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Denver Tourist-Trap Survival Guide

Do the Mile High City on the down-low
July 6, 2016
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by Ruth Tobias

Truth be told, tourist traps are a rarity in Denver. From the mountains to the breweries to the dynamic art scene, our attractions are all pretty legit. Which doesn't mean there aren't any tricks to getting around like a local. This guide will help you blend right in. 

Where to go if you just have to try Rocky Mountain oysters
Where outsiders get the idea that Denverites sit around chomping on chewy, greasy calf fries all day is truly beyond us. But if you refuse to remove the dangly bits from your bucket list, your best bets are The Butcher’s Bistro, where bison balls make for a surprisingly elegant happy-hour snack; The Arvada Tavern, which gives its tendergroins a local twist with green chile; and Rebel Restaurant, whose menu changes frequently but sometimes includes the likes of General Tso’s testicles. Finally, we confess we get a kick out of the offal-tastic Historians’ Platter at The Fort (pictured), a tourist-filled but super-fun ode to the Old West up in Morrison. 

The Arvada Tavern: 5706 Olde Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada; 303-690-6269
The Butcher's Bistro: 2233 Larimer St.; 303-296-2750
The Fort: 19192 Colorado 8, Morrison; 303-697-4771
Rebel Restaurant: 3763 Wynkoop St.; 303-297-3902

How to score the cheapest eats from Denver’s best known chef-restaurateurs
No time or money to go gourmet? No problem. Skip the dinner reservations at Mercantile and grab a gorgeous pastry or salad from its daytime-only market instead (pictured). Hit fast-casual Brider rather than sit-down destination Acorn for some of the city’s most memorable sandwiches; do the same at Old Major sibling Masterpiece Deli. Next door to Mizuna, Frank Bonanno’s quirky quasi-dive Vesper Lounge does bar bites and burgers right. Happy hour at Jennifer Jasinski flagship Rioja features a quartet of booze-paired hors d’oeuvres for only $15; happy-hour sake bombs and skewers at Cholon alter ego Cho77 also make for a cheap date. And health nuts can go nuts (and seeds, and whole grains) at Bubu, the bowl-slinging lunch counter below TAG.

Brider: 1644 Platte St.; 303-455-3084
Bubu: 1423 Larimer St.; 303-996-2685

Cho77: 42 S. Broadway​; 720-638-8179​
Masterpiece Deli: 1575 Central St., 303-561-3354; 1710 Sherman St., 303-832-5555
Mercantile Dining & Provisions: 1701 Wynkoop St.; 720-460-3733
Rioja: 1431 Larimer St.; 303-820-2282
Vesper Lounge: 233 E. 7th Ave.; 720-328-0314

Where to eat on a budget in Cherry Creek
Between its plethora of upscale shops and its proximity to the Denver Botanic Gardens, this neighborhood’s a major tourist magnet. It’s also notoriously high-rent, however, hence a minefield for wallet watchers – especially the ones who want to eat local. To score a real-deal meal here for $25 or less day or night, our top three indie-owned picks are Osaka Ramen, Machete Tequila + Tacos and legendary burger bar The Cherry Cricket; at lunchtime, the short list extends to GRIND kitchen + watering holeBlue Island Oyster Bar (pictured) and Harman's Eat and Drink.   

Blue Island Oyster Bar: 2625 E. 2nd Ave.; 303-333-2462
The Cherry Cricket: 2641 E. 2nd Ave.; 303-322-7666
Harman's Eat and Drink: 2900 E. 2nd Ave.; 303-388-7428
Machete Tequila + Tacos: 2817 E. 3rd Ave.; 303-333-1567
GRIND kitchen + watering hole: 300 Fillmore St.; 720-749-4158
Osaka Ramen: 2817 E. 3rd Ave.; 303-524-9229

Where to eat around the museum district
The Denver Art Museum’s own Palettes is one of those rare museum dining rooms that actually lives up to its setting. Despite what a cursory glance around the neighborhood may suggest, however, it isn’t your only option in the Golden Triangle (an especially good thing considering it isn’t open for dinner most days). Semi-hidden gems nearby include lively Caribbean escape Cuba Cuba Cafe & Bar, the ART Hotel’s sleek penthouse-level retreat FIRE and two Italian charmers: the quick-casual DiFranco’s and Lo Stella, a date-night nook specializing in Ligurian cuisine.

Cuba Cuba Cafe & Bar: 1173 Delaware St.; 303-605-2822
DiFranco’s: 955 N. Lincoln St. Unit D; 720-253-1244
FIRE: 1201 Broadway; 303-572-8000
Lo Stella Ristorante: 1135 Bannock St.; 303-825-1995
Palettes: 100 W. 14th St. Parkway; 303-534-1455

How to bypass the beaten path around Coors Field
Eating well around the ballpark is easy. From Union Station on one side to Larimer Street on the other, some of Denver’s most celebrated dining destinations are a stone’s (or better yet fastball’s) throw away. Avoiding the game-day hordes waiting in endless lines to eat well? That’s much harder. But it isn’t impossible. Along the calmer, quieter side streets northwest of the stadium, locals know that some damn fine food and drink await at the likes of Tokio, Richard Sandoval cantina La Biblioteca (pictured top) and slick New American arrival The Pig & the Sprout.

La Biblioteca: 1610 Little Raven St.; 720-904-0965
The Pig & the Sprout: 1900 Chestnut Place; 720-535-9719
Tokio: 2907 Huron St. #103; 720-639-2911

Where locals lie low around the Colorado Convention Center
Most Downtown business travelers never make it past the wildly overrated 16th Street Mall; those who do manage to escape tend to end up at steakhouses, leaving them with the false impression that Denver’s still a cowtown, if a glitzy one. It’s a shame, considering that the bright lights of LoDo begin just a few blocks away – but the truth is that there are under-the-radar gems to be discovered even closer to the convention center. Consider subterranean smokehouse Boney’s BBQ or beloved street cart Liang’s Thai Food for lunch, cozy wine bar The Greedy Hamster or the Hotel Teatro’s serenely sophisticated dining room The Nickel for dinner and stellar cocktail bar Union Lodge No. 1 for nightcaps. 

Boney’s BBQ: 1543 Champa St.; 303- 825-9900
The Greedy Hamster: 323 14th St.; 303-623-2818
Liang's Thai Food: 16th St. and Tremont St.
The Nickel: 1100 14th St.; 720-889-2128
Union Lodge No. 1: 1543 Champa St.; 720-389-0447

How not to nosh like a stoner along The Green Mile
Also known as Antique Row, this dispensary-lined stretch of South Broadway lures at least as many pot tourists as collectors these days. Hey, we don’t judge – unless you’re curing the munchies with greasy take-out slices or convenience store hot dogs. There are far more exciting, grown-up snacks to be had on your cannabis crawl: think tuna-and-egg pie at Maria Empanada, raspberry-lemon crêpes at Euro Crepes or Palenque Mezcaleria’s house snack mix of peanuts and chapulines (pictured).

Euro Crepes: 1842 S. Broadway; 303-999-8417
Maria Empanada: 1298 S. Broadway; 303-934-2221
Palenque Mezcaleria: 1294 S. Broadway; 303-997-5359

What to order if you have to go to Casa Bonita
Who better to ask about the landmark Mexican restaurant immortalized in an episode of South Park than art-scene provocateur and all-around local legend Andrew Novick? After all, the onetime frontman of punk band Warlock Pinchers and expert witness at the equally infamous Boulder Peeps trial has visited the Lakewood showcase of cliff divers, gunslingers and mariachis 277 times to date, taking “people from all over the world” on unofficial tours. His tips: 1) Ask for queso with the free chips and salsa; it’s a relatively painless way to fill up. 2) Try the Denver-style chiles rellenos in egg-roll wrappers; “they’re actually pretty cool.” 3) If all else fails, “I say, get the fajitas. They’re just like fajitas anywhere else. You can’t f**k up fajitas.” And to drink? “People used to complain that there was no alcohol in the Casaritas, but I think they’re much stronger now.” Good – you're gonna need a few. (Better yet, pop by WestFax Brewing Company right next door for a few beers first.)

6715 West Colfax Ave., Lakewood; 303-232-5115

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