Tucked on a somewhat steep slope across the roaring Platte River just northwest of Downtown Denver, the Mile High City’s 250 acre Highlands neighborhood is possibly the new epicenter of what is a Boomtown today for dining and drinking. Long ago we discovered that Denver’s restaurant culture status as a “Cowtown” of old west steakhouses was obsolete. Just think about the city’s importance in the craft brewing world (and host of the country’s most important annual craft brewing event, the Great American Beer Festival) and how chefs including Frank Bonanno and Jennifer Jasinski have become city royalty, almost to Elway levels.
Highland is really the “new” Denver, both when it comes to its recent emergence on the cultural scene, and if you consider so much of its architecture.
A series of three spectacular, modern bridges that all look as if they were designed by Santiago Caltrava lead you from Downtown over the Millennium Bridge to Commons Park (the unofficial official place to walk your dog or go for a jog in the city it seems), the Platte River and its lack of rapids and water, and once initially in Highland, over I-25 (Denver’s closest comparison to a Los Angeles- style mega freeway).
New shiny lofts in Highlands house many of the city’s new young tech work force and the neighborhood has a very rich Hispanic heritage, adding all sorts of charm to its mostly residential streets and three main commercial areas. West 38th Avenue to the north, the Platte River to the east, Speer Boulevard and West 29th Avenue to the south, and Tennyson Street to the west roughly define what is considered Denver’s largest neighborhood.
What exactly started the emergence of Highland as such a culinary neighborhood? Perhaps it was bacon caramel corn.The now- iconic two year old darling of Denver’s restaurant scene Colt & Gray anchors the intersection of what would be 16th Street and Platte Street right after you cross the Milennium Bridge and just before you cross the Highland Bridge. You can call Colt & Gray a cozy neighborhood bistro or gastropub in theory, but it is far more upscale and ambitious than almost anything nationwide of either genre.
Cocktails share the spotlight with a very accomplished beer and wine program. This is that rare multi-talented “da Vinci” of restaurants that pulls off the big bar trio flawlessly. Kevin Burke is in charge of what might be Denver’s premier cocktail program. A Manhattan here is spot on, but be daring and try “”In”The Computer” with Peak Spirits Riesling Grappa, lemon, Cocchi Americano, and Marie Brizzard Cacao, or the “Bottecchia,” an alluring dark Negroni inspired trio of Fernet Branca, Campari, and Cynar with a dash of kosher salt.
Nelson Perkins owns the restaurant with his wife Allison and serves as the dynamic executive chef. I’m no fan of menus that have a half dozen unspecific categories, like “bar snacks,” but don’t miss any of them, except maybe the housemade charcuterie that didn’t thrill. Start with that much lauded (really it’s not that far above Cracker Jack) bacon caramel corn and some blue cheese dusted gougères. Move to small plates, including a beautiful salade Lyonnaise rendition with frisée, a crispy poached farm egg, Hazel Dell mushrooms, and a mushroom thyme vinaigrette. Clams, textbook tender octopus, house cured creamy nduja, and giant white beans are a formidable land and sea trio together.
Larger plates are exceptional all around, whether adventurous with the perfect surf and turf mix again of sautéed sweetbreads and monkfish with melted greens, preserved orange, and a Verjus-red wine reduction, or a superlative roasted lamb leg filet, accented by citron, finished with kale and cauliflower based Romesco. The evening’s heart-pumping showstopper was a definitive beef hearts preparations, tender as Kobe filets, with marrow butter and brightened by the acidity of beers and a horseradish vinaigrette. Dessert almost always is the sticky toffee pudding with Bourbon ice cream. The toffee pudding itself is a touch dry and asks for more of the syrupy toffee sauce to make it competitive with some of the exquisite versions around, so don’t shy away from a sweet potato crème brûlée with a toasted chili marshmallow instead.
Platte Street boasts a remarkable amount of interest for being a lonely street squeezed between a major freeway and a major park. It’s truly isolated down there. Yet, here you’ll find an REI, a Starbucks (of course), Paris Wine Bar, the House of Commons, and most noteworthy, the brewery and tasting room for one of the city’s newest craft breweries, The Denver Beer Company.
You know what they make and you know where they make it just by the name. The ten or so draught beers on offer change all the time. The one stand-by is the terrific Graham Cracker porter, this time around aged in oak, that, yes, evokes s’mores. No, they don’t throw graham cracker bits into the mix. Both the Barleywine and Hallertau are very enjoyable classic versions of their genres, not pushing any envelopes either. Not far from cider, Denver Beer Co. presented a Prelude Ale brewed with apples. The runaway winner was the bold, proud to not shy away from coffee notes, Coffee Stout made with Rwanda Abarunda Kana beans.
Taking the Bridge over I-25 to what is considered LoHi (Lower Highland), at 16th Street and Central the prominent Ale House by Amato’s awaits with 40 taps, run by the Breckenridge Brewing Company (yet another Colorado craft brewery, but not based in Denver!). A block east is the third-wave coffee and laptop fueled café for the area, Metropolis Coffee, pulling terrific espresso shots with beans roasted by Seattle’s Herkimer Coffee. The other coffee spots on the must-hit list would be Café Zuri up on West 32nd Avenue, and Black Eye Coffee to the east on Navajo Street, serving beans roasted by Box Car Coffee in Boulder. For your pastrami on rye needs, the neighborhood’s deli, Masterpiece Deli, is a block west of the Ale House by Amato’s on Central.
Continuing (literally) up 16th Street to 30th Avenue you’ll find superb Coastal Mexican at Lola, Vita and its spectacular rooftop deck, housemade salted oreo ice cream served inside a giant milk jug at Little Man Ice Cream, and one of the city’s hottest restaurants, Linger. The globe-spanning, small plates destination recently was named by Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit one of 2012’s 50 best new restaurants in the country. Pinches Taco was the only other Denver representative on the list.
At this intersection, home to Hirshorn Park, 16th Street becomes Tejon Street. If you head west on 3oth Avenue, you’re really heading way east to France for a Kir Royale and incredible French small plates and charcuterie at Z Cuisine and its next door sister À Côté Bar à Absinthe.
Along Tejon Street at 32nd Avenue, grab the magnifying glass and the GPS to spot Williams and Graham. Every major American city now is required to have a 1920’s Prohibition era speakeasy as the heart and soul of the craft cocktail scene. This would be Denver’s spot, tucked inside an unmarked building, where then you’ll enter the bar through a revolving bookshelf door. Inside is as dark as you’d expect, much more boisterous and grander than the typical speakeasy. Of course, Al Capone- style slick suits and flapper dresses should be the attire. The same menu rules apply as you’ll find most anywhere of this caliber– follow the printed menu or go for the bartender’s choice. Anything with Mezcal is a hit, either “Smokey & the Bandit” where it teams with strawberry-ginger syrup and soda, or a seductive, zesty number created on the spot with Vodka, Mezcal, lemon juice, and a chili-habanero tincture. Do not get the harsh, too “Cosmopolitan” tasting “Mixology” with cranberry infused Ransom Gin, Pedro Ximenez Sherry, orange juice, and rosemary.
West 32nd Avenue is arguably Highlands’ cultural heart, with all sorts of options for dining and drinking. Grab a pint at Three Dogs Tavern just west of Federal Boulevard , a morning pastry at the Wooden Spoon Cafe, fish and chips at Mead Street Station, intriguing chicken wing variations at Fire on the Mountain, or the blue corn tortilla enchiladas with three types of chile at Julia Blackbird’s New Mexico Café, among the numerous options along the thoroughfare. The stand-out dinner destination here is the neighborhood stalwart, Duo, featuring John Broening’s simple, very refined Rocky Mountain- inflected New American cooking, and Yazmin Lozada-Hissom’s desserts that possibly gain even more attention than the restaurant itself.
At West 32nd and Lowell you’ll find Highlands Square, a shopping area with numerous worthwhile dining options. Cafe Brazil presents actual Brazilian cuisine, not just meat skewer after meat skewer. Further west, Tennyson Street is lined with restaurants of all types: the neighborhood BBQ joint Big Hoss’ and possibly Denver’s best Greek is served at Axio.s
Even further up the hill at Highlands’ northern border, 38th Avenue presents more excellent French cooking at Indulge French Bistro, the bare-bones, the no tables Mexican classic Chubby’s, and a Cubano sandwich at lunch or guava pastry after waking up at Buchi Café Cubano.
Lastly, on Federal Boulevard it’s important to try anything with green chiles at Jack-n-Grill, and to the far southeast corner of Highland, seek out the “Beet Down” cocktail at Root Down, along with enjoying dinner at the definition of a neighborhood, upscale comfort eatery.
Still hungry and thirsty? Then head back down the hill and there are no shortage of options across Denver. They just won’t be as densely concentrated as the dining riches of Highlands. Denver’s restaurant and bar scene is soaring a mile high, best represented by this exceptional neighborhood for eating and drinking.