So, you’re going to D’town for GABF with your BFFs and CWs. Great. Have fun! But, every year, I hear and read the same complaint: “I didn’t know where to go when the festival was out of session. I know I must have missed some really great stuff.”
Yeah…you probably did.
So, because our son has lived in Denver since 2009 and I’ve had a LOT of time to wander around and get to know the city a bit, I’m going to offer some suggestions, bearing in mind that A) I’m not a 20 or 30-something HopHead kid who cares more about Sizzle than Steak, and B) As a former chef who did it for about a decade longer than he should have, I’m not the guy you want to have dinner. I’m going to find something wrong, in about 95% of the restaurants I visit. So, what’s on this list is NOT where you go to See And Be Seen, unless that happens coincidentally. This is about great food and beverages and atmosphere and fun. Mature fun, not kid stuff. If you’re much under 40, quit reading. If you’re a grown-up, you may find some gems here.
FOOD, in the general vicinity of GABF
1. Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs: The first time I visited Denver, in 2009, Jim Pittinger had ONE food cart, on Skyline Plaza, just across 16th Street from what was then the NW corner of the US Mint. I had asked a food forum for restaurant recommendations on my first trip to Denver and got 24 responses. 21 of ’em named Biker Jim’s. They were NOT wrong. We have nothing like this in Seattle and you probably have nothing like it in your town, either. Tis is a Carnivore’s Heaven, PETA’s worst nightmare, a place guaranteed to make vegans start to wobble and speak in tongues about six blocks away. Biker Jim’s is a place dedicated to sausages…but not any old Brat/Braun/Metz/Kielbasa Boredom On A Bun.
How about Rattlesnake Pheasant sausage with Jim’s Classic Cream Cheese and Caramelized (In Coca-Cola!) Onions? How about an Alaskan Reindeer Dog with “The Desert” toppings – Harissa-roasted cactus, Malaysian Curry Jam Scallions, cilantro, and two kinds of onions? Or Jim’s best-seller, the Elk Jalapeno Cheddar dog with “The Conspiracy” – Stilton Blue Cheese, Bacon Red Onion marmalade, Lemon zest, and French-fried onions? Pair any of these up with a side of Fried Mac ‘n’ Cheese, Deep Fried Pickles, or my favorite, Charred Tahini Cauliflower, and you, my friend, have just EATEN. Ask if there’s any of Jim’s cheesecake laying around, too, ’cause very few people anywhere do that better than JP. ♥♥♥♥♥
2. Lower 48 Kitchen: In just under a year(!), owner/manager Mario Nocifera and owner/chef Alex Figura have almost literally stunned Denver diners with an imaginative menu of Small Plates (and a few Large Ones) that show amazing creatvity while never resorting to foofy artifice. How’s a small plate of Butternut Squash Lasagna with Tokyo Turnips, Brown Butter Hazelnuts and Parmesan Cream sound? You also might check to see if they have the Toasted Hash Browns topped with Prince Edward Island Mussels, Spinach, and “Everything”…or the swoon-inducing (literally) Oxtail Crepe. Their beer list isn’t large but it’s flat-out impeccable: names like Epic and SKA and Ommegang and Elevation and Grand Teton rotate out frequently. The wine list is similarly small but, again, broad and immaculate, with bottles like Buty SSM, Bruno Giacosa Arneis, Edi Simcic Malvazija, Turley Cinsault(!), Haden Fig Pinot Noir, and – delightfully – Chateau Musar Jeanue Rouge and Tavjin Grignolino – beverages totally in sync with and in service of the food. Just a flat-out dazzling new place, where you WILL spend some $$$ but will NOT regret it. ♥♥♥♥♥
3. Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizza: This fixture of the LoDo neighborhood, located at 2129 Lariner, three blocks from Coors Field, waxes and wanes in the buzz department among Denver’s young foodies but it never wavers in quality. This is rustic, no-nonsense pizza-making at its best. There’s nothing especially tricky goin’ on here, except for the “Starita”, a startling pie of Walnut & Pine Nut Cream, Smoked Bufala Mozzarella, Roasted Zucchini, Pecorino Romano, and EVOO. Past that, they do both Neapolitan and New York style pizza with equal and top-shelf facility. Their NYC stuff, in fact, makes Seattle’s much-celebrated Delancy taste like a frozen supermarket pie. The “Manhattan”, with its Lemoncello Chicken Breast, Red Onion, Grape Tomatoes, and Basil Pesto almost made me stand up and bust into show tunes, so…be careful. Marco’s is The Real Deal and reasonable to boot. ♥♥♥♥
4. Yazoo BBQ: A lot of Seattleites have taken shots at me because I contend that there is no good North Carolina-style BBQ in Washington. As a North Carolinian, however, I would know and they wouldn’t. Done deal. And I had just about given up on BBQ out West altogether until I literally stumbled onto Yazoo. I was trying to turn the car around in that rabbit warren of streets that make up the eastern fringes of LoDo and, in frustration, swung into this weird, triangular traffic island at Broadway, 22nd, and Champa. I had the window down. It was around 10:30 a.m. and I was hungry. I smelled smoke. I smelled pork. I started looking around for the source and found it about eight feet from the car. A BIG smoker, going full-tilt. I parked and started searching…Holy Cow…or, more accurately, Holy Hog. I went in and had the only plate a North Carolinian would ever even consider: Pulled Pork, no friggin’ bun, no sauce. I almost cried. Owner Don Hines uses cherry and hickory to smoke and, no, it’s not authentic NC BBQ but it’s no more than a hair behind: sweet, very smoky, tender, moist (without being soggy), and lots of it. My only complaint – and this is a BIG one – is that Don doesn’t have REAL Carolina BBQ sauce; the thin, vinegar-based sauce that’s the ONLY thing great BBQ really needs. That aside, GO to Yazoo if you like good Q and tell Don The Pour Fool sent ya. He won’t know what you’re talking about but the look on his face will be priceless. ♥♥♥♥
ICE CREAM, all Over The Place
Denver is NOT famous for its ice cream parlors…but it should be. Among Denverites, there is a universal appreciation of how freakin’ lucky they are to have not one or two great creameries to choose from but smething like a dozen. My long-time fave is Liks Ice Cream, located on the east side of Capitol Hill at 2039 East 13th Street. Liks is not fancy; you’ve been in a lot of convenience stores that are more atmospheric but the Liks Legions don’t give a damn. Flavors like my all-time Denver indulgence, Liks Cayenne Caramel Pecan, and the sublime Graham Cracker, Cashew Caramel, and Adobe Pie are quite enough of a draw…Over in the Highlands neighborhood, Little Man Ice Cream shovels out BIG servings of soulful stuff like Salted Caramel Peanut Butter Cup (I just salivated on the keyboard), German Chocolate Cake, Whopper Malt, and Salted Oreo (shudder). This odd little neighborhood oasis kept me riveted like a Bourne movie…PLUS, they serve lunch items like Spaghetti and Meat Balls, Mac& Cheese, Pulled Pork, and Jambalaya...in Parmesan waffle cones! Little Man is BIG Time…Glacier Home Made Ice Cream & Gelato is D’town’s current Ice Cream fixation and for good reason. Their Ginger is easily the best of that much-abused flavor I’ve ever tasted and their Coconut Cappucino Chocolate Melt makes me wanna weep. The flavors never get wild and crazy but the creaminess and intensity are off the charts…
Sweet Action Ice Cream is rivaled only by Liks for sheer creativity. Stranahan’s Whiskey Brickle, anybody? And, YES, it does taste like Whiskey and it is gorgeous! Colorado Sour Cherry, Salted Butterscotch, Colorado Sweet Corn, Roasted Green Chile, Elderflower, and Sour Cream and Chive(!)(?) sound horrifying but Work, IF you have the stones to try them…Other great ideas include Bonnie Brae, the city’s oldest and still wonderful, Nuggs Ice Cream, 5280 Ice Cream, Eis Gelato, High Point Creamery, Cloud Nine Frozen Custard, and the totally different, slightly off-center Ice Cream Riot, a real one-man show, located at 1238 East Colfax, where the owner – who seems to go by only the shadowy “Jim” – (the guy who put the sign to the right in his window when he closed early, one rainy day) serves four “breakfast ice creams”, every day, and otherworldly creations like Dirty Cookies & Cream, Cheddar Goldfish, Nutella, Doritos, White Russian, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Denver is NOT just beer and frustrated football fans, these days and GABF hits while there’s still enough summer left to dive naked into the Frozen Stuff.
HIDDEN GEMS, mainly Downtown
Crepes and Crepes, on the plaza at Writer Square, Denver, is a celebration of all things wrapped in a skinny pancake. Flavors like Poulet au Gratin and Seafood Provencal are genuinely savory and replete, while the sweet crepes adhere to the French traditions of fruits and chocolate. Great stuff, splendid location and NOT expensive…Buenos Aires Pizza, located just across the parking lot from Great Divide Brewing, serves SEVENTY-SIX different pizzas, sandwiches, Small Plates, Empanadas, and Pastas…all good! This is real Argentinian cuisine, a collage of international influences, all delightfully twisted or tweaked. For a change of pace from…well, everything, try the Fig Bacon and Pear Empanadas or the Chacarita Pizza, with Mozzarella, Artichoke, Fresh Tomato, and Chopped Hard-boiled egg…
DiFranco’s Italian is located at 955 Lincoln Street, just south of the Convention Center, and is about the size of your living room. They seat 27 at a time and serve traditional Italian food that’s isn’t all gussied-up or Americanized and isn’t fancy…it’s just done about a mile better than anybody else around. Named Denver;s Best Italian Restaurant for 2013, DiFranco’s does so many things right that I actually stopped being hyper-critical,for a change,and just enjoyed the meal. Small but well-chosen wine and beer lists, wonderful, intimate atmosphere, and a staff that’s actually friendly? There is NOTHING here not to like, unless your idea of Food Heaven is a party of 30. Then, you’re outta luck.
If you have a car and are adventurous, there are TONS of wonderful places to eat in and around Denver…and then, of course, there are the breweries…MY suggestion? Visit every brewery in and around downtown, nearly all of which will be within walking distance of the Convention Center. Great Divide, Wynkoop, Epic’s Denver Brewpub, Renegade, Our Mutual Friend, Prost, Breckenridge, Denver Brewing, Lowdown, Baere…and that’s just within a mile. FIND a car and GO to Crooked Stave, Wit’s End, Strange Craft Beer, TRVE, Odyssey, DeSteeg, Chain Recation, Caution, Former Future, Dry Dock, Fiction, Coda…and that’s maybe half! Of the downtown breweries, my Best Bet is River North Brewing, at 2401 Blake. Matt Hess is making dazzling Belgian-style ales that are starting to make a real splash and his big Stout, Avarice, stands firmly in my Top Five American Stouts. Many of the breweries here have pubs and the fast company of this food community breeds some really exceptional pub grub. Really, you can pick a direction and start strolling. It won’t be lomng before you run into some Serious Eats, Drinks, and Fun.