Now that Colorado’s heat wave is in full swing, you’ll encounter a raft of Denver-area restaurants with terrific al fresco dining opportunities. Whether you’re pining for creekside picnic tables or rooftop decks affording sweeping Rocky Mountains views, there’s a smorgasbord of scene-stealing scenery to last all summer long.
Bear Creek Tavern
Folksy, denim-clad, stubble-chinned revelers have been coming to this weathered wooden saloon-cum-restaurant nesting on the banks of bubbling Bear Creek since, well, forever. Its small town location in Kittredge, 40 minutes west of Denver, means the tight-knit crowd of jovial locals — many of whom make this their home away from home — may wonder why you city-types have wandered in. For the same reason they have: The views of Bear Creek are remarkably beautiful, especially when you’re kicking back on the patio, a small, six-table affair overlooking the river’s edge. The service is magnificently friendly — so much so that you may never want to leave — and the straight-up American grub — steaks, cheeseburgers and blackened catfish — is nearly as good as the surrounding scenery. In fact, the royal red shrimp, a heap of salt-kissed, fist-sized, blush-red, gulf-shore crustaceans — their heads still attached — are summer’s ideal indulgence.
25940 Colorado 74, Kittredge; 303-674-9929
Yes, it’s frighteningly expensive, yes, the daunting wine list will haunt your dreams for nights to come, and yes, the stringent dress code (no shorts, T-shirts, or athletic wear!) is old-fashioned, but when it comes to heart-numbing views, this decades-old, majestic stalwart, revered for its 6,000-foot perch atop Flagstaff Mountain, delivers panoramic vistas in excess.
Snag a seat on the gorgeous patio, sip a flute of bubbly and drink in the cityscape of Boulder below. If you’ve got binoculars, bring them. And bring your appetite. Owner-chef Mark Monette’s Asian and French-influenced menu, which favors locally grown, seasonal ingredients, fresh herbs from Monette’s own garden and fresh fish flown in daily, proffers bountiful plates of Colorado-raised game, richly indulgent sauces and flourishing dessert finales. You’ll leave broke, but blissfully satiated.
1138 Flagstaff Dr., Boulder; 303-442-4640
Jennifer Jasinski’s French bistro for beautiful habitués hasn’t been around long enough to qualify for classic cult status, but judging from the cosmopolitan crowds jostling for table space on the serene outdoor patio, it’s a restaurant well on its way. Inside, Parisian touches abound: Tiled Art Deco floors, servers donning traditional white aprons and mustard-hued walls framed with opulent mirrors. It’s a lovely room, to be sure, but the delightful courtyard patio, a mini jardin festooned with splashy flowers and shady trees, is easily one of the city’s best romantic retreats. Lucky for us, Jasinski’s deluxe French food is just as captivating. The steak au poivre with pommes frites screams “Vive la France!, while the crêpes Vendôme, bulging with fresh herbs, roasted chicken and Roma tomatoes, are bolstered by a fried egg and sauce béarnaise. Weekend brunch on the patio is a sensational summer pastime.
1420 Larimer St., Denver; 303-825-3232
The Mile High City has no shortage of Japanese food temples, but for an unforgettable experience in Zendom, the countrified Japanese fare at Domo — part restaurant, part folk art museum, part glorious garden of eating — is straight-ahead serenity. Dining outdoors alongside the wooden foot bridge, water lily pond stocked with frolicking fish, and flowering cherry blossoms is an open-air Denver destination unto itself. Tie in distinctively Japanese dishes, such as the maguro donburi, a sushi rice bowl with tuna sashimi, wakame seaweed, ginger and chile oil, and you’ll soon appreciate the restaurant’s fierce commitment to pure, traditional ingredients. For an added bonus, sample the fresh sakes, all of which are heated individually in authentic aluminum cups.
1365 Osage St., Denver; 303-595-3666
Highlands Garden Café
Owner-chef Patricia Perry humbly steers clear of the spotlight, choosing instead to let her fastidious — some would say, near manic — devotion to fresh-from-the-earth ingredients speak for themselves. Still, even if Perry’s food wasn’t marvelous — and it is — her paradisiacal patio would be reason enough to spend the day here.
Leafy, breezy trees, fragrant rose bushes, budding botanicals and fresh herbs permeate this secret garden that perfumes the air and makes weekend brunch as idyllic as lulling in bed. Start the day with a mimosa or Bloody Mary, nosh on lobster and asparagus-topped eggs benedict, and then make plans to return for dinner, when the moonlight skies are the perfect foil for Perry’s saffron-infused paella pelted with chorizo, mussels, shrimp, clams and lobster.
3927 W. 32nd Ave., Denver; 303-458-5920
Platte River Bar & Grill
The parking lot at this venerable watering hole-cum-restaurant is always packed with pick-up trucks and motorcycles, but its enviable location, just off the banks of the Platte River, is conveniently conducive to steering your kayak straight toward the wooden, wrap-around deck that teams with a convivial swell of revelers. Most of the tables — round, square or picnic — are shaded by umbrellas or awnings, and no matter where you park your tush, lovely Rocky Mountain views surround you at every angle. The menu — nachos, sandwiches, burgers and Mexican staples — is hardly earth-shattering, but the burgers, of which there are a dozen, are good, even if the kitchen insists on cooking them medium-well. Kick back, relax, soak up the views and groove to the live music while knocking back a brew (the beer list is impressive), and save your fine dining tendencies for a rainy day.
5995 S. Santa Fe Dr., Littleton; 303-798-9356
Siena at the Courtyard
Mood lighting and a sexy, sleek design scheme make this Italian Castle Rock hotspot a discriminating favorite with suburban socialites and single sophisticates who rally around the L-shaped bar to partake in the flourishing pickup scene. But the real theater is outside on the courtyard patio, an impossibly mammoth square of concrete flanked by a bubbling stone fountain, flowering pots and enough eye candy to run the red carpet. The tables — there are dozens of them — fill up quickly, especially during the two-hour happy hour, an all-smiles social fest where residents suck down exotic martinis and nosh on thin-crusted pizzas served on wooden peels. Live bands take center stage on Thursday, Friday and Saturday summer nights, turning the courtyard into a rollicking concert venue.
333 Perry St., Castle Rock; 303-688-2622
The Tavern at Lowry
Beer, burgers, bands, and big screen TVs are all elements of this bustling drinking establishment and music mecca in the burgeoning Lowry neighborhood. Overseen by Frank Schultz, who also runs the Tavern Uptown and the Tavern Downtown (formerly the Soiled Dove), the Tavern at Lowry is an infusion of fabulous neighborhood flair and spunk. The bar is always overflowing with locals, but if you’re looking for party territory, head straight to the back patio where you can mix and mingle with a diverse, urbanized flock of personalities. It’s a stunning setting besotted with a rippling creek, soothing waterfall, koi pond, lush greenery and shaded tables, all of which surround the various water displays. The Tavern’s menu of salads, sandwiches and pizzas is noteworthy, the weekend brunch and Bloody Mary bar is a huge draw, and every Thursday night, all wines are half-price. Bottoms ups!
7401 E. First Ave., Denver; 303-366-0007
West End Tavern
Ever since relentless restaurateur Dave Query took over the West End Tavern a few years ago, things have steadily improved. The friendly saloon, which has always trumpeted one of the best rooftop patios in Colorado, is still the most popular pad in town to behold the mesmerizing Flatiron vistas. But Query is also a serious foodnik, and the Tavern’s menu, a catchall of comfort food, deftly achieves a cohesive balance between nostalgic Americana and 21st-century playful panache.
The deviled eggs, flecked with bacon, are simply delicious as are the house made yam chips and macaroni and cheese. Top-shelf bartenders pour from a stellar selection of bourbons, best drunk upstairs on the outdoor wooden deck, a lively romp zone that heats up during happy hour and on sun-drenched weekends. A separate canopied rooftop patio showcases live music and genre-spanning films on two huge screens.
926 Pearl St., Boulder; 303-444-3535;
Lori Midson, Colorado AvidGolfer’s restaurant critic (www.coloradoavidgolfer.com), makes a career out of wining and dining her away around Denver, where she lives, a city ripe with culinary surprises. She is a frequent contributor to Sunset and CITY, the local editor of numerous Zagat Surveys, and the Denver dining writer for AOL CityGuide. Midson, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism, has also written for other publications including 5280 magazine, Executive Travel and EnCompass.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.