Climbing a fourteener. Dabs. Margaritas and Skee-Ball at Casa Bonita. A show at Red Rocks. Green chile with fat chunks of pork. There are certain things you simply must do when in Colorado, and visiting Denver's oldest restaurant should be one of them. The Buckhorn Exchange was founded in 1893 and is now a living museum of frontier history, from the vintage rifles on the second floor to the throwback plates coming out of the kitchen. The unquantifiable amount of crazy events and interesting people that have been witnessed here are contained in the history book and within its walls, but there is at least one concession to modernity: a weekday happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. I was floored to hear that the Buckhorn could be my next stop, but I faced my toughest happy-hour challenge yet — getting out of this notoriously pricey saloon without leaving my wallet stuffed and mounted like so many prize wildebeest.
Unlike Casa Bonita, the Buckhorn Exchange is more of a touchstone for tourists than for natives; the Japanese translations of "lamb" and "Rocky Mountain oyster" on the menu are proof of that. As skyscrapers and craft cocktails take us further and further from our origins as a rough-and-tumble frontier city, the Buckhorn sits as a reminder of what we started from, a reminder that's more attractive to folks who aren't as involved in modern Denver as we are. Still, the upstairs bar is a fine place for locals, and it's where the happy hour action is. As soon as you veer off from the taxidermy menagerie of the dining room and head to the second floor, the friendly bartender beckons you to a seat and starts barraging you with facts and trivia questions. It's a little off-putting for those used to the Denver standard of detached service, but its strangely comforting in this carnival atmosphere. Plus, you might win yourself a free drink if you answer correctly.
Even with its expensive reputation, the Buckhorn serves drink specials that you should take notice of. Drinks are two-for-one, even top-shelf stuff like Hendrick's and Knob Creek, though knocking back wells is a bit more economical. Whiskey sodas ($6 with Maker's Mark) and gin-and-tonics ($7 with Hendrick's) aren't ideal complements to the big, bloody steaks that are the house specialty — that's what the premium Scotches are for. But sipping on whiskey below a giant moose head, appraising Colorado liquor license #1 and watching the people pass through is a unique pleasure. The people who end up upstairs are mostly a mix of overwhelmed first-timers and well-known regulars, and the few seats at the 19th-century bar and the rail on the opposite side fill up quickly.
The Buckhorn trades in flesh, and it's a heavy trade. I found it hard to resist broiled Colorado lamb chops ($36 for two) or some thematically-appropriate buffalo prime rib ($41 for 12 ounces), or especially the jewel of the menu, the "Big Steak," which can feed more than five people at the top end ($215 for four pounds). Our bartender further tempted us with the day's special, a peppercorn-crusted ostrich steak, yet we had to remain chaste with our budgets. Luckily, the bar offers a buffet table where you can down snack after snack until 6 p.m. Tonight the offerings were some fajita-style steak and cheesy, seasoned steak fries, not bad for some drinking nibbles but far from the hearty offerings being plunked onto tables downstairs. I ended up downing close to a pound of those suckers before the main (and only) course.
A plate of smoked buffalo sausage ($10.50) filled the bill as a little taste of what the Buckhorn Exchange has to offer. It's not a lot of meat for the price, but I could envision a long-ago frontiersman wiping off his Bowie knife to dig into just such a platter. The sausage itself had some smoky flavor clinging to it, but didn't pack any spice or zest inside the casing, yet the side of red chile polenta was surprisingly tasty with some Parmesan shavings. The ramekin of wild game mustard was wonderfully pungent, opening the sinuses to century-old spirits.
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I'd love to go back and try more of what the Buckhorn is known for, with or without a curious Denverite or bedazzled foreigner in tow. The bartender handed us free drink tokens to ensure just that. There's just no other place like this in the world, and I can certify that there's no other happy hour like this in Denver.
Perfect For: An early dinner or late lunch. Coinciding slightly with happy hour, a special bar menu is offered from 2 to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, with cheaper versions of the "house specialty" pot roast sandwich ($10.75), the elk plate ($21) and servings of the classic navy bean and ham soup ($7 a bowl or $5 a cup). Plus, fewer patrons means it's easier to tour and take photos — this place was made for Instagram. Well, not really. But you get my meaning.
Don't Miss: Rocky Mountain Oysters ($12) are a culinary geek show; better to spend your money on something that isn't a butcher's throwaway. The elk & Cornish game hen combination plate ($35) is a relatively good value and a showcase of two cuts that aren't always easy to find in this town.