Nearly all Denver visitors, not to mention residents, eventually make their way to Lower Downtown (or LoDo as it’s lovingly referred), the revitalized central historic district that is home to several of Denver’s oldest buildings along with more modern gems such as Coors Field, and plenty of great bars and restaurants.
But though those who come to LoDo today find a neighborhood teaming with urban vitality, it was only about 30 years ago that this section of town just to the northwest of the Central Business District was known mostly as Denver’s skid row, while many of the warehouses that now give the area its historic character stood boarded up and abandoned.
Then came the opening of former Governor (and current Senate candidate) John Hickenlooper’s Wynkoop Brewing Co. in 1988, the arrival of Major League Baseball to 20th and Blake in 1995 and the resulting transformation that continues today. The frantic pace of change has rarely slowed since, with the arrival of newer destinations such as the Milk Market complex and the mega-development now under construction across the street from Coors Field marking the latest stage of the area’s evolution.
Although it would take at least a week to visit all the great spots crammed into the historic district’s 23 blocks and their environs (the revitalization of Union Station and the area around it is one of several developments that have both expanded and blurred the neighborhood’s boundaries), this daylong dining and drinking itinerary offers a solid taste of LoDo.
8:15 a.m. Grab coffee from Little Owl Coffee, 1555 Blake Street
Although LoDo offers no shortage of coffee shops, this tiny but tranquil cafe, which is located in the neighborhood’s unique Sugar Cube building, makes a great place to greet the morning. Grab one of the few counter seats in this sleek and well-lit modern space or grab your cappuccino (all the espresso is single-origin) or chai to-go and walk two blocks west and wander along the South Platte River trail to further kickstart your morning.
9:30 a.m. Breakfast at Snooze, 2262 Larimer Street
Even as LoDo has undeniably emerged as one of the true darlings of the Mile High City dining scene, it has remained notably short on breakfast options. But maybe that’s just to be expected given the way the original location of the Denver icon that is Snooze (there are now over 35 locations in five states with more set to open soon) has so thoroughly dominated the city’s morning meal scene since it opened its doors on Larimer Street at the edge of LoDo in 2006. This vibrant, retro-themed dinner offers savvy takes on breakfast classics such as Eggs Benedict, breakfast tacos and shrimp n’ grits. But it’s with the pancakes, which come in unique varieties such as Pineapple Upside Down, that Snooze really makes its mark (order the pancake flight and enjoy mini versions of any three). Just be prepared to hang out for awhile—waits of an hour or more (much more on the weekends) are not unusual.
12:30 p.m. Lunch at Milk Market at Dairy Block, 1800 Wazee Street
In a city where food halls seem to opening up on practically every other block (though that’s less the case in LoDo, to be fair), Milk Market draws crowds thanks to its central location in a new mixed-use structure on the site of the old Denver’s old Windsor Dairy and a selection of 16 restaurants and bars managed by iconic Denver chef and restauranteur Frank Bonanno. Although the vendors offer everything from pizza and crepes to fresh seafood and fried chicken, those who come to Denver expecting a prime burger (or steak) should head straight for Ruth’s Butchery. The burgers are made of a blend of chuck, short rib and brisket while the New York-Strip and Angus ribeye are cooked to order. Complete your visit to the complex by ordering one of the several Colorado brews on tap at Stranded Pilgrim, where the antique bar dates back to the 1800s.
3 p.m. Happy Hour Drinks and Snacks at Tavernetta, 1889 16th Street Mall
Any tour of LoDo should include a stop at the area’s crown jewel, the revitalized Union Station. Although the station offers plenty of great food and drink spots of its own (Mercantile Dining and Provision and the upstairs Cooper Lounge are two), tired tourists (and locals channeling them) should instead head to this Italian hot spot located on the platform behind the station. Once there, settle into the sleek fireside lounge and enjoy affordably-priced aperitifs, such as the smoked beef sausage with montasio and mustard, from 3 to 6 p.m. during one of the neighborhood’s best happy hours. There are several beer and wine discounts, but the two specials, the Negroni and Venetian Spritz, both provide a worthy mid-day pick-me-up.
7:30 p.m. Dinner at Rioja, 1431 Larimer Street
Although Larimer Square offers no short of praiseworthy fine dining options, few of them have had the impact of this ever-popular Mediterranean favorite. This is the chic restaurant that brought Jennifer Jasinski Denver’s first James Beard award for Best Chef in 2013 and it continues to turn out praiseworthy dishes such as the spice-rubbed lamb and halibut ratatouille. Every Rioja meal should begin with an appetizer order of the artichoke tortellini (pasta filled with artichoke mousse and served in a white-truffle broth adorned with shavings of queso de mano).
10 p.m. After-Dinner Drinks at The Cruise Room, 1600 17th Street
After a day spent sampling some of the finest food and drink in modern LoDo, end your night by stepping back in time to the late 1930s. That’s when this stylish Denver bar opened in the basement of the Oxford Hotel (together the Cruise Room and Oxford Hotel are Denver’s oldest bar and hotel, respectively) on the day after prohibition was repealed. Order one of the trademark martinis or the popular Red Window (a drink made with peach vodka, St. Germaine jalapeño juice, raspberries and a splash of champagne) and admire the bar’s Art Deco-design details, which are modeled after the Queen Mary ocean liner.