Denver is a big city with the easy-going personality of the mountain states. While it’s not much bigger than Albuquerque in square miles, it’s denser in population and infrastructure.
The city is a warren of neighborhoods with names like Capitol Hill, LoDo and Cherry Creek, and I’ve watched them mature over 30-odd years of visiting friends and relatives there.
I stayed with some of them in the North Denver neighborhood of Highlands, an area bursting with boutique restaurants and local shops. As road trips go, this four-day visit followed serendipity to some fabulous food at reasonable prices.
My only regret is that I couldn’t extend the trip by an extra day: Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, about 50 food trucks gather around the Civic Center for a mile-high roundup.
What better place for dinner than one of Denver’s legendary diners? Founder Sam Armatas originated a string of long-gone Coney Islands about 80 years ago. Now, two Sam’s locations—one in Aurora and Sam’s No. 3 Downtown—are run by his son and grandchildren.
The menu is straight-up diner grub with hefty plates at friendly prices. A chalkboard at the door offers dinner specials of prime rib, lamb chops or rib eye for $12.99. I opted for liver and onions lavished with crisp bacon, grilled onions, a baked potato and coleslaw.
In addition to traditional dishes, Sam’s offers home-style Greek and a large selection of Mexican plates replete with “green chili.” There are so many choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you’d have to be a regular to sample the menu properly. Sam’s No. 3 also boasts a full bar, so the joint is always jumping.
The Market is a favorite haunt for locals, serving them every day from 6 a.m. until late in the evening. The small storefront opens onto a maze of shelves and counters full of the best deli food I’ve seen anywhere. Mark and Gary Greenberg bought the small grocery in 1983 and expanded it into a café and deli, insisting on fresh, high-quality ingredients and a focus on the neighborhood. Their Jersey roots and Jewish heritage have discernibly shaped the business.
Since his brother’s death in 2000, Mark has maintained his dedication to the warm atmosphere and excellent food. You’ll often see him with a mop, keeping the place tidy, and hobnobbing with customers. The counters, meanwhile, display an amazing variety of cakes, pastries and chocolates. Several deli cases contain blintzes, every imaginable mixed and leafy salad, a variety of ethnic items, and all manner of condiments.
My bagel and lox plate was loaded with extras. While we ate, Mark brought us a slice of cake. He showed me several bakery carts piled high with boxes and opened one to display a magnificent sheet cake called “the spring fling.” This signature dessert is studded with strawberries, kiwis, mango and blackberries on layers of light zucchini bread and cream-cheese frosting. He had 150 ready and waiting for delivery. I’d have a slice any day of the year.
Monday morning we drove a few blocks south—passing the Café Brazil, a handful of pizza joints, and some Thai and sushi places—to find DJ’s Berkeley Café.
The brick-walled restaurant is cozy, and there’s a sunny patio that’s filled with customers. Co-owner/chef Devin Stallings is renowned for his variations on eggs Benedict. I can attest that my asparagus omelet was perfectly cooked, and it was snuggled up to a pile of home fries and a biscuit that was light and tender.
It wouldn’t be a Denver road trip without a stop in Colorado Springs. I wanted to go to the famous Broadmoor Hotel brunch, but at a whopping $40 a head, it wasn’t in our budget. Instead we stopped at Edelweiss, a German restaurant right down to the brats and Linzer torte.
I had a berry salad with raspberry vinaigrette and greens—totally refreshing and loaded with fruit. Bratwurst on a kaiser roll was simple and satisfying, while the Bayrisches Holzbrett’s generous sampler of meats and cheeses offered robust flavor with plenty of mustard.