In the Highlands, where Tejon Street and 30th Avenue meet, fluorescent white tubes illuminate the word Linger, overlooking downtown Denver, back east across the South Platte River. Linger, a restaurant opened last year by New York transplant Justin Cucci, resurrected the old Olinger Mortuary as an “eatuary” in this “it” neighbourhood.
But it’s Monday night, just before the winter solstice, and Linger is closed, so I turn up Tejon to the corner of 32nd, where brick-fronted Williams & Graham booksellers deals in liquid wares. Opened in November, the speakeasy-style bar is revealed by a secret door in the shelving of the cubbyhole-size “bookseller.”
Inside, it is dark and woody, with a high tin ceiling, shelves piled with bottles containing tinctures of all descriptions, and nary a book in sight. It’s a small temple to the art of booze. A very fine local buzz comes from the $8 South Park Cocktail, made with yellow chartreuse, fresh mint, lemon juice, agave nectar, angostura bitters and, the key ingredient, Leopold Bros. gin, distilled in Denver in small batches, hand-bottled, -labelled and -numbered since 2002.
A few heart-warmers in, the tab settled, we move onward a couple more blocks to 33rd and Osage to Root Down, Mr. Cucci’s first Denver restaurant opened in an old gas station in 2008 (in the maw of the global recession). Built with reclaimed and recycled materials, serving largely local food, Root Down is packed with diners enjoying salads of radish and Medjool dates, hoison duck confit sliders and other tasty morsels.
This is Denver. The Mile-High City, long considered a town to traverse with barely a blink on the way from the airport to the mountains, is vibrant and well worth exploring. Mr. Cucci’s arrival is emblematic of the city’s revival.
A Greenwich Village native (his grandparents ran the Waverly Inn for half a century before it became an “it” spot co-owned by Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter), Mr. Cucci moved to Key West, Fla., to open and run family restaurants before relocating to Denver. He liked the feeling here, seeing potential and diversity where others saw only meat and potatoes, in this city of two million nestled against the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.
“Like New York, I loved that there was a lot of ethnicity here,” says Mr. Cucci, 43. “There's a very large Mexican community, there's a large Thai community, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Restaurant-wise, there was a lot of great ethnic food, which immediately is something, as a New Yorker, you crave. The other thing I loved about it – I had a daughter by this point in time – I loved that you could be in the city and then a half-hour later be in the Rocky Mountains. I loved that it was that close.”
Politicians, business owners and residents alike have worked to create a lively scene within the town limits, starting with Larimer Square on the edge of downtown, near the hockey arena and football stadium. On a Sunday night after a Broncos game, the many restaurants and bars are packed. Civic boosters like to note that Denver ranks as one of the most walkable cities in the U.S., alongside San Francisco and Boston. And, they point out, it's not all about beer, spirits and snow: The Denver Art Museum hosts the only U.S. stop of an Yves Saint Laurent retrospective, which opens in late March. The museum's expansive view of art also brings the cleverly titled Read My Pins exhibit in April, a surprising and thought-provoking collection of more than 200 pins worn by former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright.
Beer, however, is big here.
At Williams & Graham, at Cucci's Root Down, and pretty much everywhere else, the drinks flow, with support coming from the highest echelons of power in the state. Governor John Hickenlooper arrived in Denver in the early 1980s with a master's degree in geology, but after the mid-eighties crash he left the oil business and led a group in creating Colorado's first brewpub. In 1988, Wynkoop Brewing Company opened its doors, quickly becoming a key player in the revitalization of LoDo – Lower Downtown (and remaining, to this day, a go-to spot). It helped to launch the microbrew revolution, a significant achievement in a state that brought the world Coors Light.
Also big here is pot. Medical marijuana dispensaries are booming in Colorado and state voters decide in November whether to legalize pot possession, a move already endorsed in an earlier vote by the citizenry of Breckenridge, a ski town in the mountains west of Denver, at an elevation of 3,000 metres. There is no shortage of high-country jokes.
It is all part of the spirited mix of politics, business and the great outdoors that marks Denver and Colorado, a region home to all sorts of freaks, radicals and libertarians (Hunter S. Thompson made his home for decades in Woody Creek near Aspen).
Mark Lowderman, county assessor in the city of Colorado Springs, 1½ hours south of Denver, calls Colorado “a Republican state – other than Boulder,” and laughs his easy laugh.
But Colorado backed Barack Obama in 2008 and Mr. Lowderman has no troubles with Mr. Hickenlooper, a Democrat.
“His background is in beer, which is why I admire the man,” Mr. Lowderman laughs in his office on the Garden of the Gods Parkway. (The beautiful park of the same name, and its wondrous red rock formations, are close by.) “He has good beer. I didn't send him a campaign contribution because I figured I'd done my share over the last 20 years.”
Back in Denver, Mr. Cucci is at the centre of change in the Highlands. The patios at Linger and Root Down have big views of a city that he has embraced, one that has embraced him back. That Denver has captured the heart of a New Yorker impresses and underlines the simple fact: Any fan of American cities will want to spend some time in Denver. There's an alluring energy here – and I barely got to know the place. One quick day before a trip into the high country in the mountainous west is definitely not long enough.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Flights from Vancouver usually require one stop and can be had for around $500. From Calgary, one-stop trips are about $700, and a direct flight from Toronto goes for about $750.
Where to stay: Hotel Monaco is a luxury hotel in two heritage buildings in downtown Denver. Service is exemplary, staff even rushing to ready a room for extremely early check-in at 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday. The attached Italian restaurant, Panzano, is billed as one of the top restaurants in the U.S. by Zagat. At 5 p.m. each day, the hotel hosts wine tastings in the lobby. Rooms from about $150 a night. 1717 Champa St.; 800-990-1303;
Jet Hotel: This LoDo (Lower Downtown) boutique hotel has 18 rooms in a three-storey brick building, positioning itself as a place for partiers. The ground floor is a bar and lounge, with hotel reception in a corner at the back. The nightclub is downstairs. Rooms from about $130 a night. 1612 Wazee St.; 303-572-3300;
Denver star chef Justin Cucci dishes tells David Ebner where he takes his friends when they visit.
Osteria Marco (1453 Larimer St., )
“It's sort of Italian, but it's not pastas. It's more a trattoria. The food is exceptional, the service is great. For some reason, I bring people there even though Denver is not a hotbed of Italian food.”
New Saigon (630 South Federal Blvd., )
“It's a strip mall – it's definitely not a fine-dining experience. They've been there twentysomething years, and they are just the gold standard of Vietnamese food, in Denver for sure, but I've eaten Vietnamese in other places and I crave some of their food. It gives you another perspective that Denver is not just a meat-and-potatoes town.”
Masalaa (3140 South Parker Rd., )
“It's an all-vegetarian Indian restaurant. The food is unlike any other Indian place. They do a different region, more from the south, whereas most Indian restaurants are northern-influenced. They have a lot of small plates, and I love that you can go there and not have to get a big bowl.