Denver's dining scene is growing so fast that five restaurants open before you can even get to the new one you'd picked out to visit just a week or two ago. Sometimes it's less mind-boggling to just hit an old favorite instead of braving the crowds in the city's hot neighborhoods and risk blowing a paycheck on a spot that's not to your liking. Here are five more pairings of old Denver standbys with their new Denver counterparts.
Grandpa's Burger Haven/Shake Shack
America's obsession with hamburgers isn't new; folks were forming lines at Grandpa's Burger Haven on Federal Boulevard as far back as 1953. Even now, you can still see the occasional queue forming, especially on cruising nights, when the summer air is filled with the smell of burger grease and the sound of lowrider engines revving. What you'll get: a large (no joke; it's about the size of a hubcap) double cheeseburger with fries and a small shake for about twelve bucks. What you won't get: conversation about sustainable beef or artisan products.
In March, Denver collectively welcomed the invasion of Shake Shack from its home planet of New York City, showing up in throngs at 2995 Larimer Street to throw back thick frozen custards and griddle-crisped burgers. Despite the spot's modern look and having fine-dining mogul Danny Meyer at its helm, this new burger joint stays surprisingly close to the standard model that's proven successful for decades: burgers, fries, shakes, hot dogs and a few other goodies (like a chicken sandwich that's far more than a throwaway item). Once the initial hype receded, Shake Shack became exactly what it should be: a neighborhood fast-food outlet where you can get a decent meal without breaking the bank.
Imperial Chinese Restaurant/Q House
In the early 1980s, Chinese restaurants were well established in Denver, but most were just corner shops doing steady takeout business. In 1985, though, Johnny Hsu launched the Imperial, turning familiar Chinese fare into destination dining. Although Hsu moved a few blocks down Broadway a decade later, the Imperial stayed the course. Today the elegant dining room, with its gold, red and black color scheme and Chinese art objects, is the stuff of our childhood dining memories, where plate after plate of sesame chicken, Peking duck and Mongolian beef hit the table, steaming and ready for our first attempts at using chopsticks.
Q House just opened at the beginning of May on East Colfax Avenue, but it's a shining example of how far we've come as diners — and how far restaurants are willing to go to please our expanding notion of what Chinese cuisine can be. Chef Christopher Lin showcases the traditional cooking of his Taiwanese family in a way that seems entirely new. Instead of bland stir-fries in sticky-sweet sauces, Q House demonstrates that regional Chinese cooking is bold, varied and surprising. Rather than muting spices and seasonings to cater to perceptions of Western tastes, dishes like Chong Qing chicken (unlike the insipid Chinese-American equivalent) highlight the numbing heat that's the calling card of Sichuan cuisine. This spot is as playful and eye-opening now as the Imperial was grand and distinct when it opened more than thirty years ago.
Noodles & Company/The Mac and Cheese Bar at Whole Foods Union Station
In 1995, a fast-casual restaurant serving an international array of noodle dishes was novel and exciting. Choices of Thai, Japanese, Italian and American-style bowls meant the world was at our fingertips and lips, but it was the company's old-fashioned macaroni and cheese that kept us coming back. Back then, the only option was a simple Wisconsin-style mac and cheese, but these days you can add truffled mushrooms, Buffalo chicken or barbecue pork. After more than twenty years, Noodles & Company — which is no longer Denver-owned — has blended into the landscape of food choices in nearly every suburban strip mall in the city.
Folks are even busier and more pressed today than they were in 1995; dining out for lunch and dinner is too time-consuming, and even an extended visit to a grocery store to stock up for the week is tough to work in. It's difficult enough to arrange a few minutes of prime Amazon.com perusing. Fortunately, all three tasks can be accomplished under one roof at the new Whole Foods Union Station. Among the aisles of imported cheese, the seafood counter with fish so fresh they're practically still flopping, and the Amazon kiosk where you can grab the latest gadgets, there's a station so enticing that you'll forget all the pressing matters of the day...and just stop and stare. The macaroni-and-cheese bar brims with steaming trays of gooey goodness in many forms, from an unadorned traditional crowd-pleaser to posh lobster mac to dairy-free vegan options. Leave it to modern, time-saving ingenuity to bring classic mac and cheese into the future.
Racines defines the notion of the all-American, all-day eatery, with familiar and filling plates served from dawn to dusk in a neighborhood setting that attracts families, date-night couples and power-lunchers alike. Since 1983, the restaurant has been a neighborhood anchor as well as a destination for those seeking top-notch service and a broad range of dining options. The restaurant originally occupied a mission-style building at Speer and Bannock, then moved to its current home at 650 Sherman Street in 2004. But through it all, Racines has been a familiar, comforting and friendly port in a sea of Denver change.
The Bindery is the modern equivalent of Racines, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner with the goal of building a neighborhood following while giving a young generation of restaurant-hoppers a clever menu of seasonal food inspired by chef/owner Linda Hampsten Fox's world travels. While Racines feels comfortable and lived-in, the Bindery is sleek and airy, with a European ambience perfect for enjoying morning coffee and house-baked pastries. Breakfast and lunch are breezy and casual compared to those meals at Racines, but at dinnertime, the lights dim and the fireworks begin, with octopus dressed in Mexican aguachile, savory rabbit-pecan pie served with a dollop of mustard gelato and risotto stained to a saffron hue with golden beets. Like Racines, the Bindery is designed as a gathering spot, but one for a more worldly set comfortable with culinary adventure.
Bonnie Brae Ice Cream/The Inventing Room Dessert Shop
Kids love ice cream, and ice cream brings out the kid in all of us. Bonnie Brae has been cranking the ice cream churn since 1986, so there's a good chance it was part of your childhood experience if you grew up in Denver. The lines are still long on hot summer days, with families lining up for banana walnut, Rocky Road, butter brickle and other classic flavors. Those red-and-white awnings alone serve up a taste of nostalgia in the Washington Park neighborhood.
Ian Kleinman knows how to draw oohs and aahs from kids and parents alike; he specializes in liquid-nitrogen ice cream, frozen while you watch at his West Highland dessert shop that's equal parts science class, tribute to Willie Wonka and neighborhood ice cream parlor. Let off some steam with a bag of frozen popcorn while you wait in line, then marvel at the delicate chocolate sculptures, swirls of cotton candy in goofy flavors and flash-frozen sweet treats that await. If all the lab equipment and flashy presentations feel a little intimidating, don't worry: The results are as wonderful and satisfying as your first banana split.
Looking for more old Denver/new Denver comparisons? Here are five more.