Denver’s downtown becoming hot spot for cocktails, food — and ice cream

07/15/2012 12:00 AM

07/14/2012 9:45 PM

DENVER — I never thought of Denver as much of a foodie destination, though Frasca, a 30-minute drive away in Boulder, gets heaps of well-deserved praise. But on a weekend trip a few months ago, I encountered a few meals — and a few drinks — that have me eager to return.

The LoDo (lower downtown) area has undergone an amazing revitalization and now is crowded with restaurants and bars and young professionals eager to sample them. The turnaround began with the 1988 opening of Wynkoop Brewing Co., a small-batch brewer-cum-restaurant-cum-pool hall that lured people back downtown. It’s a good place for a brew and burger; the signature pour is the Rail Yard Ale (Denver’s Union Station is just down the block) along with such creations as Rocky Mountain Oyster stout. The restaurant end offers the usual comfort-food classics, plus the occasional delicate touch (wasabi-pea-crusted ahi salad, anyone?), and the ploughman’s platter, an array of locally produced sausages and cheeses with house-made beer mustard is your best choice (but get a pretzel or two). Grab a take-home bottle of the beer mustard on your way out; I did, and I’ve used it all up already.

A bit farther away, in central Denver, sits Colt & Gray; it calls itself a neighborhood pub, but the dining room is far more handsome than any pub I’ve seen, with white tablecloths, padded leather chairs and a roaring, two-sided fireplace. The menu offers solid dishes such as grilled quail, Duroc pork chops and local trout meuniere, but the real treasures are among the bar snacks and small plates, where you’ll find an array of snout-to-tail goodies, including crispy pig trotters, braised lamb tongue over curried lentils and remarkable, thin-sliced beef hearts with beets, grilled bread and greens dressed with horseradish vinaigrette. Save room for the “potted cheesecake,” a hinged minijar with cheesecake custard and a salted-caramel topping, from which juts an orange-tuile cigar.

Back in LoDo, ChoLon is a “modern Asian bistro” with a region-hopping menu and a handful of fusion dishes you’re likely to love or hate. My friends, for instance, were split on the novel soup dumplings, which were filled with onion broth and Gruyere cheese, essentially becoming French onion soup dumplings. (For the record, I loved them.) Another novelty tops cubes of toasted bread with coconut jam alongside a dipping sauce called “egg cloud,” whipped egg whites with salt, pepper and a little sugar. The ping-pong sweet-salty interplay can be wearying, but locals swear by it. Straightforward dishes include pork-belly pot stickers with ginger mustard sauce, black-pepper short ribs with Chinese broccoli and house-made chow fun noodles, and chili-spiced crab rolls alongside a smear of sriracha mayo. The dining room is crowded, dark and deafeningly noisy, making the atmosphere yet another acquired taste.

A short cab ride away to the Highland neighborhood, you’ll find Linger, a young-people’s magnet set on a hill, offering terrific city views. The place originally was called Olinger, back when it was a mortuary, and water comes to your table in squat brown bottles meant to remind you of formaldehyde containers. Ahem. The globe-trotting menu is organized by geography, making the selections literally all over the map. Linger isn’t really a food experience, but you’ll probably enjoy the “fries” of saag paneer planks served with rhubarb ketchup, and devils on horseback, which are bacon-wrapped, goat-cheese-stuffed dates with a spicy sambal sauce.

Tired of the scene, we went down the hill for dessert at Little Man Ice Cream, an irresistible outdoor-dining and carryout spot whose building is in the shape of a milk can and whose smiling servers bop around in vintage uniforms. Ice creams, fountain creations — all delicious. I’m jonesing for some banana-pudding ice cream right now.

There is no shortage of drinking options in Denver, whose cocktail scene arguably surpasses its dining scene. Among the irresistible choices is Green Russell, a LoDo spot below street level (does that make it LoLoDo?). In true speak-easy style, the entrance leads you to a pie shop; only those in the know (which is to say, everybody) proceed down the hall to the bar entrance. Should you arrive without a reservation, you might be out of luck; this is the sort of place that admits only as many patrons as there are available seats, no standing permitted. (My companions and I wheedled three bar stools on the promise of a quick exit if need be.) There’s a list of cocktails, of course, but for the ultimate experience, just tell the bartender the sort of flavors you like (or feel like at the moment) and watch him or her create a custom drink on the spot.

I also like the Cruise Room Martini Bar, the bar in LoDo’s Oxford Hotel, which opened the day after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. The single room is awash in art deco design, its decor apparently taken from an actual salon on the original Queen Mary. The line of booths reminds me more of an ice-cream parlor than a bar. But, awash in rose-colored lighting and staffed by friendly servers, this is a great place to grab a drink.

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