That famous lamb. Those Palisade peaches, Olathe corn, and Rocky Ford melons. That ubiquitous green chile. The ever-flowing beer. Anyone who still claims there’s no such thing as Colorado cuisine just hasn’t been looking hard enough. This guide to its capital city will show you where to find it at its very best.
Welcome to the Land of Literally Elevated Cuisine
Over the past few years, the restaurant publicity machine has begun to attach the adjective “elevated” to just about everything from comfort food to cocktails. Here in the Mile High City (so nicknamed, to be clear, for its altitude and not its cannabis industry), we can joke that our culinary culture has always been elevated; it just took the national media, which had long dismissed Denver as a cowtown, a while to notice.
What accounts for the progressiveness with which we’re now credited? No doubt it correlates in part to the collective sense of adventure here, where a relatively young, dynamic population spends every possible second of free time hiking, climbing, skiing, and snowboarding up in the mountains — and frequenting the latest breweries, distilleries, and of course restaurants in between. That demographic naturally includes chefs themselves, who are as likely to be found out in the wild foraging, fishing, or hunting as they are in the kitchen. Okay, that’s perhaps a slight exaggeration — but the point remains that the opportunity to chase new highs, to scale new heights, is what Coloradans live for, figuratively as well as literally. May your own Denver dining adventure be as exciting as your first fourteener.
Where to Start: Eater Denver’s Top Maps
Eater Denver’s maps are designed to keep you in the loop from the waking hour to bedtime; here, we’ve distilled a few of the most popular down to their fundamentals.
Breakfast: While egg- and chorizo-stuffed burritos from taquerias like El Taco de Mexico may still constitute the consummate morning meal in Denver, one of the most notable things about the city’s rampant growth in recent years is the rise in breakfast options from around the world. Now you can start the day with another Mexican staple, huevos con machaca, alongside a michelada at La Machaca de Mi Amá; with a red bean bun and a matcha latte at Tokyo Premium Bakery; with Armenian coffee service and the savory pastry called ajarski at House of Bread; with Swedish potato pancakes with lingonberries and a cup of the Fjäll house blend at Kaffe Landskap; or with Chinese-inspired duck-confit congee (or, for that matter, Hawaiian loco moco) and Vietnamese coffee at Onefold.
Lunch: Of course, Mexican food is an equally sure bet for lunch around here, whether from a rocking truck like Kiké’s Red Tacos (among other top-notch taquerias) or a killer torta shop like ATM. But so is pizza, be it Connecticut-style at White Pie, Detroit-style at Blue Pan’s Congress Park location, or Chicago-style at Grabowski’s. And so are burgers: Go lowbrow with the JCB at historic hangout My Brother’s Bar or way gourmet with the beauties on deck at Apple Blossom or Chez Maggy. For the health-conscious (not to mention time-strapped), there’s sustainable poke hut The Turtle Boat and vegetarian magnet Vital Root; for wallet watchers, there’s stuffed frybread at American Indian eatery Tocabe and bánh mì at Vinh Xuong. But the lunch-friendly lists go on and on, from chicken shacks to crock spots.
Happy Hour: Seems it’s always happy hour somewhere in the Mile High City, with specials on sips and snacks running practically around the clock at establishments of all kinds. Grape geeks (and interior-design nerds, for that matter) should check out the half-price pours Trellis Wine Bar; craft-brew buffs can soak up the suds at The Brutal Poodle for cheap; and Champagne tastes on a beer budget need to know that they can make out like bandits after work at the otherwise pricey sushi sanctuary Uchi as well as steakhouse A5.
Dinner: Assuming you want to make every second of your time here count, there’s no better way to weigh your options for dinner than by perusing Eater Denver’s 38 Essential Restaurants. To name a few located outside the neighborhoods covered below: The Wolf’s Tailor, as its quirky name might suggest, delivers a culinary experience so eclectic it’s uncategorizable, not to mention unforgettable. Restaurant Olivia has made its name on gorgeous handmade pastas, a seriously smart wine list, and highly polished service, while Fortune Wok to Table has built a cult following on the strength of its dumplings, noodles, and fried-rice plates. Specializing in its namesake stew, La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal has emerged as one of the city’s most exciting restaurants in recent years, Mexican or otherwise. And African Grill and Bar makes its guests feel right at home while taking their palates on an exhilarating trip to the owners’ homelands via plates of kelewele, egusi, yassa, and red red.
Drinks: To build your bar-crawling itinerary, meanwhile, look no further than 24 Denver Essential Bars. There await historic dives like Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill; first-class cocktail lounges such as Williams & Graham, Yacht Club, and Forget Me Not; and cozy nooks for niche drinkers, including natural-wine purveyor Noble Riot and serious sour- and wild-beer specialist Goed Zuur. Speaking of beer, they don’t call greater Denver “The Napa Valley of Beer” for nothing — not least because it’s home to the world-renowned Great American Beer Festival; a whirlwind tour of its award-winning breweries could include Congress Park’s Cerebral, RiNo’s Our Mutual Friend, and Strange Craft in Lincoln Park.
Late Night: And the party doesn’t have to stop there. Though this isn’t exactly a city that never sleeps, night owls will still find their share of roosts to rule, from rollicking K-pub Thank Sool Pocha to chill hangout (and French dip specialist) Pony Up.
Dining ’Hoods to Know In and Around Denver
Ever-growing and evolving, these districts are the ones that every Denver diner knows inside and out; we’ve singled out some highlights. (See the glossary for other key geographical terms.)
RiNo: Eight or so years ago, nobody had ever heard of RiNo (short for River North). But this once dusty stretch of industrial-strength warehouses has since been carved out of Five Points by the artists, brewers, distillers, and of course, restaurateurs who’ve made it the hottest ’hood in town. Among the dining destinations that put it on the map are the eternally hip, progressive Chinese spot Hop Alley; swanky jazz and supper club Nocturne; hopping pasta spot Dio Mio; and magical Mexican-Midwestern mashup Work & Class. They’ve since been joined by such game-changing arrivals as Denver Central Market; contemporary Israeli go-to Safta; prix fixe–only chef’s counter Beckon; and Greenwich, a chic shrine to its New York namesake, as well as the aforementioned Uchi. Just here for drinks? Make it a carrot-elderflower saison at Ratio Beerworks or an over-the-top cocktail at Death & Co.
LoHi: The Lower Highlands, better known as LoHi, is another treasure trove for the tastebuds — and feast for the eyes, for that matter: Just try the views from fifth-floor tapas joint El Five or the Family Jones Spirit House’s drop-dead decor on for size. Other must-stops, meanwhile, span the globe within a couple of square miles tops. Spuntino is not your average mom-and-pop red-sauce parlor; though indeed run by a husband-and-wife team, it’s known for some of the city’s most imaginative Italian cuisine as well as one of its most interesting wine lists. Innovation is also on the menu at The Bindery, which showcases influences from virtually every continent — sometimes in one dish (Spanish octopus asado with zapote negro and shishitos, for example, or calamari risotto with green chile). For fab Japanese fare, there’s stylish izakaya Mizu and raucous ramen shop Uncle; for a pan-Latin fiesta, Señor Bear; for a meat-centric splurge, The Fifth String; for a pizza party, Cart-Driver; for sandwiches you won’t find anywhere else, Dimestore Delibar; and for a little bit of everything — from Venezuelan arepas to shrimp po’ boys — there’s food hall Avanti F&B.
LoDo: Before there was LoHi and RiNo, there was Lower Downtown. Its original dining hub, Larimer Square, remains home to such enduring local favorites as Mediterranean fixture Rioja, cozy Italian haunt Osteria Marco, and subterranean cocktail lounge The Green Russell. In 2014, the action expanded to the newly renovated Union Station, where no fewer than three James Beard awardees operate at, respectively, contemporary American go-to Mercantile Dining & Provision, ultra-suave Italian destination Tavernetta, and stunning tapas bar Ultreia. And that’s not all. For a good time, hit up chichi pan-Asian spot ChoLon for its famous kaya toast and French onion soup dumplings; the aforementioned A5 for stellar steakhouse fare; tiny chef’s counter BRUTØ for an intimate, intricate tasting extravaganza; and Run for the Roses for a top-shelf nightcap. (And that’s still not all, but this paragraph has to end somewhere.)
Uptown/City Park West: Just southeast of downtown, this immanently walkable area is a noontime boon, what with regional American diner Steuben's offering up the likes of clam chowder and meatloaf, aforementioned eclectic café Onefold turning out duck fried rice and chilaquiles with equal oomph, Olive and Finch whipping up juice blends and elaborate sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, and Dos Santos taking tacos for a creative spin. Come dinnertime, Ace Eat Serve indeed serves up a plethora of pan-Asian plates with a side of ping pong, while Coperta will spoil you for modern Southern Italian food and wine, from aperitivi and antipasti all the way through to digestivi and dolci. Other best bets for dessert: upscale bakery-café D Bar and scoop shop Frozen Matter (which is also home to cocktail bar Retrograde).
Berkeley: Centered primarily around a roughly eight-block stretch of Tennyson Street, this charming neighborhood dotted with boutiques and galleries is also awash in diverse dining and drinking options. Longtime favorites include the wildly popular pizzeria and craft-beer bar Hops & Pie, top-flight butcher shop and deli Il Porcellino Salumi, and the ever-lively Cafe Brazil; more recent hits include Asian fusion hot spot Ginger Pig, Indian eatery Himalayan Spice, and Lucy’s Burger Bar. Cap it all off at refined cocktail retreat The Tatarian.
Aurora: While Caroline Glover’s homey yet splashy Annette in the Stanley Marketplace justifiably brought the national food media running to this eastern suburb, locals have long celebrated it as a microcosm of global cuisine. Here you’ll find scores of superb Korean, Ethiopian, Chinese, and of course Mexican restaurants, not to mention outlets for Greek, Vietnamese, Moroccan, Thai, Cajun/Creole, Polish, and even Burmese and Russian fare — no shortage of which regularly find their way onto Eater Denver maps. Taproom tourists, meanwhile, shouldn’t sleep on Haykin Family Cider or the Chinese-inspired Jade Mountain Brewing Company, which is also a teahouse.
Boulder: Technically, Boulder isn’t a suburb of Denver. But it’s close enough — and given its vibrant dining scene, no comprehensive culinary guide to the area would be complete without it. Its crown jewel is Friulian-inspired legend Frasca Food and Wine, among many other posh special-occasion spots, but it’s totally possible to have a blast here without breaking the bank: You could, for instance, start with an elaborate Turkish breakfast at The Boco Restaurant; grab lunch at the charming Little Tibet; soak up the atmosphere of the architecturally jaw-dropping Dushanbe Teahouse come afternoon; and finally wind down over a few artfully presented Japanese nibbles at Izakaya Amu.
Denver Glossary of Terms
420: Code for getting high, this number now also refers to April 20, a day of celebration for cannabis enthusiasts. Area restaurants, bars, and breweries mark the annual occasion with all kinds of clever promotions (though it should be noted that THC-infused edibles and potables can only be purchased at dispensaries).
5280: The number of feet in a mile serves as a sort of shorthand for the nickname Mile High City. See, for instance, 5280 Burger Bar in the CBD. (The local area code, 303, plays a similar role.)
CBD: Amusingly enough, the initials that stand for cannabidiol — a non-psychoactive component of cannabis — also stand for Central Business District, or the part of downtown that’s not LoDo. Though the pickings are slimmer here, there are still some finds to be had: pre-Prohibition-inspired cocktail lounge Union Lodge No. 1, for one, as well as swish steakhouse Guard and Grace, the aforementioned farm-to-table spot Apple Blossom, and eternally thronged street cart Liang’s Thai Food.
Denver Omelet: This is nothing you should go out of your way to consume, but if you're curious, it’s an omelet filled with diced ham, onions, and bell peppers.
Denver Steak: This shoulder cut of beef has gained in national popularity in recent years. Its name belies its origins — it wasn’t invented here — but so what? Good steak is good steak.
Federal Boulevard: A main thoroughfare that doubles as an international Restaurant Row. Mexican and Vietnamese eateries are especially prevalent along it — try Tacos El Paisa or Tarasco’s in the former case, Pho 95 or New Saigon in the latter — though Chinese, Thai, and various other kitchens pop up too: Top examples include Hong Kong Barbecue, Star Kitchen, and Suvipa.
Pueblo chile: This is exactly what it sounds like — a chile grown in the Colorado town of Pueblo, where debates over its quality relative to New Mexico’s Hatch chile can get heated. But never mind all that: The hotter the chiles themselves get, the less their differences register anyway, dissolving instead into that sweet, sweet burn.
Rocky Mountain oysters: Some Denverites sniff that only tourists go to the iconic Buckhorn Exchange to eat fried bull testicles. This is true. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, if only just to say you did.
SoBo: Stop trying to make this nickname happen, real estate agents — it’s not going to happen. That said, it’s short for South Broadway, which, like Federal Boulevard above and Colfax Avenue below, is home to many a must-stop, including vegetarian hot spot Somebody People, Colombian charmer La Chiva, the long-lived Taste of Thailand, and tiki bar Adrift.
Smothered: A smothered burrito is one that comes topped with green chile — as well it should. Just don’t be surprised if the chile looks more orange or brown than green; its hue partly depends on its supporting ingredients. (“Green” in this case really means “fresh,” as opposed to red chile made from dried pods.)
The ’Fax: This is the nickname for what, back in the 1970s, a writer for Playboy called “the longest, wickedest street in America.” The reputation stuck — and Denverites love Colfax Avenue all the more for it. Yet in addition to some of the world’s most colorful dive bars, it’s strewn with numerous restaurant gems, including modern Chinese spot Q House, Eater Denver’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year; cocktail haunt Middleman, where the highly innovative Misfit SnackBar operates; trendy pizzeria Benzina; pierogi parlor Baba & Pop’s; and all manner of Mexican, Central American, and Ethiopian establishments (including the wonderful Axum and Queen of Sheba).
Western Slope: Covering roughly the westernmost third of Colorado, this region is the source of much agricultural pride. Many of the ranches that yield our famous beef and lamb are here; so are the orchards that produce our bounty of fruit — not only Palisade peaches but plums, cherries, apples, pears, and more — and the vineyards that recently prompted Food & Wine to dub the Grand Valley “the new Sonoma.”
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