Cafe Society

Saint Elsewhere

Last Labor Day weekend, after spending several hours wandering around in the sun eating lukewarm shrimp cocktails and cheesecake on a stick at the Taste of Colorado, I stopped by Somethin' Else, the place that Sean Kelly was putting into the very same spot where his last restaurant, Clair de Lune, had so recently suffered the indignities of a long, lingering death.

Although the small demi-cafe at 1313 East Sixth Avenue wasn't exactly open yet, it wasn't exactly empty, either. Seth Black, the Clair de Lune roundsman turned Somethin' Else chef de cuisine, was in the tiny foxhole of a kitchen, his back now to the burners, his hands now on the pass rail, standing in the spot where Sean had run his one-man show nightly at Clair. Dishwasher Gustavo Murillo -- who, like Seth, has been working with Sean for years -- was there, too, standing in the cramped, dead-end gangway where the dish machine lives. His job hadn't changed at all: No matter what you call a restaurant, dishes are still dishes. A floor staff of three -- a frontman and two servers -- was knocking around, rubbing up against each other in the small service area tucked behind the short bar just inside the front door. And in the dining room, there was one table, a four-top: man, woman, two kids. That meant Somethin' Else was staffing one employee per customer, with one to spare.

The only person I didn't see -- and the one I'd come looking for -- was Sean, Denver's own bastard outta Jersey, the archetypal juvenile fuckup made good by a life in the kitchens, an honest-to-Jesus local success story, and my friend.

Restaurant critics supposedly don't have friends in the kitchens, but I've got a couple, and Sean is one of them. After my first meal at Clair de Lune, I knew I had to meet the guy, and I did. I spent time watching him work; I sat in on staff meetings and family meals at Clair de Lune; I talked to him on the phone as he closed Clair; and I still had him cook for me anytime I could.

Sean is from New Jersey -- a working-class kid, the son of a cop -- and may have earned his chops on the low end of the East Coast industry, but he didn't really find his legs until 1991, when he followed a girl out to Denver. He honed his skills here (like many of Denver's other great chefs, he did time on the hot line at Mel's Restaurant and Bar); opened his first restaurant here (Aubergine, which once occupied the space at 225 East Seventh Avenue now filled by Mizuna, run by Frank Bonanno, another Mel's alum and friend of Sean's); and married the girl he'd followed here. And in the last decade, he'd ridden both sides of Denver's boom-and-bust roller coaster -- first up with Aubergine, then down straight into the dirt with his high-end, high-priced, highly personal eight-table fantasy, Clair de Lune, which I loved so much that it still hurt a little just to look around. Sean's new place had the same layout as Clair -- the same small dining room, the same diminutive kitchen, the same few tables -- but seemed somehow 180 degrees different in feel and attitude. The walls were warmer now -- no longer that cool Monet blue, but the color of French mustard and paprika. And the tables were all bare, with no more setting than a plain candle and white napkins. The whole place felt easier, friendlier, less reserved than it once had.

In the dining room, the father at the four-top unfolded himself from his chair and walked over to say hello. It took me a second to realize that this guy in the jeans and checkered button-down was actually Sean Kelly. I'd never seen him in the dining room before. Never once seen him without the white jacket and chef pants of his chosen trade.

The woman, the children at the table -- those were his wife and kids. The clothes? His, too, although it had been a long time since he'd worn much besides his chef's drag. And the restaurant was undeniably his, even though he was in the front of the house now rather than the back, even though there was someone else standing his watch in the kitchen. I asked him how that felt, and he laughed -- told me that Seth was ready for it and, more important, he was ready for it. After all the years, all the kitchens, all the long nights and early mornings, he was ready to slouch a little at the bar, shake a few hands and go home early. He'd arranged for Somethin' Else to be the kind of place where he could do just that. Take a look at the menu, he said. And the wine list -- so short and so sweet. And hey, since I was there, did I want something to eat? The place wasn't technically open, not really, but the credit-card machine -- a new addition after the cash-on-the-barrelhead policy caused so much trouble at Clair -- had gone in the night before, and Seth had been cooking for family and friends of the house for a couple of nights, so...

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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