Summers in RiNo are generally brimming with locals at after-work happy hours, people on scooters and carefree tourists barreling down Larimer Street on Pedal Hoppers, drink in hand and belting out the latest hits. But as outdoor weather hit this year, the restaurant and entertainment zone was eerily barren, thanks to the pandemic.
But RiNo — and the whole city of Denver — has adapted: Business has moved almost entirely outdoors for now, and face coverings are a fashion statement. Foot traffic has slowed, and there are far fewer cars, so parking doesn't require circling the block for ten minutes only to realize you should have Ubered (or scootered).
The most notable difference is the completely expanded outdoor dining scene at nearly every eatery, brewery and bar that has survived such challenging circumstances. Thanks to temporary city permits extended through October, entire parking lots and streets are blocked off from vehicle traffic.
Outdoor dining in RiNo has always been alluring, complete with covered patios, ambient lighting and rooftop balconies with views of downtown Denver, but now there’s even more to love. The expansion offers diners a whole new, socially distanced experience that is a much-needed breath of fresh air after months of self-isolating, batch cooking and takeout meals.
At the Denver Central Market (2669 Larimer Street), RiNo’s unofficial hub of great food and drink cleared out its indoor seating in exchange for turning the adjacent parking lot into a shaded "picnic lot." Expect an enormous tent and more than two dozen colorful picnic tables, each with its own artistic flair from local artists. The renovated lot, shared with Sushi-Rama, was completed in early July and offers a comfortable, spacious area to sit. The tables are pretty eye-catching, so it's a great way to grab the attention of those walking by and entice them to pop in for a drink and some food, says Kate Kaufman, the market's operations director.
Thanks to a creative endeavor between Crush Walls and Curio Bar, each table was hand-painted by a local artist and offers a theme, along with a curated Spotify playlist and suggested cocktail, making for an interactive experience of art, music and food. “Our main goal was to support the artists and create a comfortable, socially distanced option for people to gather, and the whole collaboration just came together so well,” Kaufman explains. “While at a table, you're literally surrounded by this incredible street art all around you that is really amazing and beautiful and creates the sense of community that this neighborhood thrives on."
The Market will eventually auction off the tables, with all proceeds supporting the artists. Next time you venture out, pick your table, then visit the Denver Central Market's website to learn more about the project.
Longtime Denver Central Market fans will be happy to hear that all eleven vendors are back in mask-wearing action, slinging everything from Green Seed salads to Vero’s wood-fired pizza to High Point Creamery ice cream. Sanitary measures are strictly enforced, like separate “clean” and “dirty” pen holders for receipt-signing inside, and clearly marked “sanitized” or “unsanitized” signs for the seat-yourself tables outside. You can even place cocktail and beer orders online from the comfort of your table and a server will bring it out to you. Other enforced measures include mask wearing inside the building while ordering, practicing social distancing (with no intermingling between groups, which are limited to eight people), and dining outside-only in the designated areas.
Just down the street, chic Italian eatery Il Posto (2601 Larimer) continues to carry out its mission of representing “the complicated simplicity of Italian food and wine." While outdoor dining on the fenced-in patio has always been a hit, the restaurant has expanded it by adding five new tables and two new lounge areas, which makes a big difference. “With our indoor dining being cut to 50 percent, we decided to expand into the sidewalks, which has been welcomed by guests as well as helped raise our business levels, since we can add back an almost ‘normal’ amount of seating,” says Il Posto operations manager Tyler Gallup.
When Il Posto first reopened patio seating in late May, it was (surprisingly) unplanned and somewhat of an accident, Gallup explains. On a warm summer evening, a passerby asked if she could sit on the patio to enjoy a much-needed Manhattan. The restaurant happily obliged, and it didn’t take long before the patio filled up with guests.
“We are here for these moments of hospitality. We’re here to hold space for our guests,” adds Julie Masciangelo, the restaurant's general manager and wine director. “We’re here to cherish their health and ease their concerns during such an uncertain time.”
Whether you choose to sit outside in the fresh air or inside for more ambience, the touch-free ordering and diligent use of masks by the restaurant hosts, servers and chefs creates a safe environment in which to enjoy Il Posto's new summer menu without worry. And with the debut of new daily drink specials and a weekend brunch menu, guests have plenty of reasons to pay them a visit. Happy Hour, featuring their housemade burrata and classic cocktails, runs from 3 to 6 p.m. every day. Newly introduced Wine Wednesdays offer a 50 percent discount on any bottle of wine valued up to $100.
“Guests are excited to be outside again, interacting with people and enjoying a meal they didn’t have to make themselves,” says Il Posto event coordinator Taylor Johnson. "Our guests took care of us during the closure; now we want to say thank you by opening a safe space for our customers and providing them with as many menus, events and takeout options as possible.”
Reservations are encouraged at Il Posto, especially since business has picked up, but if you’d rather savor osso bucco risotto on your couch, you can order from the menu on DoorDash.
Adding to the RiNo expansion is Stem Ciders’ outdoor cider garden at 2811 Walnut Street, complete with billowy tents, socially distanced tables and, of course, craft ciders made from fresh-pressed apples available on tap, in cans or as a slushy. You’ll find everything from pure apple to pear, hibiscus and watermelon flavors, along with a seasonal lavender cider available through September. If you’re looking for something a little different, the chile guava cider has a serious cult following. But Cider isn’t all you’ll find on the menu; small bites like warm pretzels and gluten-free cider doughnuts with maple whip have just been added. For a mind-blowing pairing, try the Cascara (made from coffee berries sourced by local roasters Novo Coffee) and the warm doughnuts.
Adding a sense of awe to the cider garden is a striking mural of Breonna Taylor. The tribute was created by a trio of artists — Hiero Veiga, Thomas Evans and Giovannie "Just" — and supported by the owners of neighboring Erico Motorsports. Stem's director of hospitality, Daniel Veliz, say the team is ecstatic and thankful that it graces their cider garden. They’ve even roped off a small section where the public can sit to admire it and take pictures.
Stem has several tables inside and 21 outside, offering plenty of room to spread out, whether you’re by yourself or with a small group. There are strict sanitary procedures and protocols in place for the safety of both guests and employees, including a daily health screening for staff with a questionnaire and temperature check. “We have someone sanitizing every space that a guest touches or interacts with, whether it’s a door handle or the table they sat at,” adds Veliz. “We have an individual –- we call them a 'sanizar' — dedicated to cleaning and sanitizing tables, and someone else dedicated to filling and serving fresh cider. Those two things never intermingle.”
If you’d rather enjoy your libations at home, you can order cans of cider online to pick up at the to-go window or curbside. “We will deliver it to your car if you decide to pull up or to your longboard if you decide to ride up,” says Veliz. “We feel extremely fortunate that we are still able to have taprooms in existence and invite guests into our home. We’re thankful for all of our supporters. We changed our entire service model and are very focused on welcoming people back.”
Even though much has changed, many things still resemble the RiNo we know and love, like the colorful street art, edgy food and craft brews. The expanded outdoor space has made people feel more comfortable, helping to breathe life back into the neighborhood. It’s obvious that restaurants have an unmistakable desire to serve their guests to the best of their ability. Most feel the need to repay the favor of customers, both old and new, who have supported them when they needed it most.