Mile-High Meals: A Newcomer’s Guide to Denver
Photo By: ADAM LARKEY PHOTOGRAPHY ©ADAM LARKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo By: Danielle Lirette
Photo By: ADAM LARKEY ©ADAM LARKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
Where to Dine in Denver
If nothing but craft beer flowed from the faucets in Denver — and with a surplus of more than 200 breweries, it’s earned the nickname “Napa Valley of Beer” — we’d raise a pint in tribute before happily stumbling to the next taproom. But while Denver is an irrefutable brewing utopia, it’s the city’s culinary culture that’s positioning the Mile-High City as a true destination.
Photos courtesy of Adam Larkey, Danielle Lirette, Frasca Food and Wine, and Lori Midson
Tasting Menu: The Populist
It's not shamelessly extravagant, nor is it the kind of special-occasion splurge that will drain a bank account, which is why The Populist’s tasting menu is so … well, popular. The refined but approachable RiNo restaurant assembles a seven-course show-and-tell parade. Executive chef and co-owner Jonathan Power changes the menu on a whim, but recent offerings have showcased duck pâté, rockfish donburi and chevre-fava bean agnolotti. The beautiful presentations and symphony of spot-on flavors help it excel on every level, including — at $80 per person, with a $25 supplemental wine pairing — value.
Kelly Whitaker’s wood-fired oven produces terrific pizzas with risen, char-speckled crusts, crested with toppings that part ways with tradition: pears, potatoes and Brussels sprouts, for example, all on the same soft-centered sphere of dough. Whitaker’s New Haven clam pizza, punctuated with pancetta and a liberal dose of roasted garlic cloves, is so ridiculously good that patrons staunchly refuse to share, a habitual behavior that applies to all of Whitaker’s creations. The 650-square-foot space isn’t conducive to large crowds, but it’s a wonderful spot for couples, who should start with a splay of oysters and on-tap Prosecco prior to the pizza.
Burger: Meadowlark Kitchen
Though Meadowlark Kitchen is not a burger joint, the convivial Five Points hangout just happens to whip up an outrageously indulgent burger. The beef, a rich and savory blend of neck, chuck and heart, is topped with thick strips of candied bacon, a huge onion ring, jalapeno confit, an avalanche of cheddar cheese sauce and a soft-poached egg. The mile-high marvel, sandwiched on a toasted house-baked brioche bun, is definitely a knife-and-fork affair that requires an appetite — and a stiff drink. Match it with a whiskey smash or a signature Meadowlark mojito and grab a seat on the artistically graffitied back patio, where the bustling party atmosphere encourages lingering.
Iconic Spot: El Taco de Mexico
The Mexican street tacos are pretty amazing at this decades-old canary yellow storefront in the Santa Fe Arts District, but it’s the unparalleled green chili that commands a chain link of bodies spilling out the door in search of their fix each day. An all-female cast of cleaver-equipped cooks holds court in the open kitchen, which also turns out menudo, sopes, gorditas, a hulking chile relleno and bulging burritos folded over meats like carnitas, lengua or carne asada. And while there’s no liquor license, the food goes perfectly with spiced horchata, Mexican Coke and aguas frescas.
Cheap Eat: Biker Jim’s
Jim Pittenger might be the nicest former car-repo man. Now the undisputed kingpin of Denver’s hot dog wars, Pittenger is as gracious as they come, engaging in animated conversation with his countless followers while cranking out the city’s most-talked-about sausages, a circus of grilled game meats that includes Alaskan reindeer, pheasant, wild boar, elk, buffalo and duck. And while those sausages spark conversation all on their own, Pittenger adds to the allure, eschewing the pedestrian ketchup-mustard-and-relish routine for a steam of cream cheese discharged from a caulking gun and onions bathed in Coca-Cola. Pair your pudgy sausage with a plate of Pittenger’s charred tahini cauliflower and a local beer, and you’ve got a square meal that doesn’t crater your wallet.
Cocktail Bar: Williams & Graham
Don’t be fooled by the “Bookseller” signage here. Inside the weathered wooden door and behind a facade of bookshelves is one of the country’s most-acclaimed speakeasy-style bars. Packed since day one, Williams & Graham could almost get by on looks alone, but co-owner and cocktail scholar Sean Kenyon ensures that the experience matches the looks, from attentive bartenders to the well-crafted classic cocktails. If you’re thirsting for something wildly creative, opportunities abound there, as well.
Steakhouse: Guard and Grace
Known for his whimsical spins at flagship restaurant TAG, Chef Troy Guard has made his modern steakhouse, Guard and Grace, a must-stop for carnivores, thanks to serious slabs of meat. The restaurant, set around a massive open kitchen (and chef’s counter), knocks out a filet mignon flight comprising grass-fed, prime and Angus beef, as well as prime strips, rib eyes, hanger steaks and a massive dry-aged porterhouse. The impressive wine selection adds to the allure. Most pricey affairs like this come with airs of pretense, but the polished and punctual service here is refreshingly free of haughtiness.
View to a Thrill: Avanti Food & Beverage
The sleek two-story Avanti Food & Beverage lays claim to two bars, a lounge and a rotating collection of seven small restaurants, all housed in repurposed shipping containers. The food hall is a favorite of Denver’s cool kids, who queue for plate-spanning torta from Poco Torteria, a blistered pizza from Brava! or a steaming bowl of udon noodles from Mijo. But the real action happens over cocktails and beer on the rooftop deck, a high-design oasis that struts mind-blowingly amazing — and completely unobstructed — views of the downtown skyline, not to mention stadium bleachers that face Coors Field.
Late-Night Spot: Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox
This multilevel labyrinth — from Justin Cucci of Root Down and Linger — combines all the best elements of a late-night prowl under one roof: intensely good globally inspired food, craft cocktails and beer, bewitchingly low-lit boudoir decor, a supremely sexy Moroccan-inspired lounge and a live-music stage (set against a backsplash of old transistor radios, no less). The late-night menu, available from 10 p.m. to midnight on weeknights and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, zigzags from Belgian mussels in a curried beer broth to flatbread with truffled mushrooms.
Brunch: Beast + Bottle
Denverites are obsessed with weekend brunch, forgoing the snooze button at the mere thought of a Bloody Mary or mimosa. And at Beast + Bottle, a charmingly understated farmhouse-inspired spot on 17th Avenue’s restaurant row, the half-dozen various Beastly Bloodys are the perfect wake-up call. Kick off the morning with an aged-bourbon Bloody with pickles, then move on to chef Paul Reilly’s food menu, a scroll of wonderful temptations that ranges from classic to contemporary. The excellent corned lamb shank hash, mingling the lamb with peas, turnips, Calabrian chiles and horseradish, is topped with a sunny-side-up egg; the strawberry shortcake waffle is elevated with cream cheese chantilly, a splash of balsamic and fresh basil.
Date Spot: Acorn
While money can’t buy love, just about everything at Acorn can. Set inside The Source, a European-inspired indoor culinary marketplace in the super-hot RiNo ’hood, this lofty restaurant wows with barrel-aged Manhattans and juleps, lovely service that doesn't miss a beat and the superb cooking talents of award-winning Executive Chef Steven Redzikowski. His menu, which presents seasonal ingredients in thrilling flavor combinations, even proffers plates for two: an oak-grilled Wagyu bavette steak with creamed corn, grilled spring onions and a green chile vinaigrette, and oak-grilled half chicken sidekicked with carrots, zucchini and potatoes. Once you’ve finished dinner, stroll through the other merchants at the Source, including The Proper Pour, a lovely boutique wine shop.
Tacos: Pinche Taqueria
Denver is a city that takes its taco culture mighty seriously, and at both branches of Pinche Taqueria, the soft corn street tacos more than live up to their name (which translates to an amusing expletive). The must-try is the Pork Belly “Agridulce” taco, sweet-and-sour cubes of braised pork belly crowned with cabbage-cilantro slaw, candied garlic and jus. That taco alone warrants a visit, but the vegetarian Queso a la Plancha, a taco paved with grilled Cotija cheese, slices of avocado, roasted tomatillo salsa and a sputter of lime, is equally fantastic. Still, there’s more to Pinche than just tacos: The chicken chicharrones, with salsa casera on the side, are diabolically addictive, and the house margarita ensures a freakin’ good buzz.
Worth a Drive: Frasca Food and Wine
After years as Denver’s more casual neighbor, Boulder has catapulted from college town to legitimate dining destination, thanks to Frasca Food and Wine, a temple to Friulian cuisine. Situated just 30 minutes from Denver, the nationally ballyhooed restaurant from Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey and Chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson is a wine-slicked journey into culinary paradise. Together, the two French Laundry alums have created a near-perfect restaurant. Patterson’s $105-per-person tasting menu, a ceremony of seven courses, is unfailingly impressive, particularly when ordered with the optional $95 wine pairing.
Brewery: Declaration Brewing
as its restaurants. Stouts, sours, ambers, lagers and IPAs flood the altitude-high landscape, and while a beer-centric staycation is highly encouraged, the odds of hitting up all of the city’s 200-plus breweries are slim, so set your sights on Declaration Brewing. Run by degreed scientists from the Colorado School of Mines and their comrades, the green-certified brewery and taproom touts a stellar syllabus of brews that runs the gamut from pale ales and oatmeal IPAs to delicate wheats and roasty Scottish ales. There’s an outdoor patio, too, along with a lawn decked out with cornhole and Ping-Pong tables.
Rock-Star Chef: Dana Rodriguez, Work & Class
In February, Dana Rodriguez earned a James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalist nod for Work & Class. This would be an honor for any chef, but Rodriguez’s nomination was particularly remarkable, considering that it came barely a year after she opened her restaurant. Rodriguez grew up in Mexico and cooked her way through numerous kitchens in Denver before opening Work & Class to rave reviews and a packed dining room. Her food, like the space, is deliberately down-to-earth: Tin plates are the vessels for roasted meats, including cochinita pibil, rotisserie chicken and roasted goat, with side dishes like poblano grits and fried sweet plantains squarely rooted in soulful rapture.