Things to do in Denver, where festivals and food are on the rise

On a recent Tuesday night, diners surrounded marble-topped bistro tables at Chez Maggy in the new Thompson Hotel, open since February in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood. The draw: The chance to sample chef Ludo Lefebvre’s classic French dishes — garlicky escargot, curry-colored clam frites, duck breast à l’orange — at his first venture outside of Los Angeles.

The restaurant and hotel are among the fresh crop of ventures getting busy in this gateway town to the Rocky Mountains, which has regained its pre-pandemic vibrancy. And visitors are welcomed with open arms: By the end of the year, Denver International Airport — which the trade group Airports Council International recently ranked as the world’s third-busiest facility — will have 39 additional gates, increasing capacity by 30 percent.

Tempting travelers are a range of new cultural offerings, hotels and restaurants, plus the return of favorite events. An anticipated two-year renovation and revitalization of downtown’s 16th Street Mall launched this spring, and when it’s complete, wider sidewalks and new infrastructure should restore the appeal of this 40-year-old pedestrian thoroughfare, which had lost its luster.

Thanks to Denver’s abundant sunshine, numerous festivals and events take place outside, and annual favorites returned in full force this year, including June’s PrideFest and July’s Underground Music Showcase. The year-round First Friday Art Walks in Santa Fe’s Art District, which drew up to 20,000 gallery-hoppers before the pandemic, are regaining their popularity, with the heart of the action among the eclectic galleries and shops that line Santa Fe Drive between 5th and 11th streets .

After two years of mostly drive-in screenings, Denver Film presents its annual Film on the Rocks series at Red Rocks Amphitheater (through August 15) and, after a two-year hiatus, will hold its Summer Scream event only for adults (August 25) at vintage Lakeside Amusement Park northwest of downtown; in addition to unlimited rides, actors will focus on the park’s almost 125-year history. Outdoor movie buffs can experience an offshoot of Rocky Mountain Goat Yoga called Goatflix and Chill at Denver’s second-oldest cemetery, Fairmount, which has parkland among its 280 acres. (A herd of goats cuddles the viewers during the screenings.)

From September 5 to 11, Art RiNo, a new festival, debuts in the RiNo (River North) Arts District with six new outdoor murals (adding to the district’s collection of more than 100), light installations and a day-long concert outside the Mission Ballroom, a popular venue headlined by the Flaming Lips.

And the Great American Beer Festival (October 6 to 8) returns to the Colorado Convention Center after a two-year hiatus, celebrating 40 years as the nation’s largest gathering of all things craft brewing, with a competition, public tastings and two sessions that pairs brewers and chefs.

One of the biggest events on the art scene was the reopening last fall of the Denver Art Museum’s Martin Building after a $150 million renovation. A visual counterpoint to the museum’s low-slung, angular Daniel Libeskind wing, the glass tile tower, designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti in 1971, rises seven stories. The revamped rooftop, where geometric cutouts in the facade frame views of Denver, implements a belated aspect of Ponti’s original plan. Inside, a current exhibit features Mexican fashion designer and social activist Carla Fernández working with indigenous artisans (through Oct. 16). Elsewhere in the museum, the first major exhibition devoted to Georgia O’Keeffe’s photography will run until November 6.

Immersive art experiences abound in Denver; most recently, the most popular has been the trippy, interactive Meow Wolf, which originated in Santa Fe in 2016 and opened last fall in the Sun Valley neighborhood. Called the Convergence Station, some 70 connected rooms and exhibits lead viewers through a psychedelic dreamscape created by dozens of artists in imaginative overdrive (timed admission required).

After a two-year pandemic delay, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ “Theater of the Mind” will run from August 31st to December 18th. Created over eight years by musician David Byrne with investment banker and writer Mala Gaonkar, the 75-minute production takes audiences (16 and older) on a narrative and sensory journey that unfolds one person’s life in reverse chronology as a means of exploring memory , perception and self-identity. “You will see that your perception is quite unreliable and our memories are made of how we perceived different moments in our lives and therefore are also unreliable,” said Mr. Byrne in a presentation about the project at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen in June.

The pandemic has not slowed hotel openings. Among last year’s new properties were the baseball-inspired Rally Hotel next to Coors Field, the Hyatt Centric Downtown Denver, the RiNo district’s Catbird—a contemporary extended-stay hotel with a rooftop bar—and the Clayton in Cherry Creek with its midcentury- theme. (At the latter, Five Nine’s craft cocktail lounge has amped up the nightlife with a dimly lit, velvety interior and burlesque dance performances.) Meanwhile, an $80 million renovation refreshed the Sheraton Denver Downtown in an IM Pei building along the 16th Street Mall.

Visitors have even more to discover this summer. Cherry Creek’s former JW Marriott was converted into the 199-room Hotel Clio in March (rooms from $399). In February, the 216-room Thompson Denver (rooms from $309) opened as the upscale brand’s first Colorado outpost. The hotel partnered with Victrola, the record player manufacturer, to outfit a listening room in the sixth-floor bar and lounge, while a pedicab service ferries guests around the surrounding LoDo neighborhood.

Open since late May across from the Colorado Convention Center, the 251-room Slate Hotel (rooms from $249) chronicles the building’s former life as the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, with classroom-themed artwork and a restaurant called the Teachers’ Lounge. The Hilton Tapestry Collection property retains the original brick-lined hallways – now restored – while former classrooms have been converted into guest rooms with high ceilings and marble floors. In July, Best Western’s boutique-style Vib Denver opened in RiNo (rooms from $250).

As restaurants in Denver have regained their footing, newcomers are filling spaces. Notable openings include A5 Steakhouse from a local restaurant group; farm-to-table Apple Blossom at the Hyatt Centric Downtown, from the same team as the once-lauded Beast and Bottle (which lost its lease last year); and Three Saints Revival, a tapas restaurant in Hotel Indigo opened by restaurateur and founder of Punch Bowl Social, Robert Thompson.

Restaurateur Delores Tronco returned to Denver to open Greenwich in RiNo last fall after closing Banty Rooster in New York during the pandemic; Amid New York-inspired decor, diners are served seasonal Mediterranean-tinged dishes such as crispy-skinned fried chicken ($36), light salads ($15 to $18) and sourdough pizza (from $21).

Despite the recent closure of Broadway Market, food halls and marketplaces are still popular and constantly evolving. At Bellota in the Source Hotel’s market hall, chef Manny Berella earned a 2022 James Beard Award nomination for Mexican dishes like pork scones and Oaxacan spicy cricket tacos (a three-course meal costs about $42 without alcohol).

New to Stanley Marketplace in Aurora, housed in a former aerospace factory, Churreria de Madrid fries up churros with dipping chocolate ($8), and the 24-seat Sky Bar serves classic cocktails amid the decor of a retro-style airport lounge. Stanley is also home to Annette, loved for its locally sourced modern comfort food; Caroline Glover, the chef, received the James Beard Award for Best Mountain Chef in June.

Although Denver’s craft brewery and distillery openings have slowed, Deviation Distilling’s cocktail lounge, which opened last summer in a 19th-century firehouse along LoDo’s Dairy Block, will soon be joined by a taproom next door from Colorado’s Westbound and Down Brewing Company, known for its IPAs. Flight-themed FlyteCo Brewing is opening a second location in the old Stapleton Airport control tower this month with pub-style food, miniature golf and exhibits on loan from the nearby Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.

Local restaurateur and chef Dana Rodriguez, another 2022 James Beard Award nominee for longtime favorite Work and Class, opened Cantina Loca in the LoHi neighborhood last January. Shareable plates like tempura-fried cactus ($8), spicy pollo adobado ($19) and silky vanilla flan ($7) are best accompanied by Ms. Rodriguez’s own line of mezcal and tequila.

Ms. Rodriguez also has another project in the works. When she moved from Mexico in 1998, she was turned down for a job at Casa Bonita – known more for its kitschy decor and cliff divers than its food; when Casa Bonita reopens under its new owners, “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Ms. Rodriguez will be there, now leading a new culinary team.

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