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Your Guide to RiNo, America's Most Improbably Cool Neighborhood

GQ logo GQ 9/11/2018 Casey Dunn

a plate of food and a glass of wine

© Jennifer Olson

There was a time when travelers might regard Denver as not much more than a gateway to the slopes of Aspen or Vail, or a stopover en route to the charmingly outdoorsy Boulder. That time is past us.

Now, as you may have heard, Denver is booming. With a burgeoning tech industry and a skyrocketing young population—some pushed out of pricier cities like San Francisco or New York, some lured by the charms of abundant nature and agreeable weather—there’s a palpable sense of energy, with new restaurants (and bars, and dispensaries, and craft breweries) that seem to appear daily.

Nowhere is this truer than RiNo, which, despite the clunky moniker, is the most exciting neighborhood in the city. Short for “River North Art District” (and pronounced like the animal, not the Nevada city), it’s become a vibrant destination for food, drink, art, and street life, and one of the most exciting neighborhoods to book a flight for right now.

For the last year or two, many of Denver’s biggest (and most-hyped) restaurant and bar openings have been within this stretch of the city. With the recent opening of top-tier hotel The Ramble, it’s now possible to spend a few days in Denver entirely within RiNo. Here’s how to do your long weekend right.

Where to Stay

Opened in May, The Ramble is the undeniable center of the action in RiNo. Its soaring lobby houses Death & Co. Denver, the famed cocktail bar’s first foray out of Manhattan, which immediately became a magnet for Denver cocktail buffs. Death & Co is also behind DC/AM, the lobby’s daytime café; Suite 6A, a secluded, speakeasy-style cocktail bar; and verdant courtyard The Garden— together with onsite restaurant Super Mega Bien (we’ll get to them in a minute), that means you could very easily spend an entire day not leaving the hotel’s walls, eating and drinking very well.

Like an Ace Hotel, the Ramble straddles urban cool (DIY French presses for morning coffee; twin bunk-bed “Bunkhouse” rooms for friends traveling together) and luxe hotel comforts (antique Persian rugs, Macallan 12 on the minibar). And while it’s got the vibe of an old industrial warehouse that some ambitious designer repurposed over a dramatic five-year period, it’s actually a brand-new space created just for this concept.

Other hoteliers have taken notice of the neighborhood’s opportunity, and soon, visitors will have twice the options. The 100-room Source Hotel, atop much-loved food hall The Source, will open in September, with an eighth-floor rooftop pool, restaurant, and beer garden.

Where to Eat

RiNo alone boasts enough great restaurants to qualify Denver as an eating city on par with Charleston or Houston or wherever else your coolest friend is telling you to eat right now. And from The Ramble, three are just steps away.

The playful Super Mega Bien, in the hotel itself, is pure fun, with a cart of nightly-changing Latin-inspired dishes wheeled, dim sum style, throughout the room. Over-ordering is inevitable (and recommended) when small plates of Brazilian coconut shrimp soup and ropa vieja and oddly light smoked halibut dip are all vying for your attention. The restaurant is the brainchild of James Beard-nominated chef Dana Rodriguez, also of Work and Class across the street, where you can get larger portions (think family-style roasted goat) for a classy yet super-affordable dinner.

Next door to Work and Class, the counter-service Cart-Driver is a quirky indoor-outdoor restaurant built from a 640-square-foot shipping container, which, despite its small footprint and counter-only service, is an excellent place to get fresh oysters, quirky wine, and a roaring wood-burning pizza oven. (During my visit, a man behind me in line confessed that it was his eleventh straight day at Cart-Driver—and his seventeenth pizza.) A late-night $5 special of Portuguese sardines, crusty bread scorching-hot from the pizza oven, sambal, and olive butter is enough to undo whatever damage you may have done at Death & Co earlier in the evening.

If you’re feeling too indecisive to land at one single restaurant, head to The Source's food hall, built within a mid-19th century foundry. Its starring restaurant, Acorn, is all about the oak-burning wood-fired grill, which spits out Moroccan-inspired monkfish with chickpea and red chermoula, and oak-roasted clams with fennel sofrito and saffron, all infused with the flavor of its smoke.

Also within The Source, there’s Smōk, for whiskey cocktails and barbecue by the pound; Israeli spot Safta (from James Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya); and boulangerie Babettes Artisan Bakery, which you may smell before you see, should you arrive early enough for the chocolate croissants and the dark crusty breads that sell out daily. Don’t miss Crooked Stave, brewing some of the best sour beers in the country. If magnums of wine, pork shoulder char siu, and bone marrow fried rice sound appealing (and they should), venture over to Hop Alley, with a regionally-inspired but thoroughly irreverent Chinese menu and a throwback hip-hop soundtrack.

If you're less into hops and more into bitters, options abound. Stick around The Source for drinks at RiNo Yacht Club; sip a mint julep at American Bonded, from the team behind beloved Denver bar Williams & Graham; sample the classics at Bar Fausto; or peruse the vast menu of flawless drinks at Death & Co.

What to Do When You're Not Eating

If you’re coming to Colorado, you’re probably into the whole “getting outside” thing. Denver’s B-Cycle bikeshare has five kiosks in RiNo, with easy access to the city’s 85 miles of paved bike paths. Pedal over to Washington Park, a Central Park-like expanse of endless bike paths and beautifully landscaped gardens, or cruise the Cherry Creek Trail along the creek of the same name, the most direct bike route to get you out of downtown and into the grasslands, as far down the path’s 42 miles as you fancy. If you’re looking to get out of the city -- and in Colorado, that’s exactly what you should do—take your pick of trailheads within half an hour of the city: the Bluffs Loop Trail at Bluffs Regional Park, with views both back over Denver and over the Front Range; Rock Park, with a short but steep climb to the base of prominent landmark Castle Rock; or Chimney Gulch Trail at Windy Saddle Park, a demanding hike that rewards you with panoramic views over the Rockies.

If your idea of the great outdoors looks more like a patio filled with pint glasses, you can create your own nudge-nudge-wink-wink “hike” along a few of the neighborhood’s breweries. Ratio has a low-key backyard feel, with competitive games of cornhole (exercise!), plenty of picnic tables, and overhead misters for when the sun gets too oppressive. Also worth a visit are Black Shirt Brewing Company, Our Mutual Friend, the Great Divide Barrel Bar, Bierstadt Lagerhaus, Odell Brewing Company, Stem Cidery—enough to exhaust even the most dedicated day-drinker.


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