In the Mile High City, festivals and food are on the rise

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In the Mile High City, festivals and food are on the rise
Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station, where 70 connected rooms and exhibits lead viewers through a psychedelic dreamscape created by scores of artists, in Denver, July 22, 2022. Denver has regained its prepandemic vibrancy, with a plethora of new restaurants and hotels, and the return of some old favorites. Benjamin Rasmussen/The New York Times.

by Cindy Hirschfeld

NEW YORK, NY.- On a recent Tuesday evening, diners surrounded marble-topped bistro tables at Chez Maggy in the new Thompson hotel, open since February in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood. The draw: the opportunity to taste chef Ludo Lefebvre’s classic French fare — garlicky escargot, curry-tinged mussels frites, duck breast à l’orange — at his first venture outside of Los Angeles.

The restaurant and the hotel are among the fresh crop of ventures gaining buzz in this gateway city to the Rocky Mountains, which has reclaimed its pre-pandemic vibrancy. And visitors are welcomed with open arms: By year’s end, Denver International Airport — which the trade group Airports Council International recently ranked as the world’s third busiest facility — will have 39 additional gates, increasing capacity by 30%.

Tempting travelers are a slew of new cultural offerings, hotels and restaurants, plus the return of favorite events. An anticipated two-year renovation and revitalization of downtown’s 16th Street Mall was launched this spring, and once it is completed, wider sidewalks and new infrastructure should restore the appeal of this 40-year-old pedestrian thoroughfare, which had lost its luster.

Festivals Resume

Thanks to Denver’s ample sunshine, numerous festivals and events take place outside, and annual favorites returned in full force this year, including June’s PrideFest and July’s Underground Music Showcase. The year-round First Friday Art Walks in the Art District on Santa Fe, which drew up to 20,000 gallery hoppers before the pandemic, are regaining their popularity, with the heart of the action among the eclectic galleries and boutiques that line Santa Fe Drive between 5th and 11th streets.

After two years of mostly drive-in showings, Denver Film presents its annual Film on the Rocks series at the Red Rocks amphitheater (through Aug. 15) and, after a two-year hiatus, will hold its adults-only Summer Scream event (Aug. 25) at the vintage Lakeside Amusement Park northwest of downtown; besides unlimited rides, actors will spotlight the park’s almost 125 years of history. Outdoor film buffs can experience an offshoot of Rocky Mountain Goat Yoga called Goatflix and Chill at Denver’s second-oldest cemetery, Fairmount, which has parkland among its 280 acres. (A herd of goats nuzzles viewers during the screenings.)

From Sept. 5-11, Art RiNo, a new festival, debuts in the RiNo (River North) Arts District with six new outdoor murals (adding to the district’s collection of more than 100), light installations and a daylong concert outside the Mission Ballroom, a popular music venue, headlined by the Flaming Lips.

And the Great American Beer Festival (Oct. 6-8) returns to the Colorado Convention Center after a two-year pause, celebrating 40 years as the country’s largest assemblage of all things related to craft brewing, with a competition, public tastings and two sessions that pair breweries and chefs.

Arts and Culture

One of the biggest events on the arts scene was the reopening last fall of the Denver Art Museum’s Martin Building after a $150 million renovation. A visual counterpoint to the museum’s low-slung, angular Daniel Libeskind wing, the glass-tiled tower, designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti in 1971, rises seven stories. The revamped rooftop terrace, where geometric cutouts in the facade frame views of Denver, implements a delayed aspect of Ponti’s original plan. Inside, one current exhibition showcases Mexican fashion designer and social activist Carla Fernández, who works with Indigenous artisans (through Oct. 16). Elsewhere in the museum, the first major exhibition devoted to Georgia O’Keeffe’s photography will run through Nov. 6.

Immersive art experiences abound in Denver; lately, the most popular has been the trippy, interactive Meow Wolf, which originated in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2016 and opened last fall in the Sun Valley neighborhood. Called Convergence Station, some 70 connected rooms and exhibits lead viewers through a psychedelic dreamscape created by scores of artists in imaginative overdrive (timed entry required).

After a two-year pandemic delay, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ “Theater of the Mind” will run Aug. 31 through Dec. 18. Created over eight years by musician David Byrne with investment banker and writer Mala Gaonkar, the 75-minute production takes audience members (16 and older) on a narrative and sensory journey that unfolds one person’s life in reverse chronology as a means of exploring memory, perception and self-identity. “You’ll see that your perception is fairly unreliable, and our memories are made of how we perceived various moments in our lives and are therefore also unreliable,” said Byrne in a presentation about the project at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen in June.

Hotels Galore

The pandemic hasn’t slowed hotel openings. Among last year’s new properties were the baseball-inspired Rally Hotel next to Coors Field, the Hyatt Centric Downtown Denver, the RiNo district’s Catbird — a modern extended-stay hotel with a rooftop bar — and the midcentury-themed Clayton in Cherry Creek. (At the latter, the Five Nines craft cocktail lounge has amped up nightlife with a dimly lit, velvety interior and burlesque dance performances.) Meanwhile, an $80 million renovation refreshed the Sheraton Denver Downtown, in an I.M. Pei building along the 16th Street Mall.

Visitors have even more to discover this summer. Cherry Creek’s former JW Marriott was transformed into the 199-room Hotel Clio in March (rooms from $399). In February, the 216-room Thompson Denver (rooms from $309) opened as the upscale brand’s first Colorado outpost. The hotel partnered with Victrola, the turntable manufacturer, to outfit a listening room in the sixth-floor bar and lounge, while a pedicab service ferries guests around the surrounding LoDo neighborhood.

The 251-room Slate Hotel (rooms from $249), open since late May across from the Colorado Convention Center, riffs on the building’s former life as the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, with classroom-themed artwork and a restaurant called the Teachers’ Lounge. The Hilton Tapestry Collection property retains the original brick-lined hallways — now restored — while former classrooms have become guest rooms with high ceilings and marble floors. In July, Best Western’s boutique-style Vib Denver opened in RiNo (rooms from $250).

Where to Eat

As Denver restaurants have regained their footing, newcomers are filling seats. Notable openings include A5 Steakhouse from a local restaurant group; the farm-to-table Apple Blossom in the Hyatt Centric Downtown, from the same team as the once-lauded Beast and Bottle (which lost its lease last year); and Three Saints Revival, a tapas restaurant in the Hotel Indigo opened by restaurateur and Punch Bowl Social founder Robert Thompson.

Restaurateur Delores Tronco returned to Denver to open the Greenwich in RiNo last fall after shuttering the Banty Rooster in New York during the pandemic; amid New York-inspired décor, diners are served seasonal, Mediterranean-tinged fare like crispy-skinned roasted chicken ($36), bright salads ($15 to $18) and sourdough-crusted pizza (from $21).

Despite the recent closure of Broadway Market, food halls and marketplaces remain popular and ever-evolving. At Bellota in the Source Hotel’s market hall, chef Manny Berella earned a 2022 James Beard Award nomination for Mexican fare like pork belly con mole and Oaxacan spiced cricket tacos (a three-course meal runs about $42 without alcohol).

New at the Stanley Marketplace in Aurora, housed in a former aviation factory, Churreria de Madrid fries up churros with dipping chocolate ($8), and the 24-seat Sky Bar serves classic cocktails amid the trappings of a retro-style airport lounge. The Stanley is also home to Annette, beloved for its locally sourced modern comfort food; Caroline Glover, the chef, received the James Beard Award for best chef, mountain region, in June.

Although Denver’s craft brewery and distillery openings have slowed down, Deviation Distilling’s cocktail lounge, opened last summer in an 1800s firehouse along LoDo’s Dairy Block, will soon be joined by a neighboring taproom from Colorado’s Westbound and Down Brewing Co., known for its IPAs. And the aviation-themed FlyteCo Brewing will open a second location in the old Stapleton Airport control tower this month with pub-style food, mini golf and exhibits on loan from the nearby Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.

Local restaurateur and chef Dana Rodriguez, another 2022 James Beard Award nominee for the longtime favorite Work and Class, opened Cantina Loca in the LoHi neighborhood last January. Shareable plates like tempura-fried cactus ($8), spicy pollo adobado ($19) and silky vanilla flan ($7) are best accompanied by Rodriguez’s own line of mezcal and tequila.

Rodriguez has another venture in the works, too. When she moved from Mexico in 1998, she was turned down for a job at Casa Bonita — known more for its kitschy décor and cliff divers than the food; when Casa Bonita reopens under its new owners, “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Rodriguez will be there, now heading up a new culinary team.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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