Denver's Lost Restaurants: A Chef Recalls Her Time at Cafe Promenade

Chef/restaurateur Michael Shiell in the former Cafe Promenade space during the construction of Milk & Honey.
Chef/restaurateur Michael Shiell in the former Cafe Promenade space during the construction of Milk & Honey.
Courtesy of Milk & Honey
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This week's feature story, "Disappearing Denver: Looking Back at Buildings We've Lost," reminisces about old favorites — from the Tabor Grand Opera House to Celebrity Sports Center — that shaped Denver's architecture and entertainment scene before giving way to the forces of modernization.

Restaurants too, have come and gone, as onetime Denver chef Renee Marton reminds us. Marton lived in Colorado for a short time in the late 1970s and wrote to us wondering what had become of Cafe Promenade, a high-end European eatery on Larimer Square where she landed her first job on the line. Here's what she asked:

I am trying to find out information about the restaurant named above. I worked there (in the kitchen) in 1978 and 1979. I have had a lot of trouble finding out about the restaurant: the history of it, who owned it, how long it lasted and all other information that might be findable. 

Cafe Promenade was located below street level in the space that's now home to chef/restaurateur Michael Shiell's Milk & Honey. It was originally opened in 1966, and in 1969, co-owners Fred and Hertha Thomas threw the first Denver Oktoberfest in front of the cafe, a tradition that continued on Larimer Square until 2007, when Oktoberfest was moved to 20th and Larimer streets.

When Marton got a job prepping vegetables there, she was interviewed by the other owner, Tish Kllanxhja, an Albanian (hence, the unusual spelling of his last name) immigrant whom Marton remembers as a "gentleman." She told him she'd be willing to work at any station, as long as she didn't have to chop carrots. "He told me, 'Miss Marton, you are going to learn humility on this job,'" she recalls — and that she did, eventually working every station on the line by asking to fill in whenever anyone quit.

Cafe Promenade continued on into the 1980s, according to restaurant consultant John Imbergamo. "The maître d’ was Fred Thomas, a robust and ebullient man who remembered everyone who walked in the door," Imbergamo remembers. "The quintessential host. If he didn’t remember your name, he would call you a nickname. Mine was 'The Hat Man,' even though I never wore a hat to Cafe Promenade."

Imbergamo also notes that the ownership changed during that time to Charles Callaway; the cafe eventually closed some time before 1990, when a restaurant called Bibelot, owned by Denver restaurant mogul Cliff Young, opened. Bibelot didn't last long, but the year it opened, Westword gave it awards for Best Bartender (Male) and Best Grappa List. In 1984, while still Cafe Promenade, the place was awarded Best After-Theater Restaurant. Kllanxhja passed away this spring at the age of 93.

Bibelot didn't last long, and the space played host to a few forgettable eateries before becoming Lime Mexican Cantina under the ownership of Pam Savage-Sims and Curt Sims, which drew crowds from 2001 to 2012. After that, Shiell took possession of the space, completely stripping it back to dirt and rafters to bring a restaurant that hadn't seen major improvements in more than forty years up to modern standards.

A matchbook cover from Bibelot, which took over for Cafe Promenade in the early 1990s.EXPAND
A matchbook cover from Bibelot, which took over for Cafe Promenade in the early 1990s.
Mark Antonation

Marton credits her time at Cafe Promenade with instilling in her a lifelong passion for cooking. After her brief stint there, she bought a Subaru and moved to Aspen, where she worked for several more months before returning to New York City. She eventually became executive chef at two restaurants for six years each, including Florent, a restaurant as famous for its 24/7 upscale French menu (something we've yet to see in Denver) as for its commitment to LGBTQ equality. After that, she returned to school and earned a master's degree in gastronomy and food history, and now works at the Institute for Culinary Education.

Do you have fond memories of Cafe Promenade, or would you like to learn more about other restaurants from Denver's past? Let us know in the comments section below or send an e-mail to cafe@westword.com.

A Cafe Promenade menu cover from the 1980s.
A Cafe Promenade menu cover from the 1980s.
Courtesy of John Imbergamo

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