By Eric Elkins
It wasn’t so long ago that the area now called River North (RiNo for short) was mostly just referred to as “north Denver.” The vibrant neighborhoods were a mix of single homes and startups, small art galleries, beloved diners, and smoky bars where up-and-coming bands would get their first shot at building a fan base. But as Denver has grown and changed, so has its surrounding communities. And though RiNo has experienced its own growing pains along the way, you can still find a taste of old Denver intermixed with newer award-winning restaurants and high-end drinking establishments.
The best way to eat and drink your way through the arts district is on foot and with an open mind.
The Daytime Wander
Whether it’s a warm autumn Saturday or a blustery Tuesday, filling an afternoon in RiNo is just a matter of preferences. Do you want to drink through the day with local beers and distilled spirits? Or maybe snack and sip and check out an art gallery or two? The district offers up all manner of possibilities.
Either way, you’ll want to get your start at Denver Central Market, a food hall where you can gird up at meat maven Justin Brunson’s Culture Meat & Cheese or slurp up poke and ceviche at Tammen’s Fish Market. You’ll find plenty of other food options as well, plus Izzio bakery and even ice cream at High Point Creamery. If you want to start the tour with a healthy buzz, be sure to settle in for a cocktail with my friends at Curio.
If you’re a beer taster, RiNo has more than a dozen breweries in the neighborhood. From OG stalwarts like Rackhouse, Great Divide, and heavy metal Blackshirt Brewing to local faves like Our Mutual Friend (OMF) and 10 Barrell, or the pioneer of sour beers Crooked Stave, you’ll find whatever style of brew hits your craving for the day. And with big brands Odell and Blue Moon serving up their beers as well, you’re likely to find an old favorite.
But don’t forget to branch out from beer and try something different! The cideries in the neighborhood have very different approaches, from dry and wine-like to fizzy sweetness. You could also taste local sake variations at Colorado Sake Company. And two wineries are bottling up goodness you won’t find anywhere else. The tasting room at Infinite Monkey Theorem is an awesome place to try their many products while enjoying food truck fare, and Bigsby’s Folly is a craft winery that serves food paired with its house-made vino.
For a vast wine list with an attitude, stop in at Noble Riot wine bar, which features the most hilarious menu in the neighborhood.
Spirits are your friend in RiNo as well, with The Block Distilling Company’s intimate tasting room (their gins are a ton of fun), and Ironton Distillery and Crafthouse which also sports an art gallery.
Feeling snacky after all those libations? In addition to Tammen’s, local chef rockstar Jeff Osaka has two restaurants in RiNo that would be perfect for an afternoon bite. If you’re looking to warm your body (and your soul), settle in for some heat at Osaka Ramen, and be sure to try the okonomiyaki fries. Or you could go a little more whimsical and take your pick of the small plates of goodness making their way along the conveyor belt at Sushi-Rama.
For another food hall with lots of options, step over the bridge to Zeppelin Station, where you can dig into a range of affordable tastiness, including Norm’s Deli (with killer pastrami), Vinh Xuong’s banh mi, and The Budlong’s Nashville hot chicken. If it’s getting into evening, head upstairs to Big Trouble, a sexy bar that serves up a Suntory highball that’ll make your day.
Other delicious daytime options include Chef Troy Guard’s Los Chingones for street tacos, Port Side for coffee and yummy breakfast sandwiches, or the wonderful Comal Food Heritage Incubator for Mexican, Syrian, and Ethiopian delights, cooked by women from underserved communities who are not only sharing traditional flavors but learning restaurant management. The food is always stellar.
If it’s late in the day, don’t miss Finn’s Manor, with its magical indoor/outdoor island vibe, kick-ass bartenders making rum (and gin and bourbon) cocktails you won’t find anywhere else, and a strong set of food trucks.
With such a range of restaurant options in RiNo, you could spend a little or you could spend a lot on your evening experience. Whether you’re looking for an impressive date night, or just a vacation splurge, RiNo’s high-end spots hold up against anything you’ll find on either coast.
If you’re already staying in The Ramble Hotel, then starting out at Death & Co or the exclusive Suite 6A (with only 21 seats) is a no-brainer (see page 24 for more).
Just across the street is the stellar Il Posto, where chef/ owner Andrea Frizzi pairs Italian dishes and wines with an upscale yet approachable ambiance. If you don’t order the beef tallow candle to get started, you’re doing it wrong.
For dinner and a show, Nocturne Jazz Club is a can’t miss. Between the killer music, inventive menu, and cool cats vibe of the place, you’ll feel like you stepped back in time. Elevate your experience even more with their Renditions Tasting Menu – meticulously developed to match the themes and aesthetic of famous jazz albums.
On the other side of the bridge in The Source Hotel, get your belly ready for serious Israeli magnificence at James Beard Award-winning Chef Alon Shaya’s Safta. The smell of fresh, hot pita will draw you in, but then you’ll want to eat everything on the menu, especially the toasty shakshuka and duck matzo ball soup. If you’re lucky enough to be there for brunch, be sure to try every bit of pastry chef Liliana Myers’ delectable delights.
Beckon is a full-on dining experience with only 18 seats, two seatings per evening, and a curated tasting menu. Each month, the culinary team devises a seasonal set of dishes and beverage pairings to go with them. Over the course of two hours, you’ll taste, sip, and savor an unforgettable multi-course meal at their horseshoe-shaped chef ’s counter. Reservations are pre-paid and go quickly, so you’ll want to plan your visit in advance.
Chef Tommy Lee’s Hop Alley is upscale, modern Chinese that also happens to be approachable, fun, and ridiculously delicious. You’ll want to try every dish on the menu, including local favorites Sichaun eggplant and Beijing duck rolls, so bring a crew with you.
While you’re over there, don’t miss Bar Helix, where local wonder Kendra Anderson has established the sexiest bar in Denver, complete with negroni flights, caviar bumps, and all the bubbly you care to drink.
Acorn, with its small plates of concentrated loveliness, has anchored the RiNo Art District since it opened in The Source Marketplace. And another high-end spot with bitesized gems of beauty is Uchi, where Chef Lucas Chandler is looking forward to dazzling diners with Kohada and Sawara this fall. You’ll want to let the chef and his team choose your journey, so be sure to go with the omakase.
The Modest Meander
You’ll find it pretty easy to eat well and enjoy RiNo, even if you’re sticking to a tighter budget. Between the neighborhood bars and approachable restaurants, affordable options are numerous.
Start your night at American Bonded, where even the high-end cocktails won’t set you back more than 10 bucks or so. You can grab snacks at True West Kitchen’s counter (the nachos are a meal unto themselves) at the back of the bar, or wander down the street to Cart + Driver for wood-fired pizza and oysters (Here’s the secret: Get there after 10 p.m. for one of the best happy hours in the city. Don’t miss the sardines and $10 Manhattans).
Next door, you’ll find the meaty and delicious Work and Class, where you order your proteins by weight. The goat is extra-special, but I never skip the perfectly-cooked lamb and tender beef short rib.
For more meat, wander up the street to Owlbear Barbecue, which has quite possibly the best brisket in the city – slow roasted to perfection. And if you’re pasta enthused, the counter-service Italian restaurant Dio Mio offers up crazy-good fresh pasta and small plates.
Just on the outskirts of RiNo is Liberati, the only place you’ll find unique and delicious oenobeers (which are brewed with wine grapes) and Italian nachos (fried pasta piled high with olives, pepperoncini, fresh tomatoes, feta, and molten taleggio cheese sauce). The Italo-dip is a cross between a classic Italian beef sandwich and a French dip. Order it with sautéed mushrooms.
Meadowlark Kitchen serves late into the night (or early the next morning), so it’s your best bet if you need to manage your sloshiness before heading bedward. Right next door is Larimer Lounge, where quite a few bands generated a following before going big nationwide.
Whichever your preferred path, RiNo has it. From the fancy to the unfussy, the pricey to the prosaic; for an epic night of fun or just a nightcap and a nosh, you’ll find it there.