A restaurant sparked the modern queer liberation movement, and it wasn’t even Stonewall. In August of 1966, three years before the historical riot in New York City, queer and trans patrons of Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco fought against police harassment with 60 cent coffee cups, handbags, and high heels. It was the United States’ first recorded act of militant queer resistance, and subsequent history of protest starting in queer spaces like the Stonewall Inn and Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles—which were both gathering places and spots for eating and drinking—has precipitated significant progress in LGBTQ+ activism and acceptance.

Queer food and drink establishments are never as important as now, though. With the proliferation of pride celebrations (including one in Aspen for the first time this year) and greater queer representation in media and advertising, it can be easy to forget that safe havens are still needed, with over 450 anti-LGBTQ+ bills recently passed or currently advancing in the United States, according to the ACLU. Even in Denver, a city with a higher-than-average percentage of LGBTQ+ couples per capita, owners, patrons, and employees of queer-centered establishments confirm that the spaces are still vital to community-building in the city.

As pride season is among us, we’re highlighting a few queer-owned, queer-loved food and beverage spots and their unique contributions to the Denver area. Here, three haunts that deserve your support year-round.

Quince Coffee House: Home Away from Home

The owners of Quince Coffee House.
From left: John Hiltbrand, Jenna Greenwood, Katharine Hiltbrand. Photo courtesy of Quince Coffee House

When Nishant Upadhyay discovered Quince Coffee House, they knew they had found something special. Upadhyay, an ethnic studies professor at University of Colorado Boulder and an immigrant from Delhi, India, does not always feel at home in the predominantly white state. But places like Quince provide an important sanctuary. “It was the first place that I had access to [in Colorado] that centered queer people of color,” Upadhyay shares. “That feels amazing.”

Owned by Jenna Greenwood, Katharine Hiltbrand, and John Hiltbrand, this cafe off East Colfax is a 5280 favorite, with rooms and comfy chairs aplenty for work, socializing, or just decompressing on your own. As a Black-, LGBTQ+-, woman-, and veteran-owned space with an entirely queer staff, Quince prioritizes diversity and inclusion in every aspect of its operation. “We have tried to make an effort to allow people to come as they are—take up space,” Greenwood says. “People will sit and hang out for hours. We are really, really cultivating that space for people to be able to settle.”

Vincent, a longtime customer and recent employee of the coffee shop who preferred not to share their last name, says that when they moved to Denver for an AmeriCorps position, it was at Quince where they found a space for themself. “They put up open mics, POC jam sessions, and events like that. That’s actually how [I] really started to get involved with the [Denver] community” Vincent says. “All the other staff members are just so kind and friendly. [They] engage so deeply with the community.”

Open every day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Quince is an all-day haunt that offers coffee and teas, plus a small menu of sweet and savory foods including vegan and gluten-free options. It also sources from local vendors, including First Crack Coffee in Northeast Park Hill and LaBelle French Bakery in Thornton. “It’s just a really beautiful place,” Vincent reflects. “It really has a very special place in my heart.”

1447 Quince St.

Cattivella: Date-Night Restaurant

It is impossible to truly say what is the best queer date spot in Denver, but R. Tony Smith, owner of Denver’s Cupid, a Colorado-based LGBTQ+ matchmaking service, says that Cattivella in Central Park is one of his go-to recommendations for couples. “It’s a very romantic destination,” he says. “Cattivella [in Italian] translates to ‘naughty girl.’”

Cattivella chef Elise Wiggins. Photo by Sarah Banks

“Cattivella is a safe space for all, no matter your sexual preference, race, religion or age,” says chef-owner Elise Wiggins.” The former executive chef of Panzano, an “out and proud” member of the queer community herself, is known as “Mama” to patrons and employees alike. “I am protective over everyone that works for me as well as those who enter my restaurant,” she says.

Cattivella serves the flavors of fine Italian cuisine in a dynamic, upscale-casual space. The menu shows Wiggins’ wide-ranging culinary repertoire, which includes dishes rarely found outside of the Mediterranean like pastitsio, a Greek pasta dish with ground meat and béchamel sauce. But staples like wood-fired pizza are also delicious and worth ordering.

Smith recommends you sit at the bar by the kitchen to be gifted with a show. “I love seeing the food made right in front of you,” he says. “And many times, Wiggins is at the center of the bar, making sure every single dish that gets sent out to the tables is complete.”

The bar is also home to Wiggins’ cooking classes, which are perfect for couples that prefer an activity-based date. In line with the restaurant’s name, Smith says, “Wiggins’ style of teaching is a little naughty, with a little innuendo [thrown in].” Upcoming sessions start at $75 and include lessons on focaccia (June 10), foraging (July 8), Naples-style pizza (August 5), and cooking Cinghiale wild boar (August 19).

The restaurant is open 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations are recommended.

10195 E. 29th Drive, Suite 110

Lady Justice Brewing: Supporting Your Community

LGBTQ-owned restaurant Lady Justice Brewing
Lady Justice Brewing serves beers and gives back. Photo courtesy of Lady Justice Brewing

When Betsy Lay, Kate Power, and Jen Cuesta were serving in AmeriCorps, it was 2009—the middle of a recession. Unsurprisingly, fulfilling their collective passion for fundraising for nonprofits was not easy.

“We would go out for beers after work and commiserate about how hard it was to find funding for a really good nonprofit,” Lay says. “Then we would notice that everybody, even during the recession, still [came] together to have a beer.” Over many nights sipping brews, the team began to brainstorm about how to use beer money to fund nonprofits and support communal sipping at the same time.

These conversations eventually turned into Lady Justice Brewing, which has been a mainstay in Aurora since August 2016. That’s when it launched as a beer membership service, where 100 percent of profit over cost went to Colorado nonprofits for women and girls.

Now a fully operational brewery, owned by Lay and her wife Alison Wisneski, Lady Justice still commits to supporting community organizations. “We are a social enterprise brewery,” Lay explains. “We still donate [all profits] from our membership sales. And we have one tap line that we donate $1 from every pour to a different nonprofit.” For 2023, Lady Justice is supporting the Colorado Doula Project and the Aurora Public Library.

Community is what keeps Lady Justice going. “We see our community as an asset, and we see beer as a way of connecting people with each other with their communities,” Lay explains.

And the community has turned up in turn. When COVID hit, and Lady Justice’s brand-new taproom was unusable, the staff worried it would join the long list of bars and eateries shuttering but that was far from the case. “[On the day we reopened the membership subscription,] we opened that garage door and there was like a line down the block,” Lay says. “So that was sort of the moment that I knew that people believed in us and were gonna show up for us.”

And Lady Justice is not going anywhere. “There aren’t a lot of queer brewing spaces,” Lay says. “There aren’t a lot of openly queer folks making beer and making business decisions in the beer industry. We’re just gonna keep showing up and keep doing this work.” The brewery doesn’t mind mixing work with a sense of fun, too, with a menu of taps like Butter Queer and Chosen Family ESB that riff off queer culture and community.

Lady Justice is also bringing back its popular Strawberry LaLager—a collaboration from this past February with Colorado-based drag queen LaLa Queen—for June, and a full roster of pride events is coming out soon. “You know it’s Pride Month,” Lay jokes. “So people [should] come drink here because we’re gay and they have to.”

9735 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora