Bong! The dope on Denver: modern art, craft beer and Rocky Mountain oysters


America’s first city to declare peace on the war on drugs by legalising cannabis delivers a different kind of hit for Derek Guthrie

Bong! The dope on Denver: modern art, craft beer and Rocky Mountain oysters

I had assumed that since a local problem page is called “Ask a Stoner”, and that shops with names like Bomb Head and Stash House sell so much marijuana they have express checkouts, Colorado’s capital would be enveloped entirely in a fug of fragrantly copacetic smoke. (The first legal cannabis shops opened in 2014. Medicinal use had been legal for more than a decade before that.) But unexpectedly, it was the altitude (“Welcome to the Mile High City!”) that had me lightheaded for a day or two, not the Witches Weed.

At first, I didn’t knowingly  meet any stoners, even in the shadows of Daniel Libeskind’s metallic, uber-cool Denver Art Museum, a natural magnet for dopeheads to mouth “wow” at the shimmer of its titanium tiles reflecting the distant Rockies. Probably at home on the sofa, munching pizza, staring at SpongeBob.

The Art, Denver

No slackers next door either at “The Art” (the subtitle reads “A Hotel”) which is damn near an extension of Libeskind’s glistening arthaus. Corridors and bars are lined with works by the same artists, its sparkling glass edifice striking a pose rather than a reflection, and the owner, Lanny Martin, is a former chairman of the DAM board. My room’s picture window framed the metallic points and peaks in the foreground, mimicking the Rocky Mountains themselves in the distance.

Art, life, etc.

Tracey Emin’s neon squiggle  ‘I can feel your smile’ greets guests on entry, the elevator has two of William Wegman’s more amusing Weimaraners – a video rather than the hounds themselves – and scattered hither and thither are Josef Albers, Claes Oldenberg, Sol Lewitt, Ed Ruscha, and Jim Dine. A visit to the Museum proper is barely necessary.

Most intriguing are four fragile lifesize horses sculpted by Deborah Butterfield, one coralled in the hotel bar pining for his three pals next door in the museum. They appear to be made of driftwood, but since the artist lives in Montana, which has no seashore, she collects bleached wood from dry river beds and fashions that instead. You would swear they were the real thing. In fact the wood is burned out by molten bronze which is then treated to look exactly like driftwood. What’s that you say? Neigh?

Acronym fever nearly spread to Five Points, but FiDo would never have caught on. Too barking

So if Denver’s modern citizenry aren’t blasting themselves into inner space every day smoking banana kush, what are they doing? Drinking beer mostly. This is the home of Coors, but crucially more craft breweries than anywhere else in America, between 80 and 100 apparently. It’s an obsession, and since I fail somewhat in my appreciation surrounding the subtleties of beer, it might be better to pause for a moment, here at the Denver Brewery Guide, before continuing to more refined highs.

Denver Pale Ale

There are lots of upscale European-style restaurants, several on Larimer Street/Square, an architectural gem in the cleaned up lower downtown dubbed – SoHo style – LoDo, its neighbours being RiNo and LoFi. Acronym fever nearly spread to Five Points, but FiDo would never have caught on. Too barking.

Restaurant Rioja (not an acronym) celebrates Spain and the wider Med by serving  Serrano ham wrapped octopus, beet scarpinocc, and squid-ink bigoli. A perfect scallop crudo, marinated in dashi and lemon grass, came with the addition of strawberry slices, a decidedly American affectation. A treat with the cheese, albeit an Italian one straight outta Cremona, was homemade apricot mostardo, sweeter than the real thing and slightly weird in a Spanish context, but pleasingly welcome all the same.

The Buckhorn Exchange

Larimer meanders lazily out through RiNo, the former warehouse district (#fact: Denver has NO empty warehouses – they’re all in use for growing cannabis, recreational and medicinal) where laidback Sundays should start with brunch at Stowaway Kitchen, cool and scruffy, before a little retail therapy. Meadowlark64 sells, I guessed, about two million glass bongs of every conceivable shape and size while a few doors down, Livwell is one of six dispensaries hereabouts actually selling the dope itself. It’s like a doctor’s surgery.

Can I see your ID?“, asks the young dude in trucker cap and bright red lion’s mane beard.

I present my UK driving licence.

No use” he apologises politely, consulting his colleague, “Can’t even talk to you. In-state only

It’s tightly regulated. No smuggling.

But wait, stop. The munchies.

With more than a nod to London’s “nose-to-tail” supremo Fergus Henderson, bone marrow toast with parsley accompanies Colorado beef tongue with house-pickled relish

Annette’s, in Aurora, is a modern celebration of American produce in the hands of young enthusiasts who do it right. They share space in a former factory, (which made ejector seats, handy today for awkward customers), called Stanley Marketplace. Griddled asparagus from the fields outside comes with ramp fritters, lentils and local burrata. With more than a nod to London’s “nose-to-tail” supremo Fergus Henderson, bone marrow toast with parsley accompanies Colorado beef tongue with house-pickled relish. (The chef Caroline Glover worked with English chef April Bloomfield in New York’s Spotted Pig.) The vibe is happy and relaxed, the mix millennials to boomers, the enjoyment all the more welcome as in 2012 Aurora joined that gruesome list of catastrophic gun massacres which remains unchecked today.


In the Capitol Hill neighbourhood, Potager is Denver’s original farm to table operation. Crowded out most nights from 5.30pm (no reservations), it offers fresh, sustainable, local (etc. etc.) fare in a bright, airy, laid back room: try oven roasted radishes with honey, or mussels in green garlic broth with sorrel aioli. The goat’s cheese soufflé is special indeed. I went back for it.

But what’s that sweet aroma, that attractive herbal whiff?

And down on 6th Street is Fruition, a modish neighbourhood local picking up awards for invention. Smart, popular, with vegetables from their own farm, dishes range widely, from gnudi to congee and pork belly, chicken skin to fresh Columbia River sturgeon. I went to their sister restaurant too, Mercantile Dining & Provision set inside the scrubbed up railway station. Same quality, (same farm!) and generally regarded as Denver’s best, as emphasised by the waiter clearing my plate. “That was delicious” I said. “Whaddya expect?” he laughed back.

But the Golden Spurs must go to The Buckhorn Exchange, the oldest steakhouse in town (1893), where you’ll find ‘Rocky Mountain oysters (no, you look them up) preceding top grade steaks of bison and beef served under trophy heads hung throughout three floors of raucous cowboy saloon, complete with checkered tablecloths and a chuckwagon kitchen. Yeehaa!

Meanwhile, back in RiNo, among warehouses resplendent with spectacular graffiti murals (there is, of course, an annual competition), Sunday afternoon drifts onwards with Hazel Hue reviving American Retro at an open air bar where Epic Pale Ale is but one of two dozen favoured local brews.

But what’s that sweet aroma, that attractive herbal whiff? I can’t see where it’s coming from but…


Cool. C