Top of the Town 2016

Our 20th annual list of the best places to eat, drink, listen to music, get pampered, and more!

July 2016

—Illustrations by Halftone Def Studios

Culture and Nightlife

You don’t have to look hard to find a solid cocktail or conversation-starting art exhibit in this town. 

Cocktail Menu

Editors’ Choice: Union Lodge No.1

Downtown scored big when the husband-and-wife team of Mike Huggins and Lenka Juchelkova, owners of cult favorite Arvada Tavern, opened Union Lodge No.1 just off the 16th Street Mall. The century-old American flag displayed behind the L-shaped wood bar is your first clue that this isn’t a spot focused on being trendy. Rather, it’s a tribute to the great cocktail bars of the late 19th century. The 12-page book, er, menu details the stories behind a number of classic drinks—including the old fashioned, the julep, and the Tom Collins. For each entry, there’s a condensed history lesson, a list of ingredients, and a flavor profile. That thoroughness extends to every carefully crafted tipple and reflects Union Lodge’s determination to be more than your average cocktail bar—an ideal at which it’s clearly succeeded. 1543 Champa St., 720-389-0447

Readers’ Choice: Fire, the Art, A Hotel 1201 Broadway, 303-572-8000


Editors’ Choice: Jonathan Waldman

The insidious process of oxidation may sound like a snoozer of a book subject, but Boulder author Jonathan Waldman managed to transform it into a page-turner in Rust: The Longest War. A writer who focuses on engineering, Waldman’s first foray into books stemmed from his experience living on a sailboat and constantly battling corrosion. The result, published last year, is a tome that’s both enlightening and entertaining, balancing weighty topics like the slow deterioration of our naval fleet with amusing tales such as the time Waldman nearly got kicked out of the Ball Corporation’s Can School. Waldman’s effort is in-depth and artful and ensures you’ll never look at rust—which costs America more than $400 billion to combat each year—the same way. No wonder his debut won the 2016 Colorado Book Award for general nonfiction and was named one of the Wall Street Journal’s best books of 2015. 

Readers’ Choice: Helen Thorpe

New Brewery

Editors’ Choice: Little Machine Beer 

Designing breweries around clever themes seems to be a trend these days. At nine-month-old Little Machine Beer, that means sci-fi posters, a logo featuring beady red droid eyes, robot-arm-shaped flight holders, and old-school games such as Battleship and Star Wars Monopoly in the taproom. That stuff is fun, but what’s truly alluring about this small Jefferson Park suds purveyor is its wide variety of thoughtfully made brews. Here, you can sip a perfectly balanced Hyperdrive double IPA one day and a Razz Against The Machine tart raspberry ale the next or sample a one-off brew without worrying you’ll make  a poor pint selection. You can even geek out over the entirely Colorado-made brewing system—no one here will call you a nerd. 2924 W. 20th Ave., 303-284-7893

Readers’ Choice: Ratio Beerworks 2920 Larimer St., 303-997-8288


Editors’ Choice: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats

Nathaniel Rateliff has long been one of Colorado’s most beloved music exports; he’s even topped this list before. But previous accolades were for Rateliff as a solo artist, a mellow and introspective singer-songwriter. Since forming the Night Sweats in 2013, Rateliff has quite literally amped up his act: The seven-piece backing band is old-school funk and R&B meets 21st-century flair, with a thumping, brassy sound that provides an upbeat contrast to Rateliff’s often dark, emotional lyrics. Critics’ accolades of the group’s eponymous debut (released last August) landed the quirky crew on multiple late-night talk show gigs. Now the band is in the middle of a national headlining tour that includes a sold-out stint at Red Rocks next month. We just hope the crooner slows down long enough to give us a second album to groove to. 

Readers’ Choice: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats


Editors’ Choice: Chad Michael George, The Way Back

Chad Michael George used to be a bartender without a bar. As president of the Colorado Bartenders’ Guild and a certified sommelier, the 38-year-old had the credentials and a regular gig crafting drinks at Williams & Graham, which was named Best American Bar at last year’s Spirited Awards. What he didn’t have after four years in Denver’s booze scene was a place to call his own—until he and partners Kade Gianinetti (of Method Roasters) and Jared Schwartz (of American Grind) opened the Way Back in West Highland this past March. Four months in, George’s depth of beverage knowledge is obvious: He’s a walking encyclopedia of cocktails, wine, and beer. Order the house old fashioned with Patrón Añejo (you can also choose a traditional whiskey base) which adds a compelling yet subtly smoky note. 4132 W. 38th Ave., 720-728-8156

Readers’ Choice: Victoria Furst, Los Chingones 2461 Larimer St., Suite 102, 303-295-0686

Date Idea

Editors’ Choice: Uncorked Kitchen

You might be thinking, Cooking classes? That’s your idea of a new hot-date-night idea?  Well, yeah, because few kitchens have the kind of view that comes with a hands-on session at Centennial’s Uncorked Kitchen. The year-old spot features a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows so you can ogle the Rocky Mountains while perfecting your paella recipe. Even better, you can match your culinary experience to your intimacy level: First-daters can casually commit to just sipping a glass of rosé on the massive second-floor patio, while those on date number three might enjoy a two-hour beginner wine-tasting class such as Grapes Anatomy ($44 per person). Steadier couples should consider the impressive roster of Date Night cooking classes (from $210 for two people) offered each week. Whether you choose Japanese Pub Food or Paris, City of Lights, your three-hour class will include a bottle of wine and, ideally, help you foster a deeper connection with your amoureux. 8171 S. Chester St., Centennial, 720-907-3838

Readers’ Choice: Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club1330 27th St., 303-295-3333

Place To See Art

Editors’ Choice: PlatteForum

A trip to PlatteForum provides something special: an up-close look at the impact art can make. In its year-round ArtLab and eight-week Learning Lab programs, the 14-year-old nonprofit pairs artists from around the world who are brought here for residencies with underserved youth to create inspiring exhibitions and engender a sense of possibility; 100 percent of ArtLab graduates have gone on to college. Little wonder the organization earned a national award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 2011. See what it’s all about at one of PlatteForum’s seasonal shows; past events have included quilts by Georgia’s Abigail Kokai and performance art by Chicago’s Blair Bogin alongside work by their student mentees. Stop by the first week of August for Counter/Current. 2400 Curtis St., Suite 100, 303-893-0791

Readers’ Choice: Denver Art Museum 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, 720-865-5000

Sports Bar

Editors’ Choice: Esters Neighborhood Pub

For convenience alone, we typically opt for our neighborhood sports bar—so long as the TV’s switched to our preferred channel, of course. We’re willing to change our MO for Esters, though. The patio and sleek main dining area make it worth the trek (the Southern-style brunch is especially appealing) to this year-old eatery in Virginia Village. But we go for the back room—Sully’s Back Room, to be specific. That’s where you’ll find eight flat-screen TVs, 22 taps, and, during England’s Premier League season, a sizable crowd of soccer fans. Owner and ex–New Belgium Brewing Company rep Paul Sullivan curates the suds lineup, and his craft-brew connections often mean Esters carries beers—like New Belgium’s La Folie—you won’t find many other places. Better-than-pub-grub food options range from a huge plate of crispy nachos with Fat Tire–braised pork to pizzas with unexpected toppings (the Prince Caspian is capped with mozzarella, Gorgonzola, figs, caramelized onions, prosciutto, and arugula). 1950 S. Holly St., 303-955-4904

Readers’ Choice: Highland Tap & Burger 2219 W. 32nd Ave., 720-287-4493


Editors’ Choice: Jen Lewin

If you haven’t experienced Boulder artist Jen Lewin’s interactive sculptures, it’s time. The 42-year-old has shown everywhere from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to London. Closer to home, she brought her famous “The Pool” installation (circular pads that emit color and light as you move over them) to the inaugural Wave: Light + Water + Sound Festival in Breckenridge last month; and through July 4, you can view “Chandelier Harp”—vertical laser beams that create ambient music as you pass under—as part of the Cherry Creek Arts Festival. She’s been lauded by Time and the BBC for crafting complex new media works that appear effortless and invoke a hefty dose of fun. Her stunning light installations (are they art or fixtures?) also hang at several of the Kitchen’s locations, so the artistry on your plate is equally matched by your surroundings. 

Readers’ Choice: Jaime Molina

Music Venue That’s Not Red Rocks

Editors’ Choice: Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club

There’s been an uptick in a particular kind of music venue in the city this year: restaurants that also feature killer live music. No new spot pulls off dinner and a show better than Nocturne, a speakeasy-esque jazz club located mere blocks from Denver’s historical jazz center, Five Points. Upon entering the sultry space, head straight to the ornate bar for a well-balanced cocktail; we’re partial to the bold, tequila-forward Last Plane Out Of Jalisco. Your drink will be good, but the music will be better: Scott Mattson, a former professional jazz drummer, and his wife, Nicole, own Nocturne, and they line up live jazz five nights a week. They also operate an artist-in-residence program that provides local musicians with a stage from which to pay homage to jazz greats. Hungry? The chef’s seasonal tasting menu is always inspired by a classic jazz record, such as Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. 1330 27th St., 303-295-3333

Readers’ Choice: Hi-Dive 7 S. Broadway, 303-733-0230


Editors’ Choice: Avanti Food & Beverage

A year ago, this culinary incubator housing seven fledgling eateries and two bar areas—all located in an airy, two-story complex—opened to lines out the door in LoHi. As delicious as Quiero Arepas and the certified sustainable Bamboo Sushi are, and as cool as the concept is—and it is super cool—the best part of Avanti is easily its rooftop patio(s). With an indoor-outdoor bar, umbrella-topped tables, full-sun bleacher seating, and an open-air sheltered area, Avanti’s deck offers just the right perch, no matter the weather, and affords some of the best views of the Mile High City skyline. Visit at sunset to truly appreciate the space: Ask the bartender to pull a beer from one of the 19 on-tap selections, order a Brava pizza to share, and then sit back and watch Denver’s sky turn Broncos orange. 3200 Pecos St., 720-269-4778

Readers’ Choice: Avanti Food & Beverage

New Bar

Editors’ Choice: Bar Fausto

Eleven months ago, Jonathan Power (of the Populist and Crema Coffee House), Koan Goedman (from Huckleberry Roasters), and Rob McGowan and Ben Olson (owners of Fin Art) opened Bar Fausto and introduced Denver to a near-flawless bar experience. The RiNo watering hole is industrial yet chic and low-key enough that you’ll want to visit often but polished enough to make any night feel like an occasion. Cocktails are serious business here: In addition to the classics—and the most perfect of Vieux Carrés—bar manager Rob Corbari rolls out 10 signature drinks at a time. Instead of fancy names, they are simply numbered and, after a turn, those recipes are archived and replaced with new ones. Some of the blends sound wacky (number 21: brown-butter-washed Bulleit rye whiskey, cream oloroso sherry, yellow Chartreuse, and apple bitters), but they all taste clean, balanced, and decisive. Pair your beverage selection with something from the equally focused food menu, like a half-dozen oysters or the baked meatball and creamy polenta, and savor the experience. 3126 Larimer St., 720-445-9691

Readers’ Choice: Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club

Theater Company

Editors’ Choice: Vintage Theatre

Is it just us, or does our local stage scene seem more vibrant than ever? Fourteen-year-old Vintage Theatre separates itself from the burgeoning crowd with its risk-taking, award-winning, and affordable (tickets top out at $32) productions and a collection of producers, directors, and actors who are regularly recognized by the Colorado Theater Guild’s esteemed Henry Awards. In particular, we were touched by this past January’s thoughtful production of The Normal Heart, a Tony Award–winning depiction of one journalist’s efforts to draw attention to the AIDS crisis. But what we love most is that this Aurora theater’s three stages mean Mom can go see a classic musical revival one night, and your politically aware hipster friend can enjoy an edgy drama the next. Discover it for yourself during this month’s stellar lineup: the historic drama Intimate Apparel and the old standby Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune. 1468 Dayton St., Aurora, 303-856-7830

Readers’ Choice: Curious Theatre Company 1080 Acoma St., 303-623-0524

Happy Hour

Editors’ Choice: Cart-Driver

Like Cart-Driver’s perfectly charred, wood-fired pizzas, the tiny RiNo eatery’s happy hour is something special. Twice a day—from 3 to 6 p.m. and then again from 10 p.m. to midnight—you can choose from a simple but solid lineup of select $5 drinks and snacks. The generous schedule endows a large window to score chef Kelly Whitaker’s domestically sourced regular menu items at discounted prices. Snag a seat on one of the two petite patios to sip a refreshing Aperol spritz and slurp two market oysters under the sun, or grab a late-night glass of on-tap prosecco paired with liver mousse on toast and a Daisy pizza (tangy tomato sauce, mozzarella, and fresh basil) that easily feeds two. Experiencing one of Denver’s best restaurants and walking out with a tab under $20? Yes, please. 2500 Larimer St., Unit 100, 303-292-3553

Readers’ Choice: Fire, the Art, A Hotel


Editors’ Choice: Collaboration Fest

The philosophy of this annual celebration, now in its third year, is that when it comes to brewing beer, two (or three) brains are better than one. For this oh-so-Colorado event, two or more breweries—one in each group must be a member of the Colorado Brewers Guild—collaborate to craft a one-off brew and present it for tasting to quaffing enthusiasts. One hundred and forty-nine outfits participated in the March 2016 event. Of them, the partnership between South Broadway’s Former Future Brewing Company and South Carolina’s Brewery 85 produced, perhaps, the most interesting result: the Sweet Tea Amber Ale, a tasty American amber infused with black tea for a grown-up take on a Southern staple. Our (beer) bellies are thankful these brews are only available once a year. 

Readers’ Choice: Telluride Bluegrass Festival

—Photo credits (from top): courtesy of Travis Rummel/Felt Soul Media, Brantley Gutierrez, Chip Kalback