Lunch in Denver: Best Places to Grab a Mid-Day Bite
By Christine Loomis
Denver Local Expert
Lunch in Denver might be grab-and-go at The Market at Larimer Square, a power confab at Charcoal or ChoLon Bistro, or simply a reason to sit down and enjoy the surroundings--think Palettes at the Denver Art Museum. It can be outdoors or in, intriguingly ethnic or as American as the wiener slathered in mustard served up at Billy's Gourmet Hot Dogs (Billy's offers many other kinds of dogs as well as the name rightly suggests). While there are enough lunchtime restaurants in Denver proper to keep you eating well for weeks on end, there are also good reasons to venture outside of the city limits as well, not the least of which is the magical Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, which was constructed in Tajikistan, deconstructed, shipped to Boulder and reassembled there by artisans from Tajikistan, many of whom were the original creators of the fairytale-like building. Some restaurants invite long, slow meals and excellent conversation, such as the aptly named Linger in Denver's Highlands neighborhood. Like the teahouse but somewhat different, Linger is housed in a one-of-a-kind structure--a former mortuary. Best of all, many of Denver's restaurants include excellent selections of the city's well-known craft brews, to complete the dining experience. We've picked our Top 10 lunch spots. Try them all.
The former mortuary building seems an unlikely place for a restaurant, but chef/owner Justin Cucci (of Root Down restaurant fame) has done it again with another Highlands restaurant, Linger. A nod to the space is found in the tongue-in-cheek reference to Linger as an "eatuary." Whatever that is, we like it. The menu is arranged by global region and features what might be called global street food. You could choose the Mongolian BBQ tofu bun or pork belly bun from the Asian offerings, the shrimp and grits or Veracruz fish tacos from the Americas, or chicken bastille from the African and Middle Eastern list. It's all a happy global feast in an urban setting with non-stop views of the Denver skyline. On weekends, try the brunch. ((303) 993-3120)
9 ChoLon Bistro
This self-titled modern Asian bistro takes typical Asian fare and raises it to new levels, and perhaps more important takes presentation to soaring heights. Consider sharing several small bites with your dining companions so you can experience the fabulous range of tastes and textures. Good bets: The soup dumplings, rib eye skewers, Skuna Bay salmon crudos and pork belly buns. Lunch plates, offered weekdays, include such interesting items as a Korean hot fried chicken sandwich, lobster Saigon crepes and a tandoori turkey grinder with sweet onion and cucumber yogurt. There are also wok dishes to consider. Set just off the 16th Street Mall on Blake Street, ChoLon is easily accessed via the free 16th Street Mall bus and is just a few blocks from Coors Field. (303-353-5223)
8 Palettes at the Art Museum
When it opened in 1997, Palettes was one of the first chef-driven restaurants to be located in a museum. Now a staple at Denver Art Museum, Palette's is one of chef Kevin Taylor's great Denver successes. For one thing, its floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the architectural wonder that is the Frederic C. Hamilton Building, designed by Daniel Libeskind, and that is a fine accompaniment to any meal. Contemporary in focus, Palettes has an excellent brunch menu and a main menu with so many worthy choices it will be hard to decide. Snow crab summer rolls with mango, apple herb salad, gold raisins and peanut ginger coulis? House-made mac & cheese? Seared diver scallops with Brussels sprouts, Parma ham, basil, fingerlings, orange and sweet corn chowder? The three-course prix fixe menu is an excellent way to go. Palettes stays open until 8 p.m. on Fridays. (3035341455)
7 Olive & Finch
At lunchtime, it's all about fabulous sandwiches and salads here, and even those guests who don't love sandwiches will be tempted by such gourmet-inspired creations as the Nanner's (prosciutto, poached figs, brie and arugula on a baguette) or the Jamal (blackened fish, citrus tartar sauce, capers, Swiss cheese, coleslaw, avocado and roasted tomato on ciabatta, served hot). The sandwiches come on focaccia, ciabatta, baguettes, panini or bread. There are also quinoa, roasted beets, and Caesar salads, among others, and a compact but perfectly fine beer and wine list to choose from. The restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner, too. (303-832-8663)
6 Billy's Gourmet Hot Dogs
They're more than just hot dogs. Honest. They're above and beyond yet with everything you loved about them as a kid. You won't be sorry if you go in and try one, but chances are you will be surprised by how good Billy's dogs are. And if your companions aren't in the mood for hot dogs, Billy's menu includes "not dogs," too, from burgers and chicken to grilled salmon. Did we mention the nine types of fries, including a garlic pesto blue cheese version? In addition to the Larimer Street shop, Billy's has restaurants on East Colfax and South Broadway. ((303) 284-2714)
5 Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse
One of the most truly magical places to dine, the Teahouse never gets old. First, the building itself, set along Boulder Creek, is so beautiful it's hard to take your eyes off it. Like something from a fairy tale, it's a wonder of carvings and brilliant colors. The menu, which might be described as global with strong African-Asian influence, features such lunch entrees as tea-roasted Duck, Persian chickpea kuftah, North African Harissa Chicken, Thai Panang Curry, Bengali Shrimp and a rich rice dish called Tajikistan Plov. The list of possible hot teas is almost overwhelming--the Teahouse has more than 100 loose-leaf teas--but the folks here are experts and can help you decide. Should you become so enamored with tea you must have a beautiful new teapot to take home, you can buy it here, along with tea to brew in it. The restaurant also has an online store: http://www.boulderteaco.com/. (303-442-4993)
4 Charcoal Restaurant
The tagline is "fine dining at affordable prices." We say yes, yes, yes to that for any meal. Stop in for lunch weekdays and brunch on weekends. The restaurant offers a refined, stylish space, good service and a menu with everything from small-bite delights such as bacon-wrapped dates to pan roasted Flatiron steak. In between is a nice soup and salad section, vegetarian items and such ethnic options as Swedish meatballs and all-natural pork green chili with a sunny side egg, a sopapilla and sour cream. The bar is a pleasant place to relax but popular for happy hour so arrive early. (303-454-0000)
One of Denver's favorite food trucks put down roots in the up-and-coming River North arts district and that's reason to celebrate. Located within The Source, the former warehouse transformed into a trendy dining, shopping and gathering hot spot, Comida brings its fresh, flavorful Mexican food to a full-service restaurant--and it's still modestly priced. Among the $4 taco selections is a daily fish marinated in Serrano chiles and lime served with orange jalapeno slaw. A sirloin sandwich slow cooked in Negra Modelo comes with "limy" green cabbage and queso fundido and runs $10, and quesadillas of all kinds are mostly $7 each. There's a full bar with seven different types of margaritas as well as creative craft cocktails, one made with Denver's own Stranahan's whiskey. Comida also has a sit-down restaurant in Longmont. ((303) 296-2747)
2 The Market at Larimer Square
Stop by The Market at Larimer Square for a wide assortment of salads, sandwiches and sweets. The casual cafe draws a diverse crowd of locals and tourists (it's great for people-watching), and there's something for everyone. The drink menu boasts an extensive list of coffees and teas, perfect for sipping at one of the small tables or taking along with you. Pair it with a pastry or a rich slice of cake for the best effect. Outdoor dining is a good choice on one of Denver's many pleasant days. Best of all, when you finish eating you are in the heart of Larimer Square, where strolling and window-shopping are encouraged. (303-534-5140)
The ambiance is industrial chic with exposed bricks and pipes; the menu is contemporary creative with comfort-food overtones. Acorn is one of the anchoring businesses at The Source, the warehouse-turned-retail-and-dining-outlet in RiNo, the River North arts district that has garnered national attention. RiNo is not quite "there" yet, but it's well on its way, and Acorn is perfectly situated to become a favorite for neighborhood residents and Denverites as a whole. Lunch plates include vegetarian selections such as kale and apple salad and coal-roasted baby beets, and heartier options, from braised short rib panzanella salad to a lamb shawarma sandwich. Acorn is proof that almost anything can have a fried egg added to it, including fried chicken, shrimp and grits, the oak-grilled pork belly BLT and even the oak-grilled double cheeseburger (cardiologists, cover your eyes). Open for dinner only on Sundays. ((720) 542-3721)
About Christine Loomis
Christine has written about every aspect of travel, from romance and adventure to family and wellness. She is also lucky to have had three major home states through the years: New York, Colorado and California. Today she divides time between the Denver and San Francisco areas. Christine loves shoe shopping and fishing; walking anywhere; horseback riding (she was on the equestrian team at the University of Oregon); and discovering menus that include small-batch whiskeys, craft beer and lesser-known wines. She would go anywhere in an RV and believes summer is best when it includes a rafting trip.
Read more about Christine Loomis here.