Cliff Young, who helped give Denver fine dining flare, dies at 76

Cliff Young, the restaurateur who was at the forefront of a fine-dining revolution in Denver in the 1980s, died Friday, on his 76th birthday.

The man behind the eponymous Cliff Young’s and many other establishments around town leaves behind a legacy in Denver’s restaurant scene that matches his outsized personality and 6-foot, 3-inch frame, those who knew him say.

Young had been in poor health since late 2019 after his wife of 20 years died, according to Zach Young, the third of his four children. On Friday, his heart gave out, his son said. Zach Young broke the news to the broader community on Facebook.

In addition to his children — Spencer, Erin, Zach and Gabe — Young leaves behind two grandchildren.

“I know he would just want to people to know that he and a handful of people out here are the ones that changed the dining scene in Denver,” Zach Young said. “He went in there and took a big risk.”

Cliff Young’s, located on the corner of East 17th Avenue and Clarkson Street, was the swankiest restaurant in town during its run from 1983 to 1993. Young, a devotee of French dining tradition, favored high-touch service with rack of lamb and bananas Foster prepared tableside, his son recalled.

“It was very elegant. Things were happening,” said Wendy Aiello, president of public relations firm Aiello PR & Marketing. Aiello waited tables at another legendary Denver resultant, nearby Strings, during Cliff Young’s heyday. “If you wanted to know where a big shot was, they were at Cliff Young’s.”

But Young didn’t plan his culinary career from an early age, his son said. Born in Fruita, Young was a lifelong history buff who studied philosophy and theology at what is now Colorado Mesa University before being drafted during the Vietnam War.

After being stationed in Virginia as an Air Force chaplain, Young eventually came back to Colorado, getting a job at the renowned Broadmoor Hotel. That’s where his love for the hospitality business took off. After a stint as the maître d’ of Denver French restaurant Le Profil, he opened his own place in 1984.

Young became an iconic figure in Denver’s fine dining scene, said John Imbergamo, a restaurant consultant.

“He was one of Denver’s finest maître d’s, and this was during a time when maître d’s, the front-of-the-house people, were the stars of the restaurants,” Imbergamo said. “…Everybody knew who Cliff was.”

From politicians to professional football coaches, everyone who was anyone dined at Cliff Young’s, said Dave Query, a former chef at the restaurant and now owner of Big Red F Restaurant Group.

“It was the end-all, be-all of fine dining in Denver,” Query said. “You had the strolling violins and pianos, and Cliff, who was this combination of Mr. French meets Chuck Norris.”

Before each shift, Young met with the restaurant’s staff and outlined who they expected to serve that night, what the diners liked and didn’t like and when they’d last been in. Young loved to say that the customer was king, Query said, and always gave guests the benefit of the doubt.

He also stood up for his restaurant when necessary, Query said.

Query remembered one night when a man was being unruly and “a real [jerk]” during his meal. The guest and a woman with him were halfway through their entrees — a few hundred dollars into the meal — when Young decided they’d gone too far. He grabbed a restaurant employee, a big guy like himself, and they went up to the couple, seated at a cozy round booth, and a table full of drinks and food.

“They picked the table up and removed the entire table away from the guests,” Query said. “So now these two are sitting there with no table in front of them and nothing to hide behind. And Cliff said, ‘Dinner is on me, but you need to leave now.’ They were so embarrassed they got up and left.”

Young was a master networker, Query said, and he held his restaurant staff to high standards. Many lauded culinary careers were launched from his restaurants.

After selling Cliff Young’s, Young remained active in the Denver hospitality scene, helping open restaurants and businesses including the Diamond Cabaret topless gentleman’s club with owner Bobby Rifkin.

In the late 90s, Young and his wife, Zach Young’s stepmom, moved to the Burgundy region of France, Zach Young said. There, the couple purchased an old house and operated what was essentially the French fine-dining equivalent of the bed-and-breakfast. But the distance from grandchildren and the economic crash of 2008 brought Young back to Denver.

He re-took the reins of the steakhouse attached to the Diamond Cabaret in 2009, changing its name to CY Steak. With help from Zach Young, he ran the place until 2018. He continued to do some restaurant consulting and wine sales work for a while after that before finally retiring, his son said.

Near the end of his run with CY Steak, Young remarked that his place was one of the last restaurants in Denver that still had white tablecloths as upscale restaurants embraced a more casual atmosphere, Zach Young said. Not that it bothered him. He was always supportive of people he knew in the industry, pushing them to be great.

Young helped his son develop his own restaurant, Bar Red, across from the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse on West Colfax. Young knew this Bar Red was going for a relaxed, gastropub vibe but he still imparted his high standards.

“He was very insistent that the food, the drinks and staff, everybody and everything had to be top of the line,” Zach Young said.

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