Wellington Webb always sauntered into the Welton Street Cafe like he owned the joint. The Welton Street Cafe has been his office away from the office for as long as he can remember.
"I've been going there for ever," he told me on the phone this week, pivoting to his family. "Wilma goes there. My kids go there."
The last time I saw the former mayor of Denver, we convened in the back corner. He ordered red Kool-Aid and collard greens. Catfish for me, thank you, and, yes, a big slab of that sweet, golden cornbread would suit me just fine.
It was a year ago in February when I last met up with the former Denver mayor, a couple of weeks before the world fell apart.
We caught up again this week after he penned an op-ed expressing his concerns about Republican states passing election laws aimed at disenfranchising urban voters and people of color. Those are the people he and his wife, a former state legislator, have championed in this city for decades.
A year ago, I got the mayor talking about how Five Points had changed since he grew up in Denver. Tuesday we talked about whether Welton Street Cafe could survive another challenge: plumbing and HVAC.
As if the pandemic wasn’t bad enough, the venerable eatery that owns my heart and stomach has been in a life-or-death dispute with the landlord over $50,000 in repairs in a 20-year-old building that houses a 35-year-old business.
Denver7 broke the troubling news last week, and helped raise $30,000 toward the repairs. The outcry has been tremendous. The landlord has stepped up with relief, as well, so let's hope the storm has passed. Webb sounded hopeful in a followup call.
The concern extends beyond the fried cabbage and yams. Denver, especially those of us in politics, are starved for places to convene. The mom-and-pop joints have ceded to bland chains and trendy food trucks.
That matters because politics is about the art of persuasive conversation with a side of potatoes and gravy. It's part of who we are. It's not hard to imagine cavemen huddled around the fire recounting the hunt with mouth full of mastodon. The haggling and finagling today are the same; the clubs and spears are just a lot more expensive.
I've been around the block, so I can attest that other capitals are blessed with good places to eat and chatter. In Jackson, Mississippi, picking out a lunch destination for a regular group of 10 reporters and legislators could consume the entire morning because of the good choices nearby. The corn casserole and fried chicken were on the record, the hyperbole and conjecture were not.
Denver has had only a little of that, and it looks like it’ll have even less when the world reemerges.
Racines is history after 36 years. That's where I met Ken Salazar for the first time when it was in LoDo in 2002. He went on to bigger things. I must have given him good advice. Many of us who regularly convened at Racines are still shell-shocked.
We who are tethered to the state Capitol relied on City Grille, despite its greasy burgers and wilted salads. We can only hope to have them again.
An arson fire last June puts its future in doubt. The Denver Diner to the west and Tom’s Diner to the east are both done, too.
The troubling part is the pandemic is a footnote in this unwelcome turnover. It doesn't help, but it didn't cause it.
The political drinking scene dried up over the decade. The practice of getting together after a long day under the Gold Dome went extinct as reporters and lawmakers proved they couldn’t hold their liquor and act like grownups. A few seconds of body cam footage at a traffic stop is nothing any lawmaker looks forward to.
And the most depressing thing is it’s not going to change without a lot of money, a lot of time or both. The homeless camps, narrow streets and scant or expensive parking near the Capitol are steep hurdles.
What's lost is a city’s soul, its culture and its storytellers. It used to be that all you needed to do was hang out in a greasy spoon and the local scene would unfold in front of you like a map.
You’re not going to find that in an app. Yelp won’t tell you what drives a community. A spot at the counter and an easy smile will.
“They’re not a chain,” Webb said of the Welton Street Cafe. “They’re a family-owned business that has a history of having grown up in Denver. They have a history of being an iconic restaurant on Welton Street — possibly the last Black-owned business on Welton Street in Five Points.
“How can you have culture in your neighborhood — an iconic neighborhood — representing the history of African Americans in Denver and have its restaurant go out of business?”
Hopefully it won't, and you can do your part by stopping by for a meal. You won't be sorry, and if you bring an easy smile, you might learn a thing or two, especially if the mayor is holding court.