Le Central
Le Central has always been our escape hatch, our parachute, our emergency exit from the daily grind. And while the art of extended lunching has been largely forgotten in this era of eighty-hour work weeks and over-scheduled everything, it isn't completely lost. Yet. And while you can get in and out of Le Central in a hurry -- bolting down a croque monsieur and chugging a piping-hot bowl of soup a l'oignon, chasing it with a glass of cheap merlot and running for the door before the stains have even dried on your tie -- this bistro is better suited to a long, lingering meal, a romantic departure from the everyday, a lazy afternoon playing hooky while the boss thinks you're in a meeting. Bring a newspaper or some friends, order an extra glass of wine, and enjoy life in the slow lane, loitering over that rabbit served on the bone with coarse mustard, a perfect lardons salad and a bowl of moules au safran. Then prepare to waste the day away.
When the sun is out and the skies are clear, there's no better place to get a taste of the city than the patio outside Cafe Star. First, it's right on Colfax, and Colfax is the heart of Denver, at the center of the eternal battle between retail and residential. The streets are full of neighbors and street creatures, friends and freaks. Meanwhile, in the Star kitchen, chef Rebecca Weitzman is turning out the most beautiful comfort food in the city, a cuisine that both describes the current flavor of Denver and marks its territory in the wider world. From simple sandwiches and salads, to duck and fig pizzettas, to the most decadent chocolate pot de creme anywhere, Cafe Star has elevated the notion of the patio lunch to new heights in the Mile High City.
West End Tavern
Courtesy West End Tavern Facebook
At the West End Tavern -- Dave Query's remaking of a classic neighborhood hangout -- the patio is all about the view. And the ashtrays. With precious few places left in the Republic of Boulder where you can light up and surprisingly few restaurants with a clear view of the Flatirons, the West End's rooftop patio is the ideal spot to relax, eat some deviled eggs and barbecue, tip a few pints and think how lucky you are to live in the shadow of such an impressive skyline. On nice days, this is hard-fought real estate, so show up early and stay late -- but give yourself a little time to sober up before you leave: The stairs down from the roof are steep and can be tricky to negotiate after an afternoon spent soaking up rays and sucking down brews.
Pho Fusion
One day Tom Bird realized that no one in Denver had combined the booming fast-casual restaurant model with the fresh, healthy benefits of Vietnamese cuisine. And so he started Pho Fusion, which serves not just pho, but spring rolls and lettuce wraps, a decent cup of Vietnamese coffee and a spread of popular mutt-Asian entrees. But the four pho offerings are what Pho Fusion does best, and they are what may make Bird's idea take flight. Sitting down for a meal at his creation is like going back in time to the original Chipotle, or even the first McDonald's. Except the food tastes better -- and is better for you.
Grandpa's Burger Haven
Hunter Stevens
Grandpa's Burger Haven is a hole-in-the-wall in the truest sense, a spot where you shout your order through an actual hole in the wall. Originally, this was all there was to Grandpa's -- just a little white-and-chrome box with a kitchen inside and a window to shout your order through. Today there's a kind of enclosed solarium where customers can stand out of the wind and rain while they wait -- but there are still no tables, no waiters or waitresses, no plates. Orders are written on the white bags that eventually hold your old-school burgers. There was a time when all hamburger stands were like this; now, almost no hamburger stands are. That's why Grandpa's is such a treasure.
West End Tavern
Courtesy West End Tavern Facebook
How to put this delicately... There's this one seat on the patio at West End Tavern that some might consider the best seat in the house. At first glance, however, it looks like the worst seat in the house -- closest to the door between the patio and the stairs, closest to the waitress station, on a corner that everyone has to pass on their way anywhere -- but it has a killer view of the waitress trying to serve the table just above. And because the uniforms worn by the West End's coterie of lovely (and smart, strong and empowered, no doubt) servers consist of black tank tops or T-shirts and short khaki skirts, well...you get the picture, right? There aren't many views more impressive than the Flatirons as seen from a Boulder rooftop, but this one comes close.
Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center
On a clear day, you can see forever -- or at least to the Continental Divide, stretching out sixty, seventy, a hundred miles away to the north and southwest. From Peaks Lounge, tucked into the 27th floor of the Hyatt Regency Denver, the views are as stunning as the setup of the hotel itself. Grab a table by the window -- if you can get a table at all -- and settle in to watch the traffic fleeing town, the lights coming on in the foothills (and also showing just how far sprawl has gone) and the sunset turning downtown to gold and the mountains to pink. The drinks aren't cheap, but the scenery's worth it.
Mickey's Top Sirloin
Last year, Mickey's moved from its decades-old home to a brand-spanking-new spot across the parking lot. And while the joint lost a little bit of historic funk in the process, it didn't lose any of the sirloin that makes it a top cheap-dining destination -- not the cows pictured on the walls, and not those served on the plate. Although the lunch menu offers some solid Italian and Mexican fare, dinner is pretty much all about beef, offered as sirloin smothered in onions and mushrooms, chops, flanks, or a New York strip that clocks in at around $10.95 for choice grade. And that includes a baked potato on the side mounded up with sour cream and a ball of butter, plus an iceberg salad. While the food here isn't the fanciest, no one comes to Mickey's looking for fancy: They come to eat dinner, not to dine.
Opus
Chef Michael Long is a genius. Not the stuffy, pocket-protector kind, but more the mad scientist sort. And his laboratory is Opus, where every night he brings his smart, bent vision of New American cuisine to bear on the ever-changing menu. There are lobster chops and gingered chicken, pumpkin flan from the attached patisserie, innovative appetizers, beautiful desserts. And it's amazing what this man can do with peanut butter. This stuff isn't cheap -- but not everything is about low prices and double coupons. And at Opus, you get what you pay for. If you want excellent food, beautifully executed in an environment that puts great cuisine up on the stage where it belongs, make a reservation at Opus and taste the kind of masterpieces that are possible when a kitchen is under the direction of a genius like Long.

BEST MOTHERF*&$ING EXPENSIVE WAY TO END A DINNER

Frasca 1738 Pearl St.

Frasca Food and Wine
Kelly Kaoudis
By the time they've made their way through the rest of Frasca's rich menu, diners probably don't notice the hefty price tag attached to the chocolate platter, a "selection of housemade chocolates" tucked among the tarts and cheeses. An excessive and decadent bank-breaking offering of a dozen or so handcrafted candies featuring Valrhona chocolate and every trick in the chocolatier's canon, the chocolate platter costs three times as much as the other desserts. But this one arrives bearing an elegant selection of perfect truffles and filled chocolates, simple molds, and foil-wrapped confections that would look more at home in a jewel box than on a plate. Sitting here in this understated dining room, licking your fingers and eating something as opulent as artisan chocolates, it's easy to forget that you're on Pearl Street, in the heart of the People's Republic of Boulder. But sometimes it's no sin to be bourgeois, and this is one of those times. Is an order worth the price? In a word, yes -- but then, the best of anything almost always is.

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