update: i loved denver so much that i just had to go back. this guide has recently been updated as of june 2015, packed with even more of my favorite denver hot spots based on a weekend trip i took with one of my closest girlfriends.
Four days in the Mile High City was enough to make me a believer in Denver, Colorado. Everything from the unique hotel, the delicious restaurants, the boutique shops and friendly people made it one of my favorite trips to date. This up in coming vacation destination is growing by the day and is quickly evolving into a culinary hot spot that you'll want to be part of.
There are plenty of high end hotels in Denver to choose from. My top choice is the Crawford Hotel; however, a few other options include The Oxford and The Curtis. I highly suggest that you choose a hotel in the LoDo (Lower Denver)/Highlands area though as it is cleaner, safer and less crowded. You will also find better restaurants and higher end shops in these areas, opposed to the 16th Street area, unless you prefer an endless array mainstream chains.
the crawford hotel
I had the absolute pleasure of staying at the brand new Crawford Hotel in Denver for the weekend with my husband. The Crawford Hotel is the perfect combination of 1950s luxury, modern elegance and rockstar status - creating the perfect ambiance for this boutique hotel. Set inside the iconic Union Station, this hotel is the gem of LoDo (lower downtown), just blocks from Coors Field. Of the hundreds of hotels I've stayed in throughout my life, I can honestly say that The Crawford is my hands down favorite for design, vibe and creativity. Here's my Type A review of this magnificent travel destination.
The hotel is set inside an active train station terminal, creating a lobby where guests and drifters collide. Gigantic chandlers glow high above the open seating lobby filled with mid-century modern benches, couches, desks and coffee tables as well as as two retro shuffle board tables. Every feature of the decor was carefully thought out to celebrate the history of the station, even using Solari boards to display the details of the many restaurants and shops set inside the hotel - ultimately creating an environment where people can eat, play, meet and mingle. I expected that since the lobby is such public space that there would be a large amount of "undesirables" hanging around, but that was never the case - the place was always clean, safe and lively without feeling crowded.
Each guest room is tastefully decorated to match the vibe of the hotel, with towering ceilings, local artwork and retro furniture. We were on the highest floor in room 426, one of the Premium Classic rooms which is larger than most of the lofts and regular guest rooms and in my opinion is worth the additional cost. It includes a king sized bed, sofa, armoire, and large bathroom with a claw footed bathtub and separate rain shower. The towering windows look out to both the front of the hotel and one side, giving you a perfect vantage point to check out what's going on. This is one of the few rooms that is set on the perimeter of the lobby, providing guests with a perfect view for people watching just steps from their front door. The room also includes an iPad mini for easy access to all of the information you might need for your stay, high speed wifi and nightly turndown service. The mini fridge is stocked with complimentary Voss waters and you are left with delectable chocolate bon bons as an evening treat. The guest rooms also include bathrobes, slippers and the regular hotel amenities such as shampoo and conditioner along with bath salts for a nice long soak (what girl doesn't want to take advantage of a claw footed tub???).
**It's important to note that we did have one issue with our room - it smelled strongly of cigarette smoke, even though it is considered a non-smoking room. We called down to the front desk and had a bit of trouble/confusion trying to get a candle. They did provide us with an ionizer to help filter the air, which unfortunately did not help much either, probably due to the large size of the room and very high ceilings. With that said, they did try to do what they could to make it right, including offering to have us switch rooms, which we chose to decline. It's unfortunate to me that someone would choose to smoke in such a brand new and beautiful room, ruining it for future guests. When issues like this happen, I'm more concerned with the service and attention at which the hotel provides, rather than the issue itself and I would say that the hotel did a decent job of trying to rectify the situation.
The Cooper Lounge
Set on the second floor of Union Station, overlooking the lobby is the exclusive Cooper Lounge. Only available for guests and outsiders who make a reservation with the front desk, you feel like a celebrity as you sip a classic martini in an oversized wing chair or classy retro sofa. Service is excellent and the drinks are strong, without being overly priced (at least compared to Southern California standards). My husband and I rarely go out for after dinner drinks, but this was an experience not to be missed in this iconic hotel setting.
Surrounding Area/Getting Around
The Crawford is in LoDo (lower downtown) and set away from the hustle and bustle of 16th street, but within a short walk to the areas best restaurants and shops. This is an ideal location because you get to skip the masses of people while still being close to everything you might want to do - let's just say it's a classier part of town. From the hotel, you are within a half mile walk of the hottest restaurants in town on Larimer and an easy walk over the bridge to the trendy Highlands area (check back for a recap of our food tour in this part of town). The Free Mall Ride stops just a half block up the street and takes you into the center of town in about 20 minutes and Uber rides only cost about $5 to get within a few miles. Saying that, the best way to cruise around town is in the hotel's complimentary Tesla car service, which will take you anywhere within a 2 mile radius and pick you up whenever you're ready to head back. It's available on a first come, first serve basis, but we never once had a problem. Just call or text a few minutes ahead of time and it'll be there waiting - an epic way to see Denver!
The curtis hotel
Set in the heart of downtown Denver - The Curtis Hotel is the best, high energy, boutique hotel in all of Colorado. If you picture a place where all of your childhood memories from music to movies, to tv and games have exploded to life around every corner – then you’ve just landed at The Curtis Hotel.
Over the last two years, this Doubletree hotel has been completely renovated and transformed from a typical tower hotel to the epicenter of pop culture nostalgia. Just across from the Performing Arts Center and just 2 blocks from bustling 16th Street, it is the perfect spot for both exploring tourists and business travelers to experience the best that Downtown Denver has to offer. With welcoming and accommodating staff, extremely pet friendly accommodations and delicious dining, The Curtis Hotel has become one of my favorite spots to visit while in town.
Now, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels in my day, but this is the first time I’ve ever shared a room with Spock… yes, Spock from Star Trek. Being somewhat of a closet Treky – I was thrilled when I was given the key to my very own Star Trek suite, fully equipped with all of the essentials – super comfortable King sized bed adorned with a furry Tribble, flat screen TV, mini fridge, life size Spock, full Star Trek Wall Mural and all of the historical literature pertaining to Stark Trek a girl could ask for. I had just landed in dork heaven and was as giddy as a nerd at Comic Con.
Each floor of the hotel has it’s own theme – everything from the Science Fiction floor on 8 to the Horror Movie floor on level 13 (of course). As you venture throughout the lobby, you are reminded of why being a kid was so fun – toys, candy, bright colors and games, but all presented in a way that only adults could appreciate. Each detail is perfectly displayed to exibit a modern/retro artistic flair to transport you to better times – without the clutter, germs and chaos that normally comes with... well, kids.
Overall, I would highly suggest this outrageously fun hotel - for the service, the quality of the stay and the incredibly central location.
Dining Options Fit for Foodies
I was honestly surprised by the quality and caliber of the Denver food scene and I've now added it to the list as one of my favorite food cities. High end restaurants and artisan options seemed to be on every corner and I truly struggled to narrow down the options because there were so many I wanted to visit. We spoke with dozens of locals who repeatedly explained that Denver is growing and changing in a great way, especially when it comes to food. Our itinerary packed in a wide variety of dining options, but I hope to be back soon because there are so many places I didn't get a chance to try.
Vesta Dipping Grill
It's rare these days that I find a restaurant with a new concept that actually works, but Vesta Dipping Grill has done it and done it well. The restaurant serves modern American fresh, seasonal ingredients in an upscale environment, without being stuffy or pretentious. Each course is inventive and playful, with various grilled meat and fish options with a twist... 25+ homemade dipping sauces to choose from. One might think (like I originally did) it's like a fondu or something? No, nothing that cheesy, just an array of sauces to go with your meal. The sauces range from pineapple pedy marmalade to smoked onion creme fraiche (my personal favorite), all made fresh with quality ingredients to enhance the flavor of your dish. Each dish comes with a list of suggested sauces or you can choose three of your own, giving you a variety of flavor profiles . My husband is a huge sauce guy and he couldn't get enough of it - mixing and matching, dipping and dunking - he was like a little kid gone to flavor heaven.
We had roughly 4 1/2 courses throughout the evening and each one was just as delicious as the next, giving us something beautiful to look at while also tasting great. Everyone's meals came out perfect and my only complaint would be that my yellowtail was dry and overcooked. I'm sure if I had said something, it would have been redone, but I didn't so that's partially on me.
Finally, I have to comment on the excellent service. From the moment we walked in the door, we were given A+ treatment from everyone starting with the hostess to the food runners, the server Erin (she was lovely!) to the manager, Nick. Even though it was extremely busy, we never felt ignored or unattended to, but they apologized nonetheless. And it wasn't just us, I observed the tables around us also getting the VIP treatment, showing me that they put great pride in their customer service, ensuring that each person that walks through the door feels special.
Here are some delectably delicious highlights:
The shrimp & grits created the perfect bite where the shrimp alone would have felt over seasoned and the grits under seasoned, together made for a mouth watering appetizer.
The roasted porcini mushroom with peach vinaigrette with micro greens was a surprisingly flavorful and fresh amouse bouche, leaving us wanting more.
The Chinese pork belly bite with yuzu mayonnaise was cooked to crispy perfection.
We all had the wine pairings with our food which paired delightfully with each dish, highly suggested.
The chocolate cookie ice cream sandwiches with peanut butter cup ice cream, hot fudge and blackberry jam was a fantastic end to a fun and delightful meal. Dessert is almost always my favorite course of the meal and this one packed a flavor punch leaving a hardcore craving bruise in my mouth.
Colt & Gray
For an upscale, refined dining experience with flavors of epic proportions, you'll want to come to Colt & Gray. I first heard about it a couple years ago while watching an episode of "Best Thing I Ever Ate" on the Food Network that showcased their Sticky Toffee Pudding - and I said to myself "I must have that!" Unfortunately, the first time I tried to go there, they were closed (poor planning on my part), so I had to wait almost another year to try it for myself - but let me tell you it was worth the freakin wait! Talk about rich, sweet, decadent perfection topped with bourbon ice cream - yumm!! But, to my surprise, that was just one of the many highlights of my meal... here's all of the tasty details.
First of all, definitely make reservations. The restaurant can get decently crowded and you can expect it to be on the loud and lively side (something that didn't bother us at all). The service is excellent and attentive. The servers are extremely knowledgeable and are a great help in navigating the menu, for both food and drinks. They have an impressive wine and cocktail menu and the dinner menu does change seasonally to highlight fresh, local ingredients, but there are certain staples that thankfully won't disappear.
From start to finish, my friend and I were pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness that went into the food. Each dish is gorgeously prepared, pleasing your visual senses just as much as your pallet. Most of what we ordered were from the Spring menu and are no longer available - so I won't get you too excited by naming each one. However, I will suggest the bone marrow starter as it just melted in my mouth (it even turned my friend who had never had bone marrow before into a believer). You probably can't go wrong with anything on the menu, which is saying a lot because I rarely like everything I order, but in this case I absolutely did. This is one place I'll be visiting every time I come to Denver!
Halfway through the meal, my friend and I were escorted downstairs where we met the head chef. He showed us where some of the behind the scenes magic happens - what few would know, is that just below the dining room, the chef ages and cures all of the restaurant's meats. It was impressive to see the creativity, art and patience that goes into his culinary creations.
If you're not in the mood for fine dining and would prefer more of a speak-easy vibe, head downstairs to Ste. Ellie where you can mingle freely with an old fashion in one hand and a burger in the other. You don't get more bar history than this place, which was once one of the oldest bottle factories in Denver. You feel as if you've stepped back in time and you're in on a secret that only those who can pull off a discreat handshake or code word know about. Luckily for me, they let anyone in, since I'm clearly not that cool.
With James Beard Award winning Chef Jennifer Jasinksi in the kitchen, Rioja is known as one of the best restaurants in the city. Located in romantic Larimer Square, this Mediterranean influenced foodie destination showcases the best of Denver's seasonal ingredients. I have to be honest with you though - I didn't understand the hype. The portions were small, prices were high, service was mediocre, tables were crunched together like sardines and flavors were forgettable. Keep in mind that this is a local favorite and highly acclaimed restaurant in Denver, so my opinion is not a common one. Unfortunately, I won't be going back with all of the other fantastic options that are available.
Sassafras serves hometown, savory breakfasts with an extremely inventive menu. Be sure to call ahead to let them know you're coming so you don't have to wait for too long... this is a popular local favorite. We licked our plates as we left full and happy - enjoy the egg-porn below.
Set in the Washington Park area is where you'll find Devil's Food, this picture perfect, vintage bakery and restaurant is serving up homemade American classics and a crowded counter of pastries that will break anyone's diet. I did hours of research before settling on a brunch spot and although Devi's Food was about a 15 minute Uber ride away, I had a feeling it was going to be worth the trek... and it most definitely was. This quaint neighborhood restaurant is serving up some of the best breakfast dishes around, including strawberry crepes, incredibly creamy cheese grits and fried chicken and waffles just like my grandma made (in full disclosure, my grandmother never made me chicken and waffles but it sounded right). Know that weekends are busy and the wait can be over an hour, so get there early. We actually enjoyed the wait because we had time to explore the adorable little shops that line both sides of the street. I'd also suggest taking some pastries to go - we were on our way to visit friends who just had twins so we packed a rather large box of assorted cookies, tarts, and whatever desserts my eyes were drooling over and we ferociously ate through that box like we were zombies in the apocalypse. So yeah... it was pretty awesome.
Pigtrain Coffee Co.
Located in Union Station is Pigtrain Coffee Co.. Their moist Morning Bun was my favorite pastry in town and they have a fabulous tea selection. I've made sure to stop here both times I've come to Denver and it has yet to disappoint.
Experiences and Attractions
Afternoon Food Tour of the Highlands
My husband and I often like to book food tours when we are in a new city because they provide visitors with a tasty glimpse of a wide variety restaurants and you get a knowledgeable point of view from a local food expert. However, my husband didn't really like any of the options he found so he decided to make his own food tour! After some research, the Highlands was the perfect location for a walking culinary tour of the area. Here's what was on the list! P.S. I'm very proud of him for doing this since he is definitely not the organized one of the two of us... what a guy!
Little Man Ice Cream
Little Man Ice Cream is Denver's favorite ice cream. We tried 6 flavors (in kid sizes, don't judge us!) and each and every one was fantastic! We've been to a lot of ice cream joints now and often places try to hard to be cool, making flavors like jalapeño corn or balsamic vinegar something... but Little Man focuses on sweet, twists on classic, delicious flavor combinations that don't disappoint. My favorites were surprisingly the vegan flavors - The Bees Knees and Munchies - as well as Salty Oreo, making such a great addition to a classic. Most definitely worth the visit and the wait!
Savory Spice Shop
Savory Spice Shop has large variation of spices and blends, including unique exotic ingredients that you won't find many places. This shop supplies many of the top Denver restaurants with their high end spices.
Masterpiece Delicatessen offers interesting takes on deli sandwiches - their specialty and my personal favorite being the White Truffle Egg Salad. Their hot sauce creations are also INCREDIBLE and my only complaint is that they hadn't started bottling them yet for me to take some home - the habanero peach is oh so creamy good!
Eat + Drink Wine and Cheese Bar
Eat + Drink offers a fabulous happy hour daily from 4-6pm with $5 glasses of wine and $10 cheese plates. Huge selection of cheeses and an impressive wine list. They also offer a "Cheap Date Night" on Tuesdays for $25, which includes a bottle of wine and a cheese plate. *The gluten free crackers are surprisingly delicious for all of my paleo and gluten free friends out there.
I began to attempt to explain the awesomeness that is encompassed in The Source, but I think they've done a better job than I ever will... so here's The Source's description:
The Source is a new generation urban market set in a former iron foundry that now houses a curated group of the most accomplished culinary tenants in the region. It aims to be a draw for the local community as well as out-of-town visitors who can experience the best of what this region has to offer in an elevated environment. The Source is where guests get a great cup of coffee in the morning, buy all the necessities for creating a meal- a great bread, specialty foods and cheeses, outstanding produce, the highest quality meat, and have the best dining experience whether in the casual setting of Comida or the modern American food of Acorn. It’s a community that offers not only great food but also flowers, beer from a brewer with a cult-like following, cocktails created with ingredients crafted on a Colorado biodynamic farm, and a bottle shop that strives to be the equivalent of the Tattered Cover bookstore for booze.
Colin and I took an Uber just to get to the RINO (River North Art District) to hit up The Source and let me tell you it was worth the money. We spent the afternoon going from storefront to storefront, loving every moment. This is a unique spot that truly celebrates the culinary artistry in the area... so head over, grab a sour beer, a taco, a pastry, some cheese and crackers and hang out!
25 Best Restaurants - 5280 Magazine
Money Saving Secrets
Denver Restaurant Week - happens twice a year | 3 course dinners for $30
Free Mall Ride - Loops around from end to end on 16th Street, stopping at every block every 3-5 minutes
Mile High On the Cheap - Blog by Laura Daily, Bryan Chavez and Clair Walter, dedicated to brining you the best deals in the city
Get all of the recommendations above in one cool, downloadable map!