Three Delicious Days in Denver
Sometimes, good things happen when you get out of the airport. I’d passed through the Denver airport dozens of times in recent years, but it had been ages since actually spending time in the Mile-High City.
With direct flights making Denver easy to reach from Seattle, I was overdue for a visit. Besides, there’s some sense of connection between the two cities, given the beer cultures, marijuana initiatives, and recent Super Bowl rivalry.
Aware of the gorgeous mountains and outdoor activities surrounding the city, I recently spent a few days in Denver having an urban experience. Among the things I found: a thriving art culture, beer-brewing everywhere, and a blossoming food scene. From quality charcuterie to surprisingly good Southern food to a rare Japanese dessert, here are highlights that help build an itinerary of three delicious days in Denver.
There’s no better destination in downtown Denver than the newly renovated Union Station. This transportation hub will make any Seattleite jealous; our King Street Station enjoyed a recent whitewash, but Union Station is a true hangout and culinary showcase, replete with a number of restaurants and stores, a hotel, and a wonderful central sitting area.
Since you’re at Union Station, start your day with a stop at Mercantile Dining & Provision. This all-day eatery and provisions store features an open kitchen, bar area, and dining room. By day it’s casual breakfast and lunch, and at night “finer” dining—showcasing food from the chef’s nearby farm. Breakfast offers pastries made on site (the croissants are quite impressive, especially given the challenge of baking at high elevation), and you can sample coffee flights. Even better: the unique chance to try an espresso and cheese combination, with the crema taking on a cheese-like quality.
You might be tempted to stay in Union Station, but it’s time to stimulate the brain cells with a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, now featuring the work of Mark Mothersbaugh—Devo’s co-founder and, yes, artist. From there, Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen is the perfect place for late lunch. Here you’ll get your first introduction to Denver’s love of beer through its sprawling menu of drafts, bottles, and cans. The food is good, too. For a porky experience, start with the amazing pad Thai pig ears, alive with Thai flavors, and then order a huge pork loin schnitzel, which comes with a side of four house-made mustards.
Step outside and shop Larimer Square, taking in the various galleries and stores. At this point you might want a nap, but eventually take a stroll across a series of pedestrian bridges to reach the Highland neighborhood for a pre-dinner beer at Prost Brewing Company to get a real feel for Denver’s beer culture. From here, you’re just a short walk to dinner at Colt & Gray. Start by indulging in the restaurant’s excellent charcuterie program, putting together a platter of your favorite patés, terrines, cured meats, and cheeses. You can make a meal from the charcuterie alone, but note that the menu moves on to include a variety of small and large plates, with snail risotto and whole-roasted trout both excellent choices. The restaurant is a comfortable place to linger over an additional drink or dessert.
Especially if you’ve been “battered” by too much beer, make haste to El Taco de Mexico in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. A bigger-than-your-head burrito will help your hangover blues, but even better, if it’s the weekend, is a large bowl of menudo. Doctor up the bowl as you see fit with onion, cilantro, oregano, and lime, but be prepared for the powerful punch of strong chili flavor. What a great way to wake up in the morning. (The restaurant opens daily at 7am.)
Eyes again open to the world, take advantage of being in the Art District on Santa Fe by checking out the range of galleries, from modest to fancy. Here you’ll also find the Museo de las Americas. Next, go through the Golden Triangle Museum District and make your way to the Clyfford Still Museum. Still insisted that his work (and that of other artists) be shown on its own instead of mixed with other artists’ work, and Denver is lucky to have landed his collection. The building itself is fascinating, and the ever-changing exhibit of paintings will help you understand Still’s fascinating evolution as an abstract artist.
There’s more art to see, but first another meal break. Again, assuming it’s a weekend, take a walk (or drive) for brunch at Beast + Bottle. This quaint restaurant in the Uptown district is the first place where I’ve been offered an amuse bouche for brunch, a welcome/welcoming bite. Ask about “Andrea’s daily pastry,” sure to be a smart accompaniment to hot coffee. On the beverage front, there’s an intriguing selection of bloody Marys (the Come on Aileen, with green onion-habanero vodka, will deliver a kick), and delicious entrees are divided into “Wake Up” and “Afternoon Delight” sections.
Back to the art scene, you can easily spend a whole afternoon at the Denver Art Museum. There are two buildings housing nine curatorial departments, including an extensive collection of Native American art. Currently on display is “Matisse and Friends,” a quaint exhibit of works from the National Gallery of Art that make you feel like you’re in a living room with the paintings (more of which come from friends than Matisse himself).
If timing’s right and it’s of interest, you can stay in the area to tour the U.S. Mint and the State Capitol. Or if you didn’t get enough of Union Station and beer, return for a pick from the incredible draft beer collection at Terminal Bar, in the historic ticket office. And then it’s off to another historic setting as you spend the evening at The Source in RiNo (River North Art District). This former 1880’s brick foundry is an artisan emporium. You might happen upon an art opening at the SVPER ORDINARY Gallery + Retail space. Here you’ll also find a coffee roaster, brewery, bakery, cheesemonger, florist, and more. There are also two restaurants, one of which is Acorn, where you’ll enjoy dinner. The eclectic menu features small plates that range from shawarma to shrimp & grits to matsutake mushrooms. Save room for the stunning, photo shoot-worthy presentation of oak-grilled half-chicken. Afterward, if you’re up for more, enjoy an after-dinner drink at The Source’s central bar.
Since you’re staying at The Curtis (see below), it’s convenient to roll out of bed for breakfast at The Corner Office. Here you can have the usual egg and omelet dishes. Or, to indulge the whims of your inner child, order the Hong Kong French toast, which comes with honey-infused peanut butter and dulce de leche.
Today will be a big day for calories, so make a beeline to a B-cycle station. These bike sharing stations are conveniently located all around the city, with reasonable rates for rentals. Given the day’s eating agenda, you might want to do a day-long rental to burn calories between meals.
Bicycle will be a good way to get to Tom’s Home Cookin’* in the Five Points neighborhood. Be ready to wait in line for this weekday-only lunch, be ready to pick from the menu board (also check the accompanying board of rules, such as no cell phones) to place your order, and then be ready with cash to pay for your bounty of food. Tom’s serves southern/soul food at its finest, from fried catfish to BBQ pork to macaroni and cheese. This is a “main plus 2 sides” affair, for the most part, and if you’re like most people, you’ll be biting into some fabulous fried chicken and walking out with enough leftovers for another meal.
While east of downtown, you can visit sights like the Denver Zoo and the Denver Botanic Gardens. But once you’ve made stomach space, make sure to get to Glaze by Sasa in Congress Park. Here you’ll find one of the only places in America to get fresh-made baum cake. Known as baumkuchen in Germany and extremely popular in Japan, this labor-intensive layer cake is made on a rotating spit in a special oven. The pastry chef carefully brushes a new layer of batter to the rotating cake once the previous layer has browned, typically building a baumkuchen of 15 to 20 layers. The green tea baum cake is especially worth the trip.
Dinner tonight is close to Coors Field, at Lower48 Kitchen. Sit at the counter and watch the chefs in action. Particularly pleasing is the chance to try a number of $2 and $4 bites that range from miniature corn dogs to onion chip “Funions” to savory beignets. The counter gives you a chance to scout the dishes as they go from the kitchen to the dining room or to your counter companions, who’ll gladly give their opinion. Work your way through some smartly plated small dishes like salads and tartares, and if you still have an appetite, large plates like roasted chicken and rib eye. Then enjoy your mile-high food coma as you walk, bike, or take other transportation back to your hotel.
Thanks to The Curtis hotel, in conjunction with VISIT DENVER, for hosting my stay in downtown Denver. The Curtis is one of the new boutique hotels that’s actually a Doubletree by Hilton. This means that a warm chocolate chip cookie always awaits your arrival at the front desk, but other aspects of the hotel are less familiar—though certainly fun. Each floor has its own personality, and there are a number of theme guest rooms available. I stayed in a comfortable sports-themed room (with a big badminton mural on one wall), but only because the intended Ghostbusters room wasn’t ready upon my early arrival. Other theme rooms include Kiss and Barbie, while for a food-related trip, I’d wonder if the Jimmy Buffet suite would have me constantly hankering for a “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
*Sadly, Tom’s has since closed.
Here are more photos from Denver:
Oh…and one more. I tried some sandwiches at Curtis Park Deli. Not bad, with some creative offerings, but a bit “formulaic.” Maybe it was the use of ciabatta for all the sandwiches, including corned beef? Plus I wanted a little more filling for each sandwich. Still, worth exploring, though I’m told I should try Rosenberg’s Bagels next time I’m in Denver.