The annual National Western Stock Show is evidence of Denver's cowtown roots — and proof that the city still embraces its Western heritage, in both its culture and its food. With so many cattle passing through town, you can be sure that some of all that beef on the hoof also ends up on the plate, gloriously grilled up as T-bones, filets, New York strips and other juicy cuts.
While Denver has gained plenty of fancy urban steakhouses over the last decade, and also lost some of its longtime meat markets (including the Downtown Broker, the Aurora Summit and the marvelous Emil-Lene's Sirloin House, where steaks were always sided with spaghetti), it's still possible to grab a seat at a modest meat-and-potatoes spot, where your meal is flavored by memories of the frontier (or at least the end of the last millennium).
Here are six of the best old-school steakhouses in and around Denver:
3503 East Colfax Avenue
Back in 1937, William Bastien purchased the Moon Drive-In; he ran it for decades, then tore the place down and built what is now Bastien's in 1958. The founder's granddaughter, Jeannine Bastien, runs the restaurant today. The steakhouse is more mid-century than cowtown in its design and decor, but it still sees an influx of cowboy hats and boots during the National Western Stock Show, according to the owner. The specialty here is the sugar steak, which may sound heretical, but many visitors are repeat customers who've become converts to the unusual cooking method. Bastien's doesn't run any specials during the Stock Show, but the steaks are always reasonably priced compared to many glitzier competitors. bastiensrestaurant.com
Black Hat Cattle Co.
26295 Hill Top Drive, Kittredge
David Rodriguez's Western-style steakhouse is the youngest on our list at just fourteen years old, but the place is old-school in spirit. Wagon wheels and animal heads decorate the wood-paneled walls, and you're likely to see the owner in the dining room wearing the black cowboy hat that gives the restaurant its name. Black Hat Cattle Co. sponsors a youth auction at the Stock Show, so the restaurant does see an uptick in business this time of year, despite the thirty-minute drive (in good weather) from downtown Denver. If you've got tickets to a nighttime rodeo, head up for the early dining menu (with a choice of several starters, entrees and desserts), served from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. blackhatcattleco.com
1000 Osage Street
Many restaurants along the Front Range re-create the Wild West experience, but most of them deliver the mild West. The Buckhorn Exchange is the exception, a true old-timey spot that still has meaning for today’s diners. Before Henry “Shorty Scout” Zietz opened the Buckhorn in 1893, he rode with Buffalo Bill; in 1905, he fed President Teddy Roosevelt, then headed off with him to hunt big game. And you’ll find plenty of big game on the menu of the restaurant today, meat that demands a pretty big price tag. Those on a nineteenth-century budget should head to the historic bar on the second floor, where you can order from the appetizer menu, enjoy entertainment, and gaze upon all the taxidermied specimens distantly related to what might arrive on your plate. From downtown, hop on the light rail and get off at the Osage Street stop for lunch or dinner. While there are no Stock Show specials, this is one slab of steakhouse history you won't want to miss. buckhorn.com
Columbine Steak House & Lounge
300 Federal Boulevard
At night, the low-slung roof and garish yellow sign of the Columbine Steak House beckon like an Edward Hopper painting, though perhaps without the pervading sense of loneliness. Through the window, passersby on Federal Boulevard can witness a throng of waiting diners, often spilling out the front door, queued up to order a steak from the grill man as flames leap behind him. The steaks are simple and cheap, kissed by fire, leaking fat and blood, flecked with a touch of salt and pepper. Columbine has been serving steaks for more than a half-century, and what you'll get on your plate is exactly what your parents and grandparents would have gotten here. The diner side is strictly no-nonsense — just pay and eat and make room for newcomers. At the bar, the pace is a little more relaxed; just don't ask for anything too fancy (meaning any drink with more than two ingredients) or you'll be met with suspicion. Bring cash and leave the coat and tie at home. While there are no specials during Stock Show season, the Columbine always grills one of the cheapest steaks in town.
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33355 CO-36, Watkins
When Lulu’s Inn opened in the ’40s, the classic country joint was actually in the country...but today Watkins is just minutes from the eastern edge of Aurora, and a short hop from Denver International Airport and its nearby hotels. Lulu’s left its original home and moved a few doors down in the ’80s, into a bigger space with a bar, full dining room and dance floor (there are live bands every Friday and Saturday night), but the real draw is out back, where you can grill your own steak on the patio barbecue. Of course, Lulu’s is also willing to do the work for you. A New York steak with salad, loaded baked potato and garlic bread will run you $24 — whether or not you do the grilling. The music and atmosphere are free; expect to find the parking lot packed with pickups during the Stock Show. lulusinn.com
Mickey's Top Sirloin
Three generations of the Broncucia family have worked the land by 70th Avenue and Broadway. Mickey Broncucia’s grandfather built a house and farmed vegetables there, his son opened a grocery store when Broadway extended past the property, and Mickey opened a restaurant on the land fifty years ago. It started as an Italian joint, but he eventually added Mexican food and steaks. In 2005, the original Mickey’s was replaced with a brand-new, much bigger building; Mickey himself sold the business to Trace Welch. But he's still there every day, and something else remains a constant: the great steaks. There are no specials during the Stock Show, but who needs them? Mickey’s top sirloin, a 12-ounce cut, comes with baked potato, fries or spaghetti, as well as soup or salad (iceberg with pepperoni!), for just $16.99. For the same price, you can get marinated sirloin Sunday through Thursday — but fair warning: It sells out fast. mtsusa.co