Denver has long been on the tips of foodies’ tongues when discussing the “next big food city,” but the Mile High City may now be able to officially claim that title. With four James Beard Award nominations this year and a surprising—or maybe not so surprising—penchant for innovation, the Denver dining scene is about to explode.
Holding its own among even the most pretentious foodies, Denver is home to a number of award-winning restaurants such as Frasca Food & Wine, Rioja, Mercantile Dining & Provision, and Acorn. There is no shortage of dining options in the Mile High City, which ranks eleventh in restaurants per capita (222.73 restaurants per 100,000 residents) and second in breweries per capita (7.85 breweries per 100,000 residents).
But the real magic of the Denver food scene lies in its ability to evolve quickly and without a hindering sense of vanity. Unlike bigger and more established food towns, Denver isn’t tied down by a sense of convention or expectation, allowing them to trade in the pomp for a more offbeat, authentic, and creative food scene.
Denver’s temperate climate, and it’s setting on the edge of the plains, makes its farm to table ethos more a product of its environment than of picking up on the prevailing trend. Restaurants continue to partner with local farmers and vendors to serve up meals to a growing demographic hungry for a locavore environment.
Denver is surrounded by rural farmland, enabling restaurateurs and chefs to easily source their ingredients. At Panzano in downtown Denver, executive chef Elise Wiggins has partnered with nearby Bear Mountain Ranch, which gives her entire animals rather than specific cuts. Some places take the farm ethos even further: Chef Max MacKissock—now at Bar Dough—started his own farm while at The Squeaky Bean.
While Denver’s restaurants still seek sustainable ingredients, the food world has begun exploring a new trend, which Denver has more than fully embraced: Pot dinners.
A little over three years ago, Colorado implemented the legalization of recreational marijuana. This past November, Denver residents voted to allow weed in restaurants and bars. With, ahem, the approval of the neighborhood. This new law permits a BYOW (bring your own weed) scenario, but top chefs are starting to employ the legalization in more creative ways outside the confines of their restaurants.
Elaborate weed dinners are the next big thing in Denver dining. Chef Hosea Rosenberg, Top Chef winner and owner of Boulder’s Blackbelly empire, has hosted several of events with Mason Jar Event Group. On the event website, the dinners are described as “an evening of lux cannabis culture, dining, music and the finest offerings of the Colorado High Life.” For each, Hosea creates an incredible gourmet menu, complete with marijuana pairings, in various forms. Mason Jar Event Group also works with Chef Jamey Fader of Lola to put together these events.
While a vibrant food scene is nothing new to Denver, the legalization of pot has finally given it the attention it deserves. Compared to the extravagant innovation and competition in cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, Denver has often been overlooked by the larger food community. But the city’s creative adoption of pot has made Denver a destination for foodies. It has become a sort of new frontier for food innovation.