Denver Coffee House Menus: Paris on the Platte, Muddy’s and the Mercury Cafe
If you were an angst-laden teen in Denver in the 1980s or 1990s, you undoubtedly whiled away many late night hours drinking coffee and smoking at one of Denver’s many downtown cafes, such as Paris on the Platte, Muddy’s and the Mercury Café. The menus for these cafes that are held in DPL’s extensive menu collection offer a beguiling trip down nostalgia lane.
In a time before cell phones and the internet were ubiquitous (or even existed, really), cafes were the place to see and be seen, and to flirt with adulthood and each other. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the denizens of this café society were mostly members of Generation X, the oft-forgotten flannel-draped middle child generation first eclipsed by Baby Boomers and later overrun by Millennials.
Gen Xers were the last generation of “free-range” kids: the children of divorce, the feral latchkey kids who felt a bit lost in the shuffle and were defined by a jaded sarcasm. Like many generations, Xers enthroned their own role models, selecting mostly awkward beautiful misfits: the Kerouacs and Plaths, Lou Reeds, Sonic Youth and Nirvana. Café society kids went in for a uniform of torn black or flannel clothing, smudged eyeliner and Doc Marten shoes.
Denver’s Gen Xers grew up in a smaller city than the one we live in today, a less populous, less glitzy, more gritty place. Real estate was not yet a topic on anyone’s radar. Nighttime left the streets of downtown eerily empty, and the ballpark and LoDo had yet to bring commerce to quiet warehouse districts. An abandoned 16th street viaduct bridge connecting the Northside to the rest of the city crumbled at one edge of downtown; South Broadway featured a collection of run-down bars and businesses at another. This neglected urban decay somehow provided an extra spark of ersatz danger so necessary to a constructed teen identity.
Every era leaves behind traces of evidence, from architecture to art. While the formal events in life are often documented, the experiences that shape us as people—family cooking, a childhood friendship, a concert that moved us—have no stone monuments to commemorate them. When we’re fortunate, snippets of these daily ephemeral moments are collected and preserved in archives.
Known as ephemera, these oft-overlooked items might include a concert ticket stub, a note tossed from a friend in class or even a menu from your favorite restaurant. Food in particular can be memory-charged, with one whiff or taste unleashing a flood of nostalgia. The menus held in the Denver Public Library’s collection are like Marcel Proust’s famous madeleine cookie, unleashing a wave of memories. We hope the menus for Paris, Muddy’s and the Mercury Cafe from our collection will do the same for you.
Paris on the Platte, the nerve center of Denver coffee houses for alternative Xer kids, operated at 1553 Platte Street from 1986 to 2015. The café shepherded the neighborhood from its earlier run-down decay to the high-rent commercial and residential neighborhood it is today. Kids were drawn to Paris at its height for the literal isolation from society and the unfinished bohemian aura of brick, metal and wood, mismatched furniture and graffitied bathrooms.
You could always find the hip crowd at Paris from dark until close at 4 a.m., saturated in coffee and the clouds of smoke. Paris was a place where one could meet like-minded people from other neighborhoods and schools, a feat sometimes challenging before the era of school choice and the internet. The other beauty of Paris was the bookstore filling a full third of the space. Specializing in the high-brow and obscure in a time where alternatives to mainstream culture were harder to come by, the bookstore exposed Denver’s teens to new ideas.
From Earl Grey shakes to the Café Fantasia, Italian sodas and their popular mud pie, the Paris on the Platte menu from DPL’s collection stirs up many memories. The menu’s insistence on a $2 minimum per person is seemingly irrelevant today, but was likely necessary to keep the place afloat when kids would table-hop and linger all night. Hours of hobnobbing and entertainment were well worth the price of entry.
Not to be overshadowed by Paris, among other popular spots were Muddy’s and the Mercury Café. Muddy Waters of the Platte predated Paris by a decade, with its first cozy café and bookstore location opening in 1975 at 2557 15th Street, just around the corner from current-day Little Man Ice Cream. The cafe closed in the mid-1980s, but by 1989, several former regulars of the old location opened “Muddy’s Java Café” at 2200 Champa (pictured above). The new Muddy’s café included a theater space, a dojo and a bookstore, and was situated just over the edge of a rougher area of town. For an interesting read on the history of both Muddy’s cafes, see Bill Stevens’s book in our collection.
Like Paris, Muddy’s was also known for its hip, down-at-the-heels atmosphere, and in addition featured regular piano and jazz music performances. One could easily imagine a modern-day Neal Cassady and crew lingering for a late night jam, coffee and cigarettes and hopes of a free meal. Together with the setting, pitchers of Café Marquis and Mexican Chocolate were a big draw. Many readers of our previous post on Muddy's commented that in fact, as homeless teens, they appreciated the owner giving them free meals regularly.
Just a few blocks away from Muddy’s stood the Mercury Café, the sole survivor of this trio in our current day. The “Merc” continues to appeal to those of a more whimsical hippie bent, and they were ahead of their time in offering local, organic, vegetarian food at a time when most of the city was still fixated on steak. The Mercury Café opened at 2199 California Street on Halloween 1990, after several short-lived iterations in Capitol Hill in the years prior. Hosting a higher percentage of adults in their clientele, in the 1980s and 90s the quirky Merc featured food from early morning brunch clear through to munchies fare in the wee hours of the morning.
A glance at our historic Merc menu shows offerings ranging from omelettes and sandwiches to Mexican and Chinese dishes. Of our three cafes, the Merc had the most diverse, and robust, food menu. Their coffee drinks were less elaborate than others’, however they featured alcoholic coffee drinks bearing names of astrological signs, and if memory serves right, they’d make a virgin version upon request.
In keeping with this diversity, the Mercury Café has always featured poetry readings, and a large performance space for local and soon-to-be globally-popular bands (the 90s saw Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Soul Asylum, Green Day). Our ephemera collection includes listings for regular drop-in tango, African and swing dancing lessons, and—according to the April 1982 performance calendar we hold in the collection—the “People’s Free Theatre” featuring open mic performances. Our copy of the 1986 menu also features quotes from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, prosaically perhaps to fill out the 8-page fold, but more poetically to remind us all of our place in the universe.
For the "old school crowd" still walking these Denver streets, and for those who've joined us since, we're lucky to have held onto the Mercury for more than thirty years.
Dear Generation X readers, what memories do you have of those high school weekend nights long ago? Did you have a favorite café hangout (perhaps one I’ve missed)? Are there items on these menus that bring you back in time? And does anyone remember what was in an Egyptian Sunrise?
The menus from this post are part of a much larger assortment of printed menus from restaurants chiefly located in Denver, broader Colorado and the Western United States. The collection is currently being processed and will have a new online research guide soon. If you're interested in viewing the collection (WH1509), please contact Western History & Genealogy staff.
If you’re thirsty for more coffee house nostalgia, you’ll enjoy some of our other resources featuring these cafes and others:
- Western History Subject Headings
- Denver Public Library Digital Collections
- Denver Newspaper Clippings Files:
- Denver. Restaurants
- Denver. Theatres. Mercury Cafe
- Muddy’s Chronicles: Memoirs from the Last Great Coffeehouse
- Muddy’s Café: An Important Denver Institution
* Gen X, not Z!
Hi Jason, thanks for reading! I agree, the new Denver is interesting, but it is very different. I'm glad to have experienced both, and am curious to see where we go from here.
I don't know?! I live down the street from what was Muddy's v2 and Mercury Cafe, which is struggling with the covid closures as well as changes in the neighborhood. I have a few relic haunts that, when they go, I go (from Denver)....
Jason, your ambivalence is understandable. It seems we may be on the verge of more drastic change, and it's not entirely predictable what we'll lose. Hopefully we gain some positives, too.
I remember sharing a joint with a Muddy's waitress behind the original location. It was the summer of '85 while I was home from my freshman year in college, and I felt like that moment solidified my bona fides as a true Muddy's patron. I loved that place. I still have a couple of old menus somewhere in storage. Those were pinned above my desk at college in Maine. Great memories - at least the ones I can remember. LOL.
Hi William, thanks for sharing your story. It sounds very much in the vein of 80s/90s Denver cafe culture! Let us know if you find your old menus--I'm sure this group would love to see them!
I remember taking a Denver Free University class upstairs at Muddy’s and late night coffee. BTW, I was a half time Librarian in Western History Department 82-83, before the new amazing library.
Hi Susan. Thank you for reading. I'm glad we still have Denver Free University around as a resource. And hello from your old stomping grounds!
Happy New Year, everybody.
I lived in Denver from 1974 until 1978 as a 20-something. I hung out at Muddy's occasionally, but more often at Freeweaver's (on Colfax), which began its life as "The Bare Tit" but the feminists from the bookstore down the street broke its window twice, so they changed the name to something less provocative. It was ironic, because "The Bare Tit" was just a little coffeehouse with a small stage, an upright piano and two male owners with a great espresso machine. (Nothing salacious occurred there. Just music and coffee.) Songwriters like me could get a gig (playing for tips), and spend as much time as we liked there without buying anything.
The more respectable Folklore Center was just down the street, which was a bit more competitive in terms of getting a gig than Freeweavers because just about anybody could play at the latter.
I also remember Elrond's, which was the predecessor of the Mercury Cafe. Great menu.
I have a Denver Public LIbrary story from the old library. It is where I discovered David Bowie, checking out all his LPs. Years later, in 2000, which I returned to Denver for a visit, I was awed by the new building.
Around 1974, I think, when Joni Mitchell came to town with her "Miles of Aisles" tour with the LA Express, I had a state job which only paid once a month (!). I went to the concert with no money and when I found a scalper who had a ticket to sell, I said, "All I have is my Denver Library Card. You can hold it as collateral and I will mail you the payment for the ticket as soon as I get paid." Unbelievably, he agreed, and I was able to go to the concert. Needless to say, I paid him back and he returned my much revered library card!
The other coffee house I want to mention is Sweet Loretta's, which was just on Saturday nights a room provided by the Denver Free University, I believe. It was a solid community of singers, songwriters, poets, and kind people, many of whom are still my friends to this day.
Thanks for this web page. I am sorry I was gone from Colorado by the time all the Gen Xers were hanging out!
Hi Joanne. Thanks for sharing all of your memories! You mentioned several coffee shops with which I was unfamiliar. It's great to know there was such support for the creative community in the 70s. Going forward, I will keep my eyes peeled for info on those cafes.
Love your story about the scalper! Ah, the power of a library card!
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