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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Merc’s Megenity: A Cultural Revolution In A Restaurant | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

Marilyn Megenity sits at a booth in the dining room of her Mercury Café, speaking in surprisingly hushed tones about the Denver institution’s origins and her own, roots that – illuminated by the beam of retrospection – seem inextricably entwined.

MARILYN MEGENITY'S FAMILIAR COUNTENANCE, RIGHTEOUS COOKING and unflagging hospitality have brought comfort and consistency to the loyal band of devotees who have followed her religiously from the old days in Indian Hills to the now legendary Mercury Café, with numerous and varied side trips along the way.       Photo: Paul Kashmann

She grew up in north Park Hill, landed her first restaurant job at 15, attended Metro State College, and opened her first restaurant in Indian Hills in 1975. During her tenure there, Megenity received clear inner direction about her life’s work.

“I was sick for a couple of days and had a fever vision,” she says. “I realized I wanted to nurture an urban tribe and that a café was the way to do it. I had a dumpy little restaurant at the time and wanted to manifest it more powerfully and beautifully. So I negotiated a deal with a landlord in Denver and had several locations and landlord troubles, until I managed to buy this building in 1990.”

The concept of a venue that also served up creative and metaphysical sustenance along with supper flourished from the beginning. “Culture bases itself around a gathering place for meals,” Megenity says. “It comes from ancient tradition millions of years ago, with people meeting, eating, telling stories, singing and dancing. That’s what we as humans do and that’s what we do here at the Mercury.”

She has worked hard to create the kind of space she wants to spend time in, a place where, today for example, customers can select from a blackboard “menu” that includes brunch, Tibetan meditation, swing and jitterbug classes, a book signing, jazz, and Tarot readings, to name a few Sunday offerings.

“When you own a restaurant you work a lot in it and so I really loved putting all the things that make life wonderful within this place. We have a poetry slam team here that has ranked in the top 10 nationally for the last 10 years. They won the national slam team competition in 2006. These are impassioned, eloquent writers that raise each other’s consciousness and writing abilities. We have a dance team that won the national dance competition in 2006. Our dance teachers are shamans in the way they change people’s lives and help them find themselves in a joyful way.”

And yet the Mercury’s focus always begins and ends with food: the freshest and closest available. “Food has always been a passion. I started cooking whole food in a kind of hippie commune situation and really understood even then that refined flours and sugars are not healthy. I wanted to make that part of a cultural revolution in my first restaurant. It evolved as I learned more about pesticides and their effects.”

The evolution continued over the last decade as Megenity began exploring possibilities with local farmers. “Tom McCracken of Green Earth Farm started a farmers’ cooperative distribution company in 2002, when there was a great, big drought. They started distributing southern Colorado produce in Denver. Through Tom, I connected with lots of farmers around the state. I would say, ‘Find me local organic beans,’ and they’d find them for me.”

Her attention soon turned to the Mercury’s organic meat products. “At one point there was only organic, grass-fed beef available from Uruguay. I thought, ‘I can’t be shipping beef from Uruguay.’ So I introduced Colorado elk in December eight years ago, and the cooks were very worried about the New Year’s Eve menu. But it’s been about the smoothest transition you could imagine. Same thing with fish – it was crazy to be flying shrimp and salmon into land-locked Colorado – so I found sources for local fish and really, the customers don’t care. The food tastes good and I think it’s better for you when it’s local and organic. Other methods stress the animals and vegetables. It’s wonderful now to be eating locally grown food that’s produced by people who love their land and their animals.”

The affection for Mother Earth expressed in Megenity’s food reflects a deep, longstanding mystical connection. Raised without formal religious grounding, she became an astrologer at 18. “I came to my spirituality through astrology and became an earth worshipper, worshipper of the seasons and tree hugger, and then realized there were other people who feel that way.”

The café’s name is steeped in astrological significance. “We had been kicked out by two different landlords within two months and decided we needed a new name. A lot of us were studying astrology and chose the Mercury Café because the planet is fleet-footed, which we were. It rules Virgo, which rules food and service and Gemini, which rules communication.”

Within its vibrantly painted and adorned walls the Mercury not only nourishes the body and soul but offers an open forum for political expression. “There’s a book signing this afternoon that is about important environmental matters. I’m not shy about speaking out. On my breakfast menu today, one of the breakfast specials is Free Bradley Manning (the 23-year-old American soldier recently moved to detention at Fort Leavenworth, accused of being a key WikiLeaks source).” She laughs. “There’s a No More War Burrito on the regular breakfast menu. During the Bush years we used one of the restaurant walls as a community bulletin/information board. People put up articles that enraged them. It was a big wall layered with information about the crimes that went on.”

But although she admits to left-leaning sensibilities, Megenity also believes the Mercury’s entertaining classes help break down philosophical barriers. “I certainly want to welcome everyone. I think our dance classes, especially, really help people lose their dogma. All kinds of people come here, and then find they fit into a community they didn’t expect to.”  Dance also helps blur the generational divide. “We started partner dance here in 1996, and it’s really fun and something my generation missed out on. And it keeps us healthy. A recent Denver Post article quoted a study found 76 percent less Alzheimer’s in people who dance.”

The café dishes up performances by the Mercury Motley Players twice a year. “These are political dark comedies that I put my staff in,” Megenity admits. “The February performance features the darkest characters from the news the previous year, set in a romantic comedy that’s really sick and perverse and puts some really important information out there.”

Longtime customers seem to consider the Mercury an extended part of their living rooms. “They have their birthday parties, their weddings, and their memorials here,” Megenity says. And the staff members with whom she has kept in touch over the years feel more like nieces and nephews than employees. “They come here in their late teens and it’s wonderful. They keep in touch, and lots of times I get them back. They need to earn some extra money and they come help me with weddings or parties. They come home to visit their families at Christmas and work here New Year’s Eve. I am so proud of the talented young people I get to work with. One of them painted those roses on the wall behind us. The tables in the community room were done by someone who worked for me.”

How does the Mercury continue to attract such a creative, loyal staff and clientele, year after year? “I put flowers on all the tables and that’s clear, harmonious Venus energy, the energy of love and beauty. We don’t have any bouncers here at the Mercury, and when we do a celebrity show and the promoter wants to bring in security, I say, ‘Well, you can, but the beautiful ladies who work here and the flowers on the table are enough. We really don’t have any trouble.’”

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