Denver’s Cultural Renaissance
With an influx of residents, a burgeoning arts scene and the transformation of old industrial neighborhoods into vibrant centers for food and drink, the Mile High City is positioning itself as a new capital of the West
Photography: Ryan Dearth
Some come for the quality of life and 300 days of sunshine. Others explore the lively food scene and the city’s unwavering investment in the arts. And even more flock to the independent businesses and bask in the infectious entrepreneurial spirit. But whether they pop in for a few days or stay forever, people of all backgrounds and from all places are arriving in Denver in droves. One of the biggest cities in the Mountain West region between Chicago and L.A., Denver has experienced unprecedented growth thanks to a reported 1,000 new people migrating to town every month.
Companies large and small have followed, as well as business and leisure travelers, increasing the demand for chic hotels with museum-quality art collections, and food and beverage offerings with abundant personality. From RiNo to LoDo and LoHi to the Golden Triangle, there’s a whole new Mile High City to explore.
Restaurateur Juan Padro left Denver in 2003 because he missed the diversity and culture of the Northeast. He returned several years later, from Boston, because he “hadn’t seen the sun in 45 days,” he says with a laugh. In 2010, Padro opened Highland Tap and Burger, an American grill with craft beer, in Denver’s Lower Highland, or LoHi, neighborhood. People questioned the area’s transitional state, but it was affordable and diverse and Padro saw potential. Over the past eight years, LoHi has become one of the hottest parts of town, brimming with bars and restaurants.
“The whole reason why we invest in neighborhoods that we know are going to evolve is because we want to be the first to set the tone for responsible business practices and inclusiveness,” Padro says. “LoHi had its own culture well before I was there. Our goal is to add to that and fit in with the folks who are living there, and provide food for the folks who are moving there.”
Next on his agenda is a takeover of Wazee Lounge & Supper Club, the oldest restaurant in Lower Downtown, or LoDo, which is being transformed into Morin, a modern bistro with a soundtrack of French hip-hop. Padro also has LoHi’s Señor Bear and Bar Dough, where Top Chef: Colorado’s Carrie Baird helms the kitchen.
“We try to rip the pretentiousness out of gorgeous food,” he says. “We don’t want white tablecloths, we don’t want a stale environment.”
When Padro goes outside the neighborhood for a great meal, he heads to the River North Art District, or RiNo. He name-drops the casual Indian concept Biju’s Little Curry Shop, the coffee house Crema and the contemporary American bar and grill Acorn. The latter is found inside The Source, a foundry from the 1880s that has been converted into a food hall and market.
“RiNo is similar to how Greenpoint in Brooklyn was—it’s very industrial, with a lot of warehouses, old unused spaces and mechanic shops,” Padro says. “The Zeppelins, who developed it, are activists and community leaders.”
Carrie Baird talks in superlatives, whether it’s describing the pastas she makes or her adoration for Denver’s burgeoning food scene. After only a few minutes, she will exuberantly tell you it is her goal to make Bar Dough—the two-year-old LoHi restaurant where she serves as executive chef—the best Italian eatery in the city. Her recipe for success? Bird broth and reality TV.
“We do a tre uccelli, which means ‘three birds.’ It’s rigatoni noodles with turkey, duck and chicken. We make this tacky, wonderful bird broth, toss the pulled meat in and top it with goat Gouda,” she says. “That’s my favorite dish. Your lips stick together, because the sauce is really thick.”
Her profile and the restaurant’s recently received a boost when Baird was selected as a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef: Colorado. She was nominated by former boss Jennifer Jasinski, who appeared on Top Chef Masters and whose restaurants are consistently among the top-rated spots in Denver.
Baird landed in Breckenridge, Colorado, from Idaho in 1999, after she dropped out of college to ski full-time. A thrill seeker, she applied many of those same principles to her career, and when skiing all day and waiting tables at night got boring, she decided to try out the kitchen. It was there that she found her calling and spent 12 years ascending the ranks of the food world, leaving briefly to go to culinary school in Portland, Oregon.
Five years ago, Baird took another plunge into the nascent Denver food scene and landed a job at Jasinski’s award-winning Mediterranean restaurant, Rioja, where she started as a grill cook and worked her way up to sous chef. Jasinski’s husband, Max Mackissock, is Bar Dough’s culinary director and a friend of Baird’s from Breckenridge.
“When I got here, there were five really awesome restaurants, and in just a short amount of time, now there are 25, if not more,” Baird says. “Everything you see in the big city—the competition, the fight for recognition, and all that—is happening.”
Kyle Zeppelin is a second-generation developer who is deeply committed to repurposing Denver’s former industrial areas. His involvement in the River North Art District, which brings together five historic neighborhoods, is one example, a sector with a strong arts community and access to recreation.
“We have focused on neighborhoods where there weren’t significant residential populations—underused urban real estate opportunities to create communities,” Zeppelin says. “Twenty years ago there were a lot of vacant buildings, former industrial scrapyards and buildings that were junk storage. The infrastructure was falling into the ground. That’s where we really pushed the envelope, doing projects that are drawing thousands of people.”
First, he transformed the former Yellow Cab terminal building into Taxi, a campus of residents and more than 80 creative businesses with amenities—a restaurant, coffee shop, salon, early-childhood education center, outdoor cinema and community garden. Then in 2013, Zeppelin opened The Source, with artisan food producers and retailers, a tasting room, butcher shop, florist and various eateries.
“We are interested in establishing character and having it be more connected to the arts culture,” Zeppelin says. “You see this integration in the healthiest type of high-functioning cities.”
In late 2017, he introduced Zeppelin Station, located at a new light-rail station along the route from downtown to Denver International Airport. The multiuse space features a market and creative work area. Next up is the 100-room Source Hotel, opening in May. “It’s the only high-rise in the neighborhood,” Zeppelin says.
Outside of the RiNo district, Denver’s hotel scene has received a major boost from both big-name luxury players and highly stylized boutique offerings. One major trend is to use these spaces as a new way for people to experience and discover significant works from both local and nationally renowned artists.
In downtown Denver, Marriott’s new 20-story, 272-room Le Méridien hotel and its adjacent sister property, the 223-room AC Hotel, offer a stunning art collection, with more than 30 original pieces curated by local firm Nine Dot Arts. Though the hotels display strong European sensibilities thanks to the AC’s Spanish origin and Le Méridien’s French roots, the artworks are equally influenced by the narrative of the Rocky Mountains.
The centerpiece of the collection is Marie by Denver-born Jonathan Saiz, found behind Le Méridien’s reception desk (pictured above). More than 1,000 miniature oil portraits in clear acrylic cases expose the micro expressions of Marie Antoinette. It is a complete dissection and intimate look at an elusive, unknowable figure.
Another striking piece is Vanitas V by Regan Rosburg, a faculty member at the University of Colorado. The three-dimensional resin painting incorporates found organic objects ranging from the average to the bizarre—a wasp nest, Mylar, wolf spider, silk, lizard, foam and squirrel skulls, among other materials. Indulgent and decadent, the piece challenges the observer’s senses, a quality that mirrors other aspects of the hotel, as well.
Le Méridien offers a mid-mod chalet vibe, with accents influenced by the millwork and craftsmanship that goes into skis and snowboards. The lobby serves as a social gathering place with a coffee program by day and craft-cocktail program by night. Upstairs is 54thirty, the city’s highest open-air, seasonal rooftop bar, while downstairs is Corinne, a restaurant that features locally sourced ingredients.
In addition to its focus on local art, the hotel has forged relationships with other Colorado artisans and points of interest through its Unlock Art program. Guest experiences and special packages from the Clyfford Still Museum, The Real Dill pickles, local apiary Bee Squared and The Infinite Monkey Theorem winery connect curious travelers to vetted businesses that represent the unique spirit of the city.
Martha Weidmann’s curatorial company, Nine Dot Arts, pairs artists with paying projects that build their brands, their portfolios and their pocketbooks. On the other side of the canvas, businesses transform their spaces with museum-worthy collections and projects provide the public with a new way to interact with art.
“Art transforms ordinary places into extraordinary experiences,” she says. “Denver has become a destination for arts and culture in the U.S. thanks to a new wave of privately funded initiatives that are opening the doors for the general population to experience art in a different way.”
One such project is the new Le Méridien and AC hotels; 22 Colorado artists are represented in the spaces. In the public arena, Nine Dot Arts recently worked in the Denver Theatre District to install New York-based artist Shantell Martin’s largest public artwork to date, a black-and-white drawing covering a multitude of surfaces, as well as a sculptural bench.
“Hotels are the modern-day Medicis of the art world that unclog the logjam of arts accessibility,” says Weidmann. “One of our core values is to provide opportunities for artists to have sustainable careers.”
Weidmann moved to Denver from Alabama in 2000 to study communications and studio art. She joined up with business partner Molly Casey, a Denver native, to start Nine Dot Arts in 2009.
“Moving beyond a simple transaction or procurement and installment of artwork, we use a nine-step discovery process to explore, define a story, and create a vision that is authentic and meaningful, so there's something with depth to each of the projects that we work on,” she says. This spring, Nine Dot Arts launches Happy City, a townwide “art intervention” with the purpose of “inciting” happiness. The series, by British artist Stuart Semple—known for his floating happy-face clouds—consists of sculptural installations and experiences that encourage the community to interact.
Denver’s art scene is fluidly moving between public and private spaces. “From the RiNo Art District to the Denver Art Museum to the hotel collections, this town is one large immersive art experience.”
The Golden Triangle
In the Golden Triangle, adjacent to the Denver Art Museum and the hub of civic happenings, The Art is more than just a boutique hotel. Its significant collection rivals that of many museums. And that synergy is no accident: Dianne Vanderlip, the hotel’s curator, is also the founding curator of modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum. She came to town in 1977, when the metro population was approximately 500,000—now it is around three million.
“I was recruited to Denver from Philadelphia,” she says. “The museum had put up a Gio Ponti building [his only one in the U.S.], and they had no contemporary collection. I was brought in to create it, stayed for 31 years, and acquired about 10,000 objects.” James Turrell’s Trace Elements, Light Into Space and Damien Hirst’s Party Time are two of her most significant acquisitions.
Shortly after her retirement, J. Landis Martin, one of the co-owners of The Art hotel, who also is chairman of the board of trustees of the Denver Art Museum, asked Vanderlip if she would be willing to work on a new project. She said yes even before they broke ground. Among the works found in the hotel, she points out pop father Ed Ruscha’s Industrial Strength Sleep and pieces by light enthusiasts Leo Villareal and Tracey Emin, as well as works by Denver-based artists Phil Bender and Mary Ehrin.
“Phil Bender—known as the Famous Artist Phil Bender—was one of the first people I met in Denver,” she says. “He started the Pirate gallery and created the most radical art that anybody was making here. He gave an opportunity to a lot of people in the Denver arts community to come in and share their work with the public.”
Vanderlip embraces the phenomenon of hotel-as-art-gallery because it stimulates conversation in a nonintimidating space. “How often have you been walking through a museum when you wish you could have a cup of tea or a vodka, and just sit down and let the art sneak up on you?” she asks.
And while Vanderlip now lives in Los Angeles, it was her pioneering spirit and the presence of innovators before and after that have made Denver America’s new modern city. “I love this place so much,” Vanderlip says. “Denver is smart. It’s livable. What they’re doing culturally is amazing. It used to be one of the great secrets in America, but now people are catching on.”
Three Denver Must-Visits
SneekEazy Bar + Kicks
Shop for exclusive sneakers while drinking cocktails at this speakeasy above Element Kitchen & Cocktail. Have a hard-to-find pair tracked down for the ultimate sneakerhead indulgence.
Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads
Chinese artist and human-rights activist Ai Weiwei interprets all the animals of the Chinese zodiac in bronze. On display until October, this is his first major public project.
Offering more than 50 free concerts per year as well as ticketed events featuring major musical artists, this is a welcome addition to the city’s vibrant performing-arts scene.