Story by Laurel Miller
Love it or hate it, December is the busiest time of year for ski towns. Between visitors heading up to Aspen from the Denver area, and mountain town residents driving to the city for holiday shopping (sometimes e commerce just doesn’t cut it), I-70 can turn into the proverbial parking lot. But let’s face it: for locals, staycations are great, but sometimes a road trip to the Front Range is in order. With two public markets (Denver Union Station and The Source) and counting (the forthcoming Stanley Marketplace) and a handful of nationally celebrated chefs and mixologists, there’s never been a better time to visit Denver with food and drink in mind.
Ever since Denver Union Station (DUS) opened in July, 2014, I’ve looked for excuses to visit, given my love of public markets; I’m particularly partial to those that encompass historic renovation, for which DUS has achieved national recognition—thanks in part to development partner and legendary Colorado preservationist Dana Crawford (after whom DUS’ signature 112-room hotel is named). The restored 1881 Beaux Arts station is a green architectural marvel that’s retained most of its original materials (many artifacts have been turned into on-display works by Colorado artists). In addition to The Crawford Hotel, which has rooms designed to honor Denver’s glory days of rail travel—DUS has a 12,000-square-foot Great Hall anchored by fine- and fast-casual dining, two bars (more on those in a minute), a nook-size Tattered Cover outlet, and two green lifestyle boutiques ideal for holiday gifting.
I recently spent two days in Denver to research Edible Aspen’s inaugural Colorado Craft Distillery Guide (on stands this week, in our Winter issue), and it proved a perfect excuse to re-familiarize myself with the food and drink highlights in and around LoDo. I stayed at Hotel Teatro, located a very walkable half-mile from DUS in the music and theater district. The historic, 110-room hotel was built in 1911 as the Denver Tramway Building. Along with The Crawford, it’s my favorite hotel property in the state, thanks to the rustic-mod design, use of reclaimed materials, excellent staff, and integration of Colorado history and artifacts. The hotel’s signature restaurant, The Nickel, is named for the Tramway’s vault—still in its original location—that was used to collect coins from streetcar patrons.
The Nickel has become a destination restaurant in its own right. Since the departure of opening chef Chris Thompson last summer, chef de cuisine Alex Jun—whose resume includes working under Thomas Keller and Michael Mina—has been running the show, aided by a three-man team of sous chefs. Jun is carrying on the restaurant’s commitment to responsibly sourcing ingredients “from Colorado and beyond;” the bar program honors in-state craft distillers. My suggestion is to hit up “Social Hour” (4-6 p.m.), when specific drinks and bar snacks are discounted, then go for a pre-dinner stroll. The Rocky Mountain Cuisine changes seasonally, but if you’re lucky, the succulent pork meatballs with San Marzano tomato sauce and Grana Padano will be on the menu. The Nickel also serves breakfast (there’s a hard-to-resist full menu, but I prefer the selection of “breakfast breads” like banana chocolate or pumpkin coffee cake, paired with an excellent cappuccino made with beans from Denver’s Method Roasters).
Another great dinner or nightcap option is Z Cuisine Bistrot, located in the nearby Highlands neighborhood (it’s an easy walk if you’re the outdoorsy type). Chef/owner Patrick Dupays—whose motto is “Eat Real, Eat Local, Eat like you give a f*ck,”- is clearly committed to supporting local growers and shops the Boulder farmers’ markets in season (in addition to bistro classics, there’s a daily menu du terroir). Equally appealing: the cozy eatery looks as though it were plucked from the Parisian streets, which may explain the absinthe at the bar. If you’d prefer to skip the cab ride/longer walk, stop by Larimer Square’s acclaimed Green Russell—which bills itself as a “chef-driven cocktail joint.”
I can never spend too much time at DUS, starting with breakfast at Snooze—the “A.M. Eatery” chain that draws lines for its creative pancakes and egg dishes augmented with local produce (tip: they also provide room service to The Crawford). Whether you’re a commuter in a hurry or a visitor looking to linger, DUS has fuel to fit your needs, however: the building is also home to Acme Burger & Brat Corporation (featuring Denver’s Tender Belly bacon and Continental Sausages), Milkbox Ice Creamery, and Pigtrain Coffee (owned by Denver’s NOVO roasters). Lunch and dinner are available at chef Jennifer Jaskinski’s Stoic & Geninue (think raw bar and globally-inspired seafood) and The Kitchen Next Door Community Pub, but my pick is hometown hero Alex Seidel’s Mercantile Dining & Provision.
Seidel made a name for himself at Fruition (which he still owns), but at Mercantile, he’s created a Euro-style market/restaurant that utilizes cheese, meat, and produce from regional growers as well as his Larkspur sheep dairy and farm. You can purchase all manner of house-preserved foods and pastries, spices, charcuterie, and cheese from the market (this is one-stop holiday shopping for food-lovers), but for me, it’s all about dinner.
Chef de cuisine Matt Vawter creates visually stunning plates that are whimsical, thoughtful, and inflected with classical European and Asian touches. A starter might consist of smoked sturgeon rillette with pickled red onion and lemon jam on Melba toast; pastas are a standout (my egg yolk pappardelle with rabbit and porcini was life-altering). If you see Seidel’s Fruition Farms cheeses on the menu, don’t miss out—a recent seasonal dessert featured Shepherd’s Halo (a bloomy-rind with an unctuously creamy interior) with cocoa beet cake, pickled beets, and navel orange. The bar program is equally impressive, combining culinary focus with boutique spirits (try Girls Who Smoke- Monkey Shoulder Scotch, Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Velenosi Visciole, Nardini Amaro Bassano, apricot brandy, black walnut bitters).
Speaking of libations, the Terminal Bar—located in the station’s original ticket office—has a rotating list of 30 Colorado craft brews on draft (many of which you won’t find elsewhere in the city) and beer cocktails. My happy place, however, is Cooper Lounge, located on the second level (reservations are required, preferably in advance; you can try for on-the-fly bookings at the southside staircase entrance). Modeled after a 1930s Pullman car with a long marble bar, it’s undeniably sexy (the vintage, cut-crystal barware only adds to the vibe) and when the setting sun hits the west windows of the Great Hall, the entire space is bathed in insta-mood lighting (take that, #nofilter). Bar director Marcel Templet is gregarious and always generous with a pour, but it’s his seasonal bar menu that wins me over, every time. With an emphasis on estoeric imports and Colorado craft spirits, the worst thing about Cooper Lounge is deciding what to drink. This winter, I’m feeling the Café con Leche (Tequila Ocho Reposado, Dancing Pines Zoranj, NOVO iced coffee, piloncillo syrup, whipped cream).
If, like me, you depart Denver having over-indulged a wee bit, just remember: the holidays come but once a year. Enjoy.
Note: Light Rail service from Union Station to Denver International Airport is scheduled to begin in early 2016
Laurel Miller is a Basalt-based food and travel writer and cheese consultant, the co-author of Cheese for Dummies and the contributing editor at the magazine culture: the word on cheese. She persists in freelancing because it gives her more time to play outside. Find out more about Laurel at SustainableKitchen.com.
Recipe by Marcel Templet, The Cooper Lounge
1½ ounces Spring44 Gin
¾ ounce genepy (an alpine liqueur)
¾ ounce Leopold Bros. New England Cranberry Liqueur
Stir, strain, and garnish with orange twist