Denver, Colorado: From Cowtown to Cooltown

I've always considered Denver as The Dude of American cities: affable, laidback and a bit of a slacker. Not least because of its infamous association with herbal refreshments – you know, wacky baccy, weed, reefer, consumption of which is now legal and widely embraced; but also because of its love affair with beer, with the Colorado capital having more than 50 craft breweries within the city limits.

It all adds up to a liberal and carefree place to visit, its friendly locals always up for socialising and shooting the breeze over a beverage or two. But a recent renaissance has seen the Mile High City surge in sophistication, with smooth jazz clubs, moody speakeasies and quirky multimedia entertainment venues now competing with brew pubs and dive bars in popularity.

Denver's evolution from Cowtown to Cooltown began in the 1970s when Lower Downtown's Larimer Square (larimersquare.com) was transformed from a ghetto slated for demolition into an urban showpiece. Festooned with fairy lights, this gorgeous district is today prime real estate and home to some of the city's best restaurants, bars and clubs. Kick off the night at innovative restaurants such as Rioja and TAG, then settle in until the wee hours at opulent cocktail bar Corridor 44, the quirky Green Russell (a subterranean speakeasy hidden behind a pie shop) or the sublime piano lounge The Crimson Room.

Almost half a century later, the visionary behind LoDo's renaissance – architectural preservationist Dana Crawford – continues to make her mark with the revitalisation of the historic Union Station (unionstationindenver.com). After a $54 million renovation, the still-working train station unveiled its new look in 2014, featuring the boutique Crawford Hotel, new retail outlets and a variety of bars and restaurants including Alex Seidel's much-lauded "farm-to-table" eatery, Mercantile.

Union Station is a venue of many moods: from the hip buzz of the downstairs Terminus Bar, to the prohibition-era glamour of Cooper Lounge. Offering mesmerising downtown views through massive arched windows, this upstairs cocktail bar has set the benchmark for elegance, and is so popular that bookings are recommended, even for a seat at the bar. 

While Downtown Denver continues to lure locals and tourists alike, some intriguing new venues further afield have turned the spotlight onto the city's vibrant neighbourhoods. 

In the downtown corridor, Ophelia's Electric Soapbox (opheliasdenver.com) is a restaurant, bar and music venue occupying a Victorian building that once served as a brothel, peep show and sex shop. Trading on its notorious past with racy artworks and old photographs of a buxom madam (the eponymous Ophelia), this venue – owned by the same company responsible for popular rooftop bar Linger, located in a former mortuary in the Highland district – features a cavernous central stage area overlooked by mezzanine seating and a pumping bar and dining area. Live performances are held from Thursday to Sunday brunch.

Denver's reputation as a mecca for jazz is largely due to one institution, El Chapultepec (or The 'Pec, as it's locally known – thepeclodo.com). This nightclub, a few blocks from Union Station, has been a landmark since 1933, starting life as a Mexican cantina before jazz took over from mariachi. Frequented by legendary barflies such as Jack Kerouac, the club has, over the years, hosted the talents of Count Basie, Doc Severinsen, Frank Sinatra and Wynton Marsalis; even Bill Clinton played an impromptu set here during his presidential campaign in 1991.

A more recent arrival on the jazz scene is Nocturne (nocturnejazz.com), a 1940s-style supper club that has already scooped up a swag of awards, including Best New Bar and Best Date Idea. Described as "Gatsby meets Harlem Jazz", this venue located in the River North Art District (RiNo), aims at marrying the arts of gastronomy and music as well as supporting local community groups with education-based performances, workshops and rehearsal space.

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RiNo has also become a hub for creative, affordable cuisine, with several restaurants, artisan shops and a brew pub located in an old iron foundry called The Source (thesourcedenver.com); while a converted shipping container on Larimer Street houses two hip new restaurants: Cart Driver (cart-driver.com), an oyster bar and wood-fired pizza joint with prosecco on tap; and Work & Class (workandclassdenver.com), featuring New American small plates paired with creative cocktails.

But arguably the boldest, most trend-setting new venue in Denver is Avanti F&B (avantifandb.com), a two-storey complex in LoHi housing seven culinary incubator restaurants serving chef-inspired, food truck-style cuisine. With communal dining, two pumping bars and an awesome patio with stadium-style bleachers overlooking the Denver skyline, this is the place to be seen, particularly for under-30s on a balmy summer evening. Judging by the wall-to-wall crowds, it's an institution in the making in a city that really knows how to party.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitdenver.org

GETTING THERE 

United Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to LA then on to Denver. See united.com. Car rental available through DriveAway Holidays, driveaway.com.au

STAYING THERE 

The spiffy new ART Hotel (located next door to the Denver Art Museum) is the perfect place to crash after a late night on the town. Rooms from $US289 a night, see thearthotel.com

The writer was a guest of Visit Denver.

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