In 2016, a staggering 220 restaurants opened in the city, from fine-dining bistros to laid-back cafés, and it’s also been touted as America’s beer capital. To get a taste, we ate and drank our way around the best (and the hippest) bars and restaurants across Denver. Here’s what we discovered.
What’s so special about Denver’s food and drink scene?
Since Denver was founded in 1858 – when Maverick prospectors panned for gold, bawdy saloons filled with railroad workers and a deal to hand over rule of the city was made over a persuasive barrel of whiskey – it has done its own thing.
Built in an unlikely spot high on a plain at the base of the Rocky Mountains, the city somehow survived. Before long, food and beverage businesses realised that the city offered a perfect brew of conditions: year-round sunshine, fresh spring water and close proximity to fresh farm produce. Coors Brewery was one of the first businesses to open here, in 1873, and is now the largest brewing site in the world.
Grass-fed lamb, trout and bison are still the traditional staples, but when the Denver food scene truly took off around ten years ago, innovative chefs and microbrewers began to experiment. Big names were soon lured here by the abundance of fine ingredients and the freedom of expression.
Sounds delicious! So, where do I start?
The explosion of new restaurants, cafés and bars has been mainly centred around Lower Downtown (LoDo), particularly Larimer Square; River North (RiNo), the arty district known for its impressive street art and clutch of new pop-ups, food markets and microbreweries; and the hip Highlands (LoHi) and South Broadway areas.
A stack of brunch-time pancakes at Snooze will set you up nicely for a day exploring Denver. It’s a popular café in the newly renovated Union Station, the historic train terminal that reopened in July 2014 and is now a destination for foodies as well as passengers.
You don’t have to go far to find a good food truck, either; there are 60 or so around the city serving up everything from banh mi to Venezuelan cornbread across the counter. Every Tuesday through to Thursday in summer, around 25–30 food trucks congregate at the Civic Center EATS in Downtown.
I’m a little short on time. Where will I find the best restaurants?
Several Denver movers and shakers have all won or been shortlisted for prestigious James Beard food awards. Among them, New Jersey-native Frank Bonanno dominates the food scene with ten restaurants in Denver, including Osteria Marco and Russell’s Smokehouse on Larimer Square.
Local super-chef Jennifer Jasinski runs Stoic & Genuine seafood restaurant in Union Station, Bistro Vendôme and Rioja on Larimer Square, and Euclid Hall which serves innovative pub grub. She has a fifth concept on the way: Ultreia, a tapas restaurant set to open in late 2017.
Where are the hipster hangouts?
You’ll need to head to RiNo. In recent years, defunct low-rise warehouses have been put to new use as food markets and brewpubs. Here, you’ll find The Source, an upmarket food hall in a reclaimed 1880’s foundry. Among the red brick and steel girders, there’s a collective of artisan establishments, including Steven Redzikowski’s contemporary American bar and grill, Acorn.
Denver Central Market, the city’s newest food hall, opened in 2016 and is already firmly on the food map. The smell of cinnamon and coffee lures you in through the door where an airy hall bustles with punters at market-deli stalls, from butchers and bakers to cheese-makers and artisanal chocolatiers. Around the corner, Mexican chef Dana Rodriguez offers a Latin-American “square meal and stiff drink” at Work & Class.
Avanti F&B is a modern food hall in LoHi, featuring seven bars and restaurants in shipping containers and spectacular views over Downtown Denver.
And is there anything a little more quirky?
Sure, you can find quirky: Linger is a bar in a former mortuary that once held the remains of Buffalo Bill. It may seem macabre, with funereal touches, such as formaldehyde bottles of water and a menu that resembles a toe tag – but it’s one of Denver’s most popular bar-restaurants. It also has a large roof terrace and a superb menu offering global street food and excellent cocktails to boot. Owner Justin Cucci’s other bars include Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, a gastro-bar in a former brothel, and retro-chic Root Down.
The menu at Biker Jim’s features a range of hot dogs made from exotic, natural meats, such as rattlesnake, elk and Alaskan reindeer. Meanwhile at the historic Buckhorn Exchange – Denver’s oldest steakhouse, once catering to cattlemen, miners and Indian chiefs – you can try some unusual delicacies: Bison burgers, alligator tails or Rocky Mountain Oysters, anyone? Before you opt for the “oysters”, you should know that these are in fact deep-fried testicles of bull, bison, pig or sheep. Bon appétit!
Where can I get the best pint of beer in Denver?
It’s not hard to find great beer in Denver. There are 100 craft breweries in the metro area – more than any other American city.
My Brother’s Bar is the oldest drinking hole in Denver, a saloon-style haunt established in 1873 where beat poets Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady used to hang out. Meanwhile, the Wynkoop Brewery, which opened 1988, is Denver’s oldest craft brewery. Here, in a vaulted warehouse building opposite Union Station, you can order innovative beers – including a Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, made using roasted bull testicles (yep, there’s a pattern emerging here…).
The Denver Beer Trail is a good way to explore some local breweries, particularly in RiNo where you’ll find microbrewers Epic, Ratio Beerworks, Black Shirt, Beryl’s, the award-winning Our Mutual Friend and First Draft, where you fill up your glass and pay for what you drink by volume at the end.
Alternatively, join the 60,000 attendees at the Great American Beer Festival (5–7 October 2017) and enjoy more than 3800 beers – the most served at any festival. Tickets sell out in about an hour, so get planning for next year.
I prefer wine, or maybe a cocktail. Anything here for me?
In short, yes. Speakeasy joints are cropping up all over the place, just as they did back in the Prohibition era. Williams & Graham was named one of America’s best bars in 2015. It’s therefore hard to get a reservation and, indeed, hard to find, as the entrance is a hole in a wall hidden by a bookcase that opens onto a dimly lit, red-boothed room.
The Cruise Room at the Oxford Hotel, which opened the day after Prohibition ended in 1933, is famous for its martinis. Meanwhile, Nocturne is a modern jazz and supper club in a restored warehouse in RiNo, featuring live jazz, curated wine, beer and cocktails and a jazz-inspired, five-course tasting menu. For high-end cocktails, try the glamorous Cooper Lounge, which re-creates the heyday of railroading.
If you prefer wine, take a wine-tasting tour at the Infinite Monkey Theorem Urban Winery, where you can sip a velvety Syrah made in a warehouse in a RiNo back alley – it’s surprisingly good.