The whirring of ceiling fans in a darkened interior; chairs neatly upturned on tabletops like a labyrinth of skewers; the preternatural stillness during what’s normally a bustling lunch rush — all unaffected by a confused group of people in scarves gently pulling on M Uptown’s door handles.
You cannot come in; they are no more.
The final guests were served on Sunday, Jan. 1 of 2017.
Taylor Herbert, former manager of the beloved staple at 700 E. 17th, is still reeling. Only hours earlier was she informed that a shuttering was already underway. “It still hasn’t sunk in,” she says, hands cradling the beanie on her head. “People are already making plans to move on, which is tough.” To her left sits Jeff Kustok, former co-owner. Though just as affected, he maintains a brave face when he speaks of breaking the news to his staffers, of which there are approximately 30.
“It was extremely difficult and a last-minute decision,” he says. “Then we reminisced and talked about the good times we’ve had. I think the employees were understanding.” He tilts his head a bit and adds: “Or as understanding as you can be when you’re being told you no longer have a job.”
“I think we all have a good enough connection as a family that we were all able to understand,” Taylor says. “We’re very tight knit, and not to say that no one was upset about it, but what was really beautiful was that Jeff invited us to have a cocktail after the meeting. We went around in a circle talking about our favorite moments we’ve had here and it was bittersweet but beautiful — nobody stormed out angry today.”
Though enshrouded in confusion — M Uptown was, after all, a popular spot — Jeff says he and his wife, former co-owner Jennifer Kustok, conferred with their investors and realized it was time to take a step back and reconsider their path.
“We’ve built a lot of clientele, a lot of loyal customers over the past 10 or 11 years,” Jeff says. “That’s a long time for a restaurant; [this industry] is tough. We’ve had a lot of great employees over the years, which is amazing. We just felt that it’s time for a new, more energized level and we thought the best way to do that would be to close for now.”
“As we were breaking the news to everybody, you could see that it broke Jeff and Jennifer’s heart even worse,” Taylor adds. “To have put their heart and soul into this place for 11 years and to feel like a failure. But this isn’t a failure; it’s ok to just step back sometimes.”
With all of this being so new, Jeff is hesitant to lay out a concrete game plan for the future of the business. He says: “We hope to do something within the next three or four months with the same space. That’s our thought process, that’s our hope — but nothing is written in stone. We have a large space which needs to be filled consistently, which we’ve done a pretty good job at but we need to do better. We’re taking a bit of a risk, but we need to do this for what we feel will help us be successful for the next ten years. Right now, I’m unclear as to what that looks like.”
He sighs. “We’ve had to speak with lots of people over the last few days, and I’m not entirely sure right now — but when I’m sure, I’ll let people know.”
Some speculators on Facebook either blame or credit the new Hamburger Mary’s franchise, to which Jeff and Jen held fast for a decade, as the reason behind M Uptown’s decision to close.
“I don’t know much about the new Hamburger Mary’s,” he says, “but our closure has absolutely nothing to do with that — let’s put that to bed.”
The normally vibrant art hovering around the unnervingly placid dining area seems to brood in the dim light. One thing Jeff is adamant on is that no items on the wall will be up for auction anytime soon. In fact, in the aftermath of rebranding the place after negotiations with the Hamburger Mary’s franchise fell through, Taylor lead effort to help with the new M Uptown aesthetic. She didn’t fully realize the significance of many of the pieces until Jen walked her through the building.
For instance, an aged image wrapped in a purple frame contains a graphic of a band called Push, which has a Blues Brothers feel, and may seem out of place next to a black and white poster of a smoking-hot James Dean or a shot of a cooing Marilyn Monroe. Turns out, the lead singer of Push is Jeff’s uncle. “He’s the frontman,” Jeff confirms with a shy smile.
The Denver skyline piece above the stage was given to the restaurant a few years back. “Johnny, a parking attendant, did that piece for us,” Jeff says. He adds that it’s a style in which the artist never lifts the pen from the paper.
Taylor moves the condiment tray from the table at which we’re seated and has me observe the inlaid photo of the Denver Cycle Sluts. “They’ve commemorated this entire corner to them. [The Cycle Sluts] have been a part of this place for such a long time.” Jeff points to a bejeweled jock strap through which the Cycle Sluts thanked the restaurant for its support. (Get it? Support?) Jen points to a bear in a glass cage. It comes from a customer who purchased it for the restaurant nine years ago at the Matthew Shepard gala. “That was one of our first galas,” Jeff says quietly.
In spite of the sadness in the air at the possibility that our cherished spot in uptown may never return, Jeff and Taylor want to express their utmost adoration for those who’ve graced their threshold.
“The community has been an amazing support,” Jeff says. “ I’ve felt it, Taylor feels it, we all feel it.” He’s incredibly humbled when I ask him if there’s anything we can do to help, as a community.
“It’s really tough to ask for more from the large group of people who’ve regularly frequented this establishment over the last 11 years. It’s very, very difficult for me to ask for more; they’ve given their money, their time, their energy, and I hope we’ve provided a fun and entertaining environment for them while they were here. It’d be challenging for me to ask for more.”
He takes another moment and adds: “Maybe post what you miss about us and how we can do better in the future.Yeah. You can show your support by letting us know we’re missed.”
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If anyone would like to share some anecdotes and good memories in the comments, by all means: As always, we’d love to have you.