(Editor’s note: This story, intended for publication July 16, seems to have been held up by web gremlins. Please imagine having read it then. Thank you.)
By Michelle Baldwin
The Mercury Cafe in Five Points was once one of the few places in Denver that a vegetarian or vegan could not just eat, but eat well, a safe harbor of healthy, delicious comfort food for those lost in what was still a cowtown filled with steak houses. It also fed their souls with its retro/world market interior, poetry nights, swing dance lessons, rock shows – an eclectic mix that gave us a reason to gather at 22nd and California to eat, drink, dance and connect.
When I walked through its door in 1991 I was one of those lost vegetarians who found both heaven and home in a bite of Dinah’s Tofu.
Last weekend, the Merc unveiled a new chef and new menu, a lineup that honors founder Marilyn Megenity’s almost 50 years of dedication to the concept that “organic food is our birthright.”
New owners Danny Newman, Christy Kruzick, and Austin Gayer have brought on chef Elizabeth Woodard, cut from the same cloth as Megenity as a holistic health practitioner with a strong interest in nutrition.
A native New Yorker, she draws inspiration from her multicultural home and her extensive travels, infusing the menu with a diversity she already saw reflected in The Mercury Cafe staff and the international feel of the space.
My diet has morphed over the years, but I still stick to mostly vegetarian, so I was happy to find that much of the new menu is or can be made vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free or be otherwise adjusted for dietary restrictions. I brought a friend to taste the meatier options, and we found all of the new dishes thoughtful and delightful.
We started with the mini pam chicken banh mi and falafel, two-bite appetizers packed with layers of flavor. The crunchy cabbage and bok choy asian caesar is vegan, but flakes of nori carry the taste of the sea without the anchovies. Cool labneh sour cream balances the spice of the perfectly cooked middle eastern BBQ chicken. The smoked shiitake appetizer’s mushrooms and pickled radishes tossed in a sesame ginger dressing became a flavor bomb when scooped up with a bite of the fluffy cloud of edamame whip in the uttapam chip.
Another standout was the bright and fresh thai basil pesto in the edamame gnocchi, and the cherry tomatoes that were a pop of sweetness in the savory sauce.
Longtime devotees will take comfort in old favorites like the No More War Burrito, Cuba Caribe and huevos rancheros – plus the coffee bar, with its piles of pastries and extensive tea list.
In 2020 when she was ready to move on, Meganity knew she had to find someone to take over who would not let the Mercury Cafe get gobbled up by development like the rest of the block had been.
Newman, who’s put no small effort into preserving Denver gems like My Brother’s Bar and the top of the iconic D&F Clocktower (along with other projects), emphasized the new owners’ desire to carry on her vision with the new menu.
“Our mission was to keep true to our roots of local, organic cuisine while introducing dishes and flavors,” he said.
Really, the restaurant and venue remains mostly unchanged: The packed calendar is still filled with programming to draw audiences into the Jungle Room or upstairs to the main stage and ballroom. The tarot reader shuffling cards is always on hand to deliver advice and futures. And there is of course always late night coffee, comfort food and community, set against a deep red backdrop full of vintage lamps, Christmas lights and curios.