In terms of globally recognized dining destinations, major cities like San Francisco, New York City and Chicago tend to dominate the U.S. spotlight, but smaller metropolises like Denver are progressing further and further into the culinary conversation thanks to a slate of innovative chefs, a thriving neighborhood culture and a booming — and hungry — population. Nowadays, the Mile High City is a restaurant Mecca in its own right, boasting an impressive, dynamic dining scene throughout its myriad neighborhoods. From massive projects taking shape in the funky, warehouse-y RiNo district to the corner joints lining the streets in the Lower Highlands, these restaurants are proving that Denver’s restaurant scene has never been hotter.
Nestled within The Source, a sprawling European-inspired food market filled with a cocktail bar, a brewery, a coffee shop and more, Acorn serves up a menu of contemporary American fare from its wood-fired ovens. Award-winning chef-owner Steven Redzikowski tends the flames, doling out comforting dishes emboldened with surprising ingredients and techniques. Like a wood-fired bacon fat pretzel; or coal-roasted beets sweetened with caramelized dates; or wood-fired baby yams with cashews and sesame; or tomato-braised meatballs served on a bed of creamy stone-ground grits. Each dish bursts with flavor and vibrancy, ideal for sharing and grazing. Be sure and finish with the pumpkin mousse, a quasi-deconstructed pie with pecan tuile, sage and pie crust ice cream.
Wood-fired cuisine is having a serious moment in Denver, apparently, and it’s at the core of some of the city’s finest chef-driven ingenuity. Nowhere is this more evident than at Citizen Rail, a show-stopper of a restaurant on the ground floor of the LoDo’s gorgeous new Kimpton Hotel Born. Pedigreed chef Christian Graves presides over the kitchen, anchored by a blazing wood-fired grill. Here, the chef heats up an array of seasonal ingredients, from meltingly tender hickory-braised oxtails and rice grits (pictured) to crispy chickpea cakes with ember-roasted eggplant and blistered vegetables. While some stunning dishes include a behemoth of a butter lettuce salad and deliciously slurpable wood-grilled oysters with cilantro-garlic butter, the best dishes are the meatiest. Especially since Citizen Rail is one of the few restaurants in town with an on-site meat locker, which guests get gawk at through glass. House-aged rib-eyes and port porterhouses dangle on full display before hitting the grill. The cocktails are equally impressive and original, like the Titans of Industry, a lustrous red quaff made with Fernet, Campari and Hawaiian Punch reduction.
Chef Blake Edmunds strikes again, this time with a pan Latin-inspired eatery in the Lower Highlands neighborhood. This new spot hustles and bustles on an otherwise quiet corner, inviting guests into its convivial confines enriched with light blue hues, plants, dangling lights and colorful pottery lining the walls. The shareable menu lineup features bracing plates like queso fundido with chorizo verde, tuna ceviche with roasted lemon dressing, crispy pig tail with tamarind glaze and a vegetable dish called “el guiso,” a savorous stew of heirloom beans, fluffy dumplings, charred cabbage and poached egg. Drinks echo the kitchen’s Latin ethos, with tangy riffs on daiquiris, Cuba Libres and pisco sours all accounted for.
As the tiki renaissance continues to sweep the country, Denver gets in on the action with a delightfully transportive option in the eclectic Baker neighborhood. While unassuming on the outside, especially considering the frenzied South Broadway address, Adrift whisks visitors away to a Polynesian vacation as soon as they open the front door. Bamboo and palms help lay the foundation for the tropical oasis, where the rum-centric bar docks the space like a glowing alter. In addition to masterful renditions of tiki staples like Zombies and Singapore Slings, look for less commonplace options like the Shark’s Tooth, a biting blend of white rum, maraschino, pineapple, lime and cinnamon; or the silky-smooth Macadamia Nut Chi-Chi, a frozen vodka medley with macadamia nuts, pineapple and coconut. There are also a few shareable punch bowls and a Hawaiian-inspired food menu with things like poké, kalua pork sliders and guava BBQ ribs.
Another prominent local chefs making moves these days is Troy Guard, whose latest venture solidifies him as a Denver empire-builder. On the heels of established fixtures like TAG, Guard & Grace, TAG Burger Bar and Los Chingones, Mister Tuna landed in RiNo with a space as funky and artistic as the rapidly developing neighborhood itself. Guard’s food criss-crosses the globe for inspiration and flavors, offering everything from summer squash satay and seared Hawaiian ahi tuna to duck confit tacos and whole roasted sea brea with watercress and fennel salad. It’s the rare restaurant that really takes the “something for everyone” approach and upgrades it with serious quality and precision. Dishes are playful and irreverent, while adhering to the utmost in quality and technique.
Back in the Lower Highlands, Linger breaths new life into a building that once contained a mortuary. Nowadays, the restaurant from chef-owner Justin Cucci provides a fun, energized place to convene over a menu of global street food. Using local ingredients, Cucci injects international accents with items like Korean fried chicken, bao buns, currywurst dogs, Persan sliders, feet falafel, roasted shishito peppers and more. Save room for the sesame caramel dessert or the peanut butter candy bar with peanut butter mousse, dark chocolate shell, strawberry jam and marshmallow fluff. In the warmer months, Linger has a fun rooftop patio with snacks like kabobs and tacos, plus quenching cocktails like sangria and a lemongrass-infused Thai Collins.
Decked out like a whimsical forest, Beatrice & Woodsley is as cute and quaint as it is delicious. With trees that look impressively real, branches and cozy alcoves sectioned off by billowy white fabrics, this place is quite the rustic charmer. They even manage to make chainsaws look adorable, thanks to a tasteful display of reconfigured chainsaws dangling behind the bar. Be sure and swing by for brunch for some of the best morning dishes in town. Crawfish beignets, chorizo-filled pierogies, apple pie pancakes and pimento cheese grits add contemporary flare to the comfort food display. The eggs Johnny Fever is a particular highlight, featuring onion bread, eggs and mustard hollandaise with pan-fried goetta, a sausage-like meat patty rarely seen outside of Cincinnati. Later in the day, dinner options include escargots, avocado salads, grilled squid, ricotta-pistachio gnocchi and lamb terrines.
Between places like The Source, Avanti F&B and highly anticipated upcoming ventures like Zeppelin Station, it’s clear that Denver has the lock on some of the best food halls in the country. Far from contrived, like some food halls tend to be in other markets, Denver’s food hall scene feels effortless, organic and refreshingly European in inspiration. Such is the case with Denver Central Market, a popular mainstay along one of RiNo’s main drags. The warehouse-like brick-clad building is a sight to behold, filled to the brim with top-notch vendors and purveyors, from a bakery and an ice cream shop to a produce stand, pizzeria, fish counter and cocktail bar. One of the best bites in the market is the seafood roll at Tammens Fish Market. The hefty sandwich contains a mayo-based salad of crab and plump lobster, all on a doughy bun. Once you’ve polished that off, snag some sweets from Temper Chocolates and an espresso from Crema Bodega.
Much more than a mere train station, Denver has done an astonishing job of outfitting the region’s primary transportation hub into a Mecca of dining, drinking and hospitality. Along with the boutique Crawford Hotel that took shape inside the building, Union Station boasts an incredible lineup of eateries, cafes, bars and restaurants, which should really serve as inspiration to other cities as to how they can (and should) maximize central commuter hubs like this. Here, the station has evolved into a social gathering place for locals and visitors alike, as folks convene over lattes at Pigtrain Coffee Co., ice cream from Milkbox Ice Creamery, oysters at Stoic & Genuine, Manhattans at the Terminal Bar or pasta and paella at Mercantile Dining & Provision. The massive main lobby area also has a couple shuffleboards, a giant Christmas tree during the holidays and tons of lounge seats for chatting, snacking, reading or working.