Not only a (still expanding) hub for great suds, FoCO is also home to craft spirits, a new museum, dining gems and a fairy tale house where you can make your own shoes
By Shauna Farnell
Colorado’s long-standing capital of craft beer, Fort Collins has in the last couple of years also become a destination for boutique lodging, craft booze, culinary delights and one-of-a-kind cultural offerings. Cautiously navigating the COVID-19 pandemic (you must wear face-coverings indoors and follow strict guidelines for seating and physical distancing at most businesses), the northern Colorado college town is more worth exploring than ever thanks to these new haunts.
The Armstrong Hotel – Smack in the middle of Old Town with easy walking access to everything, The Armstrong is nearly 100 years old but underwent a major remodel this spring. The boutique hotel features funky chic rooms ranging from queen studios to spacious, one-bedroom suites, all with massive bathrooms and quirky artwork. The recent renovation, which added nine rooms, holds true to the historic architecture’s Art Deco motif, expanding the concept of the resident jazz lounge/supper club – Ace Gillett’s – into a lobby and patio hot spot: Ace Café. Adding to FoCO’s already world-class brunch offerings, the café is abuzz on the weekends with hard-to-beat creative cocktails and a Wafnut concoction (half donut, half waffle) that will likely become your all-time favorite sweet treat.
The Reserve at Old Elk Distillery – Situated at the northeast end of Old Town, this tasting room for the 2016 Old Elk Distillery sprang up in late 2018. Offering some of the tastiest barrel-aged brown liquor around, a flight of distinctively delicious whiskey (the Straight Wheat and Sour Mash Straight Bourbon Whiskey tied for favorites) is guaranteed to warm your belly as the days get colder. The cozy taproom also offers refreshing, dangerously potent sippers with Old Elk’s gin and vodka. Head mixologist Melinda Maddox whips up all of the syrups by hand – rose sage, lavender, botanical spice, cherry, bitters, etc. The Colorado Rose Gin & Tonic and anything from the Old Fashioned menu must not be missed. Thankfully, the Reserve also offers an expansive menu of creative bites to soak it all up, including burgers, flatbreads and deviled eggs.
Colorado Shoe School – Head out of town to the tiny hamlet of Bellvue en route to Lory State Park and you might notice a fairytale-like homestead encircled by a handmade log fence featuring a Dr. Seuss-like birdhouse village atop a tower of chairs. Upon further exploration, you’ll notice the fence encompasses a vintage train car transformed into a guesthouse, a vast garden of sculpture projects and a colorful workshop where you can make your own shoes. Annabel, a costume designer who worked for Cirque du Soleil and contracts for Colorado State University’s theater department, was performing on stilts while Dan Reader was juggling flames at the same circus-themed party. An obvious match, the two later married and opened the Shoe School as one of their many, many creative endeavors. Using a beloved old jacket, bowling bag or even a bike tire, students of all ages and backgrounds are welcome to attend workshops (ranging from a few hours to a few days) where all they need are a few tools, materials and special machines to make a set of footwear they can claim is all their own.
Little on Mountain – Situated on the corner of a tree-lined residential street, this tiny restaurant is about as unassuming as it gets. However, the ever-growing crowd on the lawn every evening knows that this Little place ranks among America’s fine dining gems. Trout cooked to perfection with a side of corn in brown butter, melt-in-your-mouth burrata accompanied by slices of perfectly ripe, seasonally fresh fruit and a unique, vibrant wine list representing the globe’s best grapes are but sample tokens of what Little has lurking in its tastebud-enticing lair. Owned and managed by a team of career culinary and beverage artists, Little opened its doors last February as a 21-seat corner lounge with counter seating. It then faced the need for sudden reinvention when COVID hit. For winter, the cozy patio space will be enclosed in glass and although owners hope one day to return it to its drop-in, first-come, first-serve M.O., Little will run by reservation for its small, socially distanced dinner setup.
Jessup Farm – Occupying a plot of land that was an actual farmstead operated by the Jessup family for several decades dating from the early 1900s, this collection of restaurant, brewery and artisan village is an off-the-grid oasis well worth a visit. The Farmhouse is the centerpiece, a restaurant situated in the Jessup’s original red brick home that specializes in fresh brunch and linner dishes sourcing ingredients from as many local farmers and purveyors as possible, including the produce surrounding its own expansive patio. Arugula, mint, tomatillo, and berries grow throughout the property. Whether it’s a towering chicken sandwich, zucchini noodles, fresh donut of the day, lavender margarita or sour raspberry beer from the Jessup Farm Barrel House, you know whatever you’re eating or drinking is as fresh as it gets.
Stodgy Brewing – The number of breweries is getting difficult to count in this beer-crazed town, but this new neighborhood brewhouse, in spite of its unfortunate timing of opening during the pandemic, appears to be an instant hit. Situated in an old log cabin that used to sell fireplaces on the outskirts of town, Stodgy’s lawn is sprawling and sprinkled with tables and chairs made from raw split trees. There is a rotating food truck onsite daily and while the suds list is short, it’s high-quality, comprised of something for everyone. The standouts are the tart and refreshing Gose and the chocolatey, winter-ready Stout.
The Regional – Having just celebrated its second anniversary, this classy bistro on the outskirts of Old Town is not afraid to get artistic with its drinks and dishes. Also, the place will tell you where every item on your plate came from, many from local farms. Take the signature appetizer, for example, the Fried Oyster Mushroom, sourced from right up the road, presented in a small flower pot, perfectly spiced and served with a housemade tzatziki sauce. Or the Flank Steak and carrots from another farm a few miles away, served in a light curry sauce. True, there are no oysters from Colorado, but The Regional’s assortment are flown in fresh from thoughtful purveyors from coast to coast (from Long Island to Puget Sound). Eats aside, the ever-changing craft cocktails alone make a visit worthwhile, a winter standout the Smokey Toki – blended whiskey with orange walnut bitters.
Union Bar and Soda Foundation – Located in Old Town’s expanding River District, this spacious haunt is a modern, vaulted ceiling diner that makes its own sodas as well as a variety of creative beverages including cocktails, adult shakes and spiked coffee. Its comfort dishes range from green chili breakfast burritos to tuna melts and housemade mushroom walnut veggie loafs. Its patio is enormous, featuring cabana-style tables and plenty of space inside and out.
Museum of Discovery – Opened over the summer, this spectacular source of insight delves into categories ranging from animals, energy and instruments to bikes and the brain. The colorful array of exhibits includes a station where you can simulate wind energy with a wheel onto shimmering mirrors, make music with reckless abandon, feel as if you’re speaking directly to a hologram video of a person describing their journey through a mental health challenge and peer directly into the eyes of a bright green frog or coiled-up python. Without a doubt, this new museum is the place to keep kids not only entertained but educated on a winter day, but also presents a fascinating treasure of history, science and learning for visitors of all ages.