Remembering Denver Restaurateurs Mel and Janie Master | Westword

Remembering Restaurateurs Mel and Janie Master

From the ’70s to the '90s, the couple ran notable Denver eateries including Mel’s, Top Hat and Starfish. On September 2, they passed peacefully together.
Janie and Mel Master in Paris before heading to Pegasos in Switzerland.
Janie and Mel Master in Paris before heading to Pegasos in Switzerland. Courtesy of Charlie Master
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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.

Some of these, as a friend lovingly puts it, “have gone to heaven.”

And now, Melvyn Master has, as has his wife, Janie.

Melvyn — but “Mel,” always Mel — and Janie Master, 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' many years in Denver, in clusters from the ’70s and into the ’90s, bejeweled the city’s dining scene with several restaurants including Dudley’s, Barolo Grill, Mel’s, Top Hat, Starfish and Bruno’s, with Mel nearly nightly framed in the proscenium of each.

He and Janie begat restaurants elsewhere (Jams in New York, for instance) and launched the bottlings of many wine shipments throughout the United States, for Georges DuBoeuf of Beaujolais, Jordan Vineyard & Winery of California, and a long list of European wineries and estates, some of which are under their own labels.

After his passing, I reminisced with many of those whose lives Mel Master touched during the years that he and Janie ran those restaurants and carried on those businesses. Over and over again, what words came from their hearts were the same or similar to those shared with me by Christian “Goose” Sorensen, who cheffed for Master at several stove tops before opening Solera, which closed in 2018.

“He lit a fire in me that brought out of me that passion, that love for food and wine," Sorensen says. "He just had a great way of transferring that feeling to you, of sparking that in you, of making you feel bigger.”

It is said of many a man that he is “full of life.” Mel Master was overfull of life. The overage spilled onto and into our lives, enriching them, ennobling them, making them better and stronger than they would have been made by ourselves alone.

He gave us learning and insight and skill; he gave us warmth and charm and much laughter and joy. He built on us and helped make us more “us,” however that was or is — as chefs or workmates, as friends (his word was “mates”), as fellow restaurateurs, as drinkers and eaters and, with Janie, as lovers, of life, of living and of each other.

As such, Melvyn Master yet lives. People don’t die; only bodies do.
click to enlarge a collage of photos of a man and a woman
Mel and Janie Master passed together peacefully on September 2.
Courtesy of Yale Sager
These are (appropriately, in tribute to a vine lover) vignettes collected from my conversations with several of those whose lives Melvyn Master touched. They’ve been tightened or edited for clarity only:

“As a boy, I wanted to spend time with my parents in their restaurants and wine business, so they taught me. It began with me selling wine with my dad. They were much more than parents for me. ... My mom and dad were so madly in love; they loved love.” — Charles (Charlie) Master, son, Maine

“Mel was always suited up, sharp, with his ascot. One Christmas party, though, he let loose, shirt unbuttoned, in jeans. He just ripped it, jamming on his guitar. Just witnessing that: so much more out of him as he let go. It gave everyone there such a good time.” — Ryan Fletter, owner, Barolo Grill

“Theater was our constant sidebar. Before we opened Dudley’s each night, Janie would do a final walk-through and we’d both say ‘Showtime!’ as we whooshed open the door. Mel and Janie were like two kids in love, and they hoped the same for everyone. They were never not smiling and in love.” — Thom Wise, former partner, New York

“Mel had a commanding presence — his size, the volume of his voice, his impeccable manner of dress. Whenever he would come into a room, he would always greet everyone in it with, ‘Morning!’ — never mind the time of day — always ‘Morning!’ It got a connection.” — Corbin "Corky" Douglass, restaurateur (Tante Louise)

“We’d call it ‘The Mel,’ the way he’d say, ‘Well, that’s also what I can pay you,’ when he’d take us on [restaurant-visiting] trips to Chicago or New York, or get us on the covers or in the pages of magazines. His excitement for the business, of wine, of restaurants, of the whole of it, that was his gift.” — Blair Taylor, restaurateur (Dudley’s, Barolo Grill)

“We were at lunch at Tante Louise for lunch one day with Mel and Pierre Hugo — yes, that Hugo, the great-great-grandson of [French author] Victor Hugo. Somehow the topic of Las Vegas came up, and Pierre never having been there. We all finished lunch, got up from the table, drove to Stapleton [Airport] and flew to Las Vegas for the night.” — Douglass and Taylor

“I will always remember Mel as ‘Melvis.’ He’d get dressed up as Elvis. ... He was the most gracious guy; he was built from a kit; he was made to run a restaurant, and did it well. There was nothing like [Mel’s]. He and Janie could put together a restaurant with what it cost to buy the glasses.” — Bill Husted, writer, Denver

“Melvyn and I would fight about stupid shit, but at the end of the day, all that bullshit went away when we sat down at a meal, breaking bread in each other’s company. We’d always go to lunch — long lunches. In the dictionary, next to the entry for ‘bon vivant,’ there should be his picture. ... I  talked with him twelve hours before [Pegasos]. He had a nice wine in a glass in his hand and was smoking a cigar. His greatest gift was connecting with people in warmth and humor, always looking on the bright side. That was his M.O.” — Jonathan Waxman, restaurateur (Jams), New York

My favorite photo of [Mel and Janie] ever is from the evening they booked in Paris before heading to Switzerland. Their souls as gorgeous and in love as ever, Mel with a cigar hanging from his righteous grin, a half-empty wine glass below Janie’s blissful face on his shoulder." — Katie Stone, embodiment coach, Kittredge

“He taught me many, many things. ‘Read everything,’ he’d say. ‘Read fucking everything. Go out, go eat, take risks.’ There are two phrases in my body that will never leave me that he put there: ‘Less is more’ and ‘simply delicious.’ I’ve got nothing but love for how he guided me in that. I had a peach the other night. I rated it 94 out of 100. It was simply delicious.” — Tyler Wiard, chef, Denver
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