If you're putting up family for the holidays and need someplace to go for entertainment where you can spend a few hours away from the house — and the kitchen — you're in luck: Many cultural institutions around town have upped the ante by creating stellar food programs for their guests. From locally-sourced ingredients to celebrated chefs to solid menus, here are seven museums, libraries and other institutions (in alphabetical order) worth going to for the food alone. Of course, the art, books and history feed you too — in a different way.
7) Seeds Library Cafe at the Boulder Public Library
1001 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
Don't worry, you don't have to put your lunch conversation on mute at the Seeds Library Cafe. Even though it's inside the Boulder Public Library, this bustling place is full of people passionate about food and using the ingredients around town. The philosophy behind the eatery shouldn't surprise you given the man behind it is Boulder County Farmers’ Market director Brian Coppom. Grab a cup of locally-roasted Silver Canyon coffee, a green apple, beet and mizuna lettuce salad and a cup of sweet potato and ham soup made by Bridge House Community Table, and voila, lunch is served. That should do the trick for getting you back among the shelves, reading about dragons, potions, child psychology or what have you.
6) Palettes Contemporary Cuisine at the Denver Art Museum
100 West 14th Avenue Parkway
Since 1997, the Denver Art Museum has hosted a fine dining experience to pair with the art. Kevin Taylor's white table cloth eatery, Palettes, is a modern American restaurant helmed by executive chef Austin Cueto. The menu follows the usual elevated regional cuisine path, with roasted cauliflower, duck confit, a Colorado lamb burger and seared ahi tuna making the scene. These are all fine and dandy, but what museum goers should pay attention to is the prix fixe menu dedicated to the DAM's rotating signature art shows. Right now it's all about Andrew Wyeth, and the selection features Maine lobster and pumpkin bisque; cornmeal-dusted cod with squash chowder; and chocolate and peanut butter whoopie pie, all dishes one might see in some form when visiting the artist's home state of Maine.
5) Offshoots Cafe at the Denver Botanic Gardens
1007 York Street
Even in the winter there are plenty of reasons to head to the gardens for an outing. First, there's the conservatory, which is stunning in its tropical glory and so warm that you'll think summer never ended. Second, you can stop at Offshoots Café, the venue's seasonal eatery in the Boettcher building. This darling cafe offers views of the outdoor gardens and the indoor tropical conservatory, something you can enjoy while nibbling on just-baked pastries and coffee in the morning, and bubbling soups and fresh panini made with local and seasonal ingredients in the afternoon. And third, when it's not cold and snowy, guests of the gardens can also dine at the Hive Garden Bistro, an al fresco joint located adjacent to the Monet Pool that serves up seasonal fare incorporating many ingredients and produce harvested from the Le Potager garden just down the path and the CSA program at the Chatfield Farms branch of the DBG.
4) The T-Rex Cafe at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science
2001 Colorado Boulevard
After you wander among the dinosaur bones, sparkling gems and ancient artifacts, sit down for a bite at this 115-year-old institution. Executive chef Steven Alves handles three separate venues: the Grab & Go snack bar, a coffee cart and the T-Rex Cafe. The latter is the place to go to really dine, and each day they have specialties that include peppered steak with mashed potatoes, a BLT with lemon aioli and jalapenos, chicken chipotle pizza and a panini bar. The cafe also features a pub-like portion with bangers and mash, shepard’s pie and a gooey macaroni and cheese laced with ham. It's not gourmet, but for under $8 a plate, the fare proves fine enough for a day at the museum.
3) Noodles, Pizza and BBQ at The Denver Zoo
2300 Steele Street
When you head to the Denver Zoo to ogle the lions, tigers and bears you can also find great eats that go beyond stale chicken fingers and soggy fries found at many other zoos. Feeding the humans is handled by K-M Concessions, which focuses on fresh, local products and scratch-made ingredients. K-M has the bases covered for a variety of appetites, from hand-stretched pizza at Northern Shores to fast-causal Asian fare at the Kamala Cafe to the Brown Bear BBQ, which features slow-roasted, hardwood-smoked meats. There's even a food truck serving Angus beef burgers and hot dogs with revolving gastropub-style toppings. For a refreshing break on a hot day, hit the beer garden for a choice of several local craft brews. And don't worry, you may be surrounded by beasts, there is no crossover to what's on your plate and what's roaming around the premises.
2) Cafe Rendezvous at History Colorado Center
Just like the Denver Zoo, Cafe Rendezvous in this historical institution comes complements of K-M Concessions, though under the supervision of chef Mike Manol. You will find this modern cafe on the first floor, right by the main lobby. You can pop in for a quick smoked turkey club wrap, patty melt or veggie burger; or, go for a real feast and try the special chef's menu. This includes a charcuterie plate; macaroni and cheese with roasted poblanos and ham; bison stroganoff and a southwest-style Caesar salad. They also have plenty of options for the kids, which makes it an easy sell whether you go through the museum or not.
1) MCA Cafe & Bar at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
1485 Delgany Street
The next time you're in the mood for some modern art and a snack, get coffee, lunch or a drink on the rooftop of this eight-year-old museum. Dubbed simply the MCA Café & Bar, the rooftop eatery features a menu of pizzas laden with arugula and prosciutto or smoked salmon and cream cheese; grilled tomatoes and mozzarella stuffed into a pita; charcuterie boards and cheese plates; and sweets from the Watercourse Bakery. It's one of the best places to take in culture and get gluten- and dairy-free treats at the same time. In the evening, the downtown views are the perfect backdrop for enjoying a cocktail.