The news has stunned us all this morning: Michelle’s Chocolatiers, Ice Cream and Tea Room has been closed by the IRS. An icon of downtown Colorado Springs for more than fifty years, the restaurant was once featured in a LIFE magazine feature spread. The children are shown in early sixties Technicolor, wearing cowboy boots and hats, eating ice cream at the green table, and the father–swarthy and handsome–puts the cherry at the top of a giant sundae.
It is no secret to readers of this blog (or my novels!) that I am in love with restaurants. I love the business in all its incarnations–kitchens and knives, acres of stainless steel and the smell of industrial dishwasher soap. It’s not some distant fairy tale longing, either; I fell in love with the business at the age of sixteen and spent, all told, more than 15 years in various restaurants in many jobs, from dishwasher to server to cook to bartender. The place it began was Michelle’s, a magical little restaurant and ice cream parlor in Colorado Springs.
There was always something vaguely European about the place. The elegant chocolates, handmade and meticulously displayed behind glass counters. The menu with its Monte Cristo sandwich (well, it sounded European to me as a girl) and the Greek salad. It was the first place I tasted feta cheese, and to be honest, I had no idea it was goat cheese until years later. You could order a demitasse, though hardly anyone ever did. When my friend Sonia took me to Angelina’s, a chocolatier nearby the Louvre, the baroque decorations and slightly faded glamor reminded me instantly of Michelle’s.
When I worked there, the uniforms were the ultimate. Oh, baby. Black nylon, short, with a white frill to tuck in at the neckline and a white nylon apron over it. We wore them tight, as we were teenagers and perfect, and as this was before the end-pantyhose revolution, stockings were required. Everything swished in those uniforms, legs against legs and skirt and apron against waist and hair, once it was let down at the end of a shift, swishing against the nylon back. I loved them. They made me feel grown-up and sexy.
And we wore a hat. It was the most beautiful hat I have ever seen, red or blue velvet caps, with gold braid around the edges. I had medieval hair in those days, a blonde tumble to my hips, and I knew when I put on that hat, hair tucked up beneath it, that I was Juliet and beautiful. (I so wish I had one now–when I left, years later, I wanted to take one with me, but honesty won out. I wonder if any have survived?)
It was the hat that made me want to work there. I was only sixteen and had no restaurant experience, but I wanted the job desperately. I badgered poor Andy Michopolous for weeks–it must have been six or seven Thursdays I showed up in a row, politely asking if he had anything yet. At last, he hired me, and I started on a Sunday afternoon. The cook making sandwiches showed me how to cook a grilled cheese on the black grill, and I was given the task of cleaning the coffee pots, and the music played–they had a Greek soundtrack, but also some classical ones–and I was hooked, forever.
You will find the Life magazine story everywhere, but I can tell you other things. About a Saturday afternoon in Christmas season when I made $17 in tips and a young man came in they had sent from the downtown store. They said he was charming and it was his birthday and we should all give him kisses when he arrived. So we did, even though I was fainting with terror and he was much, much too old and too beautiful for a girl like me. He ended up being the first love of my life, which is appropriate for the first passionate job of your life. (I saw him again when he was fifty and time had not changed him a jot–he was still as courtly and beautiful as a Scandinavian prince…the rat. I have not aged quite so well).
None of the newspaper stories will tell you about an Atomic, which is a cream puff with a scoop of vanilla ice cream inside, served with a tiny crystal pitcher of hot fudge. In fact, they won’t tell you about those beautiful little pitchers at all, meant for serving hot fudge, hot caramel, and hot butterscotch with the sundaes. We ladled up our favorite and dip fresh bananas into them.
No one will remember the crazy cooks, the slightly dilapidated kitchen, the feeling of ghosts in little passageways or downstairs in the basement, where I hated to go. They won’t remember the language of spoons–long spoons for iced tea, tiny ice cream spoons for sundaes, teaspoons for stirring coffee, and big round ones for soup.
I worked at Michelle’s, at the Citadel store and then downtown, for nearly three years. It’s amazing to think I could support myself that way, but I did, renting a tiny studio apartment near Colorado College that had a Murphy bed in the wall and a tiny kitchen I furnished with a zillion varieties of sugary cereals, and one one of my neighbors was a glum-eyed young man from Yugoslavia, which seemed vastly exotic and interesting.
While I worked at Michelle’s I fell in love with restaurants and with the rush of service on a busy Saturday afternoon, when it is impossible to keep up, but you do it anyway. I fell in love with the camaraderie of cleaning up at the end and the particular anticipatory quiet of getting things ready in the morning. I fell in love with the pleasure of serving a perfect plate, the rustling weariness of good hard work, with plastic vats of pickles and the meditative tedium of pulling apart paper doilies so it is easier to grab them later.
Years and years later, when I started to realize I desperately wanted to move back to Colorado Springs after living in Pueblo, I volunteered a few times a month at a political center. After I was finished there, I took my notebook down to Michelle’s and sat in the booths at the pale green tables, and wrote. The girls didn’t wear those glorious uniforms or even the hats anymore, but they were still cheery and incredibly young and dewy. I drank coffee and ordered a dish of vanilla and let myself breathe into time. It centered me, being there.
And so, when I had to choose a place to meet a man I’d been corresponding with for awhile, I chose Michelle’s. There I met Christopher Robin, who sat at a green table in the aisle wearing a red and blue sweater. He smiled, and I smiled back. And that was pretty much that.
We all have our touchstones, those places out of time. Michelle’s is one of mine, and I mourn its passing today. Adieu, ma cherie, adieu.