The Butcher Block Cafe is hanging on as a relic of a long-gone Brighton Boulevard

The old diner has become so much more than a business for Mickey Michel.
7 min. read
The sun rises over the Butcher Block Cafe’s location on 38th Street, just off Brighton Boulevard. Nov. 11, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Most mornings, long before dawn, you can find Mickey Michel turning up his flattop grill and blasting instrumentals from The Nutcracker. He's been a fixture in the kitchen at Brighton Boulevard's Butcher Block Cafe for almost 20 years, often arriving around 4 a.m. to prep for the first round of customers.

Michel's family has been running Butcher Blocks in the city since 1978. His brother bought Denver's original Butcher Block Cafe, which was first opened in Globeville by Jack Crowell, then expanded the franchise. Michel's son, Corey, spent his childhood washing dishes in a location that once stood on Broadway, then baking in the old building his parents bought off of Brighton Boulevard in 1995. It was long before the RiNo art district even appeared, and sidewalks lined streets between the train tracks and the river.

A lot has changed since the days Michel's restaurant was surrounded by warehouses and blue-collar workers. As Denver has grown in the last decade, no place has transformed as drastically as the Brighton corridor. Most of the mechanics and machinists have left-replaced by young transplants who live in new apartment buildings with names like Block 32 and The Edison. While the neighborhood has shifted, Michel said the Butcher Block hasn't been left behind.

Data Source: Denver Assessor's Office
Data Source: Denver Assessor's Office

"We liked the places that were in the gritty parts of town, where people had to go to work and go home in the afternoon," he said last week as he warmed up his grill. "I kind of wondered where our customers would come from, but these kids that have moved in on the weekends just love the diner atmosphere. It's crazy."

Butcher Block Cafe owner Mickey Michel spreads cinnamon sugar onto fresh dough, the beginnings of the restaurant's signature cinnamon rolls. Nov. 11, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Denver, a hardcore brunch town, still loves the Butcher Block.

Customers who wander into Michel's restaurant at 5 a.m. are, in many cases, the same people who've been coming in for years.

People like Joe Thrasher, an EMT, who's come back for his "round house" plate - always over easy, wheat, smothered in white gravy - for 30 years.

"I come for breakfast but I also come for dinner, because I love their liver and onions," he said as he ate. "It's always friendly and warm."

Joe Thrasher sits at the counter at the Butcher Block Cafe's Brighton Boulevard location before he starts his day shift in an ambulance. Nov. 11, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The city's changes aren't lost on him. He mourned the closing of Breakfast King, on Santa Fe Drive at Mississippi Avenue, one of the last 24-hour spots left in town.

"That seemed to happen a lot, which is sad," he said. "What I really hope is they don't force these guys out. I'm sure the city, in its great wisdom, will probably do that at some point. It seems obvious. It's prime property."

Art Garcia, who stopped in for a smothered burrito before his shift started, said he also worries how New Denver might impact the restaurant. He's been coming here since he was 19.

JD Kidd (left) and Art Garcia have a 5 a.m. breakfast before work at the Butcher Block Cafe's location on 38th Street, just off Brighton Boulevard. Nov. 11, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

"It hasn't succumbed to all this nastiness here..." like high rises, though he said, sarcastically,  "It's going to be replaced by one of those bars, either a pub, a grow house, a yoga studio, a spin class studio or a WeWork."

But Michel says he's got no reason to close things down. They made it through COVID closures, hopped on a few delivery apps and came back with a roar of new business. These days, construction workers in safety vests sit alongside young professionals in beanies and fleeces. Saturday and Sunday shifts are especially busy.

By 9 a.m. on a Friday, the Butcher Block Cafe begins filling with customers old and new. Nov. 11, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

"We used to run with two cooks is all. And now we're up to four in here on the weekends," Michel told us. "We're fortunate."

Owning the building helped them weather the toughest moments of the pandemic. It also means Michel's family is in control if and when they make an exit. Thrasher was right, the cafe does sit on desirable land.

"We've been offered some money, but business has never been so good," Michel told us. "We sell a ton of cinnamon rolls."

Cinnamon buns in a proofing cabinet back-of-house at the Butcher Block Cafe's location on 38th Street, just off Brighton Boulevard. Nov. 11, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Those rolls are more than signature items. For Michel, they're a way to honor his late son.

The restaurant has changed for what it means to Michel. It's no longer just a business, but a place where he's found healing after a sudden, unspeakable tragedy.

Corey died suddenly in 2020, right as COVID and protests descended on the city. He loved to run, and often got out of bed at three in the morning to strap on his sneakers before he met Michel at the restaurant.

He was jogging with his dogs when his heart stopped.

"Time makes it easier. It never, ever makes it go away," he said.

Amid so much existential crisis, Michel, his wife Nancy, daughter Erica, daughter-in-law Michelle and granddaughter Madeline were hit with a much more personal trauma. Two years later, Michel is still working out his feelings.

A photo of Corey Michel on the wall at the Butcher Block Cafe's location on 38th Street, just off Brighton Boulevard. Nov. 11, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Keeping the Butcher Block going makes things easier, too. On one hand, Michel said it keeps his mind occupied, too busy to grieve. But his kitchen was where he bonded with his son, where they made cinnamon rolls together before they could afford a new mixer and proofing drawer.

"He was the one who perfected the cinnamon roll recipe with my mom. He loved to bake," Michel told us. "I feel kinda bad. My business has never been so good, and my son is kind of missing out on it."

Butcher Block Cafe owner Mickey Michel rolls dough into his signature cinnamon rolls, a recipe perfected by his late son, Corey. Nov. 11, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The Nutcracker music in the morning is another way to keep Corey around; he loved it. So is the portrait on the wall, and the early morning light that glints past the Butcher Block's open sign each morning.

"We always looked at sunrises together," Michel said as he rolled out a slab of dough, "so I never miss those."

Butcher Block Cafe owner Mickey Michel sips his coffee as his Brighton Boulevard restaurant opens for the day. Nov. 11, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Beyond busy weekends and loyal regulars, it's the solace Michel finds here that really keeps the place open. He said he'll give it at least eight more years, long enough for Madeline to turn 18. What happens next is sort of besides the point.

For now, Michael said, rolling pin in hand, "He's with me."

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Michel's family bought the original Butcher Block Cafe in Globeville, rather than opening it from scratch.

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