First Bite started twelve years ago as a concept similar to Denver Restaurant Week: Diners pick a restaurant and get a three-course meal for the bargain price of $29 per person. Co-founder Kate Lacroix says that two of the biggest draws of the Boulder restaurant scene are freshness and an entrepreneurial spirit. "We have an abundance of good produce in Boulder County and the highest-grossing farmers' market — per capita — in the country," she points out, adding that "we have loads of people doing good things to draw awareness to great restaurants. From Local Table Tours to Good Food 100, if you are in Boulder, you get a real peek into what makes a particular restaurant unique."
Lacroix notes that while Boulder can't beat Denver for sheer diversity, she says, "What we do have is a community that drives the demand for great-tasting food and drink, and a spirit of innovation born from our tech and consumer packaged-goods backbone, that makes it easy to have a startup do well, like Ray Snead's Cocktail Punk and Alastair Beogan's Vapor Distillery, both of whom share space to make business growth more sustainable."
Here are five things that make Boulder County a great restaurant destination during First Bite week and beyond:
Emmerson, 1600 Pearl Street, is one of Boulder's newest restaurants, having opened in August and recently expanding into an all-day eatery serving housemade pastries in the morning and inventive dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Executive chef Michael Gibney and pastry chef Jeb Breakell both moved to Boulder from New York City specifically to open Emmerson, bringing with them a borderless, sky's-the-limit approach to flavor and ingredient combinations.
No restaurant captures the spirit of Boulder like the Chautauqua Dining Hall, 900 Baseline Road. The original building dates to 1898, and the restaurant itself is now run by Three Leaf Concepts, which also operates the Dushanbe Tea House and Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant (among others), all quintessentially Boulder in spirit — and also participating in First Bite.
Basta chef/owner Kelly Whitaker moves forward by looking to the past. While his tiny restaurant at 3601 Arapahoe Avenue relies on a wood-fired oven and handmade pasta and dough to provide rustic Italian flavor for guests, Whitaker isn't content with counting on Colorado's current food economy to provide the best food. Instead, he's trying to change things by working with researchers, farmers and food distribution companies to grow and sell heritage grains that are adapted to the Rocky Mountain climate and that provide more flavor and nutrition than standard commercially grown products. Co-founder of the Noble Grain Alliance, Whitaker also works with Chefs Collaborative, Slow Food USA and the James Beard Foundation to help spread the word about how to introduce traditional food ways into the modern agricultural economy.
Those new to Colorado are reveling in the state's booming beer scene, but not many know that craft brewing has its roots in Boulder, where the state's first licensed microbrewery, Boulder Beer Company, was founded in 1979. Nearly forty years later, there's no shortage of good suds, and thanks to people like Ian Clark of Bru Handbuilt Ales and Eats at 5290 Arapahoe Avenue, there's also no shortage of good food to go with it. Clark puts as much thought into his beers as his menu of wood-fired, sourdough pizzas and other dishes like smoke-tinged mussels and calamari. After dinner and beers, step next door to Clark's Heifer and the Hen ice cream shop for a sweet treat.
The Small Town
Boulder County is dotted with small towns that offer big flavors because of their close proximity to Boulder itself. Residents of Lafayette, Louisville, Longmont, Niwot and Lyons may work in Boulder or Denver, but when they come home, they want community gathering spots where they can relax with friends and neighbors. The Empire Lounge & Restaurant, at 816 Main Street in Louisville, is one such place, where owner Jim Cohen and his daughter, Lexi, have been welcoming folks since 2008. The Empire, and many restaurants like it on this year's First Bite list, offer a reprieve from big-city life without sacrificing quality or service.