The Best Food and Drink in Colorado for 2019
December 20, 2018
The best eats everywhere from Denver to the Rockies
The Best Food and Drink in Colorado
Known for its breathtaking natural wonders, Colorado is a stunning and serene state. The state’s food is just as awe-inducing as its scenic views, stretching from the culinary hotspot of Denver to the less populous regions near the mountains, and we’ve rounded some of the state’s best eats as part of our second annual guide to the best food and drink in every state.
While you’re skiing in this snowy state, make sure to take advantage of the myriad dining opportunities it has to offer. The state has doughnut delivery, damn good tacos, and some classier restaurants hiding in the depths of Colorado’s desert. Amidst the Rocky Mountains, you’ll find pockets of culinary prowess and delectable eats.
Over the course of the past year we’ve honored everything from its best hot dogs and brunch spot to its best bar and craft beer in our comprehensive and wide-ranging lists and rankings, compiled through extensive research and with input from a wide network of site contributors, bloggers, journalists, and chefs. We’ve compiled these into individual slideshows celebrating the best food and drink in every state. You can find Colorado’s must-try foods and drinks ahead.
Best Airport Restaurant: Root Down (Denver International Airport)
Denver’s Root Down is an homage the 1972 Jimmy Smith song and album (as well as the song’s 1994 Beastie Boys cover), claiming to adhere to its philosophy (going back to the “root” of a song or a dish) and its history, claiming that they “are imperfect but celebrate the flaws.” It shows in their consistent dedication to creating a globally inspired menu featuring organic, seasonal, and farm-to-table ingredients that create earthy dishes such as Thai carrot curry, edamame hummus, and Colorado lamb sliders, as well as an American spin on bento boxes.
Best All-You-Can-Eat Deal: Los Cabos II (Denver)
This quaint Denver spot specializes in authentic Peruvian cuisine, and their lunch buffet, served daily from 11 to 2, is the state’s best. For $8.95 ($15 on Sundays), you can enjoy a traditional Peruvian feast of lomo saltado (beef strips with peppers, onions, and tomatoes), cau cau de mariscos (curry seafood stew), and a variety of soups and salads.
Best Bar: Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project (Denver)
Photo by Rachel L. via Yelp
Located within an old foundry building-turned-marketplace called The Source, Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project has 22 taps filled with a variety of sour beers, wild ales, and saisons. The industrial-chic bar’s sour beers have gained a cult following, and their “Tap-it! Tuesday” is extremely popular as well. Cocktail lovers are out of luck here, but there are plenty of beer and kombucha blends like Happy Leaf Kombucha, which can be blended into one of the brewery’s core brands of beer (Surette Provision Saison, Vieille Artisanal Saison, and St. Bretta Citrus Wildbier). The taproom features stainless steel gates, brick walls awash in old graffiti, a custom wood tap tower, stave tap handles, and colorful murals. There’s no food, but that isn't a problem as allow customers are more than welcome to carry in food from two restaurants also within The Source (Acorn and Comida), and Mondo Market prepares cheese and charcuterie plates for customers on weekends.
Best Beer: Ten FIDY, Oskar Blues (Longmont)
Not every famous beer lives up to its reputation, but not every famous beer is Ten FIDY from Oskar Blues. This rich, creamy imperial stout pours pitch black, but don’t think it’s one note. There’s dynamic flavors of dark chocolate, roasted malts, caramel, chocolate, and even a little bit of pine. At 10.5 percent, it’s a big beer, but it’s the perfect beer for winter.
Best Brunch: Sassafras American Eatery (Denver and Golden)
This popular brunch spot has locations in Denver and Golden, and its menu of classic Southern brunch fare (with a decidedly New Orleans bent) keeps weekend lines long. Beignets, gumbo, barbecue shrimp, eggs Sardou, grillades and grits, six mac and cheeses, fried green tomato Benedict, chicken fried eggs and smoked buffalo hash, pimento cheese fried chicken biscuit, buttermilk pecan pancakes, six different po’boys… just looking at this menu is enough to make you wish it was Saturday morning. Their house-blend coffee is also top-notch (and available in more than a dozen styles), and there’s a massive variety of brunch cocktails.
Best Burger: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Steuben's (Denver)
Opened in 2007, but named in honor of a famous restaurant and nightclub co-proprietor Josh Wolkon's great-uncles owned in Boston for several decades in the middle of the last century, Steuben's is a neighborhood diner serving American regional specialties. Representing Colorado's neighbor, New Mexico, the menu presents what is regularly named the best green chile (or chili, as Steuben's puts it) cheeseburger in Denver. Said to be inspired by the classic version at the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico, it's a fat burger patty topped with American cheese into which green chile strips seem to melt. Lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, and mustard ornament the burger, which is served on a challah bun.
Best Burrito: Carnitas, Illegal Pete's (Multiple Locations)
With six locations in Denver, two in Boulder, and one in Fort Collins ,Illegal Pete’s is singlehandedly turning everywhere it lands into burrito destinations. A rocking good time, this restaurant sources all of its antibiotic- and hormone-free meats from Niman Ranch, and nothing arrives at any of the locations pre-cooked. They offer a wide variety of gluten-free and vegetarian options, but you have to try their standout pork carnitas burrito. The pork is braised with Mexican Coke, orange juice, and spices, and is sweet, spicy, and deliciously porky, and it gets rolled up in an all-natural tortilla with cilantro-lime rice, beans, salsa, cheese, and sour cream.
Best Chicken and Waffles: Steuben’s (Denver)
Yelp / Mike Y
The chicken at this old-school Denver diner is brined in buttermilk and seasonings for 24 hours before being breaded and fried to order, and the Belgian-style waffles are also made to order and served alongside a pool of red-eye gravy made with coffee, Jim Beam, and bacon. A certified pile of fried chicken comes with every order, so make sure you come hungry.
Best Chinese Restaurant: Star Kitchen (Denver)
Photo by Jamie L. via Yelp
Yes, great dim sum exists in Colorado, at Star Kitchen in Denver. Located in a modest strip mall, Star Kitchen is turning out expert renditions of more than 70 dim sum classics, including pork buns, dumplings, rice crepes, and salt and pepper shrimp. There’s also clay pot rice, roasted duck, congee, hot pots, and countless fresh seafood preparations. If you need a little liquid courage to build up the nerve to try spiced jelly fish or beef tendon, there’s also a full bar.
Best Chocolate Shop: The Chocolate Lab (Denver)
The Chocolate Lab/Yelp
As its name suggests, Denver’s The Chocolate Lab combines the worlds of science and chocolate into one culinary experience. Yes, here you can get handmade truffles with unique flavors such as beet and chocolate-covered marshmallows, but you can also get savory foods like French onion soup, roasted cauliflower, and pulled pork… all infused with chocolate.
Best Coffee Shop: Boxcar Coffee Roasters (Boulder)
Boxcar Coffee Roasters goes the no-frills, old-school route when it comes to coffee. Their roaster is a 1929 German Rapid coffee roaster, and they brew their coffee cowboy-style — one of the most traditional ways of brewing, which involves heating coffee grounds with water. This ensures the perfect temperature to enjoy the various flavors in your coffee: blueberry, citrus, chocolate, and brown sugar among others.
Best Craft Brewery: Oskar Blues Brewery (Longmont)
Oskar Blues Brewery/Yelp
In 2002 Oskar Blues Brewery starting canning their Dale’s Pale Ale, which “began the craft-beer-in-a-can craze.” They now brew numerous beers year round, such as Priscilla, Old Chub, and Gubna, an Imperial IPA brewed with “the most potent, unique and mind-bending hop varietals of the season.”
Best Cupcake: Happy Bakeshop (Denver)
Anita I. / Yelp
This small, family-run bakery began as a passion for cookies but quickly grew into a gourmet cookie and cupcake destination. The delectable cupcake creations come in a variety of flavors like Boston cream pie, PB&J, red velvet, and tres leches, to name a few. They also offer French macarons and “sumptuous cinnamon rolls” along with their growing list of cupcakes and custom cookies.
Best Dive Bar: Ace-Hi Tavern (Golden)
Two happy hours a day? Say no more. The Ace-Hi Tavern in Golden, Colorado, caters to the third shifters by opening up at 7 a.m. and running a special drinks menu, which is truly in the dive bar spirit. This bar has been around for over 130 years, with 60 years under this moniker, so its reputation as a world-class dive bar is well earned.
Best Doughnut: Glazed and Confuzed (Aurora)
Glazed and Confuzed is baking some incredibly creative doughnuts made with local, organic, and seasonal ingredients as much as possible. The inventive and often surprisingly delicious flavors range from maple bacon (with two strips of bacon on top), to root beer float, to Nutter Butter fluff with chocolate-covered bananas, to blackberry pecan cobbler. But go for the mojito doughnut: The yeasted dough has been coated in a rum-infused glaze made with fresh lime and fresh mint. It’s as good as it sounds.
Best Farmers Market: Boulder County Farmers Market (Boulder)
The Boulder County Farmers’ Market is an iconic gathering place in the community and a produce-only market. All 120 vendors set up shop Saturdays and some Wednesdays between April and November. The market features everything from locally sourced crafts, potted seedlings for the home gardener, prepared foods from local bakeries, gourmet cheese, small-batch honey, and artisan salsas.
Best Food Truck: Basic Kneads Pizza (Denver)
We are suckers for a good pun and even more so for a good pizza. Basic Kneads operates four different units (each with punny names) around Denver. Basic Kneads eschews strict Neapolitan guidelines for D.O.C. pizza so that it can integrate local ingredients, experiment with toppings, and use the family dough recipe its team developed over the years: a mix of organic whole-wheat flour and refined Colorado flour (Basic Kneads also does a gluten-free crust). There are eight pies on the menu, starting from the basics (Margherita, pepperoni, fennel sausage) to more extreme pies like sweet Thai chile chicken.
Best Fried Chicken: Low Country Kitchen (Denver and Steamboat Springs)
As the name implies, Low Country Kitchen brings the cuisine of the South Carolina Low Country to Colorado, with plenty of other Southern specialties thrown in for good measure. Owners Katy and Brian Vaughn prepare just about everything on the menu from scratch, and their fried chicken is a work of art. It takes three hours to prepare from start to finish; organic chicken is brined for at least 24 hours and then marinated in buttermilk and Frank’s hot sauce for an additional two days before being battered and fried to order. Take a look around and you’ll notice that just about everybody orders the fried chicken here — and with good reason.
Best Grocery Store: King Soopers (Multiple Locations)
Riza H. C. via Yelp
King Soopers is the go-to for many in the Denver area, and in general has a significant presence in the Rocky Mountains. It has a large selection of goods and is cheaper than the high-end markets, making this store a local favorite. One shopper said, “This location is always fully stocked, clean, and always has super friendly employees. I go a little out of my way to shop at this location.”
Best Homemade Ravioli: DiFranco’s (Denver)
Yelp/ Brian F.
This tiny, low-key Italian spot in Denver’s Golden Triangle is about as casual as it gets (the seating is primarily confined to one communal table), but chef Ryan DiFranco runs what’s been rated the city’s best Italian restaurant. The ravioli on offer changes with the season, but you can always depend on it being freshly made and filled with (and sauced with) fresh, seasonal ingredients. In the spring, for example, look for sweet pea ravioli with herb butter sauce, peas, ricotta, and arugula.
Best Hole-in-the-Wall Diner: Village Coffee Shop (Boulder)
This tiny diner, tucked inside a strip mall, is a bona fide time capsule, with wood-paneled walls, a long counter, a handful of tables, and not much else. But it’s a quintessential neighborhood hangout, and the staff is super-welcoming and friendly. Go for the blueberry pancakes, French toast, hash browns, and chicken fried steak with sausage gravy.
Best Hot Dog: Biker Jim's (Denver)
Michael U. via Yelp
Once upon a time, Jim Pittenger repossessed cars. Now? He splits hot dogs right down the center, chars them on a gas grill, and tops them with Coca-Cola-soaked grilled onions and a "swizzle of cream cheese unloaded from the front end of a caulking gun." Some of the dogs on the menu at Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs include rattlesnake and pheasant, linguiça, duck cilantro, southwest buffalo, pheasant, and Louisiana red hots, but the elk, wild boar, and reindeer have specifically been attested to by none other than everyone’s favorite gastrogrouch, Anthony Bourdain.
Best Hotel Restaurant: The Nickel (Denver)
Located in the magnificent Denver Tramway Building, which was constructed in 1911 and converted into the Hotel Teatro in recent years, The Nickel is chef Russell Stippich’s ode to classic American fare, and it’s a true crowd-pleaser. Stippich works with local farmers, ranchers, distillers, and craft producers of all sorts to source the ingredients for his menu, and that — combined with the dining room’s high ceilings and stately elegance — has made The Nickel one of the most beloved restaurants in town. Start with a cocktail at The Barrel Bar and follow up with standouts like quail with Kansas City barbecue sauce and a poblano johnnycake; red snapper with smoked broth and lemon; scallops with foie gras, black truffle, and leek; and smashed potatoes with wagyu fat, lemon, and chive. Don’t miss the selection of cheese and charcuterie, and be sure to finish with a “chocolate bomb” with blueberry, passion fruit, and white chocolate pearls.
Best Ice Cream Stand: Little Man Ice Cream (Denver)
Little Man Ice Cream is designed to look like you’re going in to an enormous milk bottle to get your ice cream, which is a super-fun experience. Since 2008, this Denver, Colorado, shop does a Scoop for Scoop program that matches each order with an equivalent donation of rice and beans (or other essentials) for those in need around the world.
Best Inexpensive Steakhouse: Columbine Steak House & Lounge (Denver)
Yelp/ Carlos M.
This low-slung, no-frills Denver legend has been going strong since 1961, and its main claim to fame is how amazingly inexpensive it is. Fried chicken costs $8.75, a steak sandwich costs $7.95, pork chops $11.75. And most impressively of all, there are six steaks on the menu, and the most expensive one of the bunch, an absolutely massive porterhouse, costs just $20.75. As for the rest: the large fillet is $18.25, a T-bone is $16.25, sirloin and New York strip are $13.95, and a small fillet is $12.75. Tax is already included in the price, and all steaks also come with salad, potato, and toast.
Best Mexican Restaurant: Tacos Tequila Whiskey (Denver)
Originally a taco truck, chef Kevin Morrison’s Tacos Tequila Whiskey puts a modern twist on comida de la calle (Mexican street food), along with small-batch tequilas. You’ll want to start with an order of queso fundido con chorizo and homemade chips, but from there it gets more difficult to choose. Carnitas? Pollo a la crema? Asada, lengua, or rajas con crema y maiz? There are also chipotle-and-beer-battered fish tacos and citrus-grilled shrimp.
Most Expensive Restaurant: Frasca Food & Wine (Boulder)
Frasca Food & Wine/Yelp
If you decide to celebrate a special occasion at Colorado’s best restaurant, it’ll cost you: The seven-course tasting menu costs $105, plus $95 if you opt for the suggested wine pairings. If you want until Monday, however, a four-course menu only costs $50.
Most Outrageous Restaurant Dish: Hot Cheetos Spam Musubi, Poké House (Denver)
Spam musubi is a popular snack in East Asia and Hawaii; normally it consists of grilled Spam on a block of rice, wrapped together with nori, or seaweed paper. At Poké House, their spam musubi is made burrito-style, with the spam being entirely wrapped in rice and nori. You can add different toppings to it — including Hot Cheetos dust!
Most Romantic Restaurant: Pepper Tree (Colorado Springs)
A Colorado Springs fine dining institution, Pepper Tree offers just about everything you look for in a romantic restaurant: Its hilltop perch affords stunning vistas of the city, tables are well-spaced and covered in white tablecloths, and, as icing on the cake, many dishes are also prepared tableside. They also serve quite possibly the most romantic dish around: Chateaubriand, a 16-ounce center-cut filet mignon with béarnaise and vegetables, prepared tableside, of course.
Best Pancakes: Mountain Shadows (Colorado Springs)
This Colorado Springs diner is a big hit with the locals, who have been flocking here for its pancakes, omelettes, and fresh-made pies for more than 25 years. You can order your pancakes filled with blueberries, bananas, strawberries, or chocolate chips, but we suggest the Life is Good pancake, a big blueberry pancake topped with blueberries, bananas, and whipped cream.
Best Pasta Dish: Pastiche, Panzano (Denver)
This popular downtown Denver spot showcases the cuisine of Northern Italy, and its housemade pastas are some of the best in town. But do us a favor and drop by during Happy Hour (from 2:30 to 6 daily), and order the pastiche. It’s a little cast iron pot, filled with meatballs, cheese tortellini, meat ragu, and cinnamon-kicked béchamel, topped with a thyme-accented crust. It’s everything a pasta dish should be – hearty, filling, full of bold flavors, and a lot of fun to eat – and best of all, it only costs $6.
Best Pizza: Pizzeria Locale (Denver)
It shouldn’t be surprising that Frasca, one of America’s best restaurants, launched an offshoot that serves some of America’s best pizza. The pizzeria offers 11 “Classics,” (seven red, four white), but you’re probably going to want to build your own from a selection of more than 25 toppings including eggplant, Calabrian chiles, corn, smoked mozzarella, pork meatballs, and prosciutto.
Best Restaurant for Breakfast: Snooze (Various Locations)
Founded by brothers Jon and Adam Schlegel in Denver in 2006, Snooze now has eight Colorado locations and a handful each in California, Arizona, and Texas. Open daily from 6:30 a.m., Snooze’s menu is divided into five sections: Flavors from the Hen (omelettes, scrambles, house-made corned beef hash, breakfast tacos and burritos, and a pot-pie twist on biscuits and gravy); The Art of Hollandaise (six Benedicts, including one topped with pulled pork and chili verde); Sammies (including sausage, egg, and cheese on a pretzel roll and a play on a traditional Cubano); Sweet Utopia (several varieties of pancakes and French toast, including hot cocoa pancakes topped with Mexican hot chocolate); and Light as a Feather (healthier options including a quinoa breakfast bowl and an egg white and vegetable frittata). There are plenty of gluten-free and vegan options available as well, and substitutions aren’t just available, they’re encouraged.
Best Restaurant: Frasca Food & Wine (Boulder)
Frasca Food and Wine/Yelp
In the Friuli region of northeastern Italy, a frasca is a roadside farm restaurant, serving simple regional food. Frasca Food & Wine captures the spirit of these venues, while also championing the vast diversity of Colorado’s unique culinary resources. Owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson have created a warm and inviting space that can accommodate an impromptu dinner or an evening of fine dining. They offer three unique menus that change daily – a four-course menu for $78 (with dishes also available à la carte); a “Friulano Tradizionale” menu of Friulian regional specialties for $105; and a $50 four-course Monday tasting menu. Just be sure that you don’t miss the frico caldo, a crispy pancake of potatoes, onions, and piave cheese — a Friulian specialty.
Best Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere: Ski Tip Lodge Restaurant (Keystone)
When the snow isn’t falling and the tourists aren’t touring, Keystone, about 70 miles west of Denver, is a town of only 1,000 residents. However, the local Ski Tip Lodge —within an 1800’s stagecoach stop that was once the home of Keystone’s founding family — has a restaurant that makes a trip here worth the trouble. Executive chef Kevin McComb offers a four-course meal daily that constantly changes, with dishes like porcini mushroom and potato purée with truffle whipped cream, hoisin cured crispy pork belly, braised and glazed al natural beef short rib, and bourbon marinated Colorado lamb chop. The romantic dining experience is enjoyable and slow-paced, which is possible because the restaurant only offers two seating times per night.
Best Ribs: GQue BBQ (Westminster)
When food talk turns to great barbecue locales, one typically thinks of places like Memphis, Charleston, Kansas City, and Austin. But Westminster, Colorado? Clearly, this isn’t on most people’s lists of where to go for great barbecue. But at Gque Championship BBQ, owner Jason Ganahl may be changing that perception with his own tried and tested version of barbecue, a mouth-watering effort to put this town on the barbecue map with his pork spare ribs.
Best Soup: Croc Soup Company (Golden)
Yelp/ Dan S.
Every day, Golden, Colo.’s Croc Soup rolls out seven or eight scratch-made soups based on what’s fresh and in-season. You might find gumbo, chicken noodle, tomato basil, potato cheese, chicken pot pie, or broccoli gruyere, but their most popular soup is lobster bisque, which is only available on Fridays.
Best Sports Bar: Highland Tap and Burger (Denver)
“The Tap” celebrates all things Colorado, incorporating locally sourced products into their menu and working with Colorado craft breweries to create their extensive beer list. They were voted one of the 7 Best Places to Eat and Watch Super Bowl 50 by Dining Out Denver & Boulder.
Best Steak for $20 or Less: 4-Ounce NY Strip, Guard and Grace (Denver)
Guard and Grace, chef Troy Guard’s modern Denver steakhouse, is regarded by many to be the city’s best, and it’s definitely not cheap, with a dry-aged bone-in Prime New York strip costing $59 and an eight-ounce fillet clocking in at $52. But there’s one steak on the menu that’s selling for a shockingly low price: a four-ounce Angus New York strip that will set you back just 19 bucks. Yeah, it’s small, but if you supplement it with a $6 loaded baked potato we guarantee you won't leave hungry.
Best Steakhouse: The Buckhorn Exchange (Denver)
Trent R. via Yelp
One of America’s oldest restaurants (and the oldest in Denver), the Buckhorn Exchange was opened by Henry "Shorty Scout" Zietz opened in 1893, an era when cattlemen, miners, railroad workers, silver barons, Indian chiefs, drifters, and businessmen all dined under the same roof. The restaurant was given the first liquor license in the state of Colorado and the menu remains mostly unchanged to this day. The Buckhorn is a true Wild West holdout with its circa-1857 antique bar, wooden fixtures, 575-piece taxidermy collection, 125-piece gun collection, and a menu that reflects that good ol’ American desire to eat some red meat. For those who really want to celebrate being on top of the food chain, there are plenty of exotic meats on offer including elk, quail, and buffalo (and sometimes ostrich and yak). But if you’re in the mood for UDSA Prime steak, we suggest you go for the Big Steak, a New York strip loin carved tableside and available for two (two pounds) to five (four pounds) guests.
Best Taco: Pork Belly ‘Agridulce’ at Tacos Tequila Whiskey, Denver
Photo by Anthony J. via Yelp
Pinche Taquería, now known as Tacos Tequila Whiskey because “pinche” isn’t fit to translate on a family website (it’s something you’d say when you’re moved by extreme emotion), was originally a taco truck, and the name of the shop still harkens a bit of street attitude: Given how good the restaurant’s pork belly “Agridulce” is, you too may be emotionally moved. Chef Kevin Morrison has put a modern twist on Mexican street food, serving a sweet-and-sour-braised pork belly with candied garlic, cabbage and cilantro slaw, and a nuanced braising jus to add extra flavor and moisture. For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2019.