So complete was the transformation of Union Station that it’s hard to remember a time when it was not much more than a forlorn depot for Amtrak and the Winter Park ski train. Today, thanks to a soup-to-nuts restoration of the building’s former glory — and a development plan that brought some of the city’s best restaurants into the wings — the glittering hall is no longer just a transportation hub; it’s a transportive experience in itself. Most visitors these days aren’t even boarding trains.
More remarkably, the landmark’s resurrection extends beyond the building itself, or even this one block; an influx of interest in this once-empty part of the 16th Street Mall and adjacent Wewatta Street fueled the emergence of an entirely new neighborhood, complete with boutique hotels, high-stakes restaurants and a Whole Foods. The speed with which this evolution happened makes standing on the train platforms a little disorienting: Surrounding buildings now block out views of streets, and business types click-clack past with rolling suitcases over the pavement beneath the soaring sculptural awning that resembles a rib cage of a very large animal. Quiet yet urban, it’s easy to imagine you’re getting a glimpse of Denver future.
Trains from this platform whisk you off to somewhere else physically, but Tavernetta, whose front door is accessed from this same pavilion, pulls off the neat trick of carrying you away spiritually from the Mile High, nearly from the second you cross the threshold.
This restaurant is the elegant and angular venture from the team behind Boulder’s Frasca Food & Wine, and it pays homage to regional Italian specialties, mostly from the north, executed expertly and artfully. With its blond woods and cozy European sensibility, it exhibits a subtle departure, design-wise, from many of the restaurants in this city. That it fills with a stylish and eclectic crowd of city-dwellers from near and far helps nurse the feeling that you’ve somehow left Denver behind.
Frasca built its name as much on its soaring standards of service as it did on its food, which is inspired by the Friuli region of Italy; at Tavernetta, which is a modicum less formal, partners Bobby Stuckey, Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson and Peter Hoglund are as focused on nailing the details of hospitality, even if service is less white-glove. For example, I met friends in the lounge, and they were fifteen minutes late. After settling me into a corner seat, general manager Justin Williams set the then-empty seats of my companions with menus, which had the effect of warding off other bar-comers without me having to anxiously save seats.
Though dining here doesn’t require as much of a cash outlay as Frasca, Tavernetta is still special-occasion priced for most residents of this city. Unlike at Frasca, though, you can game Tavernetta a bit: go for happy hour, offered in the lounge from 3 to 6 p.m. daily, when you can get a fairly good glimpse of what this place is about...at a steep discount.
Built around the Italian tradition of aperitivo, the end-of-day snack and drink that’s a precursor to dinner, Tavernetta’s happy-hour menu is long on nibbles. In addition to olives, peanuts and potato chips, you’ll find a squash-and-ricotta tartine enlivened with the tart pop of pomegranate seeds; a divine toasted sandwich made with gooey Montasio cheese and ribbons of salty prosciutto; and panelle — chickpea fritters that verge on too dry until you drag them through the accompanying salsa verde, which lends a tart and piquant contrast.
It’s easy to go crazy on ordering — every item on the snack list clocks in at less than $2.50 — and you could easily form a meal this way. But the real boon for cash-strapped diners here is that you can also actually dine: A plate of pillowy gnocchi and deeply savory lamb ragu is on offer for $10; add a pickled-shallot-and-buttermilk-dressed salad for just $6 more.
As for drinking, aperitivo calls for a spritz, and Tavernetta makes a good one for $4 with bittersweet Aperol, effervescent prosecco and a briny olive garnish. At $6, the Negroni is a good upgrade from there; this rendition of the Campari-centric classic is taut and nicely balanced. If you do go with the gnocchi, though, make a beeline for wine: the Scarpetta Frico Rosso — made by Stuckey, a master sommelier, and MacKinnon-Patterson — makes a nice earthy match.
Testament to its star-powered ownership and elevated offering, Tavernetta is always abuzz — and the bar crush only intensifies as the night goes on. But that brings us to a final perk of this well-thought-out happy hour: Seats are abundant, at least for now. Which means these deals still feel like a best-kept secret.