Ordinarily Extraordinary Denver

by Rich Rubin
Denver, Colorado Skyline

In many ways (you’ll see later why this is the ultimate compliment) it’s just an ordinary city, and that’s perhaps the thing I love best about it.

Rich Rubin

Denver is full of such spots, places you might walk right by if you didn’t have me to steer you right. Case in point is ChoLon, which is right on the 16th St. Mall. It is not your usual a fine-dining haven, but this spot is the best, with its creative Asian cuisine that never fails to intrigue. Their Soup Dumplings, with the onions and gruyere cheese all inside the dumpling are like an encased French onion soup.

For pure, refined Italian food I love Il Posto, in the RiNo Arts District, where chef Andrea Frizzi dishes up wonders like rosemary-tinged risotto, a wide range of pastas, and the world’s best Chicken Milanese (with farro, scallions, and blistered cherry tomatoes). Note: Frizzi also has a casual spot, Vero, in the Denver Central Market, perfect for a lunchtime pizza or pasta. I also love the Mediterranean cuisine of El Five in the LoHi area (I promised you we’d have dinner here), where the panoramic view is matched by the wide-ranging cuisine. I love the harissa eggplant fries more than I can tell you, but also sample from such delights as cauliflower yufka (little triangles of cauliflower, chick peas, tahini, and pine nuts) and Lebanes garlic dip with housemade pita.

Two of my favorites restaurants in Denver are right inside Union Station, so they’re perfect if you want to want to head straight to dinner upon arrival or have one last meal before heading out to the airport. Ultreia (the name loosely translates to “onward!”) features James Beard award-winning chef winner Jennifer Jasinski’s Iberian-influenced small plates. You might start with setas (roasted mushrooms in chimichurri sauce), or my personal favorite, The Olga, featuring olives, Basque chiles, piquillo peppers, and anchovies. You can try a selection of cheeses or hams, indulge in tasty Patatas Bravas, and end with Pastel de Nata, a beautiful little Portuguese custard tart. You’ll be amazed at the selection. Then there’s Mercantile Dining and Provisions, just outside the station, with its highceilinged, wide-open look and great food. My chicken is like, oh yeah, now I remember what chicken tastes like. A bright green mound at the center of the plate turns out to be English pea hummus, a perfect accompaniment, while my friend’s chicken tortelloni are equally good, with delicate porcini mushrooms scattered around the plate. We split a dessert, an absolutely delicious lemon cremeux, with little squares of chamomile (yes, chamomile) cake and berry ice cream completing the flavor palette.

Convergence Station in Denver, Colorado

Convergence Station
Photo: Kate Russell

Sometimes, though, food and drink are something you put ON your body rather than in it (how’s that for a transition?). If you wonder where I’m leading, do I have a surprise for you! In a city famed for its microbreweries, maybe one should expect to find the Beer Spa. I admit, I was a little dubious, but between the lovely staff and the awesome treatments, I end up totally sold. Settle into their comfy taproom, choosing a beer from the wall of dispensers (there’s also non-alcoholic beer or kombucha available). When everything is ready, you go to your private room, where a sauna and cedar tub await. Twenty minutes in the sauna and my skin has started to sweat out the impurities. A quick, cool shower and into the beer tub, which is filled with soothing warm water infused with hops, malted barley, and a variety of herbs like lavender, chamomile, peppermint, and calendula. There’s no yeast in it, and it isn’t fermented, so you’re not really soaking in a tub full of beer. As I sink down into the swirling water, I inhale deeply the herbal aromas, pressing the bag of herbs against my aching muscles. As my tub starts to drain (the signal the session is about to end) I’m astonished: have I really spent over an hour in here?

If it were just a fun, “different” thing, it would be good enough, but it really works as therapy too, particularly when I toss in a half-hour massage, performed capably by my “masseur,” which is actually a zero-gravity chair. With a large LGBTQ following, it’s as inclusive as it is downright amazing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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