Adieu, Michelle’s


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.

Ah, 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.

10 thoughts on “Adieu, Michelle’s

  1. Caroline

    Aww I can’t believe that place is closing, I only went there once with you and Ian but I loved it just the same. You gave her a beautiful farewell though. 🙂

  2. Aw, man, I’ve already cried a few times today, and you did it again!

    I’ve never been there, but it brought me happy/sad tears.

    I don’t really like the Macaroni Grill, but the day they close down the one where I met Todd in much the same way you met your C.R. will be a dark day. And it’s just a chain.

  3. Aw, man, I’ve already cried a few times today, and you did it again!

    I’ve never been there, but it brought me happy/sad tears.

    I don’t really like the Macaroni Grill, but the day they close down the one where I met Todd in much the same way you met your C.R. will be a dark day. And it’s just a chain.

  4. It doesn’t matter if a touchstone place is a chain or a quirky local joint. They’re touchstones all the same.

    That said, I’m just sad that Michelle’s is closing! Ah, the changes of time.

  5. I really do feel your pain, though without as much history. I had a favorite place in Melbourne, a café called Brown Sugar, that my friend and I stumbled upon when we were planning our first Paris trip. It was in a small lane in the heart of the city but felt like a world away. They had dark wooden furnishings and rich yellow walls, upon which were black and white photos of European locales. The owner, Tony, an Australian-born Greek, was young and friendly and made THE BEST COFFEE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD (do not mess with the greeks when they’re making coffee, my friend, this is a serious business). Jules and I would go there for breakfast every Tuesday and discuss our plans and slowly Tony and the chef, Frank, got involved.

    Then I got into the habit of breakfasting there 3 or 4 times a week and often taking friends there on the weekends or at night. Tony would make my flat white with “G” written in the foam the instant I walked in the door and he’d let me order things that weren’t on the menu if I had a craving for something or keep me portions of a good cake or dish if he knew I was coming in, and charge me “regular” rates.

    Tony ran the place with his wife, Cathy, and when she became pregnant with their second child, they realized they would never see each other and something had to be done. The day he told me he’d sold it, I was so angry with him that he started crying and I started crying. But he had to–it was an extremely good business in a great location with a great reputation. Until, of course, the new owners took it over. They got rid of all the photos, repainted it a stark white, changed the menu. In short, screwed everything up, and all the regulars stopped going there. It was just heartbreaking, and I haven’t found a regular spot like it since. But I have the feeling someday, somewhere, Tony’s going to start up another business and I’m going to be there. Happily drinking my flat white.

  6. Ah, Gabrielle, that’s a great story. When Tony opens his next place, I’ll have to go visit.

  7. Pam

    I’ve been living in Colorado Springs for 14 years now. My husband takes the kids and I to Michelle’s whenever something great happens! Tonight my 12 year old is in a production of “Annie” at First Pres – we would celebrate at Michelle’s afterwards, normally. I’ll miss it so much, especially the Atomic and the old-fashioned paintings on the walls.

    I heard on the radio that it was closed by the IRS. Maybe they will re-open it when the back taxes are paid.


  8. Good thought, Pam. I’m not holding my breath, but still….

  9. Drew

    I used to work at michelles, and it was a great place. The owner at the time, Jim was a great manager, and I am sad to see them go. To hear you talk about all that stuff, Atomic, paintings, pitchers,… all of it jerks at my heart strings. Fare thee well.

  10. David Laughlin

    Can you believe, it is 13 years since this article ran. As an Air Force Academy cadet (class of ’71), I was introduced to Michelle’s in the late 1960’s. It was always a place you could feel a touch of home when the Academy’s homesick blues would strike (but only when you had a pass to come into C-Springs).

    My fondest memory, that I have repeated often, was sitting in a cave in the Rampart Range during survival training and thinking about a Pike’s Peak Special from Michelle’s and a footlong hot dog from Dallas’ State Fair of Texas. I was cold, hungry, and wondering why life was so cruel. Ah, yes, I will carry that memory with me beyond the grave.

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