Sometimes it takes just one place to make a town feel like home to a traveler. During a week in Denver, I found four.
The Tattered Cover
"Do you want all of the veggies?" asked the woman taking my order at the Tattered Cover Book Store's food counter. Of course I did. It's not often that one's offered a breakfast sandwich with actual vegetables, and I didn't want to miss a one. All the veggies turned out to be fresh, crisp cucumbers, red and yellow peppers, onions, tomato, and a big slice of artichoke heart. With cheese and a fluffy, well-cooked egg that had nary a whiff of grease, this was the tastiest, most satisfying version of the egg-muffin I've ever had. The price: $2.25.
The Tattered Cover occupies three stories of the historic Morey Mercantile Building and is filled with quirky, comfortable seating in which readers (and eaters) are invited to linger as long as they like. Muffin and coffee in hand, I strolled around the bookstore's huge main floor considering chairs, couches, desks with antique lamps, and finally chose a vintage wooden booth with coat rack.
In front of me was a poster for Banned Book Week, to the right an America's Food Source Map that read, "The greatness of the U.S. is founded on agriculture." Hanging overhead was a Western shirt from nearby Rockmont Ranch Wear. Through a wide doorway behind me, I glimpsed the inviting Calendar Room with wide windows and long tables, where a couple of people sat working at their laptops.
Tattered Cover is notable for the extraordinary breadth and depth of its wares, the frequent readings it hosts, and the thoughtful, often passionate, appreciations staff members write for many of their books and magazines. After breakfast there with my boyfriend a couple of days later, we spent some time exploring the store, wishing we had hours more to linger.
Upstairs, where most of the books are, the Tattered Cover has two fireplaces--one in a cosy corner flanked by the Philosophy and Mythology & Metaphysics sections. Come winter, I'd love to eat my breakfast there.
At 1628 16th St. and Wynkoop, the Tattered Cover Book Store is easily reached via the free 16th Street MallRide shuttle buses. It's open 6:30 am-9 pm, Monday-Thursday, till 11 pm on Friday; 9 am-11 pm on Saturday; and 10 am-6 pm on Sunday. 303-436-1070; www.tatteredcover.com
Bump & Grind
I'd happened on the Bump & Grind while strolling along 17th Sreet on Sunday afternoon a few hours after arriving in Denver. Through the big front windows, I spied waiters garbed in short skirts, aprons, bustiers, and heels rushing about. The place was packed with a mixed-gender crowd, happily digging into brunch. I'd already eaten a panini from a cart on the 16th Street mall, and a dinner date with friends was only three hours away, but I stepped inside to find out whether they did this every day.
Not exactly: the cross-dressing waiters are featured only at the weekend Petticoat Bruncheons. But Jim and I found ambitious breakfast offerings there on Thursday, when the room was quiet, the waiter was wearing civvies, and the atmosphere was mellow.
Waiting for the waiter to chose just the right mugs for us from an open shelf behind the counter, we took in the colorful, funky decor. A giant blue Mona Lisa, cut in two, dominated the wall behind us; next to it was a huge lamp composed of the figure of a waitress holding a tray on which rested a ballerina, wearing a lampshade on her head. "Don't you wish you'd brought your camera?" I asked Jim.
Once we'd filled our mugs--Jim with green tea, and I with a coffee known as Dangerous Monkey ("He's dark and smooth and spearheads Pablo's revolution")--we settled into a well-aged blue vinyl banquette, graced with a bottle of Miracle Bubbles and, on the wall above us, a line-up of Barbie dolls in boxes.
The food proved to be terrific, and as photogenic as our surroundings. Both Jim's elaborate bagel and lox plate ($7.50), complete with fresh dill, and my chive-scented Tijuana burrito ($5.25) came with a virtual fruit salad of fan-carved garnishes. If I lived here, I'd be a regular at both breakfast and bruncheon, try everything on the Bump & Grind's menu--and take pictures.
You'll find the Bump and Grind Café at 439 E. 17 St. between Logan and Sherman (303-861-4841). Come early for bruncheon on Saturday or Sunday (10 am-2 pm), or be prepared to wait. Weekday hours are Tuesday-Friday from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm, but Tuesday breakfast is pastries only. The B & G is closed on Monday.
Promising us a unique dining experience for our first night in Denver, our friends Sylvia and Hal took us to the Buckhorn Exchange, the city's oldest restaurant, founded in 1893 by Henry H. Zietz, who was a scout for Buffalo Bill Cody and nicknamed Shorty Scout by Chief Sitting Bull.
The Buckhorn specializes in steak and game, both on the plate and on the wall. You eat surrounded by a veritable zoo of stuffed animals, cases full of the weapons required to bring them down, and other memorabilia from the restaurant's colorful history.
We shared appetizers of spicy, marinated rattlesnake ($15.75) and Rocky Mountains Oysters ($9.75)--a first for all of us--sliced thin and deep fried, that could have passed for chicken or veal. For those torn between entrees, the Buckhorn offers several combinations--I went for elk and quail, both tender and savory--and invites you to make your own. Entrees are pricy in the evening, with buffalo and elk well over $30, but lunch is a relative bargain, offering elk medallions for $18 or a buffalo burger for $9.50.
You don't have to eat at the Buckhorn, though, to enjoy an evening there. I'd love to go back for the free music offered Wednesday through Saturday in the inviting Victorian lounge upstairs. That's where the hand-carved oak bar that pre-dates the restaurant now resides. Above it hangs the Buckhorn's 1935 liquor license, the first one issued in Colorado.
Buckhorn Exchange can be reached by Denver's light- rail trains, which stop right across the street. It's open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 am-2 pm; supper is 5:30-9 pm Monday-Thursday; 5-10 pm Friday-Saturday; and 5-9 pm Sunday. Happy Hour is held weekdays from 4 to 6 pm. There's no cover or minimum for the musical entertainment--usually Western singers; hours are 7-9 pm, Wednesday-Thursday, and 7:30-11, Friday-Saturday. 1000 Osage St., at 10th Ave., 303-534-9505, http://buckhornexchange.com
Our last dinner in Denver was an extraordinary Tuscan meal at Panzano, said to be one of the best restaurants in town. We were tempted by the special Sunday night prix fixe ($30 for salad, main course, and dessert), but couldn't resist dishes from the regular menu: Crespelle ai Funghi, mushroom-stuff crepes, with fonduta sauce and white truffle oil ($9); Caesar Griglia, featuring grilled heart of romaine ($9.50); Coleman Ranch veal scallopini with lemon, capers, and sundried tomatoes ($25); and capesante (my favorite), seared sea scallops, wrapped in leeks, served over saffron risotto, with basil leek nage and tobiko, a lovely and subtle complex of flavors ($26) . We practically licked our plates, and with no room for dessert--next visit--wandered out into the evening, still talking about the wonderful dishes we'd just enjoyed.
Next time I'm in Denver, besides dinner at Panzano, I'd like to drop into its Taverna during happy hour and try the martini made of Tuscan 1000 Flower Honey and Sapphire Gin. If the timing's right, maybe I'll even take one of the Saturday cooking classes periodically offered by Executive Chef Elise Wiggins.
Panzano is the restaurant of the Monaco Hotel. It's open daily for breakfast, 7-10 am, and lunch, 11 am-2:30 pm. Dinner is served from 5 pm till 10 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 pm Friday-Saturday, and 9:30 pm Sunday. There's a happy hour with half-price drinks every day from 4 to 6 pm. 909 17th St., 303-296-3525, www.panzano-denver.com