Clay Carlton is on a roll. The Denver native, who opened his first barber shop in Winter Park 38 years ago, today is a master cigar-roller (he studied under a Cuban master for six months) and proprietor not just of Palma Cigars, but of Bar Las Palmas Wine Bar, offering cigars, coffee, wine, haircuts and lots of character to the Ballpark neighborhood. In order to attract more customers of the female persuasion, Carlton has cut back on the hair-cutting — there's just one barber chair now, in the back — and expanded his roster of Colorado wines. But the real draw remains the cigars, with a walk-in humidor filled with hard-to-find, reasonably priced stogies from the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Denver native Montgomery Knott spent many years in New York perfecting the Monkey Town experience, during which guests dined on fine food and paired wines inside a video-installation cube. Now he's back in his home town, testing a touring version of his visual/gastronomic spectacle in a RiNo warehouse for a three-month run that ends June 1 before he takes off for similar short-term spells in other cities. Turns out we're very lucky guinea pigs: Monkey Town 4 is a vivid evening of impeccably conceived and prepared dishes from trendy local chefs paired with perfect wines, while fascinating sounds and visuals unfold all around you. The people-watching is fantastic (and unavoidable, since you're all sitting around the perimeter of the cube), and for added experimentation, there's the option of a weed-stuffed appetizer that's not advertised on the menu.
Nectar House, a sly little restaurant nestled inside Kindness Yoga, is an organic nosher's paradise that features a simple menu of enticing superfood salads, smoothies and creamy desserts. The "Rawben" Sandwich — a very loose take on a Reuben — is the signature entree, piling avocado, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and more on raw onion bread. But the spot's selection of non-alcoholic, handcrafted elixirs are the real draw; popular items include the "Shaktini," an effervescent herbal refreshment, and kombucha infused with a choice of energetic tonics and highlighted by the flavors of goji berries and fresh-squeezed juice. After yoga class, seat yourself at the cafe's bar or sneak off to the "nook," a pillow-laden hideaway, to enjoy a one-of-a-kind beverage or some veggie-friendly, feel-good food.
Although it's all too easy to spend a fortune on good food, you don't have to at twelve. Chef-owner Jeff Osaka's Monday-through-Wednesday prix fixe menu, which changes monthly, is the bargain board to beat. Osaka, who's renowned as the benevolent Denver chef-ambassador who just keeps on giving, fully extends that generosity to his guests, presenting them with the unusual luxury of choosing any starter, main dish and dessert from his full menu, all for the price of just $38 per person. On the March menu, for example, you could choose gnocchi with wild mushrooms, puffed rice, smoked egg and Parmesan to start, followed by steelhead trout with guanciale and mustard caviar, and to finish, a trio of chocolate desserts. But no matter what you order, every dish at twelve unleashes countless captivating flavors.
Raw bars are washing up all over Denver these days, and while there's no oceanic panorama beyond the toe-to-top windows that rim the perimeter of the Kitchen Denver, a splendid sea of brawny bivalves, Littleneck clams, lobster, Alaskan king crab legs, caviar and smoked mussels glistens behind the glass barrier that shields this raw bar. The oysters, of which there are several varieties, are the dominant mothershuckers of the lineup, and while we prefer them naked, they arrive with lemon wedges, mignonette, cocktail sauce and aioli. Gorgeously presented seafood towers — the largest of which showcases a whole Maine lobster, a dozen oysters, a half-dozen clams, king crab legs and eighteen mussels — showboat specimens from Maine-based diver Ingrid Bengis, who's renowned for netting seafood that seriously tastes like swigs of the ocean. As a bonus, this raw bar also peddles pickled sardines.
While green chile is an obsession in this town, red chile has its pleasures, too, and there's no red chile more pleasant than the version that La Fiesta has been dishing out for five decades. This red chile has a fire all its own, a complex layering of flavors that speaks of much more than mere chile powder. But, of course, you're not going to eat it on its own. You're going to order it smothering an enchilada filled with gooey, "premium" yellow cheese or drowning the best crispy chile relleno in town. La Fiesta will mark its fiftieth birthday this year; here's to many more...and lots more red chile.
Angelo's, which got new owners and a complete renovation in 2013, may have changed from a pizza joint to a Taverna, adding a swanky oyster bar in the process and many more new menu items, but it still occupies the same spot where Angelo's has been for forty years, in the same neighborhood, with the same distinctive stained-glass windows. And in addition to those oysters — offered fresh and grilled, with some amazing toppings — it still slings pizza, ravioli, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs and other comforting, traditional Italian dishes, which is saying something in a town that has been losing its red-sauce joints at an alarming clip over the past few years. Twirl your fork through some pasta and marinara and enjoy a little Denver history.
Over the past few years, Denver International Airport has worked hard to make sure that travelers can get a true taste of the city. And their efforts paid off last year when several excellent hometown restaurants opened at DIA. The best of them? Root Down, which not only offers many of the "field-to-fork" menu items that made Justin Cucci's original eatery in LoHi such a hit — including great veggie and lamb burgers — but decor flavored with the same wry, international eye. Don't miss the vintage carry-on cases — packed with accessories from the era — under the glass-topped bar, the collection of globes, and the thoughtful seating for solo diners: little cubbies looking out over the big windows. DIA's Root Down is a soaring achievement.