenue history buff and memorabilia collector Jonny Barber has had a tough time finding a long-term home for his Colfax Museum. He's been collecting Colfax-related artifacts for more than fifteen years, but the first incarnation of his museum didn't debut until 2017, when he opened to the public inside a florist's shop at 6101 East Colfax Avenue. The arrangement didn't last long, though, because the shop owner sold the building, so Barber moved his collection into a former pawn shop at 6851 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, now Pasternack's Art Hub. Two floods later, Barber threw in the towel, stating on his Facebook page last fall: "Someday I hope that someone with much deeper pockets than I recognizes the true importance of the work I started and builds this town a proper Colfax Museum."
Someone with deeper pockets heard Barber's plea, and the result is a combination restaurant/exhibit called Route 40 Cafe, which will share some of its space at the Lowenstein Theater Complex with the Colfax Museum.
Developer Charlie Woolley is the founder of the St. Charles Town Company and owner of the Lowenstein at 2550 East Colfax Avenue, a complex built around the former Bonfils Theatre that also houses the Sie FilmCenter and the Tattered Cover Book Store, among other businesses. Since 2016, it's also been home to The Goods, a restaurant owned by Mark Whistler on the east side of the complex, in the old theater lobby. (That space started out as Encore when the Lowenstein first opened.)
For the past six months or so, Whistler says, he'd been looking at ways to tighten the focus of his restaurant; while the menu offered a broad range of vegan and vegetarian fare and global dishes like Thai curry, the restaurant's burger was still the top seller. Meanwhile, Barber wasn't completely done trying to get his Colfax collection in front of the public eye; he was making plans for an exhibit dedicated to the country's longest main street at the History Colorado Center. That's how Barber met Woolley, a History Colorado boardmember, and how the developer connected two pieces of a Colfax Avenue puzzle.
Why not turn the Goods into a restaurant that celebrated Colfax as Route 40, the gateway into Denver, and display memorabilia from the Colfax Museum?
"Last November or December, Charlie asked if I'd be willing to move in a different direction," Whistler recalls. "I immediately thought it was a great idea, and by January or February, we knew it would become a reality."
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit and it was all hands on deck just trying to keep the Goods afloat, even before the statewide closure order hit on March 17. Whistler initially wanted to keep his restaurant open for takeout and delivery, but after discussing options with Woolley, they decided it made more sense to close up shop, apply for a federal Payroll Protection Plan loan and begin the renovation necessary to add the Colfax Museum. "We closed and donated our inventory, got our PPP money and remodeled," the restaurant owner explains. "And now Johnny and the Colfax Museum have a permanent home, and it gives us the chance to be the epicenter of Colfax culture."
Whistler changed the name of the Goods to Route 40 Cafe, honoring Colfax's role as part of that cross-country interstate, and redesigned the menu to offer more diner-style fare appropriate for a Colfax-themed eatery. "We're now a modern urban diner, and everything you eat will be the best comfort food you've ever had," he notes.
There will be an emphasis on burgers and fries, with eight different variations, from a vegan burger to a hefty Lowenstein burger. There will also be breakfast all day, blue-plate specials, deli sandwiches, milkshakes and soft-serve ice cream, along with a full bar of craft beers and classic cocktails.
"We fought like hell to get our patio extension," Whistler adds, noting that he submitted his expansion plans the day before the city launched its online submission form giving restaurants the opportunity to expand outside while dining room capacities remain limited.
Route 40's patio now spills out from its original space under the building's awning onto eleven parking spaces on the side of the building and a strip of grass on Elizabeth Street. The dining room currently offers very little seating, but Whistler says the outdoor setup will hold up to 140 guests, all spaced according to state guidelines.
The restaurant will reopen for on-premises dining at the end of this month, and will also offer curbside pick-up and delivery, along with grab-and-go items from the "Route 40 Pitstop" inside the building. "We don't want to force people to be uncomfortable, so this way people can still leave their homes for a few minutes and grab some of our food without committing to a sit-down meal," Whistler says.
Initially, small numbers of socially-distanced guests will be allowed to peruse Barber's collection before or after being seated on the patio. Ultimately, however, the museum and restaurant will function as one big immersive experience. And Barber has more than enough memorabilia to fill the space, so exhibit items will rotate, giving an evolving view of the collection. In fact, Barber has enough stuff to spread the Colfax love around; 40 Years on the 'Fax, which was originally scheduled to open this spring at the History Colorado Center at 1200 Broadway, will now run from June 29 through the end of the year.
Route 40 Cafe is planning a few friends-and-family nights next week before opening to the public on Friday, June 26, offering a "perfect union of commerce and culture, in a mid-century building, showcasing a collection of memorabilia that has rapidly become scarce," according to Woolley.
Once open, Route 40 will offer weekend brunch as well as lunch and dinner (reservations are recommended) from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
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