Best Of :: Food & Drink
Dive bars are drying up in Denver, swept away by tides of development. We've lost many of this city's old saloons over the last few years, which makes the survival of Carioca Cafe — better known as Bar Bar — something to celebrate. Perhaps with a drink or ten. It's fascinating to watch how the clientele at this spot at the edge of downtown changes over the course of a day (and three happy hours). Get there at noon and you can grab a cup of coffee and reading material — or just study some of Denver's finest barflies, a few of whom might have been there since the doors opened at 7 a.m. As the hour gets later, an assortment of hipsters, punks and rockers mixes in with those barflies, the live music starts, and the next thing you know, it's last call. Dive, he said.
There are numerous reasons to be out and about in Denver, even at 3 a.m., and Tom's Urban 24 will make sure that you never go to bed with a growling belly — although if you're two sheets to the wind, you might have a few problems maneuvering your way through the menu, which is as long as the work day is short. A new addition to Denver's very small round-the-clock lineup, Tom's is a massive, hip joint on the edge of Larimer Square. Spry young servers deliver food that's anything but diner-standard, with options including deviled eggs, truffled lobster and shrimp pot pie, thin-crusted pizzas topped with figs, and even pho. There are plenty of other insomnia-assisters, too: burgers, Mexican staples, eggs done every which way, salads and sandwiches, all of which promise to fortify you for that late-night prowl. There's also a full bar pouring beers, craft cocktails and wine until 2 a.m. and starting again five hours later — which gives all-nighters an excuse to return bright and early for a daily dose of hangover-helping liquid courage.
These seedy San Diego-style taco huts, both of which are 24/7 operations with the luxury of drive-thru windows (a huge perk at 2 a.m., when garish lights do justice to no one), dole out the diviest drunk food south of the border: tacos, tortas, quesadillas, taquitos, nachos and huge mounds of carne asada fries blanketed with cheese and green chile. Salsas, red and green, give everything a fever jolt. The interiors aren't much to look at, and the tables are typically strewn with someone else's late-night Styrofoam, but the prices are geared toward paupers, and while you'll have to get your liquid courage elsewhere — there's no alcohol — a Mexican Coke at midnight loads you up with just enough caffeine to keep your eyeballs open.
Central Bistro & Bar is hot. You don't need to look further than the "Hot" sign over the open kitchen — a vestige of the Regency Hotel once owned by the family of Central founder Isiah Salazar — to recognize that. But this new spot on the edge of LoHi also serves up one of the coolest cocktails in town: a barrel-aged Manhattan made with St. George Breaking & Entering Bourbon. Sip it while looking over the skyline of downtown Denver, and you've got an experience for the ages.
Being a great bartender is about far more than mixing magic — although that element is certainly important. But a bartender's role behind the stick is also about spending time with those bellied up to the bar, whether they're high rollers or gravediggers. And Courtney Wilson, now a bartender at the very new Old Major after her most recent stint at Williams & Graham, deserves heroine worship for the way she straddles the line between professional and perky. She's engaging and exuberant and nearly religious when waxing poetic about the city's cocktail landscape, and she's clearly moved by spirits, as evidenced by her ingenuity when crafting cocktails — whether they're on the syllabus or one of her clever one-offs. Wilson comes off as genuine and knowledgeable but never snooty, and she doesn't overthink what she pours in your drink. Like the pro that she is, she just gets it.
Waffling about the perfect cocktail is hardly sexy, but indecision is often the result when you're confronted with a menu full of clever names and obscure ingredients. You know what you want, but nothing looks quite right. Not to worry: The bartenders at Colt & Gray have you covered. Not only is their bar stocked with every spirit known, but they also have an array of house-made bitters and other mixers at their disposal — and they know the exact flavor profile of every liquid behind that bar. So don't bother trying to remember the name of that perfect drink you once had on vacation in Italy. Just describe some flavors that turn you on, or tell them about a cocktail you dreamed about, or maybe just name your favorite band and movie. A moment's pause and they get to work. A shake or a stir later, and you'll be sitting there with a great drink in your hand, so you can get back to being sexy.
Here's a meaty subject: Why is Denver so shy of good barbecue spots? There's no easy answer for that — but there's an easy answer for the best BBQ joint in town. And the best just got better this year when Boney's Smokehouse, Lamont and Trina Lynch's downtown, down-home restaurant, moved into a much bigger space next door that not only allowed for an expansion of hours, but an expansion of the menu, as well. Lamont, a native of Florida, has spent years giving a Southern tweak to a repertoire of family recipes imported from the Bahamas; as a result, the barbecue here defies categorization. It's simply Lamont style, and that's very good, indeed. He relies on a dry rub and smokes the meat — brisket, pulled pork, hot links, chicken and ribs — over low heat for a long time. He and Trina make their own sauces; the house version is thick and tomato-based, both tangy and peppery, though not too spicy — and there's a jalapeño-infused version, too.
You won't want to stop till the glittery balls of light stop spinning at the Corner Office, which hosts a disco-themed brunch every Sunday, complete with "I Will Survive" bottomless Bloody Marys. At $15, they're not a cheap date, but the pour starts with a generous plop of Sobieski vodka — and then the rest is up to you. While most bars issue a cease-and-desist order after the tomato juice, shakes of salt and pepper and a stalk of celery, the Bloody Mary bar here features a knock-out smorgasbord of customary — and crazy — garnish blasts: marinated olives, haricots verts, watermelon radishes, shoestring potatoes, bacon, various hot sauces and spices, pickled eggplant...and pork belly. The combinations are endless, and with so many add-ons, it's breakfast in a glass. Bring a thirsty appetite and, if you plan to drink endlessly, a designated chauffeur.
One hundred bottles of beer on the wall, one hundred bottles of beer. Take one down and pass it around, 99 bottles of beer on the wall. Unless you're at the Cheeky Monk Belgian Beer Cafe, which has more like 150 different bottles in its cellar, including rare Belgian and American specialties that you may not be able to find anywhere else. Open since 2007, the Cheeky Monk is the place to go when you're looking for something different.
Denverites take their breakfast burritos as seriously as they do their bicycle laps around Washington Park, and given the hundreds of burrito trucks, burrito carts and burrito shacks sprinkled throughout the city, it's not easy to choose just one as that marvelous eye-opener. But morning, noon and night, Jalapeños delivers in spades — and spice. Soft-scrambled eggs, melted cheddar, fried cubes of potatoes — enough to alert you to the fact that they're there, but not so many that they overtake everything else — and a fevered, fierce and fiery green chile studded with habanero chiles are tucked into a griddled flour tortilla that sells for a mere $1.99. Bacon, ham, chorizo and even Soyrizo — the vegetarian equivalent of swine — can be added for a small price, and it's available Jalapeños style, too, with grilled onions, tomatoes and jalapeños. No matter which one you order, it's a wrap.
Araujo's, a colorful storefront spot in the Federal Boulevard breakfast-burrito triangle that also includes a Santiago's and a Jack-n-Grill, opens at 6 a.m. weekdays (7 a.m. Saturday, 8 a.m. Sunday) and starts handing out the city's best breakfast burritos to go just minutes later. Every day of the week, Araujo's offers a special breakfast burrito from opening until 11 a.m. for just $1.50: a tortilla packed with scrambled eggs, cubes of potato, bits of green chiles and the chef's choice of meat (bacon one day, sausage the next), with cheese and green chile filling all the cracks.
"Baby, it's not you, it's me." If that's the conversation coming up, then Punch Bowl — Social is the place to walk the talk. This spot has all the bases covered: There's the parlor room with cushy sofas and chairs and dim lighting, so that you can hide your tears and bury your busted ego in one of the water-resistant leather armrests. The always-occupied bathrooms are an ideal refuge where you can seek solace from other jilted lovers. There are ping-pong tables — with paddles, on the off-chance that you want to want to engage in a spanking war — as well as a bowling alley with heavy balls, if you feel like accidentally dropping one on a toe. And don't miss the photo booth, where you can take one last picture of your relationship at the bitter end — then put the resulting photo on the dart board and proceed to deface it. Best of all, Punch Bowl is open late — so as you hang around the bar, drowning your sorrows in punch after punch, you may very well meet someone else.