We're hungry for validation here in the Queen City of the Plains, and when someone from either coast bestows it on a local institution, we flock to be part of the conversation. With a James Beard award, national plaudits and a Ruth Reichl bump, Rioja and its owners, Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch, have been a lighting rod for praise since the place opened in 2004. It's the restaurant that confirms the good things we believe of ourselves. Even as Rioja sets a template for fancy dining in Denver, the restaurant flips the script entirely at happy hour, weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m.
If you've been for an afternoon lark at Rioja this decade, you're already familiar with the Sips and Snacks menu that's served here, but it feels like a revelation to me. A mini-tasting with four drink and food samples for $15 in lieu of a traditional à la carte menu, it's true to the spirit of happy hour, a well-priced evening delight without the effort of trying to make a meal out of it. Recently expanded from Tuesday nights to weekdays, the program is fun for a date or an after-work meeting, and the theme even changes weekly. Rioja made some changes of its own last year to mark a decade in the business, turning up the brightness on its brick walls and turning down some of the funkier wall fixtures in favor of red-glass dividers and a copper-topped bar. Appropriately, then, the vibe is muted, with less raucous laughter and more intimate conversation.
This week's theme was a journey through tequila (an idea that should be turned into a narrated Disney ride). The spread is a thoughtful pairing of Spanish-influenced bites with agave spirits and cocktails. The snacks here are calibrated to the flavor of the tequilas, not beholden to a theme, and the drinks are measured out just shy of an ounce, enough to sip and swirl without getting totally snockered.
The first pairing builds off of Fortaleza Blanco tequila, a very solid tahona-extracted silver that's not often seen on local shelves. Buttery up front and finishing with a citrus burn, it's instant proof that Rioja isn't just burning up stock with these selections — but even if they were, they're doing a good job of it. The blanco goes with a piece of salmon crudo, twisted in a sweet lemon coulis and crunchy flakes of grey sea salt. Make no mistake, these are all one-bite treats — pretty little things that disappear in an instant.
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The taste of the Tegroni still lingers with me, a Negroni rebuilt with añejo tequila, Dubonnet aperitif and Italian amaro. It's as crimson and piquant as the slice of Spanish-style chorizo smeared with seared ramp pesto — a Madrileño pairing in spirit and spirits. The slate is finished with a bold choice by Rioja: Fidencio mezcal with an aggressive nose that piques even from across the bar, and an orange garnish dashed with Cholula. Getting past the initial shock of the mezcal aroma yields a reward of supreme smokiness and vigor, amplified by the kitchen's selection of rabbit sausage on a "bread pudding" goat-cheese biscuit.
If there's another Denver restaurant with a happy-hour concept as interesting as Rioja's, I haven't tried it. It won't satisfy the stomach alone, but it will sate the desire for adventure, something uncommon for late-afternoon bar menus.
Don't Miss: There's no way that a regular Rioja visitor would pass up anything from the fantastic bread basket that comes around every so often like a messianic vision. Insider tip: You can add bread servings to your Sips and Snacks servings, which will cleanse the palate nicely, for a $3 upcharge.
Perfect For: Those who can't get a seat in the dining room. In addition to Sips and Snacks, Rioja is running a new bar menu starting at 4 p.m., with cheap snacks like poached octopus ($7) and tempura-fried Basque chiles with guanciale ($3). Wait, really? Damn — now I have to go back.