By Eric Elkins –
Eating in Colorado is a traveler’s treat, with a wide range of restaurants, pop-ups, bars serving tasty bites, food halls, and even quick-service spots focusing on locally sourced menu items and creative concoctions. You can spend $10 on a bowl of pho that you’ll still be thinking about weeks later, less than $50 on a delicious array of small plates and a cocktail, or a hundred bucks on a full-on dinner for two, wine included.
But sometimes you just want to splurge. Whether it’s a special occasion, the rare date night, a vacation in a new city, or just a creative way to spend your tax refund, many Colorado restaurants offer the kind of dining that costs a little (or a lot) more and is worth every penny in quality and full-on experience.
Spending an evening at the chef ’s table in a fine restaurant can be so much more than just watching someone hustle to make your food. It can be an intimate look into the inner workings of a kitchen, the chance to see how much effort and care goes into every dish, and a rare opportunity to chat with the passionate people behind the scenes.
The chef’s table at Frasca Food and Wine is plunked down right inside the famous Boulder kitchen, tucked just out of the way of the servers zipping in and out, close enough to hear the orders called and received and to watch as the team seems to effortlessly serve up some of the best food in the nation. You might chat with co-owner and James Beard award-winning Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey about your choice of wines, or maybe one of the executive chefs will stop by to share the inspiration for the pasta dish he or she just put in front of you. Frasca’s “Quatro Piatti” menu is a four-course prix-fixe wonder, but you’ll want to add in an appetizer or two and pair it all from the vast Italian wine list. The chef ’s table experience is intimate, exclusive, and unforgettable.
The entire restaurant is a chef ’s counter at Beckon in the RiNo Art District of Denver. With only 18 seats in the whole place, formed in a U-shape around the open preparation area, you’ll want to purchase your tickets the moment they’re released at the beginning of each month. The multi-course tasting menu, largely influenced by Scandinavian flavors, changes based on seasonal ingredients available. You’ll never have the exact same meal twice. Opt for the wine pairing, but be sure to try one of their inventive and well-balanced cocktails before the first dish arrives. Each small plate builds on the previous one, meticulously formulated for a magical mix of flavors.
For super-intimate dining, visit The Bindery’s website to enter the lottery for a spot at their chef ’s table, which has a mere four seats available, right in the middle of the open kitchen, one night per week. The all-inclusive, seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings is curated specifically for the evening, with award-winning chef Linda Hampsten Fox (see page 43 for more) and her team each presenting a unique dish. Each chef brings a different approach to the table, including the uber-talented pastry crew. Entries are selected at random, and winners are notified two weeks before the dinner for confirmation.
Put a Steak In It
When it comes to beef, Colorado’s steakhouses are unparalleled. Our meat mavens know their craft, and you can find a perfectly prepared steak on just about every menu in Denver, in the mountains, and even on the plains. But if you’re looking for the true carnivore’s experience, several restaurants offer tastings that show off the differences between aging, cuts, feed, and more.
At Urban Farmer in downtown Denver, the menu developed by Chef Chris Starkus is so local, some of the ingredients come from right there in the restaurant. Urban Farmer grows their own mushrooms (be sure to order the tableside sauté), sources honey from the hives on the roof of the building, and uses produce from the chef’s own farm south of Denver. You won’t want to miss out on the dry-aged foie gras torchon, but the star of the menu is the New York Steak Tasting, which features 6-oz. slabs of sliced beef — grass-fed, grain-finished, 21-day dry aged, and 7x Colorado wagyu — to try side by side. Really want to elevate the experience? The sommelier will pair each type of steak with a different red wine for you to sip between bites. If all the meat and mushrooms aren’t decadent enough, Urban Farmer’s desserts (including honeycomb from upstairs brought down to scoop out in front of you) are absurdly delicious.
Citizen Rail’s location on the first floor of Kimpton’s Hotel Born at Union Station allows for a different kind of steak-centered celebration. Their “Taste of the Born” experience includes a night at the hotel, where the plush rooms offer views of Denver in all directions and an introduction to the restaurant’s dry aging room from Chef Christian Graves himself. You’ll want to sit at the chef ’s counter so you can watch the line at work in front of the wood-fired grill while you eat your three-course meal, which includes a side-by-side tasting of dry-aged vs. unaged New York steak. Be sure to order the Plunder Road cocktail, with the perfect balance of mezcal, clarified milk, chartreuse, and cantaloupe. It’s an unexpected delight. After dinner, cozy up in your room upstairs, or hop across the way to Tavernetta or the Cooper Lounge for a nightcap.
Eating beef at Corrida is a totally different situation. This Spanish steakhouse in Boulder is all about variety. From Colorado wagyu to a 45-day dry-aged angus tomahawk to Miyazaki eye of ribeye, you’ll get the meat sweats just looking at the menu. But don’t forget to go beyond the beef and try Basque-inspired dishes like a salt cod brandade or the oysters with gazpacho gelée. Maybe start with their cured meats and Spanish cheeses while you await the gin-and-tonic cart, and ask the tender to make recommendations on which tonic water will go best with the gin of your choice. If the weather is lovely, sit on the balcony and enjoy one of the most dramatic rooftop views in the city.
Dinner and a Show
Sure, sure, a fancy dinner is special, but sometimes you want the whole evening to be a study in spectacle.
At Nocturne, a jazz restaurant and club in Denver, you can dine while enjoying the stylings of whichever brilliant band is playing on the stage. Order dish by dish, or surrender to the “Renditions” tasting menu, a five-course journey inspired by an iconic jazz album.
As co-owner Nicole Mattson puts it, “The chef and culinary team listen to the album and research the importance of each song for inspiration to create a dish. Sometimes the rhythms of the drums remind the chef of the sound of the whisk in a bowl or sometimes the location of where the song was written inspires a regional flavor to be incorporated into the dish.”
If you’re fortunate enough to get a reservation on the evening of the new menu launch (which happens every two to three months), a band plays each song from the album while the dishes are delivered to the tables. The sommelier explains the wine pairings and the chef shares his inspiration for each plate.
“It’s an exclusive one-night event that is part Ted Talk, part Chef’s table, part concert,” says Mattson. The tasting menu is available for a few weeks after the launch.
If you’re up in the mountains, you may be interested in another kind of show. Getting up to Game Creek Restaurant in the back bowls of Vail Mountain is a special experience in its own right. Start off on the Lionshead Eagle Bahn Gondola (cozy blankets provided for the chilly trip up), and then, depending on the season, ride a snowcat or a four-wheel drive shuttle to the lodge. The place has a classic Tyrolean feel, but the food is anything but stuffy. Choose between the four-course menu or five-course sequenced chef’s table experience. And then ride back down full of food and smiles.
Beano’s Cabin up at the top of Beaver Creek is the more rustic sister restaurant, and you get there via an open-air sleigh ride in the winter. The five-course menu is full of Colorado favorites, like striped bass and roasted venison.
If food with a view is your kind of thing, make your way up to the world-famous Flagstaff House, founded back in 1971. The epic indoor and outdoor dining area overlooking the city of Boulder has breathtaking views that deepen and change as the sun goes down behind the mountains. But the Flagstaff House is more than a pretty spot — the menu, wine pairings, and service are as elevated as the restaurant. The multicourse chef ’s tasting offers plate after plate of balanced perfection, from an oyster amuse bouche to venison tenderloin. The restaurant earned its Forbes Travel Guide Four Star status for the 41st year in a row, and it shows. Be sure to order the flaming s’mores decadence for dessert. You won’t be disappointed.
Speaking of letting the chef do the curating, you may be surprised to find out that Colorado is home to fresh and delicious sushi and other Japanese dishes. And when you really want to enjoy the best a sushi restaurant has to offer, omakase (chef ’s choice), is always the way to go.
Nobu Matsuhisa’s namesake restaurants in Denver, Vail, and Aspen offer an omakase that includes way more than a few bites of fresh fish. You’ll start off with the raw goodness of three signature delights — maybe it’ll be fatty tuna tartare with white sturgeon caviar on top, followed by lightly seasoned slices of sashimi, and then a three-nigiri sampler, with a cold, fresh salad variation after that. From there, you’ll dive into two main dishes, like their umami-cured seabass and a perfectly cooked lamb lollipop (a personal favorite). A soup course (emulsified foie miso soup, anyone?) and a delicate dessert dish finish you off for real.
For an exclusive chef ’s choice experience over in LoHi, look into the “Segretto Room” at Bar Dough. This secret space fits up to 10 guests and includes a “chef-curated” dining experience, with wine or cocktail pairings to match the meal. If you’re a fan of Chef Carrie Baird, who was in the final four on Top Chef and a fan favorite (see page 40 for more about Carrie), you’ll want to reserve this space so she and her team can put together an unforgettable meal for you and your closest friends.
For one of the most fresh and mind-blowing chef’s tasting menus you find anywhere, visit Black Cat in Boulder. With the majority of its ingredients sourced from Chef Eric Skokan’s own certified organic and biodynamic 130-acre Black Cat Farm just outside the city, the menu changes constantly. This isn’t one of those tasting menus where you’ll still be hungry for a cheeseburger at the end of the evening. Each wholesome and hearty dish builds on the one before it, with seasonal flavors masterfully layered one on top of the other. Choose the premium wine pairing if you’re up for tasting a range of unique and whimsical varietals the sommelier selects specifically for each dish, working closely with the kitchen team for the perfect match or counterpoint. Black Cat’s cozy and intimate space, with its sofa booths and homey throw pillows is warm and inviting. Be sure to check their website for special farm dinners in the spring and summer!
Whether you’re looking for the finest steak dinner, an intimate or private dining experience, or just an all around special evening out, Colorado’s chefs are ready to treat you to something truly memorable and delicious.