Like most mountain lovers, when I visit Colorado I usually get a distant glimpse of a shimmering skyline as I bypass Denver en route to Breckenridge, Aspen, or Copper Mountain. But this time, with three days spare, I decided to tack a city scenario onto my spring ski trip.
Having heard about The Mile High City’s 300 days of sunshine, I wasn’t too surprised by the cloudless skies. But, after a foot of fresh snow at Copper Mountain, I was caught out by the intense April heat in Denver. With three days of city sauntering ahead (and only winter boots and après ski clothes) my first priority was to indulge in some sandals and a sundress.
My base at the Hotel Teatro was right near Larimer Square, an epicenter for downtown designers as well as decadent dining and nightlife. So, priorities one and two for my first foray into Denver were to find a cute breakfast spot there, preferably with people-watching pavement patio, and to buy some lighter weight garments before the onslaught of the midday sun.
The Market (above) – a gourmet coffee, deli-bakery mélange – fitted the bill for early morning sunshine on the terrace with options for speedy counter service for outdoors or sit-down menu inside. Afterwards, the one-of-a-kind shops interspersing Larimer’s eclectic eateries gave plenty of choice for spring apparel.
I was delighted, too, by the individuality of the entire street, so at odds with the cookie-cutter chainstores a couple of blocks away. So how did Larimer Square become this hub of hedonism for well-heeled Denverites? Partly history, according to John Witmer, my waiter at Ocean Prime (below) that night.
“This is where Denver began back in the mid 1850s,” he said. “We are on the oldest block in Denver where the original gold miners tent city was erected.” After a cycle of booms and busts, those temporary camps were upgraded to cabins and then banks, post office, saloons and theaters which evolved into today’s ritzy restaurant district.
As well as being an aficionado on local history, Witmer is an expert on Ocean Prime’s steak and seafood (flown in at 11am every day). He recommended the cheese fondue appetizer for the table with gooey Wisconsin cheddar and local beer and a drizzle of truffle oil to add zing. “We even add some Velveeta to create that soft texture,” admitted Witmer.
The mussels came with handy croutons to soak up the cream, garlic and ginger broth. A fount of anecdotes and information, Witmer rated beer tourism as Denver’s top tourist activity, prompting me to try out Wynkoop Brewing Co. for a tour and lunch the next day.
Another impetus for Larimer Square’s success is the locals’ desire for gentrification and innovation. “No-one who lives in Denver goes to 16th Street Mall,” says Corridor 44’s managing partner, Brian Siffermann. Where the mall is all about generic chain stores and restaurants, conversely, Larimer is all about originality. Siffermann himself is a creative Renaissance guy – into live music, writing scripts for sit-coms, skiing, opening restaurants, and launching The Crimson Room night club (also on Larimer) this September.
This champagne bar and restaurant has a huge wine list, starting with $6 glasses of house bubbles to $22 for a glass of Gaston Chiquet Tradition Brut. A daring venture back in 2005, but the elite drink has caught on with other restaurateurs. “They call me and ask how to make champagne cocktails,” says Siffermann. “Eight years ago there was no Prosecco, no sparkling anywhere. But now it is showing up.”
If you’re a fervent fan of pubcrawls and progressive parties, Larimer Square is perfect for a medley experience with everything so compact. Starting with champers at Corridor 44 my second night, I moved on to Ted’s Montana Grill (above) for bison-themed appies with lots of gluten-free options.
Browsing a few menus and ambiences, I wandered into Rioja (winner of The James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Southwest 2013) for a Mediterranean main course with great wine selections – if you’re spoiled for choice, opt for wine flights served in a trendy metal and glass contraption. Both the terrace and pavement patio at Tamayo are great for après dinner drinks.
My third night, I walked fourteen blocks of Larimer Street, experiencing its descending affluence as I travelled further from Larimer Square. Winding up in a less salubrious section of the street – to watch a band play at Larimer Lounge – I discovered Cold Crush. Set incongruously in a dingy warehouse and pawnshop area, it’s a delightful oasis of fresh fruit smoothies, organic food and sensual soul and hip hop music.
The writer was hosted at Ocean Prime, Corridor 44 and Ted’s Montana Grill. The restaurants did not review or approve this article.