As far as American cities go, at a mere 160 years old, Denver is a lot like a youngest sibling. Founded on a barrel of whiskey—and a death threat—the Mile High City has always played by its own rules.
When the transcontinental railroad bypassed the city in the 1860s, Denver started its own rail company and established itself as the preeminent metropolis in the West. More recently, in the midst of unprecedented development, Denver has made itself an alluring alternative to coastal cities, with the promise of easy Rocky Mountain access, 300 sunny days a year, and one of the most dynamic dining scenes in the country. It’s as if the rest of America is finally seeing the Queen City of the Plains through the eyes of Jack Kerouac, who wrote in On the Road: “Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars.”
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America’s most beautiful train station, Abstract Expressionist masterpieces, and the original pearl-snap shirt
If the railroad made the Mile High City, it’s only fitting I start my first day gawking at the pristine beauty of Union Station. Since being restored to its Beaux-Arts glory in 2014, it has become one of the best places in town to eat, drink, and sleep. You won’t find any burger chains here. Instead, commuters have their pick of three restaurants from two James Beard Award–winning chefs; a mezzanine cocktail bar, The Cooper Lounge, where drinks are literally served on a silver platter; and The Crawford, a boutique hotel named for local preservationist Dana Crawford where each floor is designed to reflect a different era in the station’s history.
As I walk through the Great Hall, aglow with morning light streaming through the massive arched windows, I notice that this is a transit hub where people want to spend time. Denverites gather over coffee on tufted leather couches and tap away at laptops on long wooden workstations straight out of a university library. There are even two millennial-approved shuffleboard tables. But I’m not here to play games; I want to eat—specifically at Mercantile Dining & Provision, a market and café from Alex Seidel, this year’s winner of the James Beard Best Chef: Southwest award. While “farm-to-table” has come to feel like a menu cliché, Seidel actually owns the 10-acre farm that supplies Mercantile with its yogurts and cheeses—including the crème fraîche on my smoky citrus-cured salmon toast.
Satiated, I catch a cab 10 minutes south to the Clyfford Still Museum, a dense concrete building dwarfed by the sharp silver prow of the Denver Art Museum hovering just behind it. Inside, the museum traces the life and artistic evolution of Still, a postwar Abstract Expressionist who didn’t quite manage the level of fame of his peers, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Still did, however, know how to secure his legacy: In his will, he stipulated that his estate must go to a city willing to establish a museum devoted entirely to his work. Having so much space devoted to one artist feels like a luxury, and the way the museum arranges the pieces—gently guiding the viewer from gaunt, Depression-era realist works to the color-splashed abstractions Still filled with what he called “lifelines”—helps you catch recurring motifs.
In one of the final, light-filled galleries, I encounter a middle school field trip and overhear the teacher asking the kids what they saw in Still’s work. “Life and death,” one girl responds gravely. Another boy eagerly chimes in: “Hope.” Whoa. As the class begins to file out of the gallery, I hear another girl whisper, “I was so confused.” I’m tempted to tell her that I think that’s the point.
After a 10-minute walk along tree-lined Civic State Park, I arrive at the gold-domed Colorado State Capitol. In addition to marking the spot where the Mile High City reaches 5,280 feet above sea level (the exact location has been changed three times, with the current consensus placing it on the 13th step), the building offers some of the best 360-degree views of the city and surrounding mountains. The dome’s observation deck is accessible only on one of the free hourly tours, so I join a group. Our guide, a University of Colorado student named Angela, is chock-full of memorable trivia, like how Bill Clinton’s portrait in the presidential gallery is a replica because Clinton apparently liked the original so much he took it home with him. As we pass through the surprisingly magnificent House of Lords–inspired Senate chamber, one of my tourmates emits a low whistle and murmurs, “That’s a big-a** chandelier.” (Angela tells us it weighs 1.5 tons.) Up on the deck, the sun warms my face as I look across the park at the stately City Hall, hung with a massive “Denver ♥ Immigrants,” banner, and the craggy peaks of the Rocky Mountains, which seem to watch over the city.
Back on the ground, I undock a bike from a B-Cycle city bikeshare stand and follow 15th Street northwest to Larimer Square, a charming collection of Victorian brick buildings that makes up one of the oldest blocks in the city. Inside one of these historic structures is Rioja, where the city’s first James Beard Award winner, Jennifer Jasinski, has been serving up Mediterranean cuisine since 2004. As I swoon over a cube of pork belly in garbanzo bean purée, Jasinski—hair tied up in a bandanna, fork-and-knife earrings dangling—swings by my table and tells me how the city’s tastes have evolved over the 18 years she’s lived here. “I remember when I first got hired in Denver, everyone said, ‘First of all, no one is going to come downtown for dinner, and second, no one here eats fish,’” she recalls. “But I’ve seen Denverites really push the envelope and try to break that myth of the steak-and-cow town.”
After finishing a goat-cheese beignet with fig jam, I wander the three and a half blocks to Rockmount Ranch Wear, the family-owned Western-wear company that invented the pearl-snap shirt in 1946. Rockmount pearl snaps have since become a wardrobe staple of rockers from Jerry Lee Lewis to Jack White. I weave between racks stuffed with shirts in hundreds of prints, colors, and fabrics, from leopard velour to one emblazoned with ray guns, and end up leaving with a blue and teal granado-patterned fleece overshirt.
I swing by my room at the mountain-modern Kimpton Hotel Born to freshen up before venturing out for dinner at Bar Dough, an Italian restaurant in the Lower Highlands where recent Top Chef: Colorado finalist and Jasinski protégée Carrie Baird draws crowds for her “fancy toast,” which tonight is a thick piece of ciabatta slathered with the cheesy, caramelized onion crust of a French onion soup. Though a wood-fired pizza oven dominates the kitchen, I opt for squid ink tagliarini, purple potato gnocchi, and a roasted chicken with lemony broccolini and crisp fingerling potatoes, washed down with pairings from the exclusively Italian wine list.
Knowing that I’m just a few blocks from Williams & Graham, a cocktail lounge that’s been listed as one of the World’s 50 Best Bars, I have to pop in for a nightcap. The host swings open a heavy-looking bookcase and leads me downstairs into the dark, wood-paneled bar, which despite its cosmopolitan bona fides still has the feeling of a cozy neighborhood joint—Pixies playing on the stereo and all. As I sip a blackberry sage smash that tastes like summer in the mountains, co-owner Sean Kenyon tells me how his family’s bartending heritage inspired this spot’s look and feel.
“My father and grandfather taught me everything I know about taking care of people,” he says, between sips of beer. “People don’t visit drinks. They visit atmosphere. They visit people.” Entranced by the shimmer of the bottles in the flickering candlelight, in the bar’s cocooning darkness, which Kenyon calls “a suspension of reality,” I order a second drink, the gin and raspberry Clover Club. Reality, suspended.
Subversive street art, tacos with a mission, and urban winemaking in RiNo
RiNo (River North) is the city’s new Wild West, and I wake up ready to explore. The RiNo Art District, as it’s formally called, actually encompasses four historic neighborhoods on either side of the South Platte River, including the city’s old manufacturing center—which was dominated by foundries, pattern shops, and warehouses until the 1980s and ’90s—and Five Points, which became known as the “Harlem of the West” during the mid-20th century. As the city has grown, the area has undergone a development boom that has transformed it from a neighborhood that mostly attracted street-art crews to one that now draws out-of-towners for brewery-tour bachelor parties.
My first stop is Denver Central Market, a 14,000-square-foot food hall that made Bon Appetit’s long list of Best New Restaurants in 2017. The former cabinet factory, Western curiosity shop, and used-car dealership is now home to 11 food vendors, including a fish market and a produce stand that hawks colorful acaí bowls. I opt for an Izzio Bakery paleo bowl—poached eggs topped with sweet plantains, chorizo, and green chili—and a cappuccino from Crema Bodega and settle in at a table next to a woman in a sweatshirt printed with the word “Kale.”
Just as I’m finishing breakfast, up walks Tracy Weil, a visual artist and one of the cofounders of the RiNo Art District. In 2005, he and seven other artists established the neighborhood as an arts district and trademarked its name, “which we learned also stands for Republican in Name Only,” he says, chuckling. Within the first year, membership ballooned from eight galleries to 50, and today the district’s hundreds of members range from exhibition spaces to architecture firms to breweries.
“I always wanted RiNo to be its own small town,” Weil says, “and the city wanted to keep the authenticity here.” As he takes me for a spin around the neighborhood in his SUV—pointing out murals by local artists, like Jeremy Burns’s Larimer Boy and Girl, which appears as a different gender depending on the angle from which the viewer sees it—it’s clear that RiNo has long passed the small-town phase. Brighton Boulevard, the neighborhood’s main avenue, has been gutted and is in the midst of a $30 million project that will add a new park and pedestrian bridge, Weil shows me the site of a World Trade Center campus, slated to open in 2020, and the 11 tiny homes (and one yurt) that comprise Beloved Community Village, a pilot project for housing the city’s homeless. The rapid pace of RiNo’s development makes these sorts of contrasts even starker.
My insides are starting to rumble, so I bid Weil goodbye and cab across the South Platte River to Comal Heritage Food Incubator. Comal is not simply a restaurant—although the carne asada tacos and horchata are worth the trip alone—but a job training program for immigrant women with a passion for food and entrepreneurship. The menu changes depending on who’s in the kitchen: Monday through Thursday it’s Mexican; Friday it’s Syrian and Iraqi food; Thursday afternoon there’s an Ethiopian coffee service. Murals of Frida Kahlo and Malala Yousafzai look out over women working in the kitchen while Latin pop blasts from the speakers. I’m so happy with my lunch I ask the manager if I can say hi to the mother-daughter duo from Durango, Mexico, who made it, but the ladies demur, saying they’re too sweaty and covered in food to talk.
Anyone can tell you Denver is a craft beer town, but now it’s making serious strides in viticulture as well, so I take a five-minute taxi ride over to The Infinite Monkey Theorem winery, one of the movement’s pioneers. Founder Ben Parsons started making wine with grapes from Colorado’s Western Slope in a Denver back alley a decade ago. In 2012, he moved his operation to a graffitied stretch of Larimer Street, and young locals flock to the industrial-chic tasting room, which feels more like a brewery taproom than a winery. From the company’s name—inspired by the idea that if a monkey sat for an infinite length of time at a typewriter it would eventually type the works of William Shakespeare—to its early adoption of cans and kegs, IMT is known for its punk-rock approach to winemaking.
“The industry is very stuffy and pretentious,” Parsons says as he pours tastes of IMT’s sparkling, riesling, cabernet franc, and syrah. “We really wanted to create an atmosphere where people can come and feel comfortable and not feel talked down to by some guys in Napa who probably know way less than we do.” With vintages like dry-hopped sauvignon blanc, which has the nose of an IPA, Parsons explains, IMT is looking to “redefine the line between craft beer and craft wine.” He has even made a foray into liquor, partnering with The Block Distilling Co. to produce a series of vermouths. After I taste a rosé vermouth seasoned with coriander, basil, and wormwood, Parsons welcomes me into the “secret vermouth society.”
Feeling buzzed and buoyant, I step into the dusky street and walk a few blocks to Hop Alley for dinner. From the name, which honors the city’s old Chinatown, to the thumping playlist of Lil Wayne and Wu-Tang Clan curated by chef-owner Tommy Lee, this place is a true blend of new- and old-school Denver. I order a Negroni seasoned with sesame and Douglas fir, followed by a succession of umami-packed Chinese dishes, including a silky chilled tofu with smashed cucumbers, peanuts, and bang bang sauce; crispy, fatty Beijing duck rolls; fried chicken with mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and red chilies; and creamy bone marrow fried rice. Dessert is a banana-bread pudding dressed with fish-sauce caramel. I leave with a full belly and a bag full of leftover fried chicken, Weezy still ringing in my ears. I decide to turn in; I’ve got to get up early for a hike tomorrow.
Red Rocks musical fantasies, John Denver’s legacy, and secret custom cocktails
In Denver, we have four directions: north, south, east, and toward the mountains,” says Dawn, my Tours by Locals guide, as we cruise west out of the city on I-70 to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the iconic venue and public park that’s hosted every big name in music, from the Beatles and the Grateful Dead (who declared it their favorite venue) to Carole King and John Denver, the author of Colorado’s state song, “Rocky Mountain High.”
As we cover the 15 miles from Denver, Dawn explains how a rock formation with naturally perfect acoustics managed to rise out of the earth. The park’s three landmark monoliths—Stage Rock, Ship Rock, and Creation Rock—came to be 65 million years ago, when the shifting of tectonic plates on the West Coast created the Rocky Mountains, pushing the sedimentary rock in today’s Red Rocks into its current formations. It’s almost as if Mother Nature were a Deadhead.
OK, man played a role too. John Brisben Walker, the onetime publisher and owner of Cosmopolitan, used the proceeds from the magazine’s sale to William Randolph Hearst to purchase the amphitheater, and hosted the first concert there in 1906. In 1927, he sold it to the city of Denver, which later enlisted WPA and CCC laborers to build out the seating. The stadium has held regular concerts since 1947.
We park at the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Out front, a 15-foot-tall statue of John Denver holds a landing eagle; inside, his bedazzled Canadian tuxedo from a 1970s tour is displayed behind glass. A volunteer eagerly shows us blurry laminated photos of a Bonnie Raitt signature in the “secret tunnel” backstage—where it’s a tradition for every performer to sign his or her name—and then Dawn and I set off into the park.
We follow the Trading Post Loop Trail, an easygoing 1.4-mile walk through cacti, piñon pines, cottonwoods, and juniper bushes dotted with chalky blue berries. Behemoth slabs of red rock slice the sky at such dramatic angles that I can’t help but think they were frozen mid-shift. I can see why Walker called this landscape “the Garden of the Titans.”
On this bluebird morning, the only performance going on at the amphitheater is the horde of spandex-clad Denverites jogging and jumping their way up the stadium’s 380 stairs. I eagerly bound down to the stage, imagining the reverberation of the first chord from an electric guitar, the roar of the crowd echoing off millions of years of history. I feel the urge to bow but instead huff it all the way back up to meet Dawn at the top, pausing to gasp for air on the 36th step.
Back in the car, we descend nearly 1,000 feet to Golden, a mining town founded during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859 that nearly beat out Denver to become Colorado’s capital. Today, it’s best known as the home of MillerCoors, the world’s largest single-site brewery. Much of the city’s original architecture remains—as Dawn and I walk down the main drag, Washington Avenue, which is lined with restaurants and outdoor-gear shops, I’m half expecting a stagecoach to pull up.
For lunch, we duck into Abejas, a New American bistro decorated with bright red climbing ropes and rustic wooden doors from a local ranch. Dawn and I wolf down porchetta sandwiches—the crispy skin of the pork crunches like potato chips with every bite, mingling with a bright fennel-apple slaw—as we listen to a “Take Me Home, Country Roads” cover.
On my return to Denver, I retrieve my luggage at the Kimpton Born and catch a cab to Cherry Creek, a neighborhood better known for its suburban-style shopping malls and country club than trendy bars and chic hotels. But, like the rest of Denver, that’s changing. See: Halcyon, my digs for the night, where I find a coffee-bar check-in, a gear garage, and a rooftop pool. After a spin of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life on the player in my room, I’m ready for dinner.
I take a car to the Uptown neighborhood, a residential district north of the capitol building, for dinner at Beast + Bottle. The rustic American menu—buttery lamb from Loveland’s Ewe Bet Ranch served with root vegetables and squash agnolotti; bow-tie pasta in a creamy hazelnut sauce—offers plenty of quirky twists. My Karma Chameleon cocktail arrives at the table a clear glass of rum, cachaça, and butterfly pea flower; when the server pours in a small carafe of lime acid, it turns a Pantone-approved ultraviolet before my eyes.
The night is still young, and I have a reservation at B&GC, one of the city’s most secretive speakeasies. (When I type the name into Google Maps, nothing appears.) I get a text with the location and, going against everything my mom taught me about personal safety, walk down a dark alley next to Halcyon to a cinderblock building marked “Deliveries.” Next to a door labeled “Stair Three,” there’s a small sign with an Illuminati-like triangular symbol and, beneath that, a small golden doorbell. I buzz, and a woman with a headset appears and leads me down to the basement, opening a door to reveal a glowing Art Deco bar. Seductive lighting frames the faces of patrons seated on low-slung red leather banquettes; it feels like the kind of place Don Draper would bring a mistress.
I decide on a Barcelona Wildwood (cachaça, Midori, Nardini Mandorla, lime, egg white, rosewater, and cucumber) but soon realize I’ve made a mistake choosing from the menu. The woman next to me asks for something gin-based with lavender bitters, and the bartender hands her a notebook; she gets to name the drink (after anything except herself), and it will be recorded in the book for the next time she comes. She settles on “Chelsea Clinton” (her name is Chelsea). As the man next to me flips through the book searching for his cocktail, I know I have to come back. Not just to this bar, but to this magnetic “young” city, still finding itself out here beneath the mountains and the stars, already a mile above the rest.
Next Up: Three Perfect Days: Washington, D.C.