I’ve had my fair share of good times at the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant in Boulder. As a college kid at the University of Colorado at Boulder, my friends and I would cram ourselves into the Rio’s small, always-crowded bar on Saturday nights, ready to much our way through bottomless baskets of chips and salsa and test our tequila consumption capabilities with the restaurant’s notoriously potent house margaritas. (Lucky for me, Rio has a strict maximum of three per customer.) But over the years, my drinking and dining habits have evolved, as has the landscape of downtown Boulder’s dining scene. To stay apace and remain fresh, the 23-year-old eatery recently underwent a half-million-dollar renovation, and, as of last week, reopened its two-story location on Walnut Street.
“When you’re 33-years-old, you really have to think about who you are in the marketplace,” said Jason Barret, CEO of the Rio, which includes five Colorado locations in addition to the original in Fort Collins. “Can you bring something new to the conversation?”
The Rio focused its renovation on creating a comfortable, inviting space that would appeal to a younger clientele. Fresh coats of white paint and light wood flooring has certainly brightened up the space. The furniture and decor also got a modern upgrade, with hip, geometric light fixtures, a living wall of succulents, and an eye-catching accent piece made up of skulls. Loyal Rio patrons will note that the bar and dining area have been flip-flopped to facilitate better use of space; sections of the restaurant previously prone to bottle-necking are now roomier and there are more cozy booths too.
While many of the Rio’s classic Tex-Mex dishes remain on the menu (albeit with slight makeovers), director of food and beverage Erich Whisenhunt’s new food menu emphasizes shareable dishes and sides, like a tray of cheese-laden nachos piled high with tender carnitas. Diners can now compose their own taco plate combinations of one ($4), three ($11), or six ($20) tacos, with choices including beer-braised carnitas, cilantro-lime grilled chicken, and tequila shrimp.
Playing to the college student crowd in Boulder, there are still plenty of deals to be had: Single tacos are just $3 each during happy hour (Monday through Friday, 3 to 6 p.m.), and legendary Thursday nights feature Rio Margs for $4, a quesadilla for $5, and Jose Cuervo shots for $2. And despite there being more than 50 tequilas on the new drink menu, along with a newly-expanded list of craft cocktails and local brews, that three-margarita-minimum hasn’t changed.
1101 Walnut St.