Best Of :: Food & Drink
Old-school Italian joints are an endangered species in this town, particularly on the rapidly gentrifying Northside. But Gaetano's is a survivor. Under current owner Ron Robinson, this legendary eatery — it once belonged to the Smaldones, a famous Mob family — has become a neighborhood hangout, a popular destination for people who want a solid Italian meal flavored with history and decades of red sauce. Or maybe just a really good Bloody Mary. Gaetano's Bloody Mary bar boasts a spread that includes spicy infused vodka, three tomato blends, dozens of hot sauces and seasoning mixes, as well as pickled vegetables, cheese, shrimp, jerky, bacon and everything else you need to make a meal in a glass. A three-time winner, Gaetano's remains an offer we still can't refuse.
Readers' Choice: The Hornet
Old Denver is fast disappearing, as massive apartment buildings pop up on former parking lots and retail complexes wipe out mom-and-pop stores. So raise a glass to Bastien's, a family-run business that dates back four generations and eight decades. Bastien's moved into its current incarnation in 1958; the architecture is classic mid-century modern, from the Googie roofline to the neon sign that greets passersby on Colfax. Inside, the restaurant doesn't seem much newer; even the menu is a blast from the past, with the sugar steak the house specialty. Wash it down with a stiff drink, and toast the days gone by.
Readers' Choice: Buckhorn Exchange
Back in 1964, the Herrera family turned an old Safeway into a Mexican restaurant and nightclub; although the party ended long ago and the kitchen now serves just weekday lunch and Friday dinner, the green chile is as sense-searing as ever, studded with pork and packing a spicy punch. Get it smothering a Mexican hamburger or a crispy-skinned egg roll-style relleno: This menu is Den-Mex all the way. While the neighborhood outside La Fiesta is rapidly gentrifying, a meal in this cavernous, linoleum-floored dining room quickly takes you back to Old Denver.
My Brother's Bar is the oldest bar in Denver: City directories show that this spot at the corner of 15th and Platte streets was an operating tavern before the 1880s. But there's plenty of life left in the joint, which has gone through many incarnations (including Paul's Place, which let a young Neal Cassady rack up a tab before he went to reform school). Angelo and James Karagas, transplants from Detroit, bought the place in 1970 when the area was a virtual wasteland; they turned it into My Brother's Bar, which didn't need a sign to draw people in for the great bar burgers, vintage ambience and classical music (no TVs). Although both brothers are gone now and My Brother's has new owners; it's relatively unchanged: Longtime employee Paula Newman and her family continue to serve up a hearty helping of Old Denver through last call.
The National Western Complex is going through a billion-dollar makeover, and for a time it looked like the Stockyard Saloon was about to be put out to pasture. But then the city anted up to buy the three-building Livestock Exchange property, extending the lease on the longtime watering hole that started life as the Old West Tavern in a circa 1919 structure at the edge of the complex. While the saloon is a particular hot spot during the annual National Western Stock Show, it's a good place to stop by anytime to grab a burger or some Mexican food and take stock of what's left of Old Denver. Yee-haw.
The tiny Squeeze Inn, one of Denver's great dive bars, has gotten a new lease on life. Two World War II vets had originally built it as the Hilltop, a drive-thru burger joint; its size was dictated by the brick shortage created by the war. Over the years, the place stayed small but was always a big favorite with residents of the changing neighborhood, even as burgers were replaced with booze and the name changed to the Squeeze Inn in 1993. That incarnation closed in 2016, and it looked like the last bit of life had been squeezed out of the bar after seventy years. But then Michael and Missy Dalvit stepped in, reopening the spot as the Squeeze, with the same emphasis on cold beer and hot cars. In a town where good dives are in short supply, there will always be room for one more.
The Columbine Cafe opened the year Prohibition ended, in a former barbershop by a patch of horse pastures. The nearest landmark was the Coors brewery, and workers from that plant kept the place in business for many years. Today Golden sprawls just down the road, but the Columbine still feels like an out-of-the-way discovery; there's a beer garden in back, the site of summer barbecues, horseshoe tournaments and music performances. There's sometimes live music in the tiny bar space, too, though the only nod to the "Cafe" in the name are breakfast burritos supplied on Sundays. But who needs food when the ambience is so satisfying? This is the kind of place where everyone knows your name...long after you've forgotten it.
Readers' Choice: Don's Club Tavern
There's always plenty to watch at the Denver Diner. At one table you'll see politicians negotiating, at another club-goers arm wrestling, while the shiny, squishy booths host side-by-side vignettes of families fighting and Tinder dates getting somewhere. Outside, Denver Fire Department Station 1 regularly gives diners a sound and light show, and there are always at least two dudes fighting on the sidewalk next to the restaurant. The soaring windows and well-lit space provide the perfect platform for people-watching, whether you're outside looking in or inside looking out (in which case you really should pay some attention to the hearty fare on your plate).
Looking for that legislator who didn't respond to your email last week? Don't bother checking his office: Head to Racines, where this city's movers and shakers have been hatching plans over eggs Mazatlán and breakfast salads for decades. While Racines is certainly the power brokers' breakfast spot of choice, you'll also spot familiar faces at lunch and dinner: city councilmembers who need sustenance after long meetings, reporters from nearby television stations, lobbyists ringing up their clients' bills, and regular Joes who've been coming here for years. Even if your meeting proves unsatisfying, Racines will guarantee that your meal is delicious.
Maybe it's the orange booths and wood paneling that make the Breakfast King seem so inviting, or the waitresses with their consoling smiles. It's definitely the constant flow of coffee, heaping helpings of mashed potatoes and chicken-fried chicken with country gravy, hundreds of possible breakfast combinations served at all hours, and the swirls of whipped cream that float atop shakes, malts and slices of pie. Food-delivery services may be all the rage, but the irreplaceable, in-person value of these distinctly diner-y things make the Breakfast King a welcome spot 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The more Denver changes, the more the Breakfast King stays the same — and thank goodness for that.
Readers' Choice: Denver Diner
Four Friends Kitchen is now four years old, and the lively eatery feels like a Stapleton staple, where you're likely to run into your neighbors on the weekend and maybe make some new friends if you stop by during the week. The Southern-style dishes — whether New Orleans-inspired beignets, hush puppies or shrimp with cheesy overnight grits — seem just a little decadent. But Four Friends also knows its Colorado flavors, serving them up in bulky breakfast burritos, zingy huevos rancheros built on tostada stacks, and a thick and savory green chile. Mid-morning drinks on the rooftop patio while the kids zone out on pancakes and Etch-a-Sketch are the neighborhood's new family tradition.
Readers' Choice: Snooze
Chickee's Lil Kitchen may advertise its Cajun cuisine most prominently, but this wee Sunnyside establishment serves mostly as a morning stop, when it turns out a concise list of breakfast burritos that include some combination of eggs, rice, beans, potatoes, cheese and meat (don't miss the peppery housemade chorizo). The baseline here is a handheld, foil-wrapped roll dense enough to counter even the most stubborn hangover — and if you need a little more zip, smothering your burrito with the porky green chile should help. Another good thing to know about Chickee's: It may be tiny, but it can fill catering orders, and it's one of our go-to brunch party tricks on mornings when cooking for a crowd is impossible.
Readers' Choice: Illegal Pete's