It's a rare day when we don't get the customary restaurant request — everything from "Where should we go for happy hour?" to "What's the best chef's counter in the city?" So, to answer those lingering questions (and everything in between), we've compiled this handy cheat sheet featuring the Mile High City's best venues to satisfy just about every want and desire.
Celebrating a Girl's Night Out (without breaking the bank) at Rioja
The lounge at Rioja, one of Denver's see-and-be-seen scenes, is always pulsing with energy. And the kitchen, overseen by Jennifer Jasinski, recently unleashed its Sips and Snacks menu — an extension of happy hour that features a quartet of wine or cocktails matched with the same number of bite-sized eats for just $15. The tastings, offered Monday through Friday from 4-6 PM, change weekly, which means that there's never room for boredom. Upcoming themes include cava (week of March 28); gin cocktails (week of April 4); tempranillo (week of April 11); tequila cocktails (week of April 18); Greek wines (week of April 25) and punches (week of May 2).
1431 Larimer St.; 303-820-2282
Family-Friendly Dining at Brider
The fast-casual phenomenon started with homegrown chain Chipotle. And we've since embraced the growing trend — especially when it produces restaurants like Brider, Steve Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton's counter-serve follow-up to Boulder's Oak at Fourteenth and Denver's Acorn. Here, amidst a modern space with bright green accents, fast-casual is an elevated proposition with a superb rotisserie kitchen, the best French dip we've had all year (pictured) and morning glories that include a sausage-and-cheese-stuffed pretzel and apple fritters. It's the ideal spot for families who want really good food but don't have the time for a long, leisurely meal, especially if you're toting around kids with short attention spans.
1644 Platte St.; 303-455-3084
Chef's Counter Dining at Bar Dough
Here's the thing about chef's counters: They come with dinner and a show. There are a few that we love –– TAG, Guard and Grace, Work & Class, Panzano and ChoLon to name a few –– but there's something about the chef's counter at Bar Dough that makes us want to fight like hell for a stool. Maybe it's the warmth of the wood-fired oven (or just the sheer beauty of it) or the intimacy of only five seats. It could also be the immediate gratification of the scent of charred pizzas. Or perhaps it's the fact that you can banter with a crew of highly skilled chefs. Truth be told, it's all of those things — plus the utterly fantastic food exec chef Max MacKissock and his team consistently deliver to appreciative crowds.
2227 W. 32nd Ave.; 72-668-8506
A Lively Night Out, Communal Style, with Foodie Friends at Hop Alley
Chef Todd Somma will tell you that Hop Alley really isn't that busy –– that the newish Chinese hot spot from owner Tommy Lee (Uncle) is only doing "maybe half of the business" it's capable of. We're a little bemused by Somma's claim, because we've been to Hop Alley on several occasions –– and trust us: It's an animated riot of buzz and bodies, especially at the 10-seat community table. There's not a bad seat to be had: Sit on the south side, and you peer into the open kitchen; sit north, and you've got a view of just about every table in the room. And while a lot of community tables don't foster conversation (isn't it ironic?), this one definitely does. Not only do strangers become fast friends –– we've also witnessed (and partaken in) the sharing of numerous dishes, which is the whole point of Hop Alley's menu. It's a communal table that more than embodies its purpose.
3500 Larimer St.; 720-379-8340
A Craft Beer Experience with Beer-Appropriate Pub Grub at the Bull & Bush Brewery
When you're in the mood to belly up to a bar –– a bar that symbolizes sociability –– knock back a craft beer and suck down a sausage (beer's best pairing), it's the Bull & Bush or bust. Nowhere but here do you have access to an ever-changing syllabus of excellent brews (house and guest taps) and a menu that ballyhoos the best bangers this side of Ireland. They're served on a cast-iron skillet and paired with mashed tubers and a liberal scoop of green chile. We've been at that bar when just about everyone on a stool has a plate of bangers under their nose, along with a pour of the Bush's prized Tower ESB, which is actually an ingredient in the bangers. No wonder the dish is called Extra Special Bangers and Mash.
4700 Cherry Creek Dr.; 303-759-0333
First-Date Frolicking (Splurge-Style) at Cafe Marmotte
First dates don't always go as planned, but for the sake of argument, let's say that you've got a very good feeling. Let's assume, too, that an oh là là vibe romantic atmosphere is a requisite, as is lovely food and wine. All of that –– and more –– exists at Café Marmotte, a relatively new French restaurant in Wash Park that's ideal for paramours. Share the steak tartare paired with prosciutto deviled eggs, and then indulge in the coq au von or braised Colorado beef. If things are going as planned, stick around for a plate of beignets jazzed up with chocolate sauce and espresso crème anglaise.
290 S. Downing St.; 303-999-0395
First-Date Frolicking (Bargain-Style) at Marion Street Tavern
If, on the other hand, your budget is tight: hit up Marion Street Tavern. This newly-opened neighborhood bar and restaurant features two very different rooms: a dim-lit, moody bar that's ideal for flirtation and a brighter, more casual area for lighthearted conversation. No matter where you perch, there's history at every turn — from the black-and-white photos of old Denver, to the 500-year-old stone columns procured from the Swat District of Pakistan. To eat? The burgers are fantastic, as is the Reuben. To drink? Craft beer or a whiskey-based cocktails concocted from both familiar labels and small-batch distilleries.
1223 E. 13th Ave.; 720-583-0357
Watching the Big Game at Highland Tap and Burger
There's no finer way to spend a sports-fueled weekend than indulging in the chicken tikka masala poutine, duck-fat fries or champion-worthy burger (we love the Shroom Luva's with sautéed mushrooms, Emmanthaler cheese and white truffle aïoli) at this terrific, LoHi watering hole. It's one of a few sports bars to put as much emphasis on tailgating as it does on a spirits and beer syllabus — one boasting more than 80 brews. Still, when the home team wins, celebrations are usually marked by a collective fist pump and shots of Jameson Irish whiskey.
2219 W. 32nd Ave.; 720-287-4493
Impressing a Client on an Expense Account at Guard and Grace
There are dozens of steer temples that require you to wave around the company's AmEx, but Guard and Grace, named for chef-restaurateur Troy Guard (TAG, Los Chingones, Sugarmill, the forthcoming Mr. Tuna and more) and his daughter, is the Mile High City's reigning option for wooing business clients (and just about everyone else). Plush leather booths and banquettes stretch across the mammoth space, which also showcases an exquisite wine cellar. Study the possibilities while you're waiting for Guard's brilliant bone-in rib-eye, a 22-oz., grill-marked stunner that's well-marbled, juicy and intensely flavored with a mineral twang. For an additional $8 (not that you're counting dollar signs), elevate it with a liberal blot of foie gras butter.
1801 California St.; 303-293-8500
Entertaining Guests from Out of Town at Union Station
If you want to eat and drink ravenously while soaking in some spectacular architecture, Denver's Union Station is your siren song. The stunningly restored historic train depot — which houses nine restaurants, bars, coffeehouses and ice cream shops — is where you want to take your parents, out-of-state friends and anyone who appreciates an all-in-one night on the town. Start your journey at the Terminal Bar, which ballyhoos a solid lineup of craft beers, and then head to Stoic & Genuine (pictured up top) to slurp a dozen oysters paired with one of chef Jennifer Jasinski's signature granitas. Have dinner at Mercantile Dining & Provision (pictured), where chef Alex Seidel and his crew turn out hit after hit of beautifully composed small plates and main dishes, and end with a nightcap at the Cooper Lounge, an elegant mezzanine bar where arched windows overlook the cityscape and low-lying tables peer over the Great Hall below.