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Colorado cuisine is a culinary rodeo: Libertarian and lawless

Laura Shunk during a last dinner in Denver.
Laura Shunk during a last dinner in Denver.

I was back in Denver for three weeks last month, during which I ate what was basically one continuous meal interspersed with brief lulls that occurred when I had to switch venues or go to sleep (which was sort of often, given the food comas and also the drowsiness that comes on after the day-drinking I forgot that you all love to do -- I blame the altitude for my inability to keep up). This gluttonous respite was awesome. I knew I loved Denver's restaurants, but coming from a different city -- especially a city like New York City, where you can find practically infinite dining options -- brought into focus what makes eating and drinking in my home town really unique.

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Steuben's: Influenced by other places, but only found in Denver.
Steuben's: Influenced by other places, but only found in Denver.

During my years in the Mile High, with a break for college and a first foray in NYC, I frequently fielded and wrestled with one particular question: "What, exactly, is Colorado's cuisine?" The answer to that question -- or rather, being able to answer that question -- seemed important. I felt certain that Denver was at the cusp of becoming one of the serious food cities in this country, joining the ranks of Austin, Portland and, more recently, Charleston, smaller-population cities that still gave rise to restaurants that defined the industry on a national level.

But I had a hard time articulating what defined Rocky Mountain cuisine -- even though I didn't have any trouble pointing to grown-up versions of coastal fare, Southern comfort food or Tex Mex coming from Portland, Charleston and Austin. Don't get me wrong: Each of those cities has a lot more to offer than just that, but the signature cuisine provided a solid tree trunk and root system of history and tradition, which allowed a leafy canopy to flourish.

I wondered if Denver really had that. I believed in the power of the green chile, sure, and I couldn't deny the prevalence of game meat, buffalo and Colorado lamb. But I also suspected (somewhat resignedly) that the food scene here was mostly a product of ideas imported from other regions of the country, a mishmash of the coasts, the south, Mexico and maybe Texas, with a sizable Vietnamese population bestowing upon us a sizable -- and underrated -- selection of Vietnamese spots. While so many of Denver's restaurants were good, they were impossible to define as a group -- which didn't bode well for the city's national cred. Or so I thought just a few years ago.

Maybe it's the perspective that comes with distance but now, as I feasted my way across Uptown, downtown, Highland, Lower Highland, the Golden Triangle, Federal Boulevard and more, Denver's restaurant brand suddenly came into sharp focus for me. And while restaurants in the the Mile High City, like restaurants anywhere, exhibit signs of having been influenced by other places, they're also bona fide Denver joints, delivering a type of experience that's common in this city but distinct from what you get elsewhere -- and difficult to replicate.

The reason I never saw this before was because I was looking in the wrong place. Or at least, I was putting too much emphasis on cuisine and not enough on gastronomic identity.

Because Colorado cuisine really is a mishmash: In the same way that the Mexican hamburger, another Denver invention, really pulls together defining elements of the Mexican experience in this country, Colorado cuisine pulls together defining elements of the American experience in this country. Or at least the American experience in the Wild West, where pioneers abandoned what remained of European customs for libertarian lawlessness.

That's what our cuisine is: Libertarian and lawless. Made without regard for authenticity or rules, except when someone sort of kind of misses the old country (one of the Coasts) and tries to bring elements of it here. Usually they get called out from another former coastal dweller for being a copycat, so the concept evolves, becoming just as lawless as the rest of the concepts. It's a freakin' culinary rodeo. And while I could predict that most menus will showcase farm-to-table vegetables, game meat and something spicy, I have no idea if those elements are going to show up in the form of Midwestern meatloaf and mashed potatoes, a fancified -- and probably smothered -- burrito or house-cured charcuterie and crudités. Will those things be delicious? Probably. Authentic? Almost definitely not.

Slap any combination of those menu items into a refurbished building with exposed brick walls and environmentally conscious hand soap, and you've got yourself a Denver restaurant so long as you're actually in Denver. If you're not, though? Good luck.

Because that lawlessness is actually the defining characteristic of this city's restaurants, and it extends well beyond the menus.

Before Denver was a restaurant town, Denver was a bar town, a place where people patronized their local watering hole -- or strip of local watering holes -- with buddies, whether it was a saloon, the famous Beat haunts along Welton Street, or the modern-day cocktail lair. That's how we got so many awesome dive bars. That's why this city's bartenders have been competing on an international level since practically the inception of the modern-bar revival. It's also why Denver's brewing and distilling industries are booming, with taproom seats keep filling even as it seems implausible that this city could drink another drop.

But Denverites aren't just a bunch of alcoholics. Look at the fact that restaurants have opened by the hundreds over the past few years and, for the most part, pulled in the crowds to support them, and you'll begin to see that Denver is as hungry and thirsty as ever for places to go. That's why it's easy to do a restaurant crawl in the Mile High City and hit four or five truly superb restaurants in a two- or three-block radius. That's why it's easy to eat one continuous meal.

And that's also why, even when you're sitting in the quietest, most refined corner of the dining room of a quintessential Denver place like The Populist, Old Major, Squeaky Bean, Colt & Gray, Beast & Bottle, Steuben's, Williams & Graham, etc., you can feel the somewhat reckless vibe of a bar crowd that threatens to throw off the rhythm of service like a stick thrown under a roller blader. Some of the best restaurants in Colorado -- the ones that seem more like national restaurants -- try really hard to control that vibe, giving you the carefully formulated experience they've designed. They might pull it off in a different city, too, but in Denver, the diners haven't agreed to behave themselves the way the jacket- or stiletto-clad East Coasters do, and so you never know when the wheels are going to come off, sending you careening toward the lake that feels an awful lot like a dive bar at last call.

This is not to say Denver is uncouth -- or even in the wrong. Quite the contrary. Right now in New York City, it's popular to talk about opening "just a neighborhood spot" where the drinks and food are quite good but the fatheaded pretentiousness gets checked at the door. That's hard for New Yorkers. They get pissed off when their server takes too long, their first course isn't served with proper utensils, red wine comes too warm or their Hemingway daiquiri isn't made to their exact specifications (and no, they will not drink it anyway -- although most Denverites would simply slam it back with a shrug and move on to a next order). And, frankly, I suspect a lot of those New York "neighborhood spots" are just describing themselves that way to feel novel and possibly win an award or accolades for a fresh take on dining.

Dining in New York can be an eye-opening educational experience. But what makes Denver so unique, especially now that there's good food involved, is that it doesn't need a fresh take: Denver has always implicitly understood that dining is not a trophy collection or a status symbol or a way to show off how much you know about a cooking technique or exotic cuisine. Rather, dining -- just like drinking -- is another part of a full life, another excuse to get together with friends, another circumstance from which some of our best, funniest, most defining (or at least repeated) stories arise.

This country will eventually tire of the obnoxious whir of high-profile but flash-in-the-pan restaurant openings, the unending march of the celebrity chefs and crafty showmanship that spawns more and more absurd trends. Hell, it's already happening -- it was three years ago when Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic formerly of Westword's sister paper, the LA Weekly, famously defined food as the next rock and roll and said, "I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing about another celebrity potato farmer or rock-star butcher, about 15-year-old cheddar or 150-year-old Madeira. And I am not alone."

The next part of the conversation will involve rediscovering the communal importance of dining and deepening our obsession with food into a gentle but persistent tradition. And then, when people are rediscovering what restaurants are really about, it'll be the rest of the country that'll be catching up to Denver.

I miss it already.