5280 Magazine food editor Denise Mickelsen gives her local guide to Denver, Colorado’s best places to dine, drink, stay, and play.
“My job is to eat and drink everything delicious in Colorado and then write about it,” jokes Denise Mickelsen, food editor at 5280 Magazine, Denver’s monthly lifestyle magazine. After years spent in New York City and Danbury, Connecticut, Mickelsen picked up to move west in 2014 and hasn’t looked back since.
“One visit to Denver and you’ll be hooked,” she says. “It’s an incredibly friendly small city, with genuinely kind people, stunning mountain views, beautiful (if mercurial) weather that spans all four seasons, and at least 300 days of sunshine each year—really! The dining and bar scenes are killer; there’s excellent live music and art to check out; endless outdoor recreation opportunities; not to mention legal cannabis.”
“There are countless stories of the artisans, farmers, ranchers, brewers, distillers, and chefs who make the Mile High City a tasty place to be right now,” Mickelsen says. Below, she shares her guide to Denver, including the best coffee shops, international restaurants, dinner and drink plans, and where to pass time between one delicious dining experience and the next.
Denise Mickelsen’s Perfect Day in Denver, Colorado
8 a.m. – Three Cups of Coffee to Start the Day
Denver is home to several incredible coffee roasters, so there are lots of options for a morning wake-me-up. In Congress Park, there’s no better way to begin a weekend than with a walk to Downpours Coffee, a chill, family-owned and -operated cafe that serves espresso drinks made with house-roasted beans. They also happen to make my favorite breakfast burrito in the city: Each one is a slim, compact beauty stuffed with egg, potato, bacon, cheese, and green chile. The best part is that they toast the burrito on a panini press until the exterior is crispy and the filling is piping hot.
Outside of Congress Park, there are four locations of Amethyst Coffee Company, where you’ll find exceptional seasonal drinks. Made with local Commonwealth Coffee Roaster espresso, past flavors range from cinnamon honey to a latte of house-made black walnut syrup, milk, and espresso topped with a sprinkle of clove.
Huckleberry Coffee Roasters is another favorite, particularly the location inside the art-filled lobby of the Maven Hotel inside the Dairy Block development in LoDo. (Pro tip: Order Huckleberry’s avocado toast with pickled ginger and nori for a delicious twist on the never-ending trend.)
9 a.m. – A Brunch Worth A Trek
Even though it’s not located in central Denver, it’s absolutely worth a ride (or rideshare) to taste the exquisite weekend brunch at Annette in Aurora. Located inside the quirky Stanley Marketplace, a mall/food hall in a former airplane hangar, Annette is a cozy, intimate restaurant fueled by woodfire cooking and the enormous talents of chef-owner Caroline Glover (a Food & Wine 2019 Best New Chef) and her team. Their buttery, yeast-raised waffles are a highlight, although you cannot go wrong with any dish on the concise menu. Don’t sleep on the daily biscuit offering and morning cocktails, too.
If a trip to Aurora doesn’t work for your itinerary, stay in Denver and check out Japanese-inspired Stowaway Kitchen, Creole-inspired Sassafras American Eatery, or the best dim sum in the city at Star Kitchen.
11 a.m. – How to Pass the Time Between Meals
A walk through Denver’s stunning Botanic Gardens is my preferred way to free up more stomach space for future culinary adventures, with a paddleboat ride around City Park’s Ferril Lake as a close second; the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science are both located inside City Park, too. All of the above are within walking distance of the East Colfax location of the city’s best independent bookseller, the Tattered Cover, where you can spend hours without effort.
1 p.m. – Dive Into Denver’s International Food Scene
There are so many! Head to Federal Boulevard for some of the city’s best cooking from Mexico (Tacos El Paisa, Taqueria El Grillo) and Vietnam (Pho Duy, New Saigon). Or, for extraordinary sandwiches, salads, and pastries, go to Mercantile Dining & Provision inside downtown Denver’s gorgeous, ever-bustling Union Station transportation hub.
If French dips make you happy, don’t miss Pony Up, a comfy-chic bar on Blake Street that serves six epic renditions in conjunction with a stellar craft cocktail menu. Finally, two-story Euclid Hall off Larimer Square is a great spot for elevated pub fare, with house-made sausages, pickles, mustards, and more on the menu.
2 p.m. – Never Too Late for a History Lesson (Or Too Early for A Cocktail)
If you didn’t already do so before lunch at Mercantile, definitely walk through the crown jewel of downtown Denver, the historic 1914 Beaux-Arts transportation hall Union Station. Stop for a cocktail at the elegant, mezzanine-level Cooper Lounge, then walk across the street to the downtown Tattered Cover location, and then on to historic Larimer Square for a bit of shopping.
3 p.m. – Inside and Outside Activities to Choose From
Is it an inside day? The Denver Art Museum hosts incredible exhibits, from Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature, the most comprehensive exhibition of Monet paintings in the country over the past two decades (through February 2, 2020), to forthcoming Norman Rockwell and Frida Kahlo exhibits. History Colorado Center is another museum gem, sharing the history and culture of the Centennial State through exhibits.
For an equally stimulating experience, check out the Wizard’s Chest on Broadway, a 12,000-square-foot celebration of tocasys, costumes, games, and pop culture that has been delighting Denverites since 1983.
Too sunny to stay inside? Stroll around RiNo (River North Arts District) to take in colorful street art installations, as well as shops, galleries, craft breweries, and restaurants galore.
For something indoor-outdoor: Hardly a secret, but Casa Bonita is one of Denver’s quirkiest gems, popularized by the television series South Park. While the Mexican food there is meh at best, food is beside the point when there are cliff divers, a 30-foot waterfall, staged gunfights, a statue of an Aztec emperor, and a gift shop to distract you; especially fun to experience with kids.
The most hospitable teahouse in town is TeaLee’s Teahouse and Bookstore on Welton Street in Five Points, presided over by husband-and-wife owners Risë Jones and Louis Freeman. For something more potent, duck into Cart Driver in RiNo for a happy hour plate of oysters and a glass or two of draft prosecco; good luck not ordering a burnished, woodfire pizza while you’re there. Beer hounds will find expert craft brews on and around RiNo’s Larimer Street, including pours from Our Mutual Friend Brewing, Ratio Beerworks, Odell Brewing Company, Epic Brewing Company, Stem Ciders, and Bierstadt Lagerhaus.
My happy place is the lounge at Tavernetta, the stylish-yet-casual Italian sister restaurant to Boulder’s fine-dining bastion Frasca Food and Wine, located on the platform behind the Union Station terminal. Any seat in the house will afford you a luxe, hospitality-driven dining experience, but the lounge, reserved for walk-ins only, is a fun, buzzy place to dine. Grab a seat near the fireplace if you can, and revel in gracious service, perfect cocktails, an award-winning wine list, and Tavernetta’s crave-able cooking. (The gnocchi with lamb ragu and tiramisu are two must-orders on a menu filled with them.)
Should you not be able to score a seat at Tavernetta, head across the alley to Sunday Vinyl, the third sibling restaurant from the same restaurant group. There you’ll be treated to a sexy, low-lit, European-style wine bar vibe; snacks and small plates across a low-high spectrum (Low: Cheez Its-inspired crackers, deviled eggs, sausage burgers. High: lobster toast, rack of lamb, cream puffs); and entertainment via the vinyl-only sound system and people-watching on the train platform.
Daughter Thai is another favorite that has brought upscale Thai food to downtown. I dream about chef-owner Ounjit Hardacre’s frog leg larb salad and blue crab kai kem curry, and the restaurant space is lively and colorful.
Denver has a fantastic live music scene, ranging from the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre and the new-in-2019 Mission Ballroom in RiNo to Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox (housed in a former brothel) and jazz haven Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club. There’s also hilarious stand-up improv at Denver Comedy Lounge, located behind the tasting room at Colorado Sake Co. on Larimer Street.
10 p.m. – Another Round Is In the Cards
To cap off your night, check out subterranean Run for the Roses in the Dairy Block, where the impeccable drinks are listed on custom decks of cards and snacks range from caviar service to a breakfast sandwich of house-made spam, cheddar, and egg.
Bar Helix is another fab option if you’re closer to Larimer Street. It’s one of two Negroni bars in the country, serving a dozen creative iterations on the classic drink and a list of sexy snacks: Caviar bumps with Ruinart Champagne are on the menu alongside pimento-cheese pigs-in-a-blanket and chicken-and-waffle sliders.
The Denver Essentials
What to Read Before a Trip to Denver
Kent Haruf is one of Colorado’s most beloved modern-day novelists, and his stories about the inhabitants of the fictional town of Holt in northeastern Colorado are moving portraits of regular folk. Perhaps more popular, Steven King’s The Shining was written about the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. For what to do and where to go while you’re here, of course, there’s 5280 Magazine (pardon the plug!), as well as the Denver Post and Westword, our city’s alt-weekly paper.
What to Know Before You Go
It’s usually sunny in Colorado, but the weather also changes at a moment’s notice. Bring layers! Rideshares are your friend in Denver, but there are also plenty of rental bike and scooter options, the bus, and the free metro ride on the pedestrian 16th Street Mall.
Denver is located at an elevation of 5,280 feet, and the effects of altitude are real—and hit everyone differently. Drink plenty of water beginning the day before you arrive, and keep drinking it. Don’t consume alcohol the first day you’re in town, if possible, and don’t overexert yourself that first day either.
Several boutique hotels have opened in Denver recently, including the Ramble Hotel, the Source Hotel, and the Maven. Airbnb has a strong presence, and it’s quite affordable to rent an entire house for a group (or an apartment for couples or singles) in hip areas like RiNo and LoHi.