Sometimes you travel solely for fun. Other times you might go somewhere for a professional conference and yearn to sneak out of the hotel for a little adventure, local color, fresh air and vegetarian cuisine. No matter how interesting the conference, I’m always wondering what’s beyond the hotel doors. Some locales disappoint. But not downtown Denver. During a recent conference trip, I found the city abounded with interesting things to see, do and eat within blocks of the Grand Hyatt. And with Denver’s convention business growing steadily over recent years, you, too, might find yourself sneaking out into downtown Denver.
Walking and Biking Downtown
Most Denver tourists find themselves at some point walking on the 16th Street pedestrian mall. This strip features street musicians, bike cabs, horse-drawn carriages, restaurants, bars, boutiques, chain stores, and Denver’s famous Tattered Cover Bookstore. If you get tired of shopping, walk a little farther down 16th and you’ll come to where the South Platte River and Cherry Creek meet. You can run, walk or bike on paved trails, or sunbathe on a grassy slope in Confluence Park. On a recent sunny day, I even saw children wading at the park’s small beach.
If you make it this far, take the bridge across the South Platte and check out Denver’s massive REI store. This converted warehouse is the place outdoor lovers come to shop, see and be seen. A massive number of bikes were parked outside, with droves of folks resting their padded shorts in the outdoor patio of the Starbuck’s attached to REI. Inside, a climbing wall provides a focal point and a chance to try out gear.
Locals and tourists can take advantage of B-Cycle, Denver’s bike share program. It boasts 82 stations and 700 red bikes. For an $8/day membership, you can ride B-Cycles around town. The catch is, you have to swipe your credit card at a station every 30 minutes or pay extra. I had planned to rent a B-Cycle, but decided it sounded too stressful for my one free post-conference afternoon in Denver. If you know the city well, it’s probably easy to plan your check-in stops. But I figured I’d spend every 30-minute increment sweating where to find the next station, and wipe out trying to read a map while cycling.
WaterCourse Foods tops the veg-friendly list. This Denver-based empire began with one vegetarian restaurant in 1998. Since then, owners Dan and Michelle Landes have added a bakery, a second restaurant called City, O’ City, a food cart called Steamin’ Demon, and a vegetarian hostel in Oaxaca, Mexico. I visited WaterCourse and City, O’ City. Both have big vegetarian menus with lots of vegan and gluten-free options, bars, espresso drinks and smoothies.
WaterCourse is a regular restaurant, staying open till 10 pm. City, O’ City has a bigger bar clientele and stays open till 2 a.m. To me, the availability of late-night veg food is a sure sign of a city’s civilization.
Both nights I was in a salad kind of mood. At WaterCourse, I ordered the Three Sisters, which added grilled zucchini, tempeh chorizo, fire-roasted corn, black beans, avocado, pico de gallo and chili lime pepitas and peanuts to mixed greens. At City, O’ City I ordered a tempeh salad, which featured tangy mustard vinaigrette and candied cashews, along with a cup of curried carrot soup. Handsome, filling salads, both. I was also happy that both restaurants had seating around a bar, so lone diners could more quickly squeeze in, especially on a busy Friday night at WaterCourse.
The Udi’s name is well-known for the gluten-free bread distributed far beyond its Denver headquarters. Colorado also has several Udi’s cafes, including one that serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday to Denver’s downtown crowd. There’s lots here for vegetarians and vegans. I had a hard time choosing between a green burrito with vegetarian green chili and kale, and a Vietnamese tofu sandwich stuffed with cilantro, jalapenos, pickled carrots and jicama, served with sweet and sour dipping sauce. The sandwich won out. This is a bright and busy lunch spot with counter service. They also have premade grab and go sandwiches if you’re in a hurry.
FYI, the company has sold off its gluten-free bread business, along with the Udi’s name. It’s currently undergoing a name change, so if you’re visiting Denver check with Google to learn this excellent café’s new name.
16th Street Mall Veg Food
The 16th Street Mall has a magnetic pull for tourists, probably because there’s lots to look at and next to zero chance you’ll get lost. Fortunately, vegetarians will find plenty to eat here.
Modmarket is a casual, order-at-the-counter place designed for a wide variety of food preferences. They make it easy to figure out what’s vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free or meaty. Their emphasis is on salads, sandwiches, soups and pizza. I got the superfood salad with spinach, tender kale, quinoa pilaf, grated carrot and red grapes. Instead of feta, I had them add braised tofu, which had a crisp outer layer of sesame seeds. Those greens were downright rejuvenating.
I also ate at Little India, which consistently wins the title of “best Indian restaurant” in reader polls of local magazines and newspapers. Little India is owned by two Indian families who’ve lived in Colorado for several decades. They opened their first restaurant in 1998 and now have four Denver locations. Their chefs are from northern India.
This was the most elegant restaurant I visited, and though the staff was perfectly friendly, it was the only place I felt just a tad uncomfortable dining solo. The chana masala was excellent, made spicy just as I asked for, and presented in lovely Indian serving vessels.
So if business takes you to Denver, venture beyond your hotel. Get a view of the mountains and taste what the city has to offer. — Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT’s Vegan/Vegetarian Editor