When seeking out happy hours, there are a few essential parameters that must be considered: 1) Does the happy hour include food, and how hungry am I? 2) Does happy hour extend past 6 p.m., and can I get out of work in time if it doesn't? 3) Are the specials lame or not lame? After all, I'm looking for more than just a buck off beers, but I might be willing to settle for weak deals if other logistics suit my needs: location, cute bartenders or sports ball-watching, for example.
Citizen Rail, with its stellar snack options and well-chosen lineup of beer, wine and cocktail offerings, applies the sort of attention and intention to the fine art of happy hour-ing that is so often lost on restaurants. The LoDo restaurant’s happy “hour” begins in the early afternoon, at 2:30 p.m., extending to the the ripe old hour of 6 p.m. — a time at which I can just squeeze in my order. The deals include a rotating list of three or four draft beers for $4; white, red and rosé house wines for $5; a selection of four craft cocktails coming in at a reasonable $7; and (my personal favorite) five drink-and-shot combos, including rosé + mezcal, stout + bourbon and IPA + rye, among others. Last week, the stout on offer was Great Divide’s Velvet Yeti on nitro, a perfect creamy snifter to get you in the mood for cooler fall weather. Meanwhile, CR’s Garden Gimlet (I added gin to the elegant cordial-based mocktail) and daiquiri were bright and punchy for those of us desperately clinging to summer.
In addition to the balanced drinks list, Citizen Rail has made truly thoughtful selections from its main dinner menu, offering these well-executed plates in much larger portions than you might expect at the price, dishes that can definitely double as a light dinner. Of note are the potato cake with alder smoked sturgeon ($10), the mesquite-fired mussels ($10, $17 at dinner), and taro root chips with hummus and beet relish ($8). The mussels, something I rarely deign to order in this landlocked state, arrived in a scorching-hot cast-iron pot accompanied by grilled slices of hearty-yet-airy artisan bread. Hotly settled in their cream-based tarragon broth, the mussels have the absolute perfect amount of spice, such that my companions and I took turns shooing away the buser as we used our empty shells to shovel the last of the rich pool at the bottom of the pot.
Next we tackled the potato cake, which, if you take potatoes seriously (and we do), proved worthy with its crispy-fried but delicate outer layer like a luxurious kimono, giving way to a tender, well-salted interior. And while the caviar was mostly lost in the creamy depths of the crème fraîche, the juicy strips of smoky bacon and tart green apple provided ample taste and texture variety. I found myself combining and recombining the flavors into a seemingly infinite array of bites, each distinct in its own right.
By that point we were mostly satisfied and impressed. But primed with our second happy hour beverage, we found no issues polishing off a healthy serving of crunchy, salty taro chips and creamy accompaniments. The hummus, mild golden beet relish and creamy herb dip didn’t readily distinguish themselves, turning into a rather one-note chip-dip situation that was nonetheless satisfying.
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Belying its classy interior and black-and-grey decor, Citizen Rail gets pretty loud at the height of happy hour. Meanwhile, the one rather oddly placed TV beams its tacky glow upon the fashion-forward clientele. But perhaps that’s to the benefit of the attached Kimpton Hotel Born, a sleek, boutique place with views of the Rockies and mere steps from Union Station. Hotel guests can snug up to the bar, catch a bit of the game and have a nosh before having a night out.
All in all, it’s going to be difficult to find a more deliberate, more luxurious happy hour in Denver. One caution: If you’re like me and my crew, you’ll stroll out of the bar self-satisfied at your high-class resourcefulness, then, just out of the corner of your eye, you'll catch a glance of a table tucking into a few dry-aged New York strips and rib-eyes and wonder whether you might just have to come back for supper.
Drop in for happy hour at Citizen Rail at 1899 16th Street from 2:30 to 6 p.m. daily. Call 303-323-0017 or visit the restaurant's website for more details.