By Andrew Collins
The cultural and social, not to mention LGBT, hub of the Rocky Mountain region, Denver has the ruddy complexion and friendly, relaxed spirit of a city that enjoys more than 300 sunny days per year. Laced with bike trails and claiming some of the country’s most respected craft distilleries and microbreweries, this outdoorsy metropolis (population: circa 650,000) at the foot of the Rockies seems continuously to reinvent its older parts. Recent evidence includes the spectacular $54 million revamp of 120-year-old Union Station, which is now home to hip restaurants, boutiques, and a swanky hotel, and the indie-fueled resurgence of neighborhoods like Lower Highland, South Broadway, and River North. Spend a few days here romping among Denver’s arty cafes and tree-shaded streets, and it’s easy to understand the city’s consistently upbeat mood.
Do yourself a favor and eat at least one restaurant helmed by chef Jennifer Jasinski, who’s garnered everything from James Beard’s “Best Chef” award in the Southwest to an appearance on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, and craft beer–centric Euclid Hall are all fine choices, but her latest venture, seafood-themed Stoic & Genuine, stands out in particular for its swish setting at the west end of Union Station. Grab a seat in the chatter-filled, high-ceilinged dining room and dig into platters of hamachi sashimi with smoked pear–and–grape vinaigrette, oysters on the half (“Stoic” from Long Island, New York, and “Genuine” from Puget Sound, Washington are especially vaunted varieties of this briny bivalve), Maine lobster rolls, and crispy whole haddock with lemongrass butter, lime, ponzu sauce, and Fresno chiles. Of course, Colorado is best known for meaty fare, and Beast + Bottle in diverse Uptown—not far from leafy Cheesman Park—turns out some of the most inventive and delicious critter-focused cuisine in the city. Start with braised goat shoulder with celery root, raisins, and hazelnuts, before graduating to a bowl of the rustic Italian meat stew, bollito misto, brimming with pork shoulder, belly, and tongue along with agnolotti pasta and mustard greens. The corned lamb-shank hash is a favorite at weekend brunch, when you might also brighten your morning with a Lime After Thyme vodka cocktail. One part of the city that’s increasingly abundant with culinary hot spots is Highlands, an eclectic and decidedly artsy neighborhood northwest of downtown home to Black Eye Coffee, a great source of single-origin coffees and high-end design-minded magazines like Kinfolk and Bomb, and Little Man, which serves tasty artisan ice cream in flavors like salted-caramel peanut-butter cup and milk stout chip.
Fringing the southern edge of downtown, the Mile High City’s Civic Center neighborhood is, despite its blandly bureaucratic name, a pretty fertile garden of worthwhile attractions, including a grassy park with a Greek-style amphitheater, the regal Colorado State Capitol (its glittering gold-leaf dome a nod to the fervent Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of the 1850s), and the impressive new—it’s even LEED-certified—History Colorado Center. The district’s must-see, however, is the stellar Denver Art Museum, itself a work of art thanks to the wildly inventive, glass-and-titanium addition designed in 2006 by iconoclastic architect Daniel Libeskind. The collection has plenty of works that remind you you’re in the West: intricate Spanish Colonial carved bultos and retablos, Hopi pottery, bronze cowboy statues by Solon Borglum and Frederic Remington, and Rockies landscape paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Charles Russell. But also note the impressive selections of edgy modern works, chunky pre-Columbian sculptures, and the finest assemblage of ancient Costa Rican art in the United States. If you have time, stop next door inside the unusual Clyfford Still Museum, which opened in 2011 and contains nearly the complete oeuvre of the eccentric Abstract Expressionist painter..
A cluster of warehouse blocks threaded by rail tracks, RiNo stands for the River North Art District —you guessed right, it’s the neighborhood north of downtown bisected by a river (the Platte). And although it held little interest to visitors for decades, it’s lately become a bohemian-hipster hotbed of arty and entrepreneurial concerns. Gay clubbers have been partying in RiNo since long before anyone referred to it by this nickname—Denver’s oldest LGBT nightclub, Tracks, has been going strong here for years, and the nearby (and newer) Eagle is a favorite of bears and leather dudes. But RiNo has a growing number of trendy mixed venues, too, including the chic Populist, which specializes in small-plates cuisine and craft cocktails, and the high-energy purveyor of nuevo Mexican street food, Comida (bacon-jalapeno tacos, anyone?). The many art studios and design galleries are clustered mostly along parallel Larimer and Walnut streets as well as, a few blocks over, Brighton Boulevard. While roaming RiNo, keep an eye out for such beverage-centered establishments as Black Shirt Brewing Co., Happy Leaf Kombucha brewery and taproom, Stem hard-cider house, and massive Infinite Monkey Theorem urban winery.
Two of downtown Denver’s stateliest buildings morphed into gorgeous hotels in 2014. Part of the long-awaited rehab of the regal 1914 Beaux-Arts Union Station, the Crawford Hotel opened in July. Part of the fun of staying in this 112-room stunner is that you enter the lobby by way of Union Station’s spectacular 65-foot-tall Great Hall, where passengers await service on Amtrak’s Chicago–to–San Francisco California Zephyr—buzzy new restaurants and swish boutiques have also opened in and adjacent to the station. The Crawford’s rooms occupy the station’s upper floors and carry out the building’s railroad-chic theme—choose from art deco Pullman, classic Victorian, or dramatic loft rooms, in the station’s former attic, which have soaring vaulted ceilings, exposed timber beams, plush beds with tufted leather headboards, and huge marble bathrooms with walk-in showers and free-standing tubs. A few blocks south, the 1915 Colorado National Bank building—an unabashedly grandiose neoclassical beauty—became the Renaissance Denver Downtown City Center Hotel this past May. Here, too, the lobby makes a memorable impression, with its three-story coffered ceiling and 16 vibrant murals by acclaimed 1920s western muralist Allen Tupper True. The Teller Bar has quickly become a see-and-be-seen spot for cocktails, while the restaurant, Range, earns kudos for its contemporary renditions of rustic Rocky Mountain fare (think ancho-cocoa-dusted rack of elk). The 230 rooms in this eight-story hotel have tall windows, midcentury modern–inspired furnishings, and iPod docks.
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