Custom Cocktails

1 Sep

Recent years have seen a resurgence in artisanal everything, and alcohol is no exception.  From craft beers to off-menu cocktails, bartenders have become the curators of our tippling experience.  I set out to find some of Denver’s best beverages, and I wasn’t disappointed.

There are no shortage of contestants vying for the crown, but let’s meet our first two entries:

Williams & Graham

  • 3160 Tejon Street in the Highlands
  • Open 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Like fellow Quest for the Best contender the Green Russel, Williams & Graham has a speakeasy vibe, complete with a secret door.  Thankfully, the drinks here easily conquer any potential element of schtick.  The well-stocked bar allows for a menu with a nice balance of classics and new creations, and the bartenders are happy to make suggestions.  Be sure to order a sandwich (the BBLT – featuring both bacon and pork belly – comes to mind) or a couple small plates, because you’ll want to sample more than one of their unique (and strong) creations.  If you’re a whiskey fan, try bartender favorite Vieux Carré: complex, spicy, and smooth.

Best kept secret: their Japanese whiskey selection.

The Squeaky Bean

  • The corner of 15th and Wynkoop in LoDo
  • Tuesday – Thursday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

This former Highlands hot-spot re-opened in LoDo, and though the focus here may be on their spectacular food, The Squeaky Bean’s bar should not be overlooked.  The nattily dressed bartenders blend old-school charm and classic mixology for a thoroughly contemporary vibe.  Their new location is open and airy without sacrificing a communal vibe, and every staff member acts like your personal host.  While Williams & Graham feels more suited for date night or a small group of friends, The Squeaky Bean is more convivial.  You won’t recognize much on the cocktail menu, which isn’t a bad thing – you can indulge your pop culture nostalgia with an Uncle Jesse, or perhaps try the Beet Street, made with – you guessed it – beets.

Best kept secret: I don’t think this qualifies as a secret since they’ve been reviewed all over town, but the food here really is spectacular.

If you want a well-crafted cocktail, you won’t go wrong with either, and there are certainly similarities – hand-cut ice, old-timey outfits, and at least four ingredients per drink for starters.  If dinner is your main focus, and you just want a surprising cocktail to pair with it, The Squeaky Bean is the clear winner.  However, if you want an evening devoted to the mysterious alchemy of the cocktail, Williams & Graham is your destination.

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Late-Night Eats: Round 1

30 Jan

After a long night out with friends, choosing the right late-night food experience is crucial.  Atmosphere, price, and the meal itself create a delicate composition that can either deliver a KO punch or ring the victory bell.

Let the late-night showdown begin:

Pete’s Kitchen

  • 1962 E. Colfax Ave, between City Park and Cheesman Park
  • Open 24 hours, 7 days

The menu at Pete’s Kitchen, one of several local spots owned by Pete himself, announces that this diner has been a Denver landmark since 1942.  I haven’t yet learned the local lore about the diner pre-Pete, who moved to Denver from Greece in ’56, but regardless, Pete knows his business.  Bustling even at 2 a.m., the breakfast burrito (pictured below) is worth the wait.  Filled with scrambled eggs, sausage, and hash browns and topped with green chili, tomatoes, onions, and cheese, this hefty burrito weighs in at reasonable $6.75.  Plus, the convivial atmosphere extends the fun of your night out – expect to run into friends, or make new ones.

Is your mouth watering yet?

Is your mouth watering yet?

Best kept secret: their French toast!  I had a love affair with my burrito, but our table-mate’s French toast caused a wandering eye or two.  Consider an order to share.

Tom’s Urban 24 Diner

  • 1460 Larimer St., in Larimer Square
  • Open 24 hours, 7 days

In the wee hours, Tom’s Urban 24 is an exercise in juxtaposition.  The well-lit diner has a hip, modern look (with a hint of a retro vibe), and they serve dishes like truffle parmesan popcorn with rosemary – this may be a diner, but it’s no greasy spoon.  But after the Cinderella hour, you’re treated to a parade of tipsy blondes wobbling on their stilettos as they try to figure out how to work a revolving door.  We also witnessed a woman leave her solitary seat at the bar and join first one group of strangers, and then another.

After sipping a refreshing grapefruit mimosa, I ordered the Larimer Square breakfast, $10, which is a typical eggs/meat/potatoes meal.  What is not typical, however, is their hash browns, which should be winning awards, if they haven’t already.  They’re more like creamy, herb-ed, pan-fried mashed potatoes.  My co-diner and I also split some lemon poppy seed blueberry pancakes, $9.50, which tasted like lemon-blueberry cake batter (delightful, but sweet).

Best kept secret: Founder Tom Ryan invented stuffed crust pizza, and also McGriddles.  Clearly, this man is a genius.

When my NYC friends visit, I plan to bring them to Tom’s Urban 24 for brunch, but for the times when I’m craving an accompaniment to a Colorado craft beer (or five), Pete’s Kitchen is the undisputed victor.  At least in Round 1…

Brunch: Round 1

15 Jan

Brunch, when it’s done well, is a thing of beauty.  It’s the perfect outing when you want to catch up with your girlfriends, and it makes day drinking classy.  Brunch in New York is a full-contact sport, so I was delighted to discover that Denver plays on the varsity team.

Let’s meet the champ and the challenger…

Snooze

  • 2262 Larimer St. in the Ballpark neighborhood
  • Open 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays; 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on weekends

In only two months, no fewer than five people have suggested I try Snooze, which seems to be “the” brunch place in Denver.  The title is not unearned.  The pancakes…oh, my goodness, the pancakes.  Before you get to the pancakes, however, you will have a lengthy wait, but they’ve got cups for self-serve coffee and a heated outdoor area for you and 50 of your closest friends until you get seated.   But then, there are the pancakes.  My co-diner had pineapple upside down pancakes (which turned out to be cloyingly sweet), and I had sweet potato (which were juuust right).

Best kept secret: their sustainability initiatives.  Snooze has a different project each month, conserving everything from water to space in a landfill.

Jelly

  • 600 E. 13th Ave. in Capitol Hill
  • Open 7 am to 3 pm every day

If anything is worth braving Capitol Hill parking (which is probably its own circle of Hell), it’s Jelly.  This small, cheery eatery has cozy booths, a coffee bar, and made-to-order donut bites.  The wait to be seated rivals Snooze, and on cold winter days you might find yourself in a passive-aggressive battle for bench space with a guy in dreadlocks.  Or so I’ve heard…

I went savory instead of sweet this time and chose the Sweet Potato Hash (I really like sweet potatoes, apparently), and it was a holy union of sweet potatoes, regular spuds, onions, peppers, chorizo, and two fried eggs.  Served alongside was a homemade biscuit and raspberry jelly (also homemade).  Their Bloody Mary has fun garnishes (including a pickle), our coffee cups were never empty, and we wanted to be friends with our waitress.

Best kept secret: the coffee bar sells day-old biscuits at a discount!

This competition went into double overtime (which brings back upsetting flashbacks of the recent Broncos/Ravens game), but it’s my (self-imposed) duty to pick a winner, so Jelly is moving onto the second round!  You’ll have a great brunch at either, but I love an underdog.  And fried potatoes.

School Lunch Redux

14 Dec

While living in NYC, I was horrified to discover that many of my coworkers lacked (what seemed to me) basic culinary knowledge.  I once mentioned biscuits and gravy and was asked, “wait, like, brown gravy?”  No, people.

The most disturbing was the corn dog phenomenon.  One colleague said she had only recently learned about corn dogs, so I conducted an informal survey, and this is how it went:

“Thomas, do you know what a corn dog is?”

“Um, I think I saw one upstate once.  What is it?”

“It’s a hot dog in fried cornmeal dough.”

“Gross.”

Needless to say, I’m happy to be living in a city that appreciates old school classics – hence, Lunch Food Redux.  Let’s meet our contenders.

Euclid Hall – Delhi Corn Dog

  • 1317 14th St., Larimer Sq.
  • Chicken curry corn dog, served with Thai red curry ketchup.
  • $5

Euclid Hall is the younger sister of Rioja, a Mediterranean favorite around the corner in charming Larimer Square.  Euclid Hall’s menu has plenty of sausage and schnitzel options, but I do not exaggerate when I say this corn dog might change your life.  My co-eater and I are still talking about it weeks later.  The curry ketchup adds enough spice to balance the sweetness of the batter, which is light and crispy.

Best kept secret: Euclid Hall’s upstairs is like a square doughnut – through the open area, you can spy on the unsuspecting diners downstairs.

Green Russell – Pigs in a Blanket

  • 1422 Larimer St., also in Larimer Sq.
  • Pork belly pigs in a blanket, served with three fancy mustards.
  • $12

To find the Green Russell speakeasy, you have to descend a set of stairs and enter Wednesday’s Pie, where you push through the swinging door marked “no entry.”  The intrigue is cut slightly by the seating hostess in the pie shop who asks if you’re having drinks at the Green Russell and then leads you through to the illicit cocktail bar.  Regardless, it’s a cool spot.  Their pigs in a blanket are like if ham and bacon had a baby and swaddled it in golden puff pastry – a definite step up from what your lunch lady used to serve.  Plus, your lunch lady probably never custom-designed a cocktail for you based on “whiskey, citrus, ginger, not sweet.”  If she did, I’d like to sub at that school.

Best kept secret: the bar itself!

The Lunch Food Redux winner is…Euclid Hall’s Curry Corn Dog!

If this had been a watering hole contest, Green Russell would take the prize, but for our purposes, Euclid Hall’s Curry Corn Dog is the stuff of dreams.  If I happen upon a phenomenal “steak and gravy” (please tell me you know what that is), we’ll revisit with another round!

Happy Hour: Round 1

12 Dec

Denver has so many great restaurants and bars, it’s going to be a difficult task to find the city’s best happy hour.  Lucky for all of us, I like a challenge.

Let’s meet our Round 1 competitors:

Lowry Beer Garden

  • 7577 E. Academy Blvd. in Denver’s Lowry neighborhood.
  • Happy Hour: M-F, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Weekend 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Lowry Beer Garden, though it’s a bit out of the way, is a strong contender for happy hour with $3 draft pints of local craft beers.  The picnic tables are great for a group of coworkers or friends.  The bartenders are friendly and will happily offer you a taster before you commit to a pint, and they serve burgers and brats if happy hour turns into dinner.  Also, the Air & Space Museum is next door, and the B-52 bomber out front makes for interesting scenery.

Best kept secret: when they’re showing a game, they extend happy hour through its conclusion.

Caveau Wine Bar

  • 450 E. 17th Ave. in Uptown
  • Happy Hour: 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily

Caveau Wine Bar is charming: its cozy atmosphere is ideal for date night or catching up with a few close friends.  During happy hour, drafts are $3, but this is the place to splurge on vino – glasses of wine $13 and up are half off, and those $12 and under are an accessible $6.  If you’re hungry, they’ve got small plates – try the meatballs (or, if you’re vegetarian, go for the tiny grilled cheeses).

Best kept secret: Travel + Leisure featured Caveau as one of “America’s Best Wine Bars.”

After careful consideration, our Round 1 Winner is…drumroll, please….

Caveau Wine Bar!

Lowry Beer Garden is better when you’re with a crowd, but Caveau Wine Bar’s happy hour wins based on variety and the bar’s location.  We’ll see how Caveau holds up next round!

Quest for the Best.

7 Nov

Hello friends!  After six and a half years in New York City, I’m excited to explore my new city: Denver!

On my quest to find the Mile High City’s best, I’ll consult 5280 magazine for guidance, as well as the expertise of Coloradan friends…but I’m also hoping the Universe will help me stumble upon some cool stuff.

Thanks for joining me on this new adventure!