Usually, experiencing multiple seasons in a city requires multiple visits. Not so in Denver where weather can swing from sunshine to snow flurries within 24 hours—as it did on my last visit. A hassle to dress for, it did at least allow me to experience the warm and cool versions of Denver …
When I rolled into Union Station, the skies were blue, the temperatures balmy. The Hotel Indigo has a cheerful, Converse-wearing staff as well as a resident golden retriever. Rooms are nicely appointed—rain showers and Aveda products in the bathroom, desks that serve equally well as workstation or impromptu cocktail bar. The design leans minimal, highlighting views of the original Beaux Arts Union Station and the white, sail-like structure of the new one. The neighborhood is in the midst of a construction boom, as is seemingly all over Denver. Most of the buildings run to bland boxes, but there are a few interesting structures taking shape.
The Museum of Contemporary Art’s two floors and roof garden lend themselves to getting your culture on without losing out on a lovely day. Exhibits focus on a single artist, like the recent Basquiat Before Basquiat that featured the artist’s early life in New York’s East Village art scene and current shows on photographer Ryan McGinley and portraitist Jenny Morgan. The nearby Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen has the cleaned-up industrial decor popular in many Denver restaurants, but creates its own vibe with an ’80s goth/New Wave soundtrack (Siouxie! Sisters of Mercy!) and witty touches such as cocktails inspired by daytime talk shows (the Sally Jesse Raphael is Scotch and Lillet, while the Stripper Week naturally involves flavored vodka). The menu is solid comfort food, such as fried chicken with waffle and duck poutine.
The Star Bar seems to be an unassuming neighborhood hangout where friendly regulars play the jukebox and foosball. But its beer and whiskey selections lift it above the ordinary. The bartenders will serve you a can of PBR and a shot of well or a pour of Hakushu 12 Years Old whisky and a draft of Great Divide Nadia Kali Hibiscus Saison—neither with attitude. The Star Bar encourages patrons to grab takeout from one of the nearby eateries. I suggest Biker Jim’s, where the tricked-out gourmet hot dog rises above cliché. Choose your dog—beef, chicken, elk jalapeño cheddar, duck cilantro—and a set of toppings that have been balanced to work together (“the International” is Wasabi aioli, caramelized apples and shaved Irish cheddar).
Seven days a week, solid jazz and R&B players heat up the tiny stage at El Chapultepec jazz club. Opened in 1933, the bar has a checkerboard tile floor and red vinyl walls covered with glossies of decades’ worth of jazz players, names both familiar and obscure. Sinatra and Basie have played here (so did Bill Clinton, even), and Jack Kerouac used to slouch in a booth to dig the sounds. Feeling a bit late-night noshy? Look for the guy outside with the cooler full of homemade burritos…
When the cooler weather rolled in, I was glad to be in a hotel with a welcoming fireplace. There’s a little Twin Peaks vibe in the scarlet hallways of the Kimpton Hotel Monaco, although the comfortable beds and helpful staff will quickly put you back at ease. Rooms are high-ceilinged and big-windowed, with tall Alice in Wonderland headboards. The trademark Kimpton happy hour is boosted by a lobby that’s part Moroccan palace and part mountain lodge, as well as outstanding local beers on tap.
The Denver Art Museum is seven floors of exhibits that draws visitors in with activities and interactives related to the artworks. One of the current exhibits, Mi Tierra, features work by Las Vegas’ own Justin Favela, whose “Fridalandia” depicts Frida Kahlo’s garden in paper and piñata. Other intriguing exhibits included Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Designers 1980s–90s (getting a jump on the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s Rei Kawakubo exhibit) and Shade: Clyfford Still/Mark Bradford, a collaboration with the adjacent Clyfford Still Museum. Need a cocktail after all that culture? The nearby Nob Hill Inn may be a dive bar, but it’s got an exhibit, too: An owner was an amateur artist and, along with the mock-Picasso vodka bottle still life and faux-Manet nude, there’s an infamous painting of a clown surrounded by (screaming? laughing?) children. Have a few cheap drinks and it won’t seem quite so disturbing.
Denver has two Tattered Cover bookstores, both overflowing with new and used books on everything from politics to poetry, with plenty of comfortable seats for perusing. The oldest bar in Denver has no sign, but My Brother’s Bar has been around for more than a century: The old tin ceiling and oak bar are still intact, classical music plays over the sound system and there’s an array of books scattered around should you prefer reading to scrolling. Grab a beer or warm up with an Irish Coffee, complete with a swirl of whipped cream and a drizzle of emerald green Crème de Menthe. The burgers are outstanding—thick, juicy, served wrapped in waxed paper atop a lucite box of pickles, onions and assorted condiments.
Throwing not quite as far back but further upscale is the Cruise Room at the Oxford Hotel, a sleek art deco bar modeled after a lounge in the Queen Mary that opened the day after Prohibition was repealed in 1933 (it was also recently the set of a Jack White video). Savor a Rum Shandy or Champagne Cobbler and admire the elegant modern bas reliefs of Spain, Scotland and Sweden. Also, bask in the knowledge that the rosy lighting makes everyone look like a well-rested 25-year-old.
As the name indicates, Hearth & Dram highlights the offerings from its collection of more than 300 whiskeys and its wood-fired grill. Crab beignets are a light yet rich take on the crab cake, while the smoked sirloin with red wine is unique yet delectable—just enough smoke to flavor but not overpower the meat. Side dishes are treated like stars in their own right: Hen of the Woods, sautéed mushrooms with celeriac puree for a taste as rich as foie gras, and even onion rings get a cayenne-spiced tempura finish that raises them above the ordinary. Lovingly crafted cocktails (may I suggest the Oxford Comma) make a nice nightcap that’ll keep you warm against the Denver cold—unless, of course, it’s spring again by the time dinner ends.