Looking For Denver's Best Restaurants? Start With The Train Station
An impressive array of award-winning talent has clustered around the city's revitalized transportation hub
For years, Alex Seidel had been the bridesmaid, but never the bride. One of Denver’s most capable chefs, and the force behind groundbreaking restaurant Fruition, Seidel had been nominated so many times at the Beard Awards, it was getting to be a bit funny—how much more did the man have to do to win the thing, really? After all, he'd only successfully opened a powerhouse (if pint-sized) farm-to-table restaurant, before that's what everyone else was doing, or at least before that's what everyone said they were doing—Seidel had gone out and got himself a farm, for goodness' sake, just to show people how serious he was about the whole thing, and Fruition was already receiving every other kind of notice under the sun. (Seidel was a F&W Best New Chef in 2010.)
A few years back, Seidel decided to go big, opening what sounded like a potential disaster in the making, one of those terribly ambitious restaurants that does absolutely everything, you know the type, the one with the coffee bar and the cocktail bar and a market, selling terribly expensive cheeses and charcuterie and jams, and somewhere in there, if you look hard enough, there's a place you can sit and eat an actual meal. He opened the place, which is called Mercantile Dining & Provisions, in a train station. And then, this past year, the thing won him Best Chef Southwest at the Beard Awards. Life’s funny like that.
Denver’s Union Station isn’t just any train station, however—not anymore. For years, the Mile High City's iconic transportation hub was mostly a distinctive historic building with some rather memorable neon signage, and a couple of Amtrak trains puttering in and out. A wonderful thing happened a few years ago, however, and that thing was regional rail transit, and suddenly Union Station was once again a hive of activity. A smart little hotel was installed on the station’s upper floors, the whole thing got renovated to the nines, and then there were the restaurants, Mercantile perhaps most notably at the time. Today, you can land at the Denver airport, hop on a local train, arrive downtown nice and relaxed, and then head to Mercantile for a cocktail, or a coffee, a half-pound of stout-washed Colorado tomme to go, or a 36 ounce bone-in ribeye to stay, with a good bottle of red—this is what all train stations in America should be like. This is what we talk about, when we talk about civilized.
What's more, Seidel is not the only award-winning talent in the house. Jennifer Jasinski brought home what is said to be Denver’s first-ever Beard, back in 2013, when she won Best Chef Southwest; already on the team behind a seafood spot in the station, called Stoic & Genuine, Jasinski and crew more recently took things to the next level with Ultreia, an effusive celebration of the Iberian Peninsula. Big old cured hams, all the little snacks, cheeses of course, not to mention plenty of surprising Spanish and Portuguese wines turned out to be just the thing Union Station—and Denver needed; there’s a generous happy hour of $4 house wines and $3 pintxos during the week, while all day on Sundays and Mondays, you can get a bottle of wine and an array of meats, cheeses and snacks for just $30. Gin lovers, get in here—there’s a whole menu of innovative tonics.
Right now, the station’s most talked-about restaurant, Tavernetta, is found right out back, just beyond the platforms where the airport train arrives and departs. Of course, you might expect a project from Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Peterson, the iconic duo behind Boulder’s Frasca Food and Wine, for years one of the only restaurants in the state of Colorado that most people from outside Colorado had heard of, to be very good indeed, and you would be correct. The whole presentation is exceptionally modern, positioned somewhere between rather elegant and come-as-you-are; Tavernetta is another restaurant where you can certainly have it your way—there are light lunches, house-made pastas, healthy doses of salumi and cheese, there is tiramisu, served all day. (Italian's the thing here, if that wasn't entirely clear.) There’s quite the happy hour, too, where they offer a $6 Negroni, and a free view of the evening rush hour comings and goings from the patio. What’s that, in a hurry to get someplace else? Let it wait, just for a little while.
Being home to some of Denver's most likeable restaurants (and plenty else, from a sophisticated mezzanine bar to a branch of the Tattered Cover Bookstore) is only the beginning of the modern Union Station experience—located within the happening LoDo district, which you will find at the far end of the city's famously pedestrianized shopping strip, Denver's regional transportation renaissance—and subsequent station revitalization—appears to have sparked an impressive amount of development, all clustered within a couple of blocks. There is a sea of new residential and commercial space, there is even a giant Whole Foods Market. Just two blocks away, you’ll also find the new Dairy Block development, home to one of the city’s most surprising new hotels (The Maven), one of downtown's best roaster-backed coffee bars (Huckleberry), and a sprawling food hall, Milk Market, serving up everything from Nashville hot chicken to crispy pork belly bao. If you leave the neighborhood hungry, you did it wrong.