Mezcal
Danielle Lirette
We tried. While our tequila-snob friends sipped at their Coin-style marg, we knocked back every house margarita we could find. We sucked down so many that our teeth started squeaking from all the sweet and sour. And again and again, we kept coming back to those palate-cleansing house margs mixed up at Mezcal. Rather than try to cover up a bad tequila with a worse mix, Mezcal starts with fresh-squeezed juice, pours in (generously) 100 percent agave 30-30 Blanco, then adds a spritz of carbonation to brighten the drink. Served in a pint glass, it's a real deal at happy hour, when it costs only $4, but even at the standard $6, it's the best margarita in town.
Vita Restaurant
Vita is proof that there's life after death -- because this new Italian restaurant in part of the old Olinger Mortuary space is very lively indeed. Part of that is due to the interesting menu, part to the chic interior -- and a lot to the very impressive cocktail menu that specializes in mixing fresh ingredients in very fresh ways. Basil gimlet, anyone? For a truly stirring experience, sip your drink at the indoor/outdoor patio bar.
Gaetano's Restaurant
Cassandra Kotnik
Though now a member of the Wynkoop family of bars and restaurants, this old-time neighborhood Italian joint and former Mob bar still has a couple things going for it. First, the atmosphere (bulletproof front door, basement vault, Frank-and-Dino-at-the-Copa decor) and fifty-odd years of history at Gaetano's can't be bought, but must be earned. And second, the tenders working behind the comfortable, dark bar (perfect for daytime drinking) know how to assemble those classic cocktails that never go out of style. Want a Sidecar? A perfect gin gimlet? Maybe a Gibson or a tall Collins is more your style. Whatever your cocktail of choice, Gaetano's is the best spot in Denver to get it made the way it should be made -- and the perfect place to drink it.
Parallel Seventeen
At Parallel 17, there are many good things to eat. There are always pretty things to look at. And there are several fine things to drink. But the one that counts is the Vietnamese coffee martini. Of course, this is not a true martini (that can only be one thing -- gin, gin, gin and an olive), but it is still an amazing drink, as addictive as crack cocaine, made of chilled Vietnamese coffee, vanilla Stoli, Kahla and a single dot of sweetened condensed milk lurking in the hollow where stem meets glass. Never again will we so quickly dismiss as knee-jerk heresy those terrible, juvenile and self-indulgent cocktails that today are poured as proxy to James Bond's favorite recreational indulgence. No, from now on we'll try one first -- and then we'll make fun of it. Unless it rises to the level of Parallel 17's Vietnamese coffee martini, in which case we'll give it an award.
Since the day it opened in a brand-new building tucked into a very revitalized Larimer Square, the Capital Grille has been the idealized steakhouse in a town that is very, very serious about its steaks. Everything about this restaurant -- from the dark and clubby decor to the white tablecloths atop the padded tabletops, the excellent bar and the high-roller tables along the far wall -- is exemplary of what a great steakhouse should be: at once both exceptional and welcoming, elitist but approachable. And the food? Nearly perfect every time we've visited, whether during the dragging last hour of lunch or in the middle of a crushing Friday-night dinner rush. Steaks are obviously the main event here, and diners would be wise to go with the flow, order the biggest one they can swallow, and know that meat-and-potatoes dining just doesn't get any better than this.
Denver Wheel Club 404
Even though this Broadway landmark now sports a renovated dining room, it hasn't lost an inch of history or an ounce of soul. Club 404 is the kind of joint that attracts everyone from local construction workers to the guys from Antique Row, Broadway street creatures, daytime drinkers, broke neighborhood hipsters, finger-licking carnivores and families looking for a cheap night out involving a fat steak, an iceberg salad and a couple of cold beers that won't put them into bankruptcy arbitration. Wait long enough and you'll see half the city pass through this bar. And no one ever leaves Club 404 hungry.
The steaks are big, the sides are big, the tables are big -- everything about the Northwoods Inn is big except the prices, which are reasonable if you consider that the meals are all-inclusive and portions can be measured by the pound. This is a family spot, owned by the same family for generations (and through two locations) and catering to big clans interested only in the simplicity of a bygone age, when Ronald Reagan was still a TV star. It's also an indisputably Western restaurant, with its penchant for square-state chuckwagon chic (soup is served communally in a cast-iron pot) and a decor comprising framed, folksy witticisms and the heads of dead animals hanging on the walls. Move 'em out!
Buckhorn Exchange
Buckhorn Exchange
If you have friends coming in from out of state, a passel of carnivorous German tourists to impress, family in town expecting a "real Western experience" or just a pressing need to find a menu with balls (literally) late on a Thursday night, head on over to the Buckhorn. The staff is one of the friendliest and most accommodating in the city. The menu (which is translated into a half-dozen languages) consists almost entirely of meat -- primarily beef steaks of various crippling sizes, but also some unusual game dishes always handled with surprising restraint -- and the atmosphere is dark, cluttered, historic (there's actually a museum upstairs past the bar full of guns, whiskey bottles and other civilizing artifacts of the good ol' days) and full of vicious creatures that have been shot, stuffed, mounted and forced into an eternity of watching you eat parts of their brethren. Serves them right for being so delicious.
Cabin Creek Smokehouse BBQ
Courtesy Cabin Creek Smokehouse Facebook
The standard barbecue offerings at Cabin Creek are excellent: the ribs stiff and smoked all the way to the bone with a surface like shellacked hardwood; the pork juicy, fatty, tender and woody-sweet, turned electric with the addition of a great Carolina mustard-and-vinegar sauce. But what elevates this spot above all other barbecue joints is the rest of the menu. The kitchen does open-faced barbecue sandwiches and barbecue po' boys. It does green chile shot with barbecued pork, cowboy chili made molasses-sweet, and red-chile-spiked baked beans hit with a handful of pulled pork or shredded brisket. The crew also rolls a terrific barbecue burrito, wrapping spicy beans and pork in a tortilla and smothering it with green chile, cheese and sour cream. And then there's the ultimate in barbecue-junkie midnight hangover food: the BBQ masher, a bowl of mashed red-skin potatoes topped with pulled pork or brisket, topped again with cheese and again with sour cream. There hasn't been anything done better with barbecue since the first pork sandwich with pickles was invented.
Sam Taylor's Bar-B-Que
The worst thing about barbecue is waiting for it. And the worst thing about wet barbecue is that it can't be eaten while driving. Well, not without seriously compromising the resale value of your ride. Thus, the very worst thing about Sam Taylor's barbecue -- which comes slathered in a thick, sticky, gloss-black sauce, a Tennessee-meets-K.C. riff that packs both heat and sweet -- is that it's done wet, which means the only thing to do when you're buying a whole lot of barbecue to go is to top off your order with a "poke sammich" -- a pork sandwich done on a grilled roll with enough structural integrity that you can eat it one-handed in traffic.

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