Local's guide to eating Denver

DENVER IS CATAPULTING onto the world culinary stage, with a growing contingent of celebrated chefs, mixologists, and craft connoisseurs driving a steady march of new restaurant concepts. Don’t get me wrong — locals still love their green chile, and Rocky Mountain oysters still appear on more than a few menus around town. But the modern food and drink scene is built on hand-crafted slow food with an emphasis on locally harvested ingredients. Casual is dominant. Quality is ensured.

If that sounds good to you, here’s a local’s guide to eating and drinking the best of Denver.

Step 1: Brace yourself for the food market explosion.

The Source Denver

Photo: Timothy Hursley for The Source

Food halls and markets are reworking the way this city thinks about dining. Multiple chefs and culinary themes coalesce under one roof, often accompanied by bakeries, breweries, and even a butcher. If you can’t find something here, that’s on you.

Case in point: The Source will soon take the food hall trend one step even further by adding a second warehouse and a hotel to the mix. Acclaimed Denver foodie spots Acorn (a wood-fired restaurant) and Comida (Mexican taqueria with a modern twist) already call The Source home, along with market staples like a butcher and bakery. Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project is onsite, and the location on Brighton Boulevard is the hottest place in town right now.

And then there’s The Denver Central Market, the go-to food market in the city and a food and beverage hub on the south side of the trendy RiNo neighborhood. Along with traditional market staples such as The Local Butcher, Culture Meat and Cheese, and Silva’s Fish Market, vendors also include renowned chef Sean Kelly’s SK Provisions, Vero for pizza and pasta (as well as Italian food products for sale), and a cocktail spot called Curio Bar.

Across I-25, Avanti F&B is a food hall featuring a rotation of chef vendors trying out new concepts, along with established winners. Their upstairs patio has an incredible view of downtown, and the facility is anchored by a gourmet bar with service covering the entire grounds — grab a seat wherever you’d like, and they’ll come to you.

Step 2: Dress for the occasion. Occasionally.

Rioja Restaurant  Denver

Patio seating at Rioja. Photo: VISIT DENVER

Don’t be surprised if there’s no white tablecloths draped across your hotel restaurant. Denver puts the cool in casual, with a come-as-you-are mentality. Think of Denver like this: cosmopolitan city, Colorado style. But make no mistake — dining experiences are still of the highest order, with award-winning chefs preparing the freshest local ingredients:

  • Rioja melds fine dining perfectly with the Colorado attitude, in the heart of Larimer Square and with James Beard nods to boot. Chef Jen Jasinski brings a bit of trendiness to the table, with handmade pastas and lamb two ways anchoring the menu.
  • Guard & Grace might be the perfect example. On the outside, Troy Guard offers an upscale steakhouse, a cocktail menu to match, and an expansive dining area with private rooms and all the fixings. But it grasps tightly to that “fun night out with friends” vibe, and certainly never intimidates. The food does the talking here.
  • Mercantile dining & provision puts fine dining right up alongside a Euro-style market. Chef Alex Seidel devotes most of his attention to top-notch dinners of “elevated comfort food,” but you can find pastries and coffee at the market in the morning and an exciting lunch menu — think lemongrass pork pâté sandwiches and quinoa salad with fried pickles — served daily.
  • Beast + Bottle focuses on seasonal ingredients with a curated drink list to match the menu. Dining in the presence of its chic ambiance is nothing short of memorable, with Chef Paul C. Reilly’s food built around fresh and well-sourced meals, including a pig head for four. Pro-tip: Weekend brunch. Just trust me.

Step 3: Relax on the rooftop.

Restaurant Week, Denver

Linger. Photo: Evan Semon for VISIT DENVER

In Denver, 300 days of sunshine each year means the best eating and drinking often happens outside. Patios are the place to see and be seen from spring through late fall (and often in winter, too). Here are my favorites:

  • Linger has the patio thing down. Set up in LoHi in a former mortuary, this branch of Chef Justin Cucci’s highly successful establishment specializes in gourmet small plates, sustainable world fare, and eclectic cocktails. And the bottomless mimosas on weekends are no joke, either.
  • Tamayo…and before I even begin to discuss the eccentric cuisine of Chef Richard Sandoval and his restaurant, there are two things that need to be understood: rooftop and hand-muddled. At its finest, Denver perfectly embodies these terms; Tamayo is Denver at its finest. Chicken mole poblano with fried plantains, paired with a handmade cocktail and a bird’s-eye view of Larimer Square, is a recipe for a good time, every time.
  • Otra Vez is a downtown behemoth, smack dab in the middle of the 16th Street Mall. Over 200 tequilas will greet you at the bar on your way in. South American culture infiltrates the heavily Mexican-influenced menu, adding a dose of extra flair to complement the lime-and-salt-induced euphoria and mall-side people watching.

Step 4: Make room in your pint glass collection.

From the suds-soaked streets of RiNo to smaller hideaways tucked into corner shopping centers and neighborhood streets, there is literally beer everywhere. It’s well known that more than 100 breweries dot the metro landscape, but that fact alone doesn’t quite do justice to our city’s passion for beer.

To sum it up, our craft scene features everything Denverites love. Into literary history? Check out Fiction Beer Company. Heavy metal? Knock heads at Black Sky Brewery. Mythical legends? Work your way through a pint of Yeti at Great Divide Brewing Co.

To take in as many of these offerings as possible, hit the Denver Beer Trail. The self-guided route starts downtown and expands outward across the city in a labyrinth of hops and yeast. You’ll get to experience classics like Wynkoop Brewing Company, founded by now-Governor John Hickenlooper, in addition to new hot shots like Jagged Mountain Craft Brewery and Spangalang Brewery.

This explosion of craft beer has paved the way for a growing number of craft distillers, too. Rising Sun Distillery, for example, creates handmade organic vodka and gin, while Laws Whiskey House sources its grain from the family-owned Colorado Malting Company. And The Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery serves craft wine in the heart of the city. As craft distillers and vintners work their magic around town, the opportunities to enjoy their work are on the rise, and soon enough they’ll share the spotlight equally with our brews.

Step 5: Get (hand) crafty.

Cooper Lounge, Denver

Photo: Cooper Lounge

Pouring a four-count into a highball glass filled with ice is simple — but that doesn’t cut it here. Drinking at altitude necessitates a cocktail of the highest order, and barkeeps across Denver have taken the simple mixed drink and turned it into an art form. Here are the spots worth immediate note:

  • Cooper Lounge keeps the Prohibition-era spirit alive in downtown Denver. Their drink list reads like a Fitzgerald novel, with concoctions aptly named Hole In The Wall, Doctors’ Orders, and Love Boat all necessitating a try.
  • Green Russell incorporates the passion of Chef Frank Bonanno into its drink menu. House-made bitters anchor the cocktails, which also feature fresh ingredients that seem to have been just picked from the garden. The bartenders also whip up drinks to match the establishment’s pie of the day — the best use of the phrase “cherry on top” you’ll ever see.
  • Cruise Room is an experience in itself, even before the first sip. This legendary Denver bar sits inside Oxford Hotel and is modeled after a bar on the Queen Mary, with high-end bartenders crafting the best cocktails in the city. Jack White filmed a music video here back in 2014, punching square in the face any lingering doubt of the epic-ness of the establishment.

Step 6: Put down your steak and live a little.

How is great seafood possible in a landlocked state, you may ask? For starters, that plane that takes seafood from West Coast to East stops here first. Culinary hot spots including Stoic & Genuine and Jax Fish House fly in oysters on the daily. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa serves coastal-rivaling sushi at his namesake restaurant, in an atmosphere as fulfilling as the food itself. Let’s not forget about our homegrown staple, though. At the edge of Larimer Square, Russell’s Smokehouse does a Smoked Potted Trout that is unsurpassed. Steuben’s, always a local favorite, prepares a solid trout amandine as well.

And then there’s the city’s Latin and Mexican scene — to not partake in these is not to eat Denver. The options are nearly endless: The 9th Door Downtown serves perfect tapas and Iberian wines. Mexican craving? For coastal cuisine, check out Lola Coastal Mexican in LoHi. Or hit up family-owned La Loma — it serves wicked food and some of the best margaritas in town.

South Federal Boulevard is home to Little Saigon, where there are seemingly dozens of phở options. Asian markets line the street from north to south. Beyond Federal, Little India offers classic Indian fare and one of the city’s best lunch buffets. For ramen, check out Uncle on 32nd Ave.

Step 7: Leave room for fresh air, festivals, and food trucks.

Big Eat Denver

Photo: The Big Eat

Can’t make it all over the city during a stay? Hit one of the many festivals meant to bring the best of the culinary scene together:

  • The Big Eat happens July 13 at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. The event is a kickoff party for the opening of Slow Food Nations and welcomes over 70 Denver establishments to brighten the spotlight on the city’s dining scene.
  • Denver Food + Wine goes down September 5-10 at Pepsi Center. More than 40 participating top restaurants, numerous pairing and tasting events, and a general celebration of all things food and wine will keep you dining and imbibing throughout. Make sure not to miss the Grand Tasting, on September 9.
  • The big one is the annual Great American Beer Festival. Anyone not on the ball right when tickets go on sale might find themselves paying an egregious amount for entry or missing out entirely, so be sure to wake up early on August 2 with browser open, ready to go. The event happens October 5-7 and welcomes some 750 (that’s not a typo!) breweries along with thousands of beer drinkers to the Colorado Convention Center.

Not in town these dates? Cool. Most Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, from May through early October, diners treat themselves to what’s known as Civic Center EATS. Many of the city’s best food trucks gather to feed the downtown office workers, tourists, and other hungry hordes that gather at Civic Center Park. (via Matador Network)

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