Your Guide to Denver’s Booming Food Scene
I wouldn’t want to waste anyone’s time when they have important matters to attend to on the snow-covered Colorado slopes this ski season. But the Denver dining scene has gotten incredibly exciting. In fact, it’s become a dining destination whether or not it’s simply a stop en route to the mountains.
Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint why a city’s food scene improves. It could be proximity to a more expensive city that cooks can’t afford to live in, or a break-out chef that brings attention to his or her neighbors. In Denver, it’s the story of a transportation hub.
The grand Union Station, which re-opened in 2014 after a $54 million renovation, is both a conduit from the country’s largest airport (37 minutes by train) to a handful of ski areas, as well as the site of the lovely Crawford Hotel. It's also a major driver of the city’s restaurant boom. to several restaurants which are a huge part of the city’s culinary rise.
“A lot of people talk about hipster neighborhoods,” says Bobby Stuckey, wine director and co-owner of Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder. “But the dining bell curve is highest around Union Station.” Stuckey has a vested interest in the neighborhood: His much anticipated restaurant Tavernetta opens there in March. And yes, ski season will still be in high gear.
Until then, here are 10 of the best places to eat and drink around town now, many in or near Union Station and some in those hipster areas, too.
The name references Denver’s original Chinatown, and the place labels itself the ‘new Chinatown,’ which means its dishes are punctuated with flavors from all over Asia. Chef Todd Somma grills bass in banana leaves with sambal, and makes Beijing duck rolls with scallion pancakes and five spice hoisin. Hop Alley's drinks are equally compelling: There are flavor-packed cocktails and punches (like a large copper pineapple filled with Absolut Elyx, passion fruit, and Aperol) and magnums of wine, because large-format drinks are perfect for this kind of cooking.
There is a very stylish speakeasy hidden deep in Cherry Park's Halcyon hotel (also home to the new pan Asian-American restaurant Departure). To obtain entry, text (don't call) the number on their otherwise empty website. Naturally, the very stylish bar with circular caramel-leather-colored booths fronts a distinctly retro vibe. That vibe is only amplified when you get the colorful surrealist pastiche of a menu which features signature drinks like New Money, a mix of bourbon and smoked vermouth and house bitters, as well as a classic martini service and brandy Old Fashioned
A few blocks away from Union Station is Denver’s brand-newest restaurant Avelina, starring the married team of husband John Broening and his pastry chef wife Yasmin Lozada-Hissom. His satisfying Mediterranean-accented menu ranges from escarole served Caesar style with anchovy dressing to wood-oven roast chicken for two with chorizo-spiked beans and spicy greens; her desserts include a delirious Chocolate Hazelnut Crunch Cake Bar. The place also goes strong at lunch with assorted flatbreads and sandwiches, like a duly notable porchetta sandwich, topped with shaved vegetables and sweet-pungent mostarda.
There’s no bad time of day to go to Mercantile, the restaurant and market from acclaimed chef Alex Seidel inside Union Station. During the day, it’s a glorious light-filled counter service place that serves breakfast, then lunch, then snacks, continuously until dinner time. Their banh mi with housemade lemongrass pork pâté and aioli is stellar, and they make a mean Italian sandwich with a mix of cured meats plus marinated fennel and hot peppers. At dinner, the place is transformed into a sit-down restaurant where you can get a Market Provisions platter, featuring cheeses from Seidel's farm as well as rillette, pickles and preserves; spaghetti with poached lobster and pancetta bread crumbs; plus a monumental bone-in ribeye with truffled sea salt and roasted garlic sauce.
In a funky, little space hewn from a metal shipping container, Cart-Driver turns out excellent pizzas in Denver’s hipster RINO neighborhood. Its signature pie is topped with sausage, kale, and mozzarella, although they also make a mean white pizza with smoked ricotta, all on lightly blistered, chewy crusts from the wood-fired oven. Prime your appetite with a lovely selection of west coast oysters, served in ice-strewn metal trays, that changes daily.
Stoic & Genuine
Inside Union Station, star chef Jennifer Jasinski’s seafood mecca is decorated so you feel like you’re inside a nautical adventure movie with giant octopus arms painted on the wall and lobster trap styled light fixtures. The raw bar features East and West Coast oysters and a selection of granitas, like Citrus Chile and Lychee-Sake, for spooning on top. The rest of the menu combines standards like tuna tartare and lobster rolls (“damn near a half lobster” it promises) with more unconventional dishes like scallops with cider gastrique. Stoic & Genuine is a great to sit at Happy Hour when the oysters are $2, and the booze is $3, including the vodka-spiked house cocktail made with that day's special granita.
As the name suggests, chef Max Mackissock’s year-old spot in Denver’s artsy (aka hipster) LoHi district, is mostly about pizza. There are meatballs made with chuck, pork belly and pancetta, chicken in lemon sauce and handmade pastas, too—corn and mascarpone stuffed half moons, or cavatelli tossed with a classic Genovese basil pesto. But definitely check out pies, like the Spicy 2.0 (a red sauce pie with fontina, the spicy sausage spread ‘nduja and Calabrian chiles) and the Mountain Man (topped with gorgonzola, honey and pistachio).
Set in the Source marketplace in an old foundry with a backdrop of graffitied walls, Acorn features uber comfort food from chef Steven Redzikowski, who also runs the kitchen at the beloved Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder. Crispy fried pickles are taken over the top with green goddess aioli, and shishito peppers, roasted in oak, are topped with crispy garlic. He makes deluxe large plates, too, such as house-made fennel sausage and peppers with creamy Parmesan risotto. There’s a large, smart cocktail list with options like a Tipple in Tain (Glenmorangie 10 year, ginger and tea), as well as a selection of low-booze and booze-free drinks.
Like all good food halls these days, Denver's just-opened Central Market on Larimer Street gives you the opportunity to eat every popular food from a well-curated list of local artisans. High Point Creamery features sundaes, floats and flights of ice cream (as well as plain old cones). At Izzio Artisan Bakery, chef Robin Bar-on is specializing in "bread cuisine" including 21 spice-blended chicken shawarma on pita and shakshuka, the poached egg and tomato sauce dish, paired with toast. Meat and cheese boards are the specialty at Culture Meat & Cheese. Pro tip: Get take away from these shops to take on the road to your ski destination.
This destination coffee shop, now with two locations (in LoHi and the just-opened Cap Hill), serves house espresso on constant drip and a range of brews from roasters around the world. Cap Hill has the more ambitious food menu with a fun, seven-day-a-week brunch menu from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., from bacon pancakes with peanut butter maple syrup to the chuck-and-short rib Black Eye Burger. Starting at 9 a.m. (cheers!), you can also order craft cocktails like an Hibiscus Margarita. At night, the place transforms into a restaurant with offerings like beef tartar with bone marrow, foie-gras-stuffed beignets, and pork with sushi rice and coconut. All of them come with suggested pairings, which, on the menu, are referred to as 'soulmates.'
For years, people have been waiting for Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson and Bobby Stuckey, the all-star team from Frasca Food & Wine, to open a sit down restaurant outside of Boulder. Finally, they are. When it opens in late winter, Tavernetta will be set alongside the new Hotel Born—right at the end of the train platform. “When people get off the train, they’ll be staring at our bar. I hope they’re thirsty,” says Stuckey. He’s overseeing an all-Italian wine list, which will see heavy hitters like Conterno and Sassicaia sitting alongside less expensive bottles of older vintages; Stuckey thinks it’s a great way to get to know different regions around Italy. Likewise the menu will feature Italian classics from all over the country, from tortellini e brodo to cacio e pepe and pasta carbonara.