Digging Denver: A Quickie Cultural Tour

by Sandy MacDonald

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday May 10, 2013

Wherever there's a surfeit of handsome old warehouses and factories, hipsters are sure to cluster. That's certainly true of Denver. Although the city center has been sleekly updated in recent decades, it still abounds in holdovers from its trading-post past, and hordes of artsy repurposers have taken full advantage.

"It's the Brooklyn of the West!" I've heard aficionados enthuse. Perhaps - if you were to replace pseudo-lumberjacks with Olympic hopefuls. What's most striking, as you wander broad streets conflating 150-odd years of history, is how healthy and vibrant everyone looks - maybe because the great outdoors is literally at the city's doorstep. The Rockies surge abruptly to the west, offering a natural playground in a patchwork of state parks and national forest.

No wonder so many travelers (skiers, especially) skip the urban option and head straight for the hills. But to do so would be to miss out on a rich and growing cultural scene.

Getting Settled

The Hotel Teatro hotel makes a good starting - and staying - point. A stone's throw from the Denver Performing Arts Complex, Teatro started out as the 1911 headquarters of the Denver Tramway Company. Overhauled in 1997, it harbors two restaurants run by top local chef Kevin Taylor, who also presides over the complex's Opera House - one of ten venues within the massive complex, which rivals Lincoln Center in scale.

You could spend an entire weekend plumbing the Complex's offerings, starting with the world premiere of the delightful "Sense & Sensibility The Musical," which runs through May 26. Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, it's sure to be Broadway-bound: you can brag that you saw it first.

Given the city's mile-high altitude, which can take some getting used to, your first night had best be on the quiet side. You could and should drink a lot - of water, that is. You'll want to be well hydrated for a museum trek the next morning - especially if you plan to travel via bike, the easiest way to get about town, which is admittedly sprawly in the western mode. Denver's bikeshare program - Denver B-cycle - was the first large-scale project of its sort in the nation, and it works like a dream: Buy an $8 daily pass, and from there on, half-hour sprints are free.

Museum Hopping and Tchotchke Shopping

First stop: The Denver Art Museum, where it's easy to while away several hours admiring in-depth collections ranging from avant-garde to Native American. The angular Hamilton Building addition, designed by Daniel Libeskind, houses special exhibits, but there's plenty to plunder in the original facility - notably a rich trove of pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art.

Start at the top (step out on the balcony for great city views) and wend your way down to the superlative Palettes restaurant (yet another Kevin Taylor enterprise) for a light dish such as sesame seared tuna with sticky rice and wasabi ponzu.

Refreshed, venture a block further to the Clyfford Still Museum, monument to one very successful, very particular abstract expressionist. In the 1950s, at the height of his career, Still decided to turn his back on the New York gallery scene and just work - selling off the occasional canvas to keep afloat.

Today each of his outsize color studies is worth millions. In his will, he offered the entire collection (comprising some 2,400 works) to whatever city was willing to build a suitable museum. Denver won out, and the result is a handsomely stark cement repository designed by Brad Cloepfil. Be sure to check out the correspondence on display, in which Still breaks with the art establishment, giving critic Clement Greenberg a piece of his mind.

Some create; others collect. If you have any interest at all in mid-century Modern decor, you'll want to check out the the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art a few blocks east. It's tchotchke central - nightmarish or intriguing, depending on one's taste (and tolerance for kitsch). There are definitely treasures to be found amid this chockablock hodgepodge.

Back in "LoDo" (Lower Downtown), stock up on reading material at the Tattered Cover Book Store, housed in an 1884 mercantile building where a young Douglas Fairbanks once served as a clerk (legend has it that he was fired for shinnying down an elevator rope). Also be sure to check out the merchandise at Rockmount Ranch Wear, in business in a 1908 warehouse since 1946. Rock stars now favor the western shirts - distinguished by diamond-shaped snaps - once worn by ranch hands. Ang Lee would settle for nothing less when it came to costuming "Brokeback Mountain".

Unwinding with Food, Drink & a Night on the Town

Souvenir shopping seen to, soothe your senses with a bespoke martini at the Cruise Room within the historic Oxford Hotel, established in 1891. If those Art Deco panels look authentic, they should: painted in 1933 (the bar opened the day after Prohibition was repealed), they were inspired by the lounges of the original Queen Mary.

Deciding where to dine can be something of an ordeal, given that Denver definitely takes after Brooklyn in terms of foodie fever. If your schedule and stamina permit, consider a tasting tour led by Culinary Connectors.

Of the quartet of eateries I sampled, I came away most impressed with The Squeaky Bean, whose mission statement reads simply "Doing Our Best to Make Food Porn as Stimulating as Porn Porn." Taking over an old saddlery building a year ago, chef Max MacKissock is both a dedicated locavore (the restaurant grows its own produce -- microgreens right onsite in a mini-greenhouse) and an avid innovator in the Ferran Adriŗ vein. While sipping a refreshing housemade orange-rosemary soda, I enjoyed watching a sous-chef -- sporting tattoos and Mrs. Lovett buns a la "Sweeney Todd" - use a canister of liquid nitrogen to fashion "foie gras dippin dots."

Any energy left, feel free to expend it at the venerable (est. 1980) gay club Tracks, a couple of miles northwest in the gallery-rich "RiNo" (River North) Arts District. Any damage you do can be remedied, up to a point, with a truly outstanding brunch at Root Down, a reconfigured gas station in a suburban setting handily en route to the airport. Opt for an atypical Spanish omelette -- Campo de Montalban cheese with Brussels sprouts and piquillo almond sauce - and you'll be psyched to revisit Denver at the earliest opportunity.

Don't Miss
May 24-27
Downtown Denver Arts Festival

June 15-16
Pride Fest

Sandy MacDonald (www.sandymacdonald.com) is a travel writer and theatre critic based in New York, Cambridge, and Nantucket.