Denver Diversions: Dining & Golf in the Mile Hile City
by Neil Wolkodoff
Denver is surging on convention and business travel, with a projected 2.3 million business travelers to the area in 2015. What to do when your meeting is over? In the last two years, the dining scene has exploded with 325 new restaurants, and from mountains to spirits, there is always a diversion.
The Denver area is number four in the U.S. in golf rounds per capita, so the golf courses are very competitive and range from prairie links to mountain vistas. Denver is a driving city, so plan on renting a car and getting mostly out of downtown for the most exciting dining, venues and golf.
Hops & Pie is comfort food made from scratch with gourmet flair. How about pork belly mac and cheese? The salads, pizzas and sandwiches all rise above mild-mannered surroundings like Superman flying to the moon. Standouts are the tofu tacos and the beef brisket pizza. Both a bar section and dining room which makes this Berkeley establishment, 15 minutes NW of Downtown, both family and business friendly. Devoted locals mean you should show up early for seating. Big fun, extraordinary food and a western welcome make H&P worth visiting.
Located in the Hotel Monaco, Panzano is a restaurant that could stand alone anywhere because it’s draw and food interpretation is unique. The Happy Hour goes every day from 2:30-6, and features all of their favorite entrees as small or medium plates. Open from breakfast through dinner, Panzano gets local ingredients, gives them a unique twist, and you have some stunning dishes. The showstopper is the Pastiche, a clever meatball and tortellini dish with hints of clove and cinnamon. The grilled Caesar, fried Brussels sprouts, and butterscotch pudding all are equally inventive.
After a round at Common Ground, the Lowry Beer Garden is the perfect spot for a craft brew. Oktoberfest meets the Rockies with an outdoor fire pit, indoor/outdoor seating and a great kids area. 95% of the extensive draft beers are from Colorado. Tasty zingers include the Elk Jalapeno cheddar brat, fried pickles, the giant pretzel with cheese and Mediterranean Pita sandwich. Even after a poor round, this place will make you all smiles with the food and drink selections laid back atmosphere.
Root Down in the Highlands neighborhood feels like four eateries in one due to the flow of space and design between the areas. The real star is the food, incredible vegetarian dishes and carnivore twists that use the interesting vegetables, herbs, and spicy turns. Highlights include the seared arepas small plate appetizer, the country fried tofu, and the roasted Kashmiri chicken. The best way to root on down is the share the small plates and salads before the clever entrees. Be warned, the avocado key lime pie will change your palette to “Oh Yeah” in one bite.
Lena features adventurous creations on the edge from Central and South America. Lena also won the award for the best taco in Denver in 2015, no small feat in the crowded Latin scene in the Big D. Dishes that espouse these culinary exploits include the bison tacos, octopus ceviche, shrimp & grits and yuca bread. If you crave it, Lena has the best blood sausage in the Rockies. A southern hemisphere wine list with selections from Argentina, Spain, France and regional cocktails. Be warned, it hops most of the time, reservations are strongly suggested, even on a Monday.
Enter the world of “eater-tainment” at Punch Bowl Social just minutes south of downtown. 24,000 square feet of urban-dustrial space with three bars, dining areas, arcades, and event areas hosting 10-1,000 people. Sharable punch such as the Bachelor’s Bowl, which is buffalo trace bourbon with blackberry and elderflower. Eight bowling lanes, shuffleboard, old school pinball games and even private Karaoke rooms gives the short attention span diner plenty to do. For this kind of place, where everyone gathers around, the food is more gourmet than bar in variety and finish. What you don’t expect is a made from scratch kitchen that is a mile high above the norm. Go up a notch with the panko breaded chicken breast in the Chicken & Waffles.
Bob’s Atomic Burgers in Golden is a morph of the Fonz goes hipster. Order at the counter, and you get a choice of beef, chicken or quinoa burgers with amazing toppings and their secret seasoning. Round off with the spud-licious sweet potato fries and malt. A do not miss if you are going to Coors Brewery or Fossil Trace.
Mizuna is the flagship of Chef Frank Bonanno, and is the pinnacle French restaurant in Denver. Stepping into Mizuna is sophisticated elegance with just enough seats for cozy combined with elbow space when you get mmnn’ about the food. A small bar, central dining area and wine room dining comprise the 52 seats where reservations are the needed norm. Service and attention to detail? To the 9’s. Appetizers embody classical preparation with a modern twist in both the soft-shell crab with red choucroute and the A+ beet salad with quail egg. One-third of the menu changes monthly, but some palate winners maintain like the lobster mac & cheese, beef Wellington, and duck breast. Deserts excel with the same care as embodied by the cherry sticky toffee pudding that contains chocolate mint ice cream and almond lace. Whatever the celebration occasion, Mizuna is the special place where it’s gold medal food prepared with passion.
Dine with a sense of western food history at The Fort in Morrison. This local landmark is a the restaurant steeped in history. Get tastes of the old west with game meat and buffalo steaks, local side dishes, and some muffins that could power a wagon train. Hearty vegetarian dishes and Mountain-man food well prepared, and you get a taste of food available in Colorado in the 1830’s. Lately, the restaurant has taken the prairie classics and added twists to make “new foods of the old west.”
Common Ground Golf Course is just east of downtown by about 16 minutes and was designed to introduce new golfers to game all the way up to hosting tournament play. While you are in the middle of the city, the impact of the urban environment is minimized and barely noticeable as the course meanders through bordering wetlands. CG has an extensive caddy program, an excellent option if you want a little more conventional golf exercise. At first glance, the course appears relatively flat, yet there are twists and turns on the fairways, some elevation changes and sloped/hilled greens bordering the natural wetlands make this as much challenge as you want to chomp. No two holes are the same, and three standouts are #’s 11, 14, and the par-5 18th.
Fossil Trace in Golden is resort-level golf plopped right in the middle of 65 million years of stunning rock formations. And, it’s only 19 minutes from Downtown Denver. A municipal course with country club conditions, the world’s coolest GPS system and vistas on most holes. It’s a top-notch facility when the rental clubs are Titleist. Rather than move a lot of dirt, architect Engh had the course flow in and out of the natural rock formations and foothills. Just about every hole is a signature hole, with the standout the par 5, 12th. Playing right down the geological formations with fossils protruding, there is a sense of both history and wonderment on this hole. You might just want to play a shorter tee box than you play at home as your mind will wander with the vistas and interesting geology.
Bear Dance is about 39 minutes south of Downtown, nestled in the wooded foothills near Larkspur. At 6800 feet, the ball flies just a little farther over the well-manicured fairways. However, you might just lose sight of it with views of various buttes and even Pikes Peak. As the course twists and bends through draws combined with pine and oak ridges, no two holes are the same in this mountain environment that is city-close. Total yardage goes from 5200-7600 yards, so plenty of challenge for all abilities. It’s hard to pick signature holes because they all are unique, yet the bear paw bunkers of #6 and the #16 par 4 with Pikes Peak looming are golf-awe inspiring. A great range, clubhouse and putting green accompany your round.
Plum Creek by Castle Rock started as a TPC course, designed by the railroad tie king, Pete Dye. After the senior tour events had left this rolling course, conditions deteriorated, but now are significantly on the rebound under new ownership. This is a Dye course that is fun with dramatic elevation changes and mountain views. Yeah, it’s got rolling moguls and pot bunkers, but it is fair. Number 16 is still the trickiest hole in the area with an extended, tiered-lake running along the narrow fairway. Plum Creek is tied with Bear Dance, so you can play a 36-hole package with lunch in between each course.
Murphy Creek is a semi-links course on the rolling hills of the Colorado prairie about 32 minutes east of downtown. The Clubhouse is a 1920s farmhouse theme, and the natural terrain layout have established Murphy Creek as one of the Denver areas’ better municipal courses. With more than 80 bunkers, distinct water features and wide, rolling fairways, Murphy Creek is a golf track that allows you to grip and rip on just about every drive. The greens are large and very fair. MC was the site of The 2008 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. Also a good bet if you need to play, then catch a later flight as it’s near the 470 Expressway not far from DIA.
Riverdale Dunes & The Knolls are two distinct golf courses bordering each other. The Dunes has strategically placed pot bunkers, mounds, water hazards, and, of course, the signature railroad ties makes this a mile high golf experience. The Knolls golf course is a traditional design in a park-like setting among mature trees. Both golf courses located an easy 10-15 minutes from Denver International Airport and downtown Denver Colorado.
The View House Restaurant in Centennial is part sports bar, part restaurant and a whole lot of fun with big views of the Rocky Mountains. The restaurant has two levels and two bars, plus three private dining rooms and a cabana. Almost every seat in the house gives a great view of the Rockies. This upscale, casual eatery has everything from chicken wings up to Colorado bass, the incredible nuts and berries salad, and the decadent flourless chocolate cake. If you are tired after your round of golf and need to get re-energized, the View House is the place. The most spectacular Sunday Brunch on the south side of town.
For Mexican food with a Colorado kick, it’s Hacienda Colorado in Lone Tree. Just about everything is made on premises, and each drink or dish kicks it up a notch from expectations. Start with the Camarones Baja, jumbo shrimp stuffed with jack cheese, jalapenos and wrapped in bacon. Entrees are just as interesting with Chipotle Baby Back Ribs and Diablo Shrimp Tamales. All dishes can be made vegetarian, and the Portobello Fajitas are the best in town, tortillas down! Eleven different sauces for any entrée provide palate customization. They even make their margarita mix for one smooth cocktail. A diverse and extensive margarita and tequila menu as well.
For additional diversions, start with the Stranahans’ Whiskey Top-Shelf VIP tour. This includes a private tour for a maximum of 30 guests. Grain sampling, special pours and how batches are processed plus a 90 proof goodie bag.
If you need a stogie and a malt beverage, then the Robusto Room is the sampling location. Scotch and cigar tastings with an premium selection start at $50 per person. The Robusto is also has nightlife, an open bar and cigar sales.
If you need to unwind, the Tall Grass Spa in Evergreen offers a comparable mountain experience to anything in Vail or Aspen, but much closer to downtown. A tranquil environment, they feature both men’s and women’s treatments. Two highlighted treatments include the Tango Couple’s Massage and the Half Day Retreat.
Eating Mile High
Drive It A Mile