Photos courtesy of TAG Restaurant
Since the legalization of pot Colorado has experienced a massive boom that has not only brought an influx of tourists and new residents, but a slew of new businesses and venues upping their creative game. Including restaurants. During a month in Denver I was able to eat and drink my way through the Mile-High City, discovering eateries that truly elevate dining to an immersive experience. And after much research (hey, someone’s got to do it!) here are 10 must-savor Denver restaurants with creative culinary concepts and artisanal approaches.
1. TAG | Continental Social Food
Neighborhood: Larimar Square
One of Chef Troy Guard’s renowned restaurants in Denver, TAG | Continental Social Food combines over-the-top service (my waiter felt like an old friend by the end of the meal) and a locavore philosophy with inspiration from Guard’s Hawaiian upbringing and travels through Asia and Latin America. This leads to a fusion of unexpected flavors and combinations, whether through Thai shrimp sushi rolls laced with Asian herbs, roasted nuts and red curry aioli; pork belly with mustard goat cheese spaetzle; or the Taco Sushi — crispy taco shells stuffed with charred ahi, sushi rice and guac made slightly sweet with a gowning of mango salsa ($1 per taco sale goes to local food banks!).
Post up with a craft cocktail or selection from the expansive wine file at the open kitchen counter to watch the chefs work their magic, or get comfortable in one of the giant booths topped with traditional French absinthe fountains, so roomy you feel like you have your own private space. If you’re passionate about honey like we are, you’ll like the fact that proceeds from the sale of their teakoe tea went toward the rebuilding of the bee population, with the restaurant selling enough to sponsor their own hive (there’s a mini replica of it at the host stand).
Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox. Photos courtesy of Rachel Adams and June Cochran.
2. Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox
Neighborhood: Northwest/Five Points
Playing on the building’s seductive history (it was a brothel, peep show space and literotica shop), Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox is a “gastro brothel” with a Moulin Rouge feel. Even the host stand looks like a wooden marque sign for upcoming shows, with the two-level space featuring sensual vintage movie posters, sexy boudoir pictures and black velvet paintings. While the top floor has more of a dining room setup — with tables and booths under sparkly gold knubbig lights surrounding a bar crafted from pinball machine tops — the bottom is setup for entertainment, a stage, DJ booth and projection screen offering everything from burlesque shows to live music and beyond (and you can watch down from the open top floor, too!).
While the space itself celebrates sexuality, so does the farm-to-fork menu, with atypical flavor pairings and inspiration from around the world arousing all of the senses. Some highlights: the “Mushroom & Truffle Duxelle” flatbread topped with chunks of goat cheese, arugula and pickled red onion; the “Scallop Brothel Board” served in a deconstructed fashion with the scallops in a Mason jar next to a grilled lemon wedge, some chive crème fraîche, house-made hot sauce and crispy lavash crackers; and the “Roasted Beet Salad” featuring an unexpected array of flavors like curried cauliflower and roasted butternut squash topped with a creamy feta cheese dressing. Finish it off with a Mason jar serving of uber creamy vanilla bean cheesecake, unexpectedly containing candied squash, spiced pepita seeds and cereal milk crunch.
Photos courtesy of Avanti Food & Beverage
If you’re looking to please an array of tastes, Avanti houses seven rotating concept restaurants under one roof (vendors must apply to be accepted), all anchored by two large bars serving up craft cocktails, beer and wine. The inspiration comes from European markets and food halls, with lowered risks for businesses allowing them to experiment and communal tables allowing visitors to choose what they want and then rejoin friends. Current tastes to savor: MiJo (Japanese-influenced noodle joint); Brava! Pizzeria Neapolitan (wood fire oven pizzas made with local ingredients); Poco (delicious tortas); Farmer Girl (farm to table); Quero Arepas (made-from-scratch Venezuelan); Souk Schwarma (focused on the Mediterranean Levant region); and BIXO (Mediterranean meets Western Europe meets Mexico). At all, creative yet affordable dishes — the setup helps each eatery operate at a lower cost than a typical restaurant — are offered in a hip yet unpretentious atmosphere. The building itself is over 100 years old, with old industrial meeting modern aesthetics and even Barbara Streisand-inspired artwork by one of the managers.
Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa and Sassafras American Eatery
4. Sassafras American Eatery
Neighborhood: Jefferson Park & Capitol Hill
With a menu of satiating Southern-influenced comfort dishes crafted with local and organic ingredients, Sassafras American Eatery is a must for breakfast and lunch when visiting Denver. The ambiance is country cozy with cutesy salt and pepper shakers, Mason jars and lots of natural lighting, while nods to New Orleans culture abound (ghost chili spiked Marie Laveau Bloody Mary, anyone?). Speaking of Bloody Marys, they have an expansive made-from-scratch menu of the drinks infusing creative ingredients like pickled quail egg, pickled beets, piquillo peppers and andouille sausage. Don’t miss the New Orleans’ classic Eggs Sardou — made for French actor Victorien Sardou in the late 18th century — with creamed spinach and artichokes in a bechamel sauce with poached eggs, hollandaise, fried oysters, house-made bacon and grit cakes, or their creative mac-and-cheese menu. On a budget? On Mondays they feature half off beignets, mimosas and milkshakes (some of which include booze) all day.
Photo courtesy of Williams & Graham
5. Williams & Graham
Named Best Bar in America at the 2015 Tales of the Cocktail, this educational and fun craft cocktail bar rivals the best I’ve been at in NYC, with a menu full of creative seasonal and classic concoctions, fresh fruits, herbs and spices, tinctures, infusions and bitter, from tarragon syrup to coffee-infused Rittenhouse rye to oolong tea syrup, enhanced by high quality spirits (no Jose Cuervo here), beautiful glasswear and hand-cut ice. It’s not just the expertly-made drinks (seriously, watching them being made is like viewing a Broadway show) and delicious food that make the experience worthwhile, but the cool speakeasy vibe. You enter a “bookstore,” give your name (reservations are recommended) and are then brought through a bookshelf that opens into a moody speakeasy, a dim room with a beautiful mahogany bar backed by high shelves of illuminated spirits. Also make sure to go to the bathroom, as the wallpaper is hand-written love letters. Their signature: A “Blackberry Sage Smash” featuring fresh blackberries, sage and a specialty bourbon bottled from barrels specifically chosen by head bartender Sean Kenyon.
Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa and The Source
6. The Source
This trendy artisan market resides in a former 1880’s brick foundry and features 15 merchants selling everything from craft cocktails to farmstead cheeses to wagyu beef tartare. Walk into the hip industrial space and head to the center bar for a drink before checking out the surrounding eateries and retail shops. Some picks: craft cocktail essentials at Proper Pour, oak-smoked short ribs at Acorn, griddled tacos and a spicy habanero pineapple margarita at Comida, and a loaf of whole grain French Seeded Rye at Babettes. The coolest find inside is possibly the Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, a sour beer-only brewery with a head brewer who holds a Master of Science degree from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and wrote a thesis titled “Pure culture fermentation characteristics of Brettanomyces yeast species and their use in the brewing industry.”
Photos courtesy of Work & Class
7. Work & Class
This 52-seat restaurant in the street art-filled area of RiNo is housed in recycled shipping containers, though it’s hard to tell by aesthetics unless you look at the corrugated walls on the patio. Otherwise, you’ll find lots of wood paneling, windows letting in natural light and two bars crafting the “stiff drinks” the eatery prides itself on (you’ll always get a 2-ounce pour). A reasonably-priced seasonal menu features a fusion of American and Latin cuisine, reflective of the backgrounds of the three owners, Tony Maciag from Detroit, Delores Tronco, a second-generation Italian immigrant raised on a Nebraska farm; and Dana Rodriguez, who grew up on a farm in Chihuahua, Mexico. Dishes come in different sizes, so it’s recommended to order small portions of many items — like the red chile-braised pork, whiskey and coke beef brisket, or the crawfish & grits — to share, or going during their Early Work Release Program (aka Happy Hour, 4-6 Tuesday through Sunday) for cheap fried oyster tacos, chile rellenos, house cocktails and more. Note: This is a popular spot and you’ll often have to wait for a table, especially as they don’t take reservations; however, they do offer $4 “wait drinks” to help pass the time.
Photos courtesy of Cart-Driver
Another one of the River North neighborhood’s repurposed shipping container restaurants, Cart-Driver focuses on rustic wood-fire oven pizza, Hama Hama oysters, appetizers and eco-conscious drinks like classy canned beer, self-serve screw-top wines and strawless pre-batch cocktails. Dishes — even the Italian pizzas — feature American ingredients, with some standouts including the hearty Four Season Pizza with 16arugula pesto, heirloom tomato, squash, peach, ham, burrata, and the tuna mousse on toast. Love pizza but don’t want the carbs? For $3 more you can substitute a chick pea crust cooked in cast iron.
Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa and Black Eye Coffee Shop
9. Black Eye Coffee Shop
Neighborhood: Lower Highlands & Capitol Hill
Picture single origin coffees served fresh as is, or in the form of drips, pour overs, espressos, cortaditos and art-laden lattes. The space itself features art deco accents, tiled walls, olive green banquettes, communal and private wood tables, and lots of natural lighting, welcoming friends, dates and location independent workers. While the breakfast is highly recommended — I personally savored the confit fried chicken and biscuits, the oxtail chilaquiles, and a sea salted chocolate chunk cookie (though I stared longingly at the Corn Dog Bloody Mary) — it’s worth noting at 5pm the space transforms into a bar; as in, fresh baked pastries get put away and a secret shelf of liquor bottles appear, with poetry inspired craft cocktails a main highlight (a perfect pairing with the Emily Dickinson quote-adorned bathrooms). They don’t completely lose their java edge, however, as a “Deconstructed Cup of Coffee” offers a food and drink pairing that mimics a coffee cupping, while the “Boozy Pourovers” feature small batch American whisky on tap being poured over their delicious coffee.
Photo courtesy of EVOO Marketplace Denver
10. EVOO Marketplace-Denver
Olive oil lovers with be in heaven at EVOO Marketplace-Denver near Larimar Square. Walk into a world of artisanal olive oils, speciality oils and aged balsamic vinegars in decadent 100% pure flavors pressed by the store owner, each adorned with its unique chemistry profile and tasting notes. The best part is myriad small barrels and small bread bites are set up to provide free tastings, allowing you to savor everything from White Truffle Olive Oil to Mushroom & Sage Olive Oil to Organic Barrel Aged Italian Balsamic Vinegar to Black Cherry Ginger Barrel-Aged Balsamic.
Do you have an artisanal culinary concept Denver restaurant to add? Please share in the comments below.