We were sitting in the down-home bar that serves 2016’s Best Breakfast Burrito — Smothered, looking across the intersection at the upscale Chinese spot that’s the Best New Restaurant in Denver. This intersection at the corner of 35th and Larimer streets is one of the many spots in the city where old is colliding with new, where the working-class Bud drinkers heading to Phil’s Place are snagging the parking places vacated by diners who’ve just tried duck gizzards and marrow fried rice at Hop Alley, rubbing elbows — and maybe more — with fans headed to Denver’s Best Long-Running Drag Show at Tracks.
But for all the rapid changes in Denver, some things here remain remarkably consistent. The city’s history continues to fascinate natives and newcomers alike; it’s an intriguing combination of Old West lore and the true tales of people who arrived here with a desire to create something new, whether it was the city’s first brewpub or the prototype of what today is the world’s largest burrito chain or the authority-defying lifestyle that inspired the Beat Generation. Hop Alley is named for the area in what is now LoDo that was home to Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s — newcomers who faced hostility from residents who’d only beaten them to Denver by a few years, maybe just a few months. It’s only a few blocks from the warehouses where Jack Kerouac worked in the late ’40s, from where Coors Field emerged fifty years later, and it’s in the heart of the RiNo neighborhood, where newcomers are flocking today, paying the high rents that are pushing out so many artist studios and DIY venues — and facing hostility from residents who’ve only beaten them to Denver by a few years, maybe just a few months.
We were sitting at Phil’s Place with Rich Grant, former communications director for Visit Denver, the city’s convention bureau, and co-author of 100 Things to Do in Denver Before You Die, slated to be released any day (and an early candidate for a Best of Denver 2017 award). And as we compared notes about the basics that natives and newcomers alike should know — to climb Longs Peak before you blow out your knees on Outhouse at Winter Park, to attend an Easter sunrise service at Red Rocks (when it isn’t snowed out), to be prepared for late-March snowstorms that can bury all good intentions under a foot of the white stuff, to eat before you eat at Casa Bonita — we realized how challenging it is to try to put all the wonderful things about life in Denver in a single book, or a single issue of Westword. This city is simply too big to be easily contained, changing too fast. While 100 Things to Do in Denver is an excellent beginner’s run, the Best of Denver 2016 often approaches Outhouse in its more eclectic advanced awards, although you can still cruise through many of the hundreds of honors you’ll find inside the issue.
This is our 33rd annual Best of Denver, a giant beast of an issue that celebrates so much about what we love in this city right now, from its cowtown heritage to the rare new building that’s actually a welcome addition to the skyline. While we can’t honor everything every year, taken as a whole, 33 years of the Best of Denver add up to one big love letter to our town. And that will never change.