Vail Valley Character: Mike Dennis
VAIL, Colorado Though Mike Dennis, co-owner of the Westside Cafe in Vail, Colorado, got his start in the restaurant business at age 13 in Scottsdale, Ariz. busing tables and washing dishes, some of his most fond memories took place in California. He and a few buddies moved west, to San Diego, where they lived behind the Del Mar Race Track. He worked at a restaurant called Al E. Gators at SeaWorld, which was located right behind the dolphin show at the park. Not only did Dennis learn how to turn tables within less than an hour the dolphin show lasted 57 minutes he also channeled his inner cold-blooded reptile each afternoon.Id change into the kid-terrifying, nine-foot Al E. Gator costume, Dennis remembered. I was this enormous alligator, life size or bigger, roaming the restaurant and even though it was a smiling, cartoony looking alligator, it was still terrifying for some of the kids. Theyd run away and crawl under the tables.Dennis, who has lived in Vail since 1992 and worked at some of the best restaurants in town Splendido and Sweet Basil among them recently talked about the restaurants Everest connection, his yearly trip to run the La Jolla Half Marathon and some time he spent as a black-clad, sword-weilding outlaw. VD: Other than Al E. Gator, have you ever dressed up for a job?MD: Yes, I worked for Bobby McGees, a very large chain for 20 restaurants in the southwest. All the servers there were in costume and we did a show as we went through the service cycle. I was Zorro, I was Don Under from the Australian Outback, I was Dr. Benjamin Dover Dr. Ben Dover. Talk about a fun job … I worked with guys who went to Barnum & Bailey Clown school and were amazingly talented one guy could juggle 11, the other guy could juggle nine things. People were amazed at the level of entertainment.VD: How long ago was that?MD: Thats classified information. If I told you, Id have to kill you. It was the early part of my career, so about 20 years ago, maybe 25. It was a lot of fun and youd end up exhausted at the end of the night. VD: Did people get their food in the midst of all the performing?MD: Yes, it was really fast, really good. It was a really talented group of servers. I think I really cut my teeth and learned my craft at that place. We had some guys that went on to comedy, and ended up doing stand up. When I was doing Zorro, I had a big metal sword not like a little fencing one but a big saber. I would come out and people werent paying attention and Id hit the middle of the table with the sword and boom, everything would jump. It was really fun. Its really where I got addicted to being a server. You form such a bond with the people through the entertainment.VD: Do you still go back to California?MD: Im going back there Sunday for the La Jolla Half Marathon. This is year 23 for the same group of guys running it. It also started when we were working at SeaWorld. tThis one guy wasnt drinking and we were like Come on, and he was like Im training for the marathon. Then he said, Ok, $100 for anyone who shows up tomorrow. Thats how the whole thing got started. VD: Thats a great story. MD: Yeah. I cried the first time I came across the finish line. I still cry. Thirteen miles, I was all emotional. It just snowballed and now its our 23rd year. Families, kids, dinners, parties, 40 people. Its so fun. Its so funny how traditions get started … other than that, I dont run unless Im chased. Vail Daily: Tell me something about Westside that I dont know.Mike Dennis: We have a sherpa, Himalaya, top-of-Everest connection here at Westside. Lhakpa, who is our dishwasher, is from Nepal. Hes been on Everest twice and helped establish the base camps that everyone climbs out of today, which I think is pretty crazy. Know a good character? E-mail High Life Editor Caramie Schnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-748-2984.