By Alan Prendergast
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We were seated at our favorite table at the Buckhorn Exchange, right beneath the two-headed calf and not far from the whale's penis, discussing the relative merits of elk and rattlesnake, when a cameraman came by. He was filming ten of Denver's best places for the Democratic National Convention, he said, working from a list provided by Congresswoman Diana DeGette. We gladly spilled some thoughts about the Buckhorn, my carnivorous ten-year-old nephew's favorite place not just in Denver, but perhaps the world, whose exotic game meats provide fodder for his annual "What I Did This Summer" school assignments and, as a bonus, draw shudders from his almost-veggie mother, who gets nauseated when she hears the word "gristle."
Not only is the Buckhorn one of the best spots to visit in Denver, but this encounter was one of the best examples of why living in Denver is a continual adrenaline rush: It's a small town on steroids. The great outdoors may be just minutes away, but in this city, we're lucky to enjoy even two degrees of separation. If you happen to be stuffing buffalo down a boy wearing a Boston Red Sox cap touting last fall's World Series champs, that's when a cameraman is certain to stop by.
And not long after — June 25, to be precise — your e-mail will spit out a press release trumpeting how the Democratic National Convention Committee and Representative DeGette are partnering "to unveil 'Best of Denver' at DemConvention.com." An assortment of videos had already been posted on the site, all designed to give participants and visitors what DeGette called "a taste of the Old West and the New West." A taste tinged by the slightly bitter flavor of copyright violation, since Westword trademarked the "Best of Denver" back in 1983, when we first introduced our annual orgy of superlatives, our celebration of everything that's special about this city. Since we published our first Best of Denver 25 years ago, we've name-checked tens of thousands of winners — many of whom have received congratulations letters from the congresswoman representing Colorado's First District, a tradition started by Pat Schroeder and carried on by DeGette.
When we let DeGette's office know of the infringement issue, the name was quickly changed to "Denver's Finest." Which was, well, fine, but we might have been willing to share our trademark, had only the rest of her picks been what we consider the very Best of Denver. For starters (look for more online):
• The 1600 block of Wazee Street. If you have just one hour to experience Denver, head directly to the 1600 block of Wazee (preferably on the mall shuttle, which will certainly add to your experience). First stop: Rockmount Ranch Wear, at 1626 Wazee, the spot where 107-year-old Jack A. Weil invented the snap-button Western shirt, oh, sixty or so years ago. Papa Jack is now such an institution that it's hard to believe city boosters waited until after his hundredth birthday (and considerable bar badgering) to use him to market the city. At around the same time, the Weil family finally decided to open a retail store in their wholesale operation, and a recent renovation makes this storefront shop the single-best souvenir shop in town (as long as you arrive before Jack A., who comes to work every morning, heads over to the Denver Athletic Club for lunch and then home for a nap). Laden with your purchases (if you have time, add to them at the LoDo Tattered Cover), take a look down Wazee to the edge of the creek where this city was founded, then up Wazee to Coors Field, which brought new life to that neighborhood a decade ago. And then head over to the Cruise Room in the Oxford Hotel, where you can sip a martini or a Greyhound made with just-squeezed grapefruit juice and marvel at this saloon designed in the '30s to look like a salon on the Queen Mary, complete with toasts from around the world (Hitler's hello was wiped out during World War II). Before you leave, stop in the basement men's room and gaze at the manly marble urinals — where Bat Masterson allegedly unloaded his weapon.
• La Fiesta, 2340 Champa Street. Everyone in Denver has a favorite Mexican restaurant. Some of us have many favorites, subdividing the lineup into different spots that specialize in different things: a killer plate of nachos, the town's most potent margarita, deliciously greasy steak tacos. But if I had to choose just one Mexican joint for a meal, it would be La Fiesta — as long as that meal could be inhaled at lunchtime, on a weekday, because that's the only time La Fiesta is open (excluding some very happy Friday happy hours). The Herrera family took over an old Safeway in the '60s and turned it into a cavernous monument to the joys of Mexican food, Colorado style; three generations have worked here, serving up a quintessential green chile that could be Denver's unofficial dish, our culinary contribution to the world (Rocky Mountain oysters notwithstanding).
• Buffalo Bill's Grave and Museum. At the top of Lookout Mountain, you'll find the best view you'll ever have from a museum, with the plains stretching out far below. You'll also find the best gift store you'll ever encounter in a museum, filled with cow-pattie Frisbees and beaded wallets and books you wouldn't be embarrassed to give someone. But the museum itself is the real marvel, a monument to a man who out-trumps Trump as a marketing genius: At one point, Buffalo Bill Cody was the best-known man in the world. On your way back down the mountain, head to the old Olinger's building at the edge of Highland, now home to Lola and Vita, and order a nice, chilled cocktail you can use to toast Buffalo Bill — whose body was kept on ice in the mortuary until the ground thawed enough that he could be buried on Lookout Mountain in the summer of 1917.
• Confluence Park. Denver got its start here, at the confluence of the South Platte and Cherry Creek, where fortune hunters set up two rival settlements back in 1858. But all that glittered was not gold; when Mark Twain came to Colorado, he labeled the Platte a yellow, "melancholy stream." A century later, the Greenway Foundation finally led the way to a cleanup of the river, and today a trail stretches both up and down the Platte, past the ghost of an old amusement park and the relatively new Elitch Gardens, where the media will be partying next month at the DNC, with another path taking off along Cherry Creek. But it's at the confluence that you get as close as Denver comes to a beach, with kids and pets wading in the water, picnickers stretching out in the parks, kayakers testing out their equipment from REI, and drinkers making quick trips over to My Brother's Bar, the oldest continually operating bar in Denver — and one that has the Buckhorn beat by at least two decades.