Ten? Really?! You’re lucky enough if you find seven… well so I thought! Don’t be so quick to judge.
I know what you’re thinking, and I thought it too. What’s there to eat in Denver? Well that’s why you’re reading this aren’t you? Where there are people, there is food and likely restaurants, and I will find them – the good ones.
Looks a bit like Europe doesn’t it?!
I was actually in Denver a few years ago attending my cousin’s wedding, and if you find yourself vacationing in Denver, it likely has something to do with adventure, or beer… or both! Mixing the two might not be the best idea… or actually the best idea, I mean what’s one without the other? And if you’re into beer, then that alone will be an adventure in this city. And if you’re drinking, you’re going to need some food, right? Don’t worry, I got you covered.
In partnership with Visit The USA, I was tasked to discover the best food, drinks and restaurants in Denver.
NOTE: It’s not necessarily “the best” (read my rant on “the best” here) because food is personal and I can only discover so much as a visitor. “The best” is relative to what I have tried, which is definitely not everything. These are just some I highly recommend.
Photos by Brenda Lowe
Follow Me Foodie to 10 Must Try Eats and Dishes in Denver, Colorado!
It was first on my list, also because it was already on my ever-growing bucket list of restaurants to try.
Rioja is the flagship restaurant for chef and owner Jen Jasinski, a well known chef who was a contestant on Top Chef Masters. This is one of her four restaurants, and is a local and tourist favourite for upscale dining.
The signature dish is the James Beard Award-Winning Artichoke Tortelloni filled with artichoke mousse, white truffle brodo, queso de mano, and chervil. It’s rich and creamy with fragrant truffle (possibly truffle oil, which I’m not huge on) and a light broth. Despite the truffle oil aspect, I still loved it.
The other must try is the Fresh Bacon – pork belly, cardamom, and curried garbanzo bean purée, which has been on the menu since day one. It’s Snake River Farms Kurobuta pork brined in cardamom and ginger, braised, and then seared. The garbanzo beans are a three hour process since they are shucked daily. They are pureed with cream and madras curry powder and tastes like a fragrant curried hummus. The broth is braising liquid broth from the pork and I could bathe in it.
I recommend getting the tortelloni and bacon as a duo which is a smaller portion of both served together. It’s not advertised, but is available to all guests. Order one per person because you won’t want to share.
Besides the standards, I fell in love with the incredibly tender grilled Colorado lamb loin (pictured above). When in Colorado, you eat lamb wherever possible. They do it right. This medium rare tenderloin and loin is from grass fed lamb finished on grain. It is served with crispy polenta, corn, hearts of palm, caramelized onion chipotle lamb jus, summer savory, and boozy cherries. The lamb is so tender it is almost like sashimi and there is no gaminess. The fat is so well marbleized and flavourful, that it is simply seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled to desired doneness.
As for dessert, I prefer the contemporary white and black sesame cheesecake, but the signature dessert is the Beignets. These mini doughnuts are filled with sweet goat cheese and black mission fig, and sit on ruby port wine reduction. It is a cheese, dessert, and dessert wine course in one. It is heavy with the sugar coating and I would love a hazelnut or almond stuffed inside, but they are still delicious regardless.
Anyone in Denver who appreciates good food and wine will likely recommend Rioja, for good reason.
Address: Larimer Square, 1431 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80202, United States
Phone: +1 303-820-2282
2. Civic Centre EATS
It’s a great way to sample a bunch of eateries in one spot. Just remember if you’re visiting in the summer, be prepared to sweat through it. All the locals were in long sleeve work shirts and jeans looking impressively dry, and there I was in a white summer dress sweating my butt off in 40°C weather.
Civic Centre Eats is Metro Denver‘s largest gathering of food trucks and carts with live music and shared seating. The gathering happens on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11am – 2pm and the trucks vary every day (set schedule available). Proceeds help support Civic Centre Park revitalization efforts which is where the event takes place.
I went on a Tuesday and my appetite was set on Manna from Heaven, an Asian food truck with apparently amazing homemade dumplings and an award winning banh mi. Unfortunately it was the one day a month where they took a catering gig… so I missed out, and it was the only day they were at the market.
The organizer of Civic Centre EATS highlighted the most popular food trucks on a Tuesday which were Still Smokin Fusion BBQ, OG Burgers, Chuey FU’s Latin Asian Grub, Keenwah, Co., Mythos Greek Food Truck and Lobster Bliss. The options are multicultural and there is lots of variety, but I went for Mythos Greek Food Truck.
It’s not that I can’t get good Greek food elsewhere, but this food truck has been part of Civic Centre EATS since the beginning. It is always a crowd favourite and winner of many local food truck awards. The family owns a few Greek speciality stores in the city, but this food truck is their son’s endeavour.
The original gyro is stuffed with a mix of shaved lamb and beef, onions, tomato, tzatziki, feta and crisp thin french fries! You may think the french fries are random, but it’s not that unusual in Greece even though it’s not “authentic”. Regardless, the fries added texture and I liked it.
They also use Kontos Gyro Bread for the pita which is a hand-stretched and pre-oiled flatbread. It is fluffier, softer, stretchier and richer in flavour than most other ready-made Greek pita brands. The meat is fresh and well seasoned and overall it is a solid gyro.
All the flavours are creative and eclectic, but I went for the cantaloupe (Denver is known for their cantaloupe) and tarragon, and also the cucumber black sesame. Both are excellent, but I couldn’t taste the sesame in the cucumber. If I lived in Denver, I would have a box of these in my freezer all summer.
And yes, I’ve had good artisan popsicles like this before, and I still think these were fantastic!
3. Avanti Food & Beverage
Denver’s current dining scene is all about dining halls, and I love them. They have the space to transform these giant warehouses into trendy all-day dining venues. They’re urban places that are great for socializing and excellent for independent (food) start-ups looking for a brick and mortar.
Avanti Food & Beverage is one of the local favourites. It opened two years ago in an up and coming area, that is pretty much happening now. This modern and eclectic “food court” located in a two level warehouse features seven independent “start-up” eateries. The tables are communal and it has an energetic vibe at peak hours with indoor and rooftop patio seating.
It was hard to pick which restaurant to try, and usually I’d try them all, but I was “back to back” eating. I debated between the porchetta from Poco Torteria (only 20 available a day) or the Venezuelan style arepas from Quiero Arepas, but went with the arepas. I don’t get arepas in Vancouver, so when I travel to places that have them, I take advantage.
Quiero Arepas started as a food truck, but the lines are shorter here and I can also sit. Their Pabellon Arepa features shredded beef, black beans, plantains and salty white cheese. The arepa “pocket” is handmade fresh every day and grilled with a crisp exterior and moist tender inside. Having come from a “benchmark” arepa at Caracas Arepa Bar in New York the day before, I still thought this was amazing.
4. Root Down
This mega restaurant was originally a filling station, and now it is a popular neighbourhood spot serving eclectic American small plates. It’s an urban and casual place with a great happy hour menu, informal bar area, and nicer dining room.
The delicious lamb slider (cooked to desired doneness) is served on a fluffy and light brioche bun with mint yogurt on the side. The quality of lamb is great, but it is also well seasoned with a slight kick. I also tried the fried Jerk duck wings which weren’t crisp, but loaded with flavour and spicy heat.
I only came for happy hour, so I can’t speak for the rest of the menu, but I would come back for the full experience.
Address: 1600 W 33rd Ave, Denver, CO 80211, United States
Phone: +1 303-993-4200
5. Little Man Ice Cream
Ohhhh!!! I want another one just looking at the picture.
Little Man Ice Cream is the most beloved ice cream shop in Denver.
This is not just an ice cream shop. This ice cream shop attracts people of all ages and brings the community together with their inviting initiatives and events. From live music, dances and entertainment, this ice creamery is an attraction itself.
The flavours are funky, the portions are generous, the quality is good, and the waffle cones are made fresh on the spot, but smell better than they taste. The Salted Oreo is actually quite salty (and I have a high tolerance for salt) so I couldn’t have too much of it. The Banana Pudding is fantastic and a great pairing with the Salted Oreo. It has little pieces of pie crust in it and I actually liked it more than the Salted Oreo which is unexpected.
Be prepared for long lines.
And if you want to be really mean, you can eat it in front of the people working out at the gym next door with glass windows.
Oh! And did I mention the shop is in the shape of a giant milk jug?! How fun! It’s pretty much a monument. Go.
Little Man Ice Cream
Address: 2620 16th St, Denver, CO 80211, United States
Phone: +1 303-455-3811
6. Williams & Graham
Yes, I dress for the occasion. And if you didn’t notice, can you please notice? Because I tried. Thank you!
Call them played out or “5 years ago”, but I love speakeasies, which are actually 95 years ago. But I wasn’t around then and neither were you… or maybe you were, and in that case I’m flattered you’re even reading this!
Williams & Graham was named America’s Best Bar in 2014 by Tales of the Cocktail, a world-class cocktail festival. This speakeasy is “disguised” as a corner bookstore, and I highly recommend reservations because it’s not unusual for them to be full for the night.
There is no secret password or pretentiousness, which is something I dislike about many speakeasies. Denver isn’t a pretentious city though, so that “protocol” wouldn’t fly here anyway. The most you get is a “secret knock” (which the host handles) and the “bookshelf” swivels around revealing a door, and the ground opens up and you fall 100 feet…. just kidding! The bookshelf really does swing open after a secret knock, but that’s just the entrance to the bar. It’s dark and lively, yet sophisticated with handcrafted cocktails and elevated bar food which are more like small plates.
7. Mercantile Dining Provisions (at Denver Union Station)
I wish all train stations were this nice… and delicious! I couldn’t believe the Union Station opened in 1881. It went through renovations and reopened in 2014 with a hotel and several restaurants in various wings of the station. The contemporary concept attracts locals and tourists alike, besides it being the central train station to begin with.
I was on my way for pineapple upside down pancakes at Snooze an AM Eatery, but ended up at Mercantile.
Mercantile is a mini dining pavilion in itself featuring a cafe, small bakery, artisan meat and cheese counter, small retail selection, sit down restaurant, patio and take-out. The sandwiches are seasonal, but the Italian sandwich with house made mortadella, La Quercia prosciutto, finocchiona, calabrese, milano, fennel, hot pepper, and provolone has been on the menu since day one.
I was feeling my sweet tooth kick in (no surprise), and had the signature bacon sticky bun. Bacon pastries aren’t anything “new” nowadays, but if it’s executed well and not just a novelty, I’m down for it…. and holy crap, was I down for this. Freaking good!
This bacon sticky bun is an American dessert, but made with French technique and refinement. The pastry is made with Danish dough, so it is buttery rich and flaky on the outside, and tender soft and sweet inside. It is baked until caramelized crisp with a crackly exterior from a candy shell like caramel coating. It is sticky, sweet, chewy and delicious with cinnamon, and topped with good quality house made salty sweet bacon and candied pecans. It isn’t too sweet and even better than expected.
Another section of Mercantile I explored is the cheese. I tried the three local cheeses made from their farm, Fruition Farms Dairy & Creamery, which is Colorado‘s first artisanal sheep dairy and creamery.
The first cheese they created is the ricotta (pictured on the right), which is incredible. It received first place in the Open Category for Sheep’s Milk and Mixed Milk cheeses at the American Cheese Society Conference in Montreal, Canada. It’s a fresh product so it’s only available spring to late fall. It’s sweet and creamy with large soft curds and made from whole sheep’s milk. It’s very natural in flavour, but has an undeniable richness and elegance. It is my favourite of the three and I could eat it by the spoonful with a bit of honey, fruit, or just alone.
I also tried their Cacio Pecora (pictured on the left) which is a nutty semi-firm sheep’s cheese similar to pecorino or parmesan. It’s a two day brine with a 6 month minimum age and is great for risottos and pastas.
The final cheese they make is the Shepherd’s Halo (pictured in the middle) which is a very buttery, creamy, salty sweet, and soft ripened whole sheep’s milk cheese. It has a 4 hour brine and 21 day age. It is a good dessert cheese and went very well with the Fruition raspberry jam, which is excellent.
8. Chili Verde
What?! I know. Mexican in Denver? Yes! And let me explain.
This was a last minute addition to my dining itinerary and I wouldn’t have discovered it on my own. Seeking Mexican and Latin food in Denver also wasn’t a priority until I realized how significant the Hispanic population was. I quickly had a change of heart and Mexican and Latin became priority.
I had about ten Mexican restaurant recommendations from knowledgeable locals and all of them were different. That made things harder, but at the same time exciting because it kind of suggested how many options there were for excellent Mexican considering none were repeats.
The lady dining next to me at Root Down on the first day gave me the recommendation to try Chile Verde and I ended up going with her because I loved the story and area it was located in.
Chile Verde is opened by two brothers from Pueblo and they specialize in authentic Pueblan-Mexican cuisine. It is located in an off-the-beaten path neighbourhood which is currently in the very early stages of getting revitalized. The area is predominantly Latin and Mexican with “quick eat” Mexican eateries, and Chile Verde is one of the newer and more modern restaurants to open. The restaurant is still casual and traditional Mexican, attracting all ethnicities, but the atmosphere more comfortable and polished than others surrounding it.
Two stores over is their Piñateria (piñata shop) which sells traditional Mexican candies and piñatas of all sizes. It looks like it’s been there forever and I was tempted to bring one home, but would have had to check it in. Boo. Anyway…
Mexican food in Puebla has a lot of cultural influences from France, Spain, South America, Africa, and Asia. So it was not a surprise to find dishes like crepes on the menu as well as Pueblan classics like Mole Poblano and Chile en Nogada. While the recipe and dishes are authentic, there are a few general Mexican dishes and modern influences and plating. It is not in the “fusion” category and they stay true to their roots and are committed to showcasing quality Mexican cuisine made from scratch.
There are no obvious short cuts in the salsas and sauces and I was able to sample the mole poblano (thick, rich, poblano chile sauce with hint of chocolate), mole verde (green mole made from pumpkin seeds and green chile) and chile morita (spicy red salsa made from with morita pepper). All were fantastic, but I went with their signature mole poblano.
Oaxaca and Puebla still argue over the origins of mole poblano, but I accept and enjoy both. I am a bit biased towards Oaxaca though since spending time there researching their food scene and history of mole – see 10 myths about Mexican Food.
Fact is, is there are hundreds of varieties of mole in Mexico and even the chocolate Mole Poblano sauce varies from region to region.
The Pueblan Mole Poblano at Chile Verde is arguably one of the most authentic in Denver because the owners had their parents in Puebla ship the base of the sauce to them so they could use it at the restaurant. The mole base is key and every region and family has their own recipe. This mother sauce is better the day after and you slowly add to the base or “starter” as the flavour deepens and develops over time.
The signature Mole Poblano features one quarter chicken breast which is slow cooked and smothered in their special mole poblano chocolate sauce. It’s not too sweet and served with a side of rice and fresh made in house corn tortillas.
The other do-not-miss here is the Chile En Nogada which is special to Pueblo. It’s one of my favourite Mexican dishes and this one was fantastic. It’s a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with seasoned ground beef, almonds, raisins, peaches, plantains, apples and walnuts drizzled with nogada (walnut) sauce and fresh pomegranate seeds. They offer a seafood version of this as well. It’s a hearty and comforting dish with a sweet and savoury profile.
Chile Verde is a score and worth the mini detour out of downtown. It is still rather underrated in the context of Denver restaurants, but undeniably a neighbourhood gem.
9. Crooked Stave (at The Source)
As I mentioned, Denver is killing it with their modern dining halls and artisanal food markets. The Source was the third one I checked out after Avanti Food & Beverage and the Union Station, and I still wasn’t sick of them. They’re all quite different and unique.
The Source is about an 8 minute drive from downtown and it’s worth the “trek” out. This industrial chic artisanal market is located in an 1880’s brick building and features 13 vendors and a bar. I heard good things about Acorn and Comida and both were on my list, but priority was Crooked Stave. If I didn’t have a dinner reservation at Rioja, I would have happily tried Comida and Acorn.
First off, I’m not a beer aficionado, but I can appreciate it. However if you are, then Denver is your heaven.
Colorado is home to 230+ established breweries and more than 10% of the nation’s craft breweries are found here (Colorado.com). The beer scene can be intense, so much that microbreweries and pubs can cater to or specialize in certain styles of beer. IPA’s are always popular in Colorado, but I was curious to explore their sour beers, and Crooked Stave was the place to do it.
Crooked Stave brewery was founded in 2013 and specializes in Belgian sour beer. Founder and Brewmaster Chad Yakobson’s, native to Colorado, holds a MSc. degree in Brewing and Distilling from the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling located at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is arguably the most well respected pioneer and educator in Denver’s beer industry and his brand/breweries have a cult-like following.
I tried their Colorado Wild Sage – Saison / Farmhouse ale brewed with Colorado grown wild white sage and lemongrass (an entry level sour beer so it’s not very tart and offered all year), Petite Sour Blueberry – American wild ale produced by mixed fermentation aged in oak with blueberries (a medium level sour beer, so it’s not overly tart but still noticeably tart), and last, the Persica – an American wild ale aged 12-18 months in oak barrels with local western slope peaches (their most popular seasonal beer and on the upper echelon of tartness and sour beers).
It is hard to pick a favourite because they are all so different and it just depends on your preference for tartness and flavour. I’d recommend a flight to get the full experience.
Note: If you like IPA’s try Comrade, and for red beers try Black Shirt and Tap Room.
Crooked Stave (Located at The Source)
Address: 3350 Brighton Blvd, Denver, CO 80216, United States
Phone: +1 720-550-8860
Chef-Proprietor Frank Bonanno’s Mizuna is an institution for fine dining in Denver. It was another “top of the list” restaurant on my itinerary. While the city is fairly laid back and casual, this white tablecloth restaurant still has a loyal following and clientele.
The Dry Aged Beef Tartare and Butter Poached Maine Lobster Macaroni & Cheese are classic Mizuna dishes not to be missed. Chef Bonanno used to work for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, so the mac n’ cheese is a Keller recipe (stated on menu). The lobster is flaky and tender and the pasta is more buttery than cheesy. The beef tartare is more special with an extremely buttery and crisp brioche toast with its centre cut-out in a circle and filled with tartare. It was the beef tartare version of “eggs in a basket”.
My favourite course is the Tasting of Black Gold Farms Pork Pine Nut Risotto, Braised Kale, and Cornbread Muffin. This dish showcases various techniques and excellent execution. It makes use of one ingredient, and is creative as much as it is traditional.
The Berkshire pork is naturally quite fatty and flavourful, but needs to be cooked properly to shine. The pork shoulder and garlic sausage is juicy with a crisp exterior, and the bone-in loin chop is thick and succulent with a tender fat cap. The pork belly is also crisp and tender and better than others in its caliber. The pine nut and sunflower seed “risotto” is current in thought. It has no rice, is well seasoned, cheesy, creamy, nutty, rich and delicious. It is ultimate comfort food and I love everything about this dish.
For dessert, I had the Floating Island Coconut Anglaise, Poached Meringue, Coconut Shortbread, Roasted Banana. It was the one I had my eyes on, but it also came recommended.
I also had the chef’s 8 course tasting menu which featured: Devil’s egg with black truffle, Surf and Turf – beef tataki, fried cornmeal crusted oyster, tomato tartar with shallots and egg yolk gel, baby tarragon and tarragon oil, Rabbit Agnolotti – hand made, corn and brown butter emulsion, roasted asparagus, and carrot top pistou, Alaskan Salmon, chow chow fritters (jalapeno cheese cornbread hush puppies, salty), lightly pickled green tomatoes, corn and chili puree and sweet tomato, Intermezzo house made Asian pear sorbet, Far Start Farms Colorado Lamb Loin – snap peas, pastry filled with baba ganoush (“Börek”), and a Blackberry Tart Tatin – chevre ice cream.
Although the chef’s tasting menu gives room for creativity, I enjoyed the a la carte options more. Regardless, Mizuna is a must try and it was my last meal in Denver. I left on a high note.
Note: The signature Manhattan won against 600+ recipes locally. It later competed nationally in New York at the Woodford Reserve competition. It’s smooth to start, velvety rich, and gets quite heavy with a hint of a spice at the end. Try it.
Address: 225 E 7th Ave, Denver, CO 80203, United States
Phone: +1 303-832-4778