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.

Photo: Ultreia / Rachel Adams

For years, Alex Seidel had been the bridesmaid, but never the bride. One of Colorado's most capable chefs, and the force behind groundbreaking Denver 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. 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. You know the type: one of those terribly ambitious restaurants that do absolutely everything — 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, in 2018, 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. Suddenly, Union Station was once again a hive of activity. A smart little hotel was installed on the station's upper floors and the whole thing got renovated to the nines. 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.

Mike Thurk

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. At the time, she was 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), and 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 $7 house wines and $4 pintxos during the week and a whole menu of innovative tonics for gin lovers.

One of the station's most talked-about restaurants, 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, 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, and tiramisu served all day. (Italian's the thing here, if that wasn't entirely clear.)

James Florio

Being home to some of Denver's most likable 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, as well as a giant Whole Foods Market. Just two blocks away, you'll also find the Dairy Block development, a micro-district home to a boutique hotel (The Maven), one of downtown's best roaster-backed coffee bars (Huckleberry), and a sprawling food hall, Denver Milk Market, serving up everything from Nashville hot chicken to crispy pork belly bao. If you leave the neighborhood hungry, you did it wrong.

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