I've lived in Denver for four years and in that time we've never had a traditional autumn. By traditional I mean a crisp, cool, bright falling-leaves, East Coast-style fall. So I took full advantage of this nostalgic (to me) weather, and went to The Big Wonderful at Sustainability Park last weekend.
See also: The Big Wonderful food market kickoff
The Big Wonderful is an outdoor food and beer market that takes up an entire block between RiNo and Five Points. The founders of the market call it "a tiki bar meets exotic food and flea vendors meets a music festival," which is pretty accurate, except for the tiki part -- at least on my visits. It's not your typical patio, in fact it's more of a fair than a patio, but with lawn games, beer and mixed drinks, live music and a wealth of food trucks, you could call it the ultimate patio experience.
The Big Wonderful, which will be open for two more weekends, has been taking place every Saturday afternoon and evening and every Final Friday since July 12. I've attended three, and each one was slightly different.
On the first visit, I took our friends who were visiting from Wisconsin. There's a bar in the center -- fashioned from an old freight car -- serving beer, cider and mixed drinks. On one side of the park is a lawn-game section; we spent more than an hour playing a nearly impossible Frisbee game where the object is to toss the disc into a black plastic barrel.
On the other side, there is a semicircle of vendors: food trucks and artisans selling packaged foods, clothes, jewelry, art and more. We had smoked pizzas by Five Points Pizza; the smoky dough brought out the saltiness in the cheese and even though small, was a great example of Denver doing pizza well. A DJ on the stage was driving the audience away, but the band Kinky Fingers, who describe themselves as an eclectic American rock and Santa Fe surf trio, took over and brought the crowd back to dance.
Our visiting friends took one look at the small crowd, sipped their drinks and listened to the music under our big blue sky and announced they wanted to move here.
The second time we visited, we played cornhole in the lawn-games section, which is next to a dog park, sand volleyball courts and a horseshoe pit. The Big Wonderful is not just dog-friendly: there is a sandbox for kids with digging toys and later in the evening, kids take over the sand volleyball courts.
Now that fall is here, the outdoor party reminds me of Linvilla Orchards, where as a kid I'd pick apples, enjoy a hayride and pet the llamas, which for a suburban Philadelphia kid was pretty farmy and exciting. Hay bales and pumpkins border the Big Wonderful's entry; on October 25, it's hosting a pumpkin carving contest.
Keep reading for more about the Big Wonderful...
On my most recent visit, the Big Wonderful was bluegrass themed. The crowd was by far the largest I've seen, including the few I've walked or driven past from my home nearby. Founder and partner William Vanderboel agreed: usually 1,200 to 1,700 come through the gates, but he said they were expecting at least 3,000 the day I was there.
The bluegrass was fantastic, particularly Trout Steak Revival, who played a seemingly endless set and shared the news that they had won a Telluride Bluegrass Festival contest and will be on the main stage there next year. Along with the bluegrass, we enjoyed juicy, flavorful, and surprisingly sweet burgers from the American Grind food truck. Even the veggie burger was clearly well made: you could see actual vegetables in the beet-purple patty. And at the end of the night, the 200 or so people who remained were treated to a bluegrass-off, where two of the bands that played earlier in the day dueled via banjos and fiddles.
The only negative to this otherwise perfect patio experience are the prices. The event is free (with a suggested donation for the musicians), but most of the beer and food is pricey. A large 24-ounce craft beer is $10 ($12 for Denver Beer Co.'s pumpkin ale), and most of the food trucks seem to hike their prices a smidge to cover the cost of being at The Big Wonderful. I personally didn't mind: I'd rather have one beer and enjoy the outdoor atmosphere then huddle in some bar with cheaper beers any day. But there was a little grumbling from my friends, even though they understood the need to cover the costs for an otherwise free event. If you RSVP to the event, however (which adds you to the Big Wonderful email list), you get a free 16-ounce PBR each weekend (the pounder cans are normally $5, more expensive than at the Matchbox just around the corner).
Vanderboel says he and the other two owners of the the Big Wonderful, Josh Sampson and Nicole Jarman of HobNob Events, set a goal of creating an event that supports entrepreneurs, brings in unique food vendors and good beer, and serves as an open-air music venue. Certainly that's what they've created. And they try to do it sustainably by creating the area with reusable materials; the two-sided bar is a former freight car, the tables are scavenged cable spools with hay bales for seats, and the stage is an old trailer bed. The majority of the event's waste is recycled or composted.
There are two more Big Wonderful weekends: Saturday, October 25 festivities, from 11 a.m. to dusk, include a pumpkin toss and carving contests, plus the Gin Doctors will fittingly perform covers of the Smashing Pumpkins and other nineties tunes.
The season finale, on the weekend of October 31, is a double-feature with a Zombie Disco with trick-or-treating for neighborhood kids on Friday afternoon, and the usual Big Wonderful festivities on Saturday. The event's owners are considering extending the season to include Sunday, November 2, and a Christmas event in December (yes, it will be outdoors). But you'll have to check the Big Wonderful's website for those updates.
Best Deal: $5 Pounder PBR (or RSVP online for a free PBR every weekend).
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Best Feature: Lawn games, a dog park and live music for hours.