The Denver food scene has been gaining national attention for the past few years. In 2016, a staggering 220 restaurants opened in the city. There's everything from fine-dining bistros to laid-back cafés, and it's also been touted as the USA's beer capital. To get a taste, we ate and drank our way around the best (and hippest) bars and restaurants across Denver. Here's what we discovered.
Discovering the Denver food and drink scene
Ever since Denver was founded in 1858 in the heart of the Wild West it has done its own thing. Back then, maverick prospectors panned for gold, bawdy saloons were filled with railroad workers and a deal to hand over rule of the city was made over a barrel of whiskey.
Soon, American food and beverage businesses realised that the city offered a perfect brew of conditions. Denver offers year-round sunshine, fresh spring water and close proximity to fresh farm produce. Coors Brewery was one of the first businesses to open, in 1873, and is now the largest brewing site in the world.
Grass-fed lamb, trout and bison are traditional menu staples. 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.
Grilled Denver steak © Ratov Maxim/Shutterstock
Food trucks galore
The explosion of new restaurants, cafés and bars has been centred around several districts. Check out Lower Downtown (LoDo) and Larimer Square, River North (RiNo) – the district known for its 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 reopened in July 2014 after a major renovation and is now a destination for foodies as well as passengers.
You don’t have to go far to find a Denver food truck, either, There are 60 food trucks around the city serving up everything from banh mi to Venezuelan cornbread. In the summer months, around 25–30 food trucks congregate at the Civic Center EATS downtown on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday lunchtime.
A Denver food truck opens for business © Visit Denver/Evan Semon
Fine dining in Denver
Several Denver chefs have 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, a seafood restaurant in Union Station, plus Bistro Vendôme and Rioja on Larimer Square, as well as Euclid Hall which serves innovative pub grub. Her most recent concept, Ultreia, a pinxtos restaurant, opened in late 2017.
Mercantile, by Alex Seidel © Visit Denver/Adam Larkey
Denver food halls and brewpubs
For food markets and pubs, you need to head to RiNo. Here, once defunct low-rise warehouses have been put to new use as trendy eateries. Make your first stop The Source, an upmarket Denver food hall housed 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 a firm city favourite. The smell of cinnamon and coffee lures you in through the door to a light space where punters bustle around 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.
Finish your market tour at Avanti F&B is a modern food hall in LoHi, featuring bars and restaurants housed in shipping containers with spectacular views over Downtown Denver.
Food halls like Acorn are becoming more popular in the city © Visit Denver/Adam Larkey
If you're looking for something a little more unusual that gourmet markets, Denver still has a lot to offer. Linger is a bar housed 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.
Linger – a bar housed in a former mortuary © Visit Denver
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. Take your pick from bison burgers, alligator tails or Rocky Mountain Oysters. Before you opt for the “oysters”, you should know that they are actually deep-fried bull, bison, pig or sheep testicles. Bon appétit!
Craft 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 den in town, a saloon-style haunt established in 1873. Beat poets Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady used to hang out here. 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. One such is the 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, and Beryl’s. On top of that the award-winning Our Mutual Friend and First Draft are also close by, 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 (24-27 September 2020) and choose from over 3,800 beers – the most served at any festival. Tickets sell out in about an hour, so get planning for next year.
Craft beer is big business in Denver © Tristan Greene/Shutterstock
Cocktail bars and wine tasting in Denver
Speakeasy joints serving cocktails are cropping up all over the place, just as they did back in the Prohibition era. Williams & Graham made the list of the World's 50 Best Bars in 2015. That means it's hard to get a reservation. It's equally hard to find, as the entrance is a hole in a wall hidden by a bookcase. Once you're through you'll discover a dimly lit, red-boothed room.
Easier to locate are Green Russell, a laid-back underground speakeasy on Larimer Square, and the sleek Terminal Bar in the old ticketing office at Union Station.
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.
Union Station has been transformed with a host of new restaurants and bars © Visit Denver/Ellen Jaskol
Ros Walford travelled courtesy of the Colorado Tourism Office and Visit Denver.
Header image: Visit Denver/Steve Mohlenkamp.