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What is quintessentially Denver?

I'm hoping there are numerous answers to this question. I've never been to Denver before and I know nothing about it. I will be visiting with my brother and dad in a couple weeks. We'd like to find great food that is in some way representative of the area. Any ideas?

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  1. When I first moved here I asked some similar questions and replies were mixed. In fact, I'm still asking, in some ways, and I'm beginning to learn that most people might tell you something along the lines of the following:

    There are things that are unique to Denver but I think you'd be hard-pressed to identify "Denver cuisine" as an entity that would be greatly distinct from that of any other major noncoastal city. It's not like New England or the Deep South or something.

    You will, of course, find some excellent Mexican food. You can, of course, find something you might call "mountain cuisine" at places like Buckhorn Exchange—big-game oriented.

    Lamb and trout are native; I'm waiting (thanks to people on this board who helped me through a softshell-crab-missing phase) for peach season, and in the early-mid fall when the chile roasters are out in full force, that's pretty cool.

    While the phenomenon isn't specific to Denver, I will say (as I often do) that I'm really optimistic about the dining scene here. It seems to me vibrant and on the ascendency.

    P.S. I suppose the microbrewery is a pretty homegrown genre, but I'm not a beer drinker so I can't help you there.

    3 Replies
    1. re: tatamagouche

      Brew-pubs? Hey, that’s a great call. I had not even considered that genre of food/beverage, as being quintessentially Colorado Front Range. How right you are.

      Just after I left Denver, I was in DC and found a “pub,” just around the block from our hotel. Hit it, when they opened and found a seat in a “Cheers” like setting. I ordered the fish-n-chips and read the beer list. At the time, they had ~ 1800 beers, ales, stouts, etc. on the 24 page menu. I befriended the server, a sweet young lady from the Tidewater Area, who knew her beers. “Start me light, and work me up, in small pours,” was all I said. She inquired a bit, as to what I wanted. I told her that I had experienced only about 5% of their list, so it was up to her. She began to pour and we talked. When I mentioned that I had just moved from Colorado, her eyes lit up. “Do you have any idea what the number one, most asked for beer, that we do NOT have, is?” Maybe I should have seen this one coming, but with 1800 beers on the list, I guessed wrong. “Fat Tire,” was all she said. We are asked for it maybe 10 times per day, but cannot get it here. Now, they have ~3200 beers on the 48 page list, but no Fat Tire.

      On my first trip to London, I found a quaint little pub, in Knightsbridge, down a tiny muse, not far from Herrod’s. It was early afternoon, and I walked up to the counter. The owner/proprietor asked if he could help me. I explained that this was my first ever London pub experience, and I’d really like to do a tasting of his pours (pulls). He was gruff, “da’ ya’ wan’ a fizzie, uh du’ ya’ wan’ a behr?” I was puzzled. He repeated his question, but a bit louder this time. I was flummoxed. What the heck was he talking about? He then turned to ignore me and wipe the counter, though there was no one else in the pub, except for a “regular” seated near the window. I didn’t know what to say, or how to react, and kinda’ stood there, speechless.

      After a rather long, uncomfortable pause, the one patron got up, walked to the bar, and said, “he wants to start with a fizzie, and then work up to a stout. Pour him a fizzie in a hafv-pint and then move on to the Fuller’s Pale Ale.” The pub owner winked at the patron and pulled a half-pint of something. He brusquely slid it down the bar to me, and turned to wipe the bar some more. “You a yank?” he asked. “Yes, an this is my first London pub,” I replied. He grunted and kept wiping. The patron asked me where I was from, in the States. “Colorado, “ I said. Suddenly, the pub owner was in front of me. “What have I just done?” I thought. “Shoot [not quite the word that went though my mind], I’ve really done it now!”

      “Colorado?” the pub-keeper asked. “Er-r, yes, Denver,” was all I could mumble, hoping that he had not lost a ton of £’s on some Superbowl. “Denver?” he asked, with a wry smile. “Um-m, yes, Denver,” I stammered. “I was in Denver once,” he added. I was silent, waiting for some horrible catastrophe to strike me. “They got some great beers there,” he said, as his smile broadened. He went on to tell me about a recent trip that he, and his family had made to the US, and how he’d fallen in love with the micro-brews along the Front Range. When I asked if he’d visited New Belgium, I became his long lost son, who had immigrated to the US, never to set foot on UK soil, until that very moment. The one common thread was the brew-pubs in Colorado, and the wonderful fizzies, beers, ales, stouts, and whatevers, that he’d experienced. Being FROM Colorado made me a “friend.” Wife sat at the table, with her lower jaw on her chest. I went from nearly a confrontational experience, to being toasted by the pub-keeper and the patron. Next thing I knew, I was being shown the piping for his taps, and had to tour the basement. Food appeared from nowhere, and we spent the evening, talking about beers (fizzies and others) from Colorado.

      Yes, brew-pubs. Good call on that one. Do not know why I didn’t even consider that, in this thread, or any of the others.

      Ya’ got it! “Ya’ wan’ ah fizzie, uh du’ ya’ wan’ a behr?”

      Hunt

        1. re: Bill Hunt

          Bill, what a fabulous story! And I'm a New Belgium fan although their 1554 is my current favorite.

          To our visitor, may I suggest Wynkoop Brewery downtown near Coors Field? It's got great beer (try the green chile beer if it's available!) and decent food as well.

      1. When I moved to Colorado nearly 20 years ago, most people thought that a good meal was a steak and a great meal was a big steak. That notion has been diluted (thankfully) with the infusion of food cultures from around the world. Many restaurants serve good Mexican and related Tex-Mex and Southwestern fare. You'll also find fine Italian food (various regions), representations of other Mediterranean regional cuisines, commendable Asian restaurants (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnameses, Indian), more than decent seafood, upscale comfort food and lots of "contemporary American" food that is done very well. And of course, there's always steak :-).

        1. Do check out The Fort in the southwestern Denver foothills. That was our introduction to Denver about 24 years ago. Bison is featured on the menu. Restaurant is beautiful and has a lovely nighttime city view. Web page is www.thefort.com.

          1. I moved from CA to CO 14 years ago and I have to say that CO cuisine has come a LONG way. The Mexican food was atrocious and all we heard was steak and potatoes - I don't eat red meat.
            There are SO many wonderful restaurants in CO now - from quick and cheap to more pricey fine dining. My suggestion is to use the board to get recommendations and don't worry as much about the "Colorado cuisine"....Buckhorn Exchange is awful and quite alarming inside IMO.
            Good luck and have a great time in Colorado!

            12 Replies
            1. re: Heyteacher

              Ha, is it? I've never been, I only know that they serve RM oysters, bison, etc. Is the general consensus that it sucks? I thought some hounds get a kick out of it, but maybe I thought wrong?

              1. re: tatamagouche

                Buckhorn can be "alarming" to anyone who doesn't eat meat (or anyone who doesn't like "food" staring at them), because the decor is largely trophy heads.

                1. re: ClaireWalter

                  It's not that I don't eat meat - I do eat some - but the walls are literally wallpapered in heads of ALL types, including a bear cub which is horrifying. My husband, who loves meat, ordered a $50 steak and was NOT impressed. For $115, I would expect a KILLER meal and it was definitely NOT that.

                  1. re: Heyteacher

                    Finally made it there, reminded by this thread—and while the taxidermy itself didn't alarm so much as grotesquely charm me, I was alarmed by food that mostly tasted like it might have been preserved with formaldehyde and various other materials of the taxidermist.

                    Speaking of which, there's a WILD, funny film playing at the Starz Film Center at the end of June, involving competitive eaters and taxidermists among other things. In fact it's called Taxidermia. It's not, however, for the faint of stomach.

              2. re: Heyteacher

                Heyteacher,

                You should have seen Denver in 1980, when we moved there from New Orleans. There was good food, but one had to really look for it.

                Unfortuantely, you missed some great dining, that came to Denver, late '80s and early '90s. Things really changed then. You missed two great restaurants by Kevin Taylor, Zenith and Z-Brasserie. Plus, you missed our favorite French restaurant, Tante Louise, especially during the Chef Michael Dagenhart days. Now, we do French cuisine around the country and the globe, and Chef Michael was almost untouchable, when on his game. I'd put him up against Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon, and a handful of Michelin "starred" chefs. I do believe that Chef Taylor still has a hand in at least one Denver restaurant, but have not been able to follow him, since Z-Brasserie.

                As for the Buckhorn Exchange, well, it IS a Denver institution, though I never had an outstanding meal there, over 20 years. The decor, while not my "thing," did not bother me, but the food just never quite lived up to my expectations. For the bucks, I'd easily have opted for the above named restaurants, or several others. Now, I am a carnivore, but am less enamored with "game," so I am less likely a candidate for the Buckhorn, than many others. I like for my meat to be Kobe, but that is another story.

                Though not in response to Heyteacher, no one has mentioned The Flagstaff House, Boulder. I found that their usual menu offered some CO regional cuisine, along with other great dishes. Now, I went for the wine, and always had a car and driver, to get us home, down the hill, but it was a real gem, and has been a fine-dining location in the "area," since before we moved to DEN in '80.

                Now, it appears that DEN is not that different, than PHX - all "steakhouses," that are same-old, same-old.

                Hope that I am wrong on the above comment, as we'll be spending some time back in DEN, this Summer. There are a few spots (from days gone by), that we'll hit, but I'll be asking about particulars, on this board, prior to that trip.

                All I can say is that you missed some real high-points, just prior to your arrival.

                Hunt

                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  Bill - As I wrote earlier, I moved to CO in '88 and you still had to look hard (hunt?) for fine food. Indeed, the earlier Kevin Taylor restaurants, Tante Louise and the Flagstaff House were offering excellent meals. So was Radek Czerny at the European Cafe (and at an offshoot in Denver whose name escapes me for the moment); he now operates L'Atelier in Boulder. Another fine-dining hotspot then was Cliff Young's. I seem to remember that he went to France, but I could be mistaken about that.

                  Other Denver institutions worth visiting, for a drink if not for dinner, are the two great old hotels: the Brown Palace tea in the lobby, a drink in the Ship Tavern, and at least take a glimpse into the Palace Arms, even if you don't break the bank to dine there) and the Oxford (cocktails in the Cruise Room).

                  1. re: ClaireWalter

                    Radek's spot in Denver was named Pappillon (I think that is the restaurant you are thinking of, it was in Cherry Creek).

                    He still has a restaurant in Boulder (right across from Frasca actually), that I think is also called Pappilon, and is as stellar as his Denver restaurant was. It just gets overlooked, since the other neighborhood bistro is so well regarded.

                    Second the recommendation for the Cruise Room at the Oxford.

                    I always recommend a stop at the Wynkoop Brewery, as I think it is very representative of Denver. I wouldn't necessarily eat there, but I think it is a great spot for a drink, and maybe a round of pool. The place is an institution, and IMHO, most represents the Denver "scene".

                    1. re: Booger

                      I was just at the Cruise Room, and while the decor is of course stellar, I wasn't so impressed with the drink list. It looked pretty contempo-frou frou to me; I was expecting the hardcore old-school stuff. Was I hallucinating?

                      1. re: Booger

                        Booger - Czerny's current restaurant in Boulder is called L'Atelier. Yes, it's across from Frasca and a block from Mateo, so yes, it gets overlooked. But not by Czerny's admirers. And thanks for reminding me that his Denver restaurant was called Papillon. That had flitted right out of my brain.

                        1. re: ClaireWalter

                          To complete the bio (or at least to the best of my knowledge- which isn't saying a heck of a lot) he had a great place in between Papillon and L'Atelier with Radex (9th and Lincoln). Very good and as always overlooked spot. And before any of that he was chef at European Cafe (in Lodo before it was Lodo) which is where I come into the picture having moved back to Denver with a whole lot of know-it-all snobbery from my days in the Bay Area. Denver *is* a lot different/ better than it was back then dining-wise but there are a lot of places I miss.

                          <thread driftus maximus> I've proposed a cool story to a friend who edits a food section for a paper about writing a restaurant history. It's interesting to me. These restaurants are important cultural gathering places: we have birthdays at them, first dates, last dates, reunions, breakups, etc... We fall in love with the food and with fellow diners and we get disappointed in both as well. And yet- nobody tracks them historically. A restaurant wiki- pictures, menu samples...

                          Anyway- he/she loved the idea... but wouldn't go write it :-) I don't want to do the work- I just want to enjoy the resource! I already got slapped by the Chow-content gestapo for speaking at the meta level and waxing nostaligiac so I'll stop before this post gets removed as well.

                            1. re: e_bone

                              e_bone - To complete your completion, Czerny also ran a European Cafe in Boulder. Not sure whether Denver or Boulder came first.

                  2. You might wish to do a "search this board," and plug in terms like "Denver Cuisine," etc.. In the last year, I recall maybe two, if not three, threads on just this subject. There has been a lot of conjecture, but even more great thoughts and ideas, plus recs. for restaurants, where you can find a "taste of Denver."

                    Hunt

                    1. As we mentioned in a previous thread- a dish that screams "Denver" to me that's available in very few other places is a big plate of chile rellenos smothered in spicy green chile. Outside of New Mexico (where I assume green chile came from by way of Durango or Sonora) there are precious few places to find this heavenly and fattening plate of deliciousness.

                      1. Casa Bonita? ;P

                        Hey- it was even featured on a South Park Episode.....

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: caviar_and_chitlins

                          lol... it is something to see and unique to Denver; but if I ever had to go again, I would eat dinner beforehand so I would not have to touch that "food"...

                          It is a *unique* sight, though.

                        2. Flagstaff House in Boulder!

                          1. I humbly submit Las Delicias on Kentucky just east of Colorado blvd. as part of Denver quintessence. For decades it was " The Riv(iera)" , and was where I had my first chile relleno, crab enchilada, and carnitas, after major climbs and kayak trips in the rockies, in my youthful 70's. I was just passing through.
                            Back then, the credit manager at The Riv was named "Adolf", a piranha in a fish tank behind the bar. And the building was a wooden, non-conforming fire trap.
                            I would never have guessed that 25 years later a new owner would want to keep the old, original "Riviera" pylon sign, of 50's vintage, as part and parcel to rebuilding the whole restaurant. Roberto, the new owner, asked humbly if he could maintain a bit of the nostalgia and local history. And I never would have guessed that I would ever have been the City Manager of Glendale, where "The Riv" is located, and was able to tell him that unless he kept and maintained that old Riviera sign, he would not receive a building permit. The sign is still there, Roberto and I are friends, the carnitas and rellenos are as good as ever. Crab enchiladas are not on the menu- ;e-mail me and a special request can come about.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: Veggo

                              That's great to know; thanks Veggo. There's a second one downtown, correct?

                              1. re: tatamagouche

                                The downtown location was Roberto's original and very successful restaurant. He has new locations now in Westminster and Parker as well.
                                Adolf's aquarium from days of old (and there were 3 Adolfs over the years, I was told) was Roberto's inspiration for the beautiful salt water aquarium presently in the Glendale location.

                              2. re: Veggo

                                Veggo: good history. my pop (RIP) used to work on Colorado Blvd in the 70's and frequently was late for dinner because he had a late afternoon meeting at the "Glendale Country Club". The Bull and Bush was another frequent post-work diversion.

                                1. re: e_bone

                                  Ah, if the walls of the Bull and Bush could talk...but I have a gentleman's agreement with Dale, Dean, and David to preserve the secrets, which inures greatly to my advantage.
                                  Their handcrafted beers are as good as any microbrews in the front range, and Wednesday is a dollar off on take-out growlers. They vary with the seasons, but usually have 5 or 6 available.
                                  Plus, very hearty pub grub, and Dixieland live music on Sunday nights.

                              3. Thanks everyone for the feedback. It sounds like there's great food to be had, but not much consensus on a general "local cuisine." I spent some time reading the last few months' worth of Denver threads, to get some suggestions for specific restaurants. But again, I've never been to the area and I have no clue about where things are located, etc.

                                From what I've read, I'm excited to try Rioja, Mizuna, and a few other spots for "nice" dinners. It also sounds like we should seek out a taqueria or two (suggestions?). Also, seems like there are some great brewpubs--unfortunately, no one in my family is much of a beer drinker... is there a brewpub still worth going to, solely for the food?

                                We will be staying downtown, but with a rental car, and willing to drive for a great meal. We'd also be willing to drive to Boulder for a day, if there was a can't-miss restaurant there.

                                Finally: we will be going to at least one Rockies game (to see our hometown Indians, I'm afraid). I've been to enough ballparks to know the best concessions can sometimes be tucked away. Any tips (or things to avoid) at Coors Field?

                                Sorry to cast a wide net, but I really appreciate your input.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: ckrubin

                                  For tacos, El Taco de Mexico (my pick) or Tacos Y Salsa.