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Morin Is Gone, but the Wazee Isn't Coming Back. Get Ready for A5.

This door will soon lead to A5.EXPAND
This door will soon lead to A5.
Patricia Calhoun
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The clock above the bar in the Wazee Lounge and Supper Club was always ten minutes fast. For pie-eyed drinkers who'd been holding forth long enough that they'd lost track of the hour, a glance at that clock could be a startling reminder that it was later than they thought. Later than it actually was. But sooner or later, time's up...on a night out, on a restaurant's life span.

The circa 1910 building at 1600 15th Street held a plumbing supply house in the ’50s when Al Rotola and his brother-in-law, James Capillupo, bought it after a construction project doomed another bar they owned and turned this space under the rickety 15th Street viaduct into the Wazee Lounge and Supper Club. Their emphasis was on comfort food, and they started serving it early in the day, for workers coming off their shifts in the warehouses of lower downtown. A decade and a half later, they sold the Wazee to the Karagas brothers, Greeks who made the place famous for pizza, cheap drinks and hospitality on tap late into the night.

Angelo and Jim Karagas, brothers from Detroit, had moved to Denver in the late ’60s. In 1969 they bought a building at 15th and Platte streets that had held a saloon without a break (except for Prohibition, when it sold sodas) since the 1870s; they transformed what had most recently been Whitey's into My Brother's Bar because, as Jim explained, whenever a bill collector came in and asked who owned the joint, whichever Karagas was in charge that day would say, “It’s my brother’s bar.” While Jim focused on My Brother’s, Angelo oversaw the Wazee.

After Angelo passed away, the Wazee and the building that housed it were sold to developer Charley Woolley (who seems to have turned saving legendary venues into a habit lately) and the Wynkoop group; the Wynkoop group sold its share to Roadhouse Hospitality Group, owned by the Shipp brothers, in 2015. They pushed through a half-hearted renovation that turned the place into more of a sports bar than a late-night watering hole (but also built a big new kitchen). In December 2017, they sold their portion to Juan Padró, whose Culinary Creative was expanding rapidly — from one Tap & Burger to now four, as well as Bar Dough, Señor Bear, and more. This time, there was a far more major renovation, which transformed the Wazee into Morin, a contemporary (and fancy) French restaurant.

The Wazee name lasted sixty years.
The Wazee name lasted sixty years.
Wazee Lounge & Supper Club

But first, MaryAnn Dezzutti, the daughter of Al Rotola, met with Woolley, Padró and a few others for a last lunch at the Wazee. She listened to the new owners’ plans for the restaurant and gave them her blessing on the retirement of the Wazee Lounge and Supper Club name...which never did make that much sense, she said, since there wasn't much supper served there when her father owned it. And after sixty years, she pronounced: “It’s time.”

“It’s an important piece of Denver’s history, and we want to honor that and respect that,” Padró said at that lunch. “It’s time for a change, but that doesn’t change the historical significance of the space.”

Except that soon a lacy wooden map of Normandy covered the original brick wall where the bar clock once hung, and a weird replica of Mount Blanc drooped over a new bar that took up most of the center of the space. "When those structures went up in the first place, I was a little torn,” Padró now admits.

Morin opened in October 2018, and once the owners made some adjustments and diners got accustomed to the changes and realized they could augment fussier French fare with champagne and oysters at that big bar, it “was a break-even enterprise, slightly profitable,” Padró says. Then the pandemic hit.

Like every other restaurant that hadn't already shut down, Morin was locked up on March 17, 2020. Unlike many other restaurants, however, it did not reopen, not even this spring, when rules restricting capacity were lifted. And now it will never reopen — at least, not as Morin.

It's time for a change.

Mount Blanc loomed over Morin; the bar will have a new look when the space reopens.
Mount Blanc loomed over Morin; the bar will have a new look when the space reopens.
Danielle Lirette

The space did see plenty of use during the pandemic: Padró and his team used the renovated kitchen to prepare meals for pop-up events and to help feed so many who were going without. “It's been a struggle,” Padró concedes. But he also recognized that the struggle was worse for others. "We fed the community out of that kitchen as a group,” he says. “We made hundreds of thousands of meals for front-line workers, shelters. That kitchen for us has a special meaning. Other businesses kept our company afloat; our commitment was to our community, and that was delivered through that kitchen.”

But now that commitment to the community will be served in other ways. When the corner door at 15th and Wazee streets finally reopens to the public sometime this summer, it will lead into A5, a very different concept from Morin...or the Wazee. In fact, it will be a steakhouse, but not the kind of steakhouse that represented the pinnacle of dining in Denver in the 1980s, back when this address was devoted to pizza. “It's the highest rating for wagyu beef in Japan,” explains Max MacKissock, the chef and Culinary Creative partner whose French heritage helped inspire Morin. “It's a really amazing product that's kind of hard to get for most Americans. We'll also have an American line of wagyu, and grass-fed beef.

This won't just be any steakhouse, MacKissock cautions: “The restaurant is going to be kind of fun and funky and all over the place. It will be driven by seasonality and just fun ideas of ingredients. It's different from anything that's out there.”

“It will have a familiar look, a familiar format, but more playful food,” promises Padró. “Philosophically, we've always said we love the idea of polished casual. That's what we're good at. At Bar Dough, you can get a burger and a martini, or ball out for $200 a head. You can choose your own adventure.”

Adds MacKissock, “We're casting a wider net for who's coming to dinner there.” And casting it from more places, including the sidewalk, taking advantage of the traffic heading to Ball Arena, then coming back from a game or concert. Padró had obtained a permit for a big sidewalk patio beside Morin even before the pandemic, and now he has plans to make “a really cool place to sit.”

There will also be surf to match the turf, with Best of Denver 2021 Readers' Choice winner Oyster Wulff in charge of the raw bar. “We'll still have the seafood element, as well,” Padró notes. “The bar will be there, but just not quite as big. That's one of the things we struggled with — the size of the bar and keeping it full.”

They also struggled with the fact that Morin just wasn't an ideal fit for Denver. The pandemic gave them time to think about that. “Restaurants are paying attention to every element now,” explains MacKissock. “This gave us kind of an excuse to reimagine Morin. We put a lot of work into it.”

And a lot of thought, Padró adds, starting with asking the question, Is this really us? “The answer was, it's us, sometimes. Not as a business; more like us personally,” he says. “Never let passion get in the way of a good business decision.”

They considered taking the space back to a new version of the Wazee Lounge and Supper Club, but determined that an entirely new concept would work better for Denver diners, and also provide “opportunity for growth for our own people,” Padró says. One of those people will be the new chef, but that name has not yet been announced. 

After all, there's so much to do now that restrictions are lifted. Forget Me Not is open in Cherry Creek, where the group also picked up Aviano Coffee and will be making some changes. Ogden Street South is another new addition. A Tap & Burger will be opening in Westminster. “We think that northern suburbs are going to explode,” says Padró.

But meanwhile, downtown is coming back, and they're staking a claim there, too. MacKissock has felt the energy returning to LoDo while working in the kitchen over the past month. “Restaurants are finally starting to pick back up,” he says. “So now we're starting to put the moves in place.”

It's time.

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