Despite being in a city known for its sunny disposition—like, 300 days a year of sun—I didn’t go outside much during a recent weekend trip to Denver. I was preoccupied, head down, focused on my food. A dry-aged steak, medium rare. Chorizo picante with 12-month manchego. Beautifully plated carciofi, an artichoke with crème fraîche and hazelnut that was pretty enough to photograph, but tasty enough that I forgot to. Wait a minute, I thought, shoveling burrata into my mouth: Is Denver a food city? I had heard it’s a beer city, and a pot city…so it’s progression to “food city” seemed appropriate. In fact, Zagat ranked Denver its fourth-most exciting food city in the U.S. in December, right behind heavy-hitters Los Angeles, Austin, and Chicago.
“If major restaurant openings were the only criterion for a hot food city, Denver would be a shoe-in for a top 2017 slot,” wrote Zagat’s Ruth Tobias. “Nearly every established chef or restaurateur of the past several years either launched or is about to launch a new, landscape-changing hot spot.” There’s Tavernetta, an Italian resto by James Beard Award winners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson that’s always packed, and Ultreia, a buzzy tapas bar by fellow James Beard-ie chef Jennifer Jasinski. Add to that the arrival of Death and Co., one of the world’s best cocktail bars, leading the food and beverage program at the new Ramble Hotel—Death and Co.’s first site outside NYC. And then there’s the 15-season-old bellwether of foodie fame: Top Chef decides to tape a season in your city.
Denver isn’t a well-kept secret—far from it. People have been moving to the city in droves for the last decade, says The Denver Post, driving up housing prices and bringing traffic where there was none. The boom has cooled a little in the last six months, but the outcome of demand? A whole lot of supply: new restaurants, hotels, a beautiful train station that doubles as one of the best spots to hang out in the city, and ever more reasons to make a weekend out of Denver.
The lobby scene at Hotel Born, cozy any time of year.
Where to Stay
You want to be in one of two neighborhoods: LoDo (the city’s oldest ‘hood, Lower Downtown) or RiNo (trendy River North Art District). Yes, they all seem to be acronyms. RiNo’s big news is the arrival of the Ramble Hotel, a 50-room, locally owned boutique spot that will make the neighborhood even more of a draw. The look and feel is of a 17th-century French salon, so different than anything else in the city, and Death and Co.’s influence will be felt throughout: in the lobby bar, which will also serve coffee and breakfast in the morning (“DC/AM”); in Suite 6A, an intimate bar with about 20 seats for people who want to go on “immersive cocktail journeys”; and in a seasonal courtyard bar called The Garden. The Ramble is slated to open May 1, so more to come on that.
The Crawford Hotel, which opened above the main train terminal in 2014 (Union Station is the lobby) and the newish Kimpton Hotel Born just across the train tracks. You can take the train from Denver International Airport straight to historic Union Station and spend a whole day—and night—within a three-block radius.
The landmark Beaux Arts terminal (c. 1914) is airy, bright, and beautifully redone with ten restaurants and bars and a swanky second-floor Cooper Lounge that’s reminiscent of Grand Central Stations’s Campbell Apartment in NYC. There’s a proper food crawl to be had here (see below), but if you’d rather not sleep and eat in the train terminal, Hotel Born is equally convenient. It’s entirely Kimpton with its hosted wine hour in the lobby every evening and sleek yet welcoming rooms: beds you happily sink into, tech that sometimes baffles (why a light switch control center?!), and local touches (floor-to-ceiling windows to capture all that natural light, knotty pine panels in the hallways and guest rooms). The hotel is attached to the aforementioned hot Italian restaurant Tavernetta and Citizen Rail, a casual wood-fire-grill spot with an impressive cocktail program; the Born front desk will also give you a free pass to nearby Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver. Spend an hour browsing the globe-hopping exhibits, but you’re here to eat, remember?
Union Station in LoDo is the rare train terminal where you’ll want to spend your day.
A Union Station Food Crawl
Breakfast: Pick up an iced coffee with house-made almond milk (or a cortado, or a masala chai latte) and an almond croissant at Mercantile Dining and Provision, a tiled restaurant-barista bar with the feel of a European market with extraordinarily high ceilings. You could eat any and every meal here, but I tended to start my days by popping in. It’s also a good place to pass the time with a magazine or browsing the shelves of herbs, spices, and pickled things as you wait for a seat to open up next door at Snooze, an A.M. Eatery—a Denver diner-y staple that serves pancakes my colleague swears are among the best she’s ever had. I wouldn’t know. I tried three times to get a seat at the counter and failed. (I was stymied by my New York–born impatience for a wait longer than 30 minutes; she says you have to hold out for an hour and a half.)
Take a break by nosing around Cooper Lounge before it opens—you get a bird’s-eye view of the Great Hall below—before making a plan for your next meal.
Lunch: Ultreia might have served up my favorite meal in Denver. We were able to grab a table without a reservation at lunch, and proceeded to feast on pintxos and tapas from across the Iberian peninsula—caña de cabra with black walnuts, stuffed dates, aged cured chorizo with manchego served up (in a paper cone), and a massive sanduíche de cordeiro, aka a sandwich piled with roasted leg of lamb, padron and piquillo peppers, olives, and a bit of aioli on ciabatta, big enough for two. Ultreia is also known for its gin menu, and it is after noon, so….
We could have lingered all afternoon there, but we busted out into the sun, walking a mile and a half up touristy 16th Street to the Capitol building, passing the Deco-designed Paramount Theater, the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve, and all the dispensaries and Cheesecake Factories one could hope for before riding the free shuttle bus back down 16th in time for happy hour.
Happy hour: Oyster bar Stoic and Genuine has an astounding happy hour from 2–6 p.m., Sunday through Friday (so…every day but Saturday). That’s not a happy hour; that’s a happy day: $2 oysters and $3 Utica Club cans and $4 vodka cocktails. Just a warmup for your big dinner.
Dinner: Tavernetta’s food doesn’t disappoint—it’s excellent, from the salumi and fromaggi courses to that artichoke (pictured) and deliciously rich pastas (gnocchi with lamb ragu, tagliatelle with Maine lobster) that will make you wish you had worn drawstring pants. If only the service wasn’t so overly fussy (leave my utensils for one course, it’s fine); this fine dining approach seems out of place here, making it more of a special occasion spot than an after-work staple. If you can’t get a reservation, detour to Hearth and Dram, a “modern saloon” that’s had a longer life in Denver than these newcomers but serves a USDA dry-aged steak so good it may prompt a quiet omggggg as you tuck in.
Post-dinner drinks: If you can stand it, make room for a nightcap at Citizen Rail in the Hotel Born building. The bartenders know their stuff, whether they’re making you a Redhead Loretta—with triple-distilled Tullamore D.E.W. whiskey, apricot, Palo Cortado sherry, and orange bitters—or if you put your future in their hands, just naming the spirit of choice. Stay as late as your full stomach will allow.