In Denver, a city that boasts hundreds of restaurants (245 new dining establishments opened last year alone) and is often referred to as the Napa Valley of craft beers, eating and drinking rank right up there with hiking and biking. So, swirl an IPA and get ready to grin.
Froufrou cocktails and an easy breezy vibe
Adrift Tiki Bar feels like a tropical oasis after you come in from the grit of south Broadway. One glance and you’ll understand why locals love this hangout. But if it’s Tiki Tuesday, which translates to happy hour all night, pace yourself. (Arriving via Uber is the best choice because of parking.) Bartenders wear aloha shirts and are so fun-loving, you’ll think they are on vacation, which is how owner Loren Martinez wants guests to feel. With hand-carved totems, exotic jungle music and an umbrella in your drink, this island-inspired bar could come off as kitschy. But it’s in the best possible way. The cuisine is as good as the craft cocktails. You might come for a mai tai or mermaid medicine, but you’ll stay for the loco moco meatloaf.
Don’t miss Dobby
Barbecue aficionados and animal lovers alike will find their happy place at the Denver Zoo. The Brown Bear BBQ and Smokehouse is smack dab in the middle of the facility, next to the bear mountain exhibit. The hardwood smoked meats, with all the trimmings, and a craft beer will fortify you to explore the 80-acre habitat.
Location, location, location
Train-station food may not sound all that appealing, but cuisine at Denver’s trendy Union Station is the exception. Here, you’ll find gourmet food with a choice of restaurants from basic to pricey, as well as some of the best people-watching in the city. At Stoic and Genuine, you may not even notice the octopus tentacle graphics on the walls, because you’ll be drooling over the octopus mortadella or the squid ink pasta. Wondering about the name? The two chef owners described each of their personalities in one word, and Stoic and Genuine was born.
The most woolly
With its distinction of having liquor license No. 1 in Colorado, the Buckhorn Exchange is as woolly as they come. Bobcats, pheasants, bears, wolverines, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, raccoons and badgers — yes, they are stuffed — stare down with steely eyes as you feast on elk, bratwurst or steak. Located in an area that seems like it’s always under construction, this historic restaurant is the destination. You won’t find many shops or bars nearby. What you will find is a gregarious staff who say they are like family. You can even order those little delicacies we call Rocky Mountain oysters. Or not.
The history of Biker Jim’s is as juicy as the dogs. A successful repo man in his previous life, Biker Jim in 2005 opened a hot dog stand on downtown’s 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian-friendly outdoor stretch of shops and restaurants. Downtown workers came in droves. One day, the late Anthony Bourdain delved into a dog on his show “No Reservations,” and the rest, as they say, is history. Named Best Hot Dog in Westword’s 2019 Best of Denver, Biker Jim’s serves organic veggies as well as a vegetarian hot dog. But he’s best known for his plump gourmet wild boar and Alaskan reindeer dogs and his signature mix of cream cheese and Coca-Cola onions that you’ll hear and see sizzling in a skillet when you walk through the door.
Belly up to the bar
Mythology Distillery serves up spirits and fun. Think whiskey, rum and live music. This drinking destination is the brainchild of three buddies who went on the adventure of a lifetime: heli-skiing in the Alaskan backcountry. They are also partnering with Denver Botanic Gardens to create a gin from plants. Across the street is Tamales by La Casita, for some of Denver’s best tamales. Try Christmas style, with both red and green chiles.
What’s in a name? A NaNa martini, that’s what!
The aroma of the wood-fired pita bread will lead you to Safta before you even reach the entrance. Located in the Source Hotel and Market Hall in RiNo (River North), Denver’s newest and trendiest part of town, Safta serves a blend of Israeli and Mediterranean cuisine that will have you dreaming of baba ganoush. Opened in 2018, Safta might just be the darling of RiNo. Safta’s hummus is a world away from what you find at the store, and its pitas are made from flour bought from a farm in Kansas. Safta is the word for grandmother in Hebrew, and Chef Alon Shaya named the restaurant for his own beloved NaNa. And if that’s not enough of a tribute, there’s even a NaNa martini.
Can you say charcuterie?
With its sleek décor and sophisticated feel, the Truffle Table is refined and unpretentious at the same time. This artisanal cheese and wine bar in the Highlands (it’s best to Uber here) shows off its sense of humor too. Check out the sign on the patio that reads, “No dogs, no smoking and no smoking dogs.” Proprietor Ian Maxwell will welcome you warmly, and the truffle baked brie and prosciutto meatballs are heavenly. Wednesdays bring all-you-can-eat Raclette served with salami, veggies and a house-baked baguette. Ooh la la.
Sherry Spitsnaugle is a guidebook author and travel writer. She lives in Denver with her husband, Don, and their furry kid, Alfie.