Nancy Hecker - Travel Consultant/Travel Writer
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Restaurant Week in the Mile High City!


Dining out in Denver

(And making a weekend of it!)


We recently moved from the Washington DC area to Colorado Springs.  One of the opportunities that I thoroughly enjoyed while living near our nation’s capitol was to participate in their bi-annual “Restaurant Week.”  This gave my friends and me an excellent excuse to venture into downtown.  It was a great chance, for a reasonable price, to combine a delicious, three-course lunch at a new or trendy restaurant that we had wanted to try, with a visit to a special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art or one of the other wonderful museums that we were fortunate to have available to us.  We always looked forward to receiving notification that “Restaurant Week” was coming up, and then would make our plans to share a special day together.


So it was with eager anticipation that I read in the newspaper that for the past three years the Denver area restaurants have also been joining together to offer a “Restaurant Week!”  This seven-day celebration of the culinary scene in the “Mile-High City” takes place in the month of February.  Unlike the Washington DC event, “Restaurant Week” in Denver only offers the multi-course, fixed price menu in the evening.  There is, however, a wonderful selection of restaurants participating, from the most classic, to the newest and most hip.  The price is cleverly set at $52.80 for two (measured in dollars…. not feet), or $26.40 for one.  This pricing does not include your beverages, tax or gratuity, but is still incredibly reasonable for those who wish to enjoy an exceptional gastronomic experience. 


We decided to take advantage of the opportunity and travel to Denver for the opening weekend of “Restaurant Week.”  The first step was to pick which restaurant we wanted to try, and then attempt to secure a reservation. I perused the list of those participating, and then went on line to check their ratings and reviews on  I decided to try for one of the truly classic restaurants, one where you would want to celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday or anniversary.  I zeroed in on either Kevin Taylor’s Restaurant located in the Hotel Teatro in the Theater District, or Frank Bonanno’s Mizuna Restaurant on Capitol Hill.  Much to my disappointment, when I called to reserve it was clear that I had not started soon enough.  The tables at both these establishments had already been booked for “Restaurant Week” for quite some time.  Lessons learned!  Next year I will be on the alert for the first announcement, and book right away!


Undaunted, and knowing that there were a lot of other great restaurants up in Denver, I continued my quest.  This time I came up with Rioja, a Mediterranean themed restaurant in Larimer Square, rated in the “tops in food” and “most popular” category by Zagat reviewers.  A little more research revealed the fact that executive chef and owner Jennifer Jasinksi was rated “Chef of the Year” for 2007 in Denver’s Restaurant Guide.  She has been written up in “Food and Wine,” “The Wall Street Journal” and “USA Today.”  Jen has also been invited to cook at the James Beard House.  Pasta is her signature dish, and she likes to make everything by hand.  The menus found on Rioja’s website sounded appealing, as did the raves Jen received.  I dialed the number for reservations and this time I was in luck!  We had a table reserved for 6:45 pm on Saturday.


We decided to spend the night up in Denver, so we could enjoy a leisurely dinner paired with a glass of wine or two without worrying about the drive home.  I found a “hot dates, best rates” deal on line at the four star hotel Monaco, located just a few blocks from Larimer Square.  We booked a king sized deluxe room for $128 including tax and service charge.  Judging from the website of this boutique hotel, it looked like we would be in for a unique and “colorful” experience.


Continuing my research, I discovered that the Denver Art Museum is currently hosting a special exhibition:  “Inspiring Impressionism.”  There are over one hundred paintings featured, drawn from collections around the world. Works by Old Masters such as Raphael, Titian, El Greco and Velasquez are displayed next to paintings by such favorites as Monet, Renoir, Manet and Degas.  The intent is to show the relationship between the old and the new styles, and how the Impressionist painters perhaps drew inspiration from their predecessors.  As an Impressionist lover, this was an added bonus to our weekend foray.  And with the exceptional collection of Western Art displayed at the DAM, I knew that my husband would enjoy the visit to the museum as well.


From the moment we arrived at the Hotel Monaco, it was clear that my impressions from their website were right on.  This hotel did indeed prove to be a unique and “colorful” property.  Our room was filled with stripes!  There were big, bold yellow and white stripes on the wallpaper, medium red and white stripes on the first set of pillow shams, and thin black and white stripes on the smaller shams.  Throw in a red ergonomic desk chair and another light blue chair embellished with gold stars, and well, you get the picture!  Colorful!


The Hotel Monaco is “pet friendly” and one of their trademarks is, upon request, to provide you with a goldfish bowl for your room.  Two little chocolate fish are even left by your pillow with the nightly turn down service.  Even more fun was the wine reception that the hotel offers every evening from 5:30 to 7:00 pm.  What a surprise we encountered when we entered the lobby.  Not only were our fellow hotel occupants gathering there for a bit of congeniality, but many of them had their dogs with them as well.  Hercules, a precious little Shih Tzu, is the resident dog at the hotel.  We got a kick out of watching him busily playing host to his fellow canines throughout the reception.  I asked Tammy, Hercules’s den mother and head of housekeeping at the hotel, if having the pets there posed any problems?  She was very positive in her response, and assured me that the pet owners were always extremely respectful of the property.  Her best story was about the time folks from the Denver Zoo were staying at the hotel.  They brought a four-foot long alligator that rested on the front desk, along with a Lemur monkey.  Now that is unique!


We strolled down the 16th Street Mall to Larimer, drawn to the Square by the bright white lights strung across the street.  With so many great restaurants in the area, the place was teeming with activity!  Clearly “Restaurant Week” has become a huge success in Denver and we were excited to be taking part in it, if only for one evening! 


Upon entering Rioja, we were warmly greeted by the staff.  We were seated promptly and then took a moment to look around before studying the menu.  A copper-topped bar, earth tone colors accented by colorful hand blown glass art on the walls, and a chef’s counter back by the busy open-kitchen all added to the ambiance.  The tables were fully booked, and the noise level high, but the aromas coming from the kitchen were divine!  We sensed immediately that we were in for a treat!


The “Restaurant Week Menu” that Jen had prepared included six appetizers and six entrees listed at the $52.80 price for two.  In order to present her entire menu, Jen had additional offerings listed at a supplemental price.  As a first course, I chose the baked hand made mozzarella wrapped in smoked prosciutto, served with grilled bread, oven-dried tomatoes and a green olive pistou.   My husband opted for the risotto stuffed calamari.  For our entrees, I decided to pay the supplement and go for the pheasant served two ways.  Bill went for the baked mussel and scallop cannelloni.


After placing our orders and enjoying the first sips of our wine, one of the servers came by with a large basket of homemade breads.  I sampled the warm goat cheese and rosemary biscuit, while Bill went for the olive bread.  Both were scrumptious and we could easily have made a meal of bread and wine alone!  In fact, when the basket passed our way a second time, we could not resist the temptation!


While my pheasant entrée was very good, with a delectable sauce, it was the hand made mozzarella appetizer that was the hit for me.  The combination of flavors and textures was sensational.  Bill’s entrée was his favorite, with Prince Edward Island mussels and a white cream sauce to die for.


Our “Restaurant Week” dinner included a shared dessert as a third course.  A huge chocolate lover, at the recommendation of our waiter, I chose the chilled s’mores pot de crème.  This exceptional dessert was a rich chocolate custard served in a ramekin, along with home made graham crackers, and topped with a bruleed house-made marshmallow!  While savoring our dining experience with a cup of coffee for Bill, and a Ceylon Yalta tea for me, our waiter brought us both a little something extra…..a taste of a mini beignet, one of the specialties of the house!  


The six-block walk up the 16th Street Mall back to the Hotel Monaco was much needed, and the perfect ending to the evening.  The next morning we met up with friends for brunch at the Bistro Vendome.  Located just across the street from Rioja, this lovely French restaurant is also owned by Chef Jen Jasinksi.  Over Eggs Benedict with Crab, and mouthwatering pommes frites, we compared notes from our dinners the night before.  Candy and Steve had eaten at Tamayo, a lively, modern Mexican restaurant also located in Larimer Square.  They described their meal as not just great, but absolutely spectacular!  With such an enthusiastic review, we’ll for sure add Tamayo to our list for next year.  As new residents of Colorado, “Restaurant Week” proved to be a great draw to bring us up to Denver. We made a special weekend of it, and were pleased to find so many wonderful dining and cultural opportunities just a short drive away!













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