Frasca Food and Wine
Kelly Kaoudis
It's the tajut -- the sample, the half-glass of vin ordinaire -- that makes Frasca a must-stop destination for those still trying to find their way in the wine world. But Frasca takes a good idea several steps better. The impressively long list of tajuts -- organized by Certified Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey and his floor staff -- was put together not to dispose of unwanted bottles, but to introduce people to a world of sometimes devastatingly good wines that they might not try if forced to commit to a whole bottle, or even just a whole glass. The list (like Frasca's menu) is ever-changing as new cases come in and new wonders are discovered, but we guarantee that what you drink will be interesting and leave you wanting to sample, drink and learn more.
Mezcal
Danielle Lirette
On the island in the middle of Mezcal's wraparound bar are dozens and dozens of bottles of tequila and mezcal -- from the cheapest, greasy-yellow-death variety up through the finest, most artisanal small-batch liquors ever to come out of Mexico. Then there's the small fridge mounted in the back wall, where the best of the best, the house's favorites, are kept. And beyond that, the owners and bartenders always seem to have some super-extra-special secret stash of imported bottles tucked away that they'll pull out and pour when the mood strikes to turn someone on to something that'll totally blow his mind. Without a doubt, the Del Maguey "Pechuga" (the only mezcal made with a raw chicken in every barrel) is the best neat shot in the house, but we could easily spend the next ten years bellied up to Mezcal's bar, drinking and trying to decide on what's second best. Who's coming with us?
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.

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