Saturday, February 25, 2006

Cafe Nepenthes

About a million years ago I used to hang out in a place called "Cafe Nepenthes" a great little bohemian coffehouse/folkmusic/jazz/vegetarian restaurant in the old Larimer Square area of Denver, Colorado. The walls were a rotating art gallery. In addition to the booths and tables, it also had a small stage with musicians playing for tips. Like many places of those years, it has passed into legend.

Lots of young musicians were starting out in Denver at the time,and most of them played Nepenthes at one point or another. Many went on to be part of groups like the original New York Voices or to play sessions for jazz and cabaret greats or even to end up with their own recording careers like Jim Ridl or Jimmie Wright or my friend Tom Gruning who ended up with a musical career and a PhD. Once a week was poetry night with a series of wild and tame poets holding forth and the traditional wars of the egos battling with words and only the occasional menacing pistol.

The Cafe was a fine old down at the heels joint with the traditional veggie-hippie menu of smoothies, various iced teas (one called "Iced Spice" was my favorite -- it was an orange and cinnamon tea served with a wedge of fresh orange) and an assortment of pita bread sandwiches . I loved the "Chile Jack" sandwich -- jack cheese, green chiles, dijon mustard, onions and sprouts all hot, bubbly and toasty. The soup of the evening was whatever the cook of the evening decided to conjure up - miso millet, vegetable tomato, veggie pea soup, cream of carrot, tofu surprise....

The woman's room boasted some excellent graffiti - my favorite was a note tacked up next to the toilet paper holder that read "Wait Here!" and was signed "Godot". Some other woman had decided that a woman's most private parts of the anatomy should be called a "Jam Tart" and had written various suggestions about that.

But it wasn't the food or the iced tea or the frothy capuccinos or the graffiti that kept us all coming back. It was the sense of community. A bunch of us were regulars. We all knew the waitresses and their stories, and they knew ours. To this day, 25 years later I still remember Stan and Diane (the owners), and the waitresses Phyllis, Jan, Amy, Peg, Brenda, Jane -- and how grand it was to have a place to sit and write, to know that friends would be stopping by, where the music was good and where in Cheers-like fashion , "everyone knows your name".

Online venues seem to have taken over that role for many folks. And while I would be the last person to denigrate electronic community, as I have made many dear friends online -- I do miss places like the Cafe.
It was a zesty blend of art, drama, music, experiments, friendship, intrigue, and the best cuppa coffee in town.


Blogger kevin beck said...

The cafe sounds great. I used to hang at a place called Sarah's back in Akron, Ohio. It closed down and re-opened as Satchmo's. They played Jazz and Blues mostly. The best band was a bunch of oldtimers calle The Baseliners. A Blues band. Ah, the memories.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Mata H said...

There is something sweet about being a "regular" in a cozy restaurant. Good food, good company, good music -- makes me want to try to hunt down a similar venue in these parts - yet I fear they have gone the way of all flesh..sigh.

Ohio, eh? One of my fave spots in Ohio was a place in the late 70's in Cincinnati called "Fo'Fo'Th'Bo" which stood for "Food For The Body". Never spent much time around Akron, though.

4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cafe Nepenthes - I remember it well.
I had a huge crush on Phyllis, though nothing ever came of it.
I went there regularly, particularly on breaks and after the band was done at the Praire Schooner up around the corner.

Nepenthes was a wonderful place, with great music, food and vibes.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Mata H said...

Hey Mr Anonymous -- were you with the Robin Banks Band? If you were, I may have massaged your arm one the Fez. Wow, that was a few lifetimes ago.

Lots of guys had fierce crushes on Phyllis - she was beautiful inside and out - a real pure soul. I heard she married the son of the owner of the Bratskeller -- but that was just via an old grapevine, not sure if it was true. I hope veryone ended up happy.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Which member of the band?

I was the soundman, but am still in touch with most of them.

I really like your piece here and have referred several people to it.

Such wonderful memories.

9:52 PM  
Blogger pat said...

Something reminded of Cafe Nepenthes & Googling it led me to your post. I worked there off & on between 1977-1981,as a waitress & cook, & it remains a sweet memory in my life.
Stan taught me to juggle with oranges on a slow night. Remember caprice & allen, Mary Flowers, Pat Donahue. Remember the guy who played classical guitar at lunch every day? The staff used to smoke dope on an old couch on the roof, Denver skyline as a backdrop. God, i had a crush on Phyllis, too. Thanks for the memories.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Mata H said...

Pat -- do you remember the tall, married, brunette poet who also waitressed there for a while? Mostly she was a regular for years - that was me for more details! I sure do recall Caprice and Allen -- they are divorced now, but Cappy went on to be a founding member of he New York Voices and traveled all over with them. She is on their first 2 CDs I think. Who was the guy who played at night and did covers of Springsteen and Waits? Piano player. There were some great moments at that place.....sigh.

9:36 AM  
Blogger adanta said...

Did you know Mike Lucas from the Robin Banks Band? Does anyone know what happened to him or where he is now? He was such an amazing guitarist & songwriter.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Martha Ann Kennedy said...

I was writing about this place tonight and on a whim, "googled" it. I had a one man show of paintings at Cafe Nepenthes in 1981 and the sandwich you describe was my favorite.

2:55 AM  
Blogger Mata H said...

It was a one-of-a-kind place. I still make that sandwich!

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My sister, the mythical, beautiful, much adored, Phyllis led me to this blog. And yes, she did marry one of the sons of one of the owners of the Bratskeller.

I worked on and off at the Cafe in the early 80's. So many memories - particularly of the Fez and those late night conversations and other happenings.

I do remember the general rule was that as an employee, if you were going to eat something there, you prepared it yourself as you know never trusted how it had been prepared.

I also remember lovely, lyrical Colleen who always left such poetic end of shift notes for those of us coming in for the next shift.

And Pat, always a delight. And, what's her name, who became a lawyer but who shared a love of shoes with us. And Jimmy, the dish washer. Who could forget Jimmy? Occasionally, someone would go over to the sink and ask Jimmy which sink was the wash sink and which was the rinse sink as the water was indistinguishable - both greasy, dirty water. And, the night the pressure cooker full of beans blew up and spewed beans all over the kitchen including the ceiling. For months afterward, the dried beans would drop off the ceiling and land in the most unlikely places.

I also remember the fellow who use to play classical guitar at lunch. Once as he was ending his session and walking off the stage, the draw string to his pajama pants came undone and they fell to the floor around his ankles. He bent over with a little, "Uhm" and drew them back up around his waste as if it were an every day event. The Larmier Square lunch crowd - not as "seasoned" as the late night Cafe crowd - were horrified.

So many wonderful memories of so many unusual people....

Susan McAllister (Formerly Haney)

2:23 PM  
Blogger Mata H said...

Susan, GREAT to have your comment. Please give Phyllis my love and hugs...she can email me at (typemyfirstandlastnamehere) I would really love to hear from her.

It was a magical place and you brought back such great memories. Before I left town to move East, someone cut off a small lock of my hair and glued it into a space in the brick wall near my favorite booth, and painted over it with WhiteOut to match the brick paint. So I guess a piece of me is still around somewhere there.

What ever happened to Jan and Jane and Peg and Amy and Brenda? Does anyone know?

Huge hugs! (and a hearty toast with a glass of "Iced Spice" )

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Neil Ayer said...

This is great to read. "Iced Spice" and a "Chili Jack", please! I used to go there all the time. I remember almost everything in these posts. I's like to add graffiti from the men's room "My dogma got hit by a karma" and the sequence "Some dance to remember, some dance to forget" to which someone added "Butch Cassidy and the Somedance Kid".

Also, I was best friends with the guy who played classical guitar at lunch. The pajama story is classic. His name was Steve Watt. I used to play with him at Nepenthes and we made a CD which you can find at Steve Watt and Neil Ayer

9:07 AM  
Blogger Neil Ayer said...

Regarding my previous post, I have left a contact link in this message. If you have any idea where Steve Watt (classical guitarist from lunch) is, please let me know.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Phyllis said...

It is wonderful to discover that so many of the amazing, unique, talented and artistic people I knew at the Cafe, have remained that way (no surprise I guess). I was so painfully shy than and constantly in awe of the people there. It seemed like all emotion and thought was amplified, more vivid than in the outside world.

Yes, I married and have divorced the Bratskeller guy ..... I would love to hear about everyone else's life. Does anyone know where Jane is; the beautiful, spiritual, belly dancing Japanese American woman?

I've continued to work in the restaurant industry and have never found anything like nice to hear about it

4:15 PM  
Blogger Mata H said...

Phyllis -- wahoo! How splendid to hear from you!!! Can we ramp this up to email ? I am at (typemyfirstandlastnamehere) at gmail(dot)com. I am also divorced. I don't know where Jane is, but am still in regular touch with Gunther (Tom) and recently we both got back in touch with College (Colin). Tom got divorced, but is delightfully wed to another, and is the dad of a smart and talented teen aged son, in addition to his lovely equally savvy daughter with M. College has been wed a zillion years after living in Spain for a while. What ever happened to Brenda? Amy? Jan? Caprice from Caprice and Allen is the one who went on to be part of The New York Voices. She left after 2 or 3 albumns, tho. I saw them in concert and wondered why she looked familiar til it it me. I sent a note at intermission. Big hugs backstage. Oh, Phyl -- it is absolutely magnificent to hear from you!

9:24 PM  
Anonymous Stan said...

I think I have a good idea as to the identity of Mata H. Hi Mata H.!

I could add a lot more but just to clear things up. Susie, the woman who shared a love of shoes with you and became a lawyer was, I believe, Peggy Carey who's now a PD in Denver.

When in Denver catch Max the Sax (aka Max Wagner) who almost perished after a few weeks on a strict macrobiotic diet. As I recall he binged on cheesecake and ended up in the hospital.

He's still playing around Denver and the mountains and is amazing.

One more quick memory...There was this crazy poet named Frank Winters who dressed in black, drove a black Vdub van and worked out of tatoo parlor in Commerce City. Late at night he'd commandeer the stage and subject the patrons to some rather harsh verse..."Dolla bill, Dolla bill...etc" The redoubtable Michael Klahr broke up a near fight after a large fellow objected to Franks poems. Lucky for the large fellow as Frank had surreptiously grabbed a handful of forks and bent them around his knuckles.

Would love to share any other stories with anyone. You can look me up on facebook.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Mata H said...

Hey Stan !!

Mata H here -- aka Thalia. Thanks for the link to Max -- have forwarded to Gunther who will send it to Colin,too, I'm sure! Lordy , lordy -- the tales we all could tell! The poetry nights were a trip. They were brave efforts indeed.

You did know that Caprice of Caprice and Alan went on to be a part of New York Voices? I saw them in concert and suddenly realized I knew her!! Fun reunion.

Any news of Amy?

4:52 PM  
Blogger Mata H said...

And Stan, would contact you on Facebook -- but (embarrassed look here) I have forgotten your last name !!

11:24 AM  
Anonymous PR said...

And then there was Al Basim, who claimed to be the great grandson of Rasputin, was about 7 feet tall, played jazz guitar like Jimi Hendrix, and had a thing going with Jane M (who was a couple feet shorter).

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stan, I am searching for the poet in all black that you speak of. Do you happen to know where he is now? I was 13 years old in 1989.... Frank had a loft downtown with walls plastered with what he claimed to be his work. Well if it was, he was having a bad day, or the drugs were stronger than normal.... he tattooed my chest with a rather small piece, but the tattoo on my tiny back is immense. Both horribly drawn and resemble crayon scribblings of a child without the color.... I still bear the shame of having this evil looking dragon (if you can call it that, it looks more like a dog on meth) holding a crystal in front of a giant onc following me for the past 23 years. He owed my friend's mom money for drugs, and scarring my skin was his means of payment I guess. I'm not looking to find him to cause him harm.... I am looking for closure, I need to give that little girl a voice and come to terms with the issues that have followed on the back of that dragon.... I heard he was imprisoned a short time after that for drugging a young girl, tattooing 70% of her body and kicking her out of his loft naked into the snow in the middle of the night. The police found her the next morning almost frozen to death, in bad shape. I'm just lucky it wasn't me....Please let me know if you have any information concerning him or his whereabouts. Thank you. Contact me via email at or Thank you

7:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Years after the original post - 2014 now.

I hung out at Café Nepenthes in the early 80s and drank coffee into the wee hours. Music, good and bad; poetry, good and bad. Had a terrible crush on a waitress named Martha. Tall, soulful brunette with short, short hair. I still have great memories, and no coffeehouse has ever quite measured up since.

8:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I Googled cafe Nepenthes as the memories, though not of individuals, were quietly calling. I worked at was then the International Athletic Club (now Colorado Athletic Club) at 17th and Welton and would walk to the Cafe for lunch to get out of the narcissistic atmosphere at the club. My favorite menu item was their peanut butter sandwich - sprouts, almonds, coconut...holy shit good! I just loved the Cafe's serenity...mellow people, mellow atmosphere, peaceful, cerebral. Loved the classic guitar and art-covered walls...loved it all. I so miss that time and place.

3:27 PM  

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