As restaurants across the city carefully reopen, Mark Whistler, owner of the Route 40 Cafe, decided to take a risk. He’s completely reinvented his restaurant by connecting with the history of Colfax Avenue.
The Route 40 Cafe, in the space that used to be The Goods Restaurant, has fostered a unique partnership with the Colfax Museum, the brainchild of Elvis impersonator Jonny Barber. After shutting down because of the coronavirus, the restaurant hosted friends and community members on June 26 and 27 for its reopening. The remodeled location features memorabilia from Barber’s collection for customers to take in while they eat.
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The partnership began when Barber and Whistler met through Charles Woolley II, who owns the Lowenstein Theater complex where Route 40 lives alongside the Sie Film Center and the Tattered Cover Bookstore. The three men envisioned turning the restaurant into a “cultural hub” on Colfax, paying homage to the history of hotels, bars, restaurants, theaters and shops that gave the street its fame. The new name also recognizes Colfax’s history as part of the historic, cross-country interstate, Whistler said.
“To me, I’m a Colorado kid, and this is my community,” Whistler said in an interview with The Denver Post. “To be able to provide something of value that helps enrich the city and this street is amazing.”
The day before Whistler’s reopening, he sat on the patio wearing a bowtie, straw hat and multicolored mask. Behind him on Colfax, cars and trucks rushed by, a man shouted in the distance and two young women played with skateboards on the corner. When a young couple from the neighborhood walked by, Whistler called to them by name, insisting they come for the reopening and eagerly getting them down for a reservation.
When COVID-19 forced the restaurant to close in March, instead of doing take-out orders, Whistler donated all of his inventory to community members and retirement homes, and he decided to apply for a Payroll Protection Plan loan while redesigning for the museum. Working on a tight budget, Whistler and his team put together the new Route 40 Cafe without hiring a single contractor, he said. Most of his staff returned to help, building plexiglass dividers, repainting the interior and laying out the expanded patio. He said he can now host 140 customers, socially distanced.
It’s been a long road for the Colfax Museum too, even before the pandemic. In 2004, Barber started gathering photos, footage, artifacts and oral histories out of his own interest, but by 2017, his collection grew too large for his home. He started envisioning a museum space and moved into a friend’s flower shop. After gentrification forced the shop to close, he moved his museum to Lakewood, where he had two floods that almost ended the Colfax Museum. But through the support of other “Colfax die-hards” like himself, his collection is going up in three installations around the city, he said, the Route 40 Cafe, History Colorado and another location in-progress.
These are compilation album CDs made by Jonny Barber of songs by various artists who wrote songs about Colfax Ave that is part of the collection of items from the Colfax Museum. Barber showed off some of the items on his list top 10 weirdest and most historically valuable artifacts that were once on display at Lakewood’s Colfax Museum. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)
“It’s biblical,” Barber said in an interview. “We’ve survived major flood, now it’s COVID. But it seems like there’s a lot of support from the community.”
On June 29, History Colorado will open “Forty Years on the ‘Fax,” exploring famous shops on Colfax from 1926 to 1966. Barber has also put his passion into a book, “Colfax: The Longest, Wickedest Street in America,” which comes out in October.
As he’s studied, Barber said he mourns the loss of famous businesses like Heritage Square and The Aladdin Theater. He emphasized that Colfax used to be the center of tourism in Denver. The artifacts at Route 40 and History Colorado will commemorate this history.
But throughout the avenue’s history, Barber said one thing stays the same: Colfax is where people go to march, protest and celebrate.
“The Martin Luther King marches, Black Lives Matter protests, the Pride parade, whenever there is something going on, whether a grievance or a celebration, people march it down Colfax,” Barber said. “It’s a glorious tradition… Somebody called Colfax the most democratic street in Colorado.”
Barber said the collaboration with the Colfax Museum and the Route 40 Cafe is Whistler’s passion project as a restauranteur. He said the journey to the new installations has been a “wild road.”
Though he’s going big for the cafe, Whistler emphasized that safety is his first priority. Everyone must adhere to social distancing guidelines, and the restaurant also offers grab-and-go options, take-out and curbside pickup.
The concept for the new menu is a modern spin on the roadside diner. From burgers to veggie options, dishes focus on fresh ingredients and new flavors. Whistler said one of his favorites is the pork chop, a version of the traditional meal upgraded with a peach sauce. They also have breakfast served all day, sandwiches, milkshakes and craft cocktails named after hotels that used to live on Colfax.
Whistler raved about his team and the remodel, repeating over and over how lucky he feels to welcome back customers.
“I have been to hell and back to reopen this restaurant. This is my dream and I almost lost it,” Whistler said. “It’s not just me. Every restaurant owner has been through the same thing, and we can’t do this without support from our neighborhoods and communities.”
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