Colorado’s 10 most iconic, historic restaurants and what to order when you’re there — The Know
The Buckhorn Exchange Steakhouse at 1000 Osage Street is Denver’s oldest restaurant. It was opened in 1893 and has Colorado State Liquor license Number one. (Provided by Denver Public Library Western History Department)
Before frosé was a glimmer in anyone’s eye; before fusion restaurants were as ubiquitous as fondue; heck, before Denver restaurant king Frank Bonanno was even born and when Union Station was cool the first time around, there were these restaurants.
We can call them classic, we can call them old, we can call them restaurants of a certain age, but no matter the semantics, these are the spots that have stood the test of time. The restaurants and watering holes that built our state and nourished our ancestors. That have linked generations and inspired a legion of copycats.
The only criterion to make it onto this list? The eatery (or drinkery) must be at least a half century old. At least. Young, whippersnapper restaurants need not apply.
Here are 10 of Colorado’s most iconic restaurants and what we think you’ve got to order, with some quirky history thrown in — because what sort of restaurant makes it this long without some quirks? Not any we want to visit.
The Buckhorn Exchange
History: The Buckhorn, which is now a National Historic Landmark, originally opened as the Rio Grande Exchange in 1893. Its founder, Henry H. “Shorty Scout” Zietz, got his nickname from Chief Sitting Bull. In 1935, Zietz forked over $25 to receive the state’s first liquor license following Prohibition. It hangs behind the second-floor bar, in case you want to see it.
What to eat: Rocky Mountain Oysters! Bonus points if you eat them on Oct. 5, Rocky Mountain Oyster Day (a new classic).
Fun facts: Five presidents — Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy (who tipped Shorty’s great-grandson $5 to bring him some “bones from the back” for his dogs), Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — have all eaten here. There are more than 500 birds and animals in the Buckhorn’s taxidermy collection. (We know you were wondering.)
1000 Osage St., Denver, 303-534-9505; buckhorn.com
Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill
History: Although a part of the Colburn Hotel since it opened in 1928, the Capitol Hill bar wasn’t really a bar until 1947, when the piano lounge finally got its liquor license. It didn’t get the name Charlie Brown’s until 1964, when new owners — one of whom was named Brown — took over.
What to eat: Go for a burrito, and get it during one of CB’s two daily happy hours, when the city’s most generous wine pours are 2-for-1.
Fun fact: Bill Murray has been known to sing around the bar’s famous piano when he’s in town. Murray, who attended Regis University, was friendly with CB’s legendary piano player, Paul Lopez. Murray still pops in from time to time when he’s in Denver.
980 Grant St., Denver, 303-860-1655; charliebrownsbarandgrill.com
My Brother’s Bar
History: Here’s how old My Brother’s Bar is: Its building has held a bar since before Colorado became a state. (The first bar, called Highland House, opened here in 1873; Colorado became a state on Aug. 1, 1876.) It got its current name back in the 1970s, when brothers Jim and Angelo Karagas bought it as Paul’s Place. Last year, after 47 years of ownership, the Karagas family turned over the reins to Paula Newman, a waitress and general manager who’d worked at the bar for 31 years.
What to eat: The JCB, a jalapeño cream cheese burger. Probably with a beer.
Fun fact: MBB was the place to be in Denver for the Beat crowd. Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg all hung out there. Check out Cassady’s letter asking a friend to pay his bar tab that hangs in the restroom hall.
2376 15th St., Denver, 303-455-9991; mybrothersbar.com
Sam’s No. 3
History: Sam Armatas opened the first Sam’s at 15th and Curtis streets in 1927 — just not where the current Sam’s No. 3 stands at 15th and Curtis. The original was across the street, on the Federal Reserve Bank side, but when the Fed bought the block, Armatas moved Sam’s across the street. It began as a tiny, 19-stool soda fountain-style counter that sold mostly hot dogs, burgers and red chili. Armatas ran other Sam’s soda fountains, too: Sam’s 1-4 and Sam’s Coney Island. Lucky No. 3 is the only iteration to have survived. Ninety-one years later, the diner is still all in the family, with (the original) Sam’s son Spero and grandsons Sam, Patrick and Alex running the restaurants.
What to eat: Spero’s breakfast burrito, smothered in kickin’ pork green chile.
Fun fact: Armatas came to the United States illegally from Greece at the age of 14, and he went by the alias of Sam Andrews. He often couldn’t sleep at night because he was so worried about being kicked out of America, the country he loved. One day at lunch, police officers came in to the restaurant asking for Sam Armatas. With his true identity discovered, Armatas agreed to go with the police, but he asked if he could first finish the lunch rush. When he got to the courtroom, his judge was one of his best daily customers, and he sponsored Armatas on the spot to help him become a U.S. citizen.
Various locations; samsno3.com
History: One of the oldest bars in the state, 740 opened on Louisville’s Front Street in 1904 to keep those heathen drinkers off of the more civilized Main Street. The bar remained open during Prohibition; they just boarded up the windows to hide what was going on inside (which also included, um, entertainment via ladies of the evening).
What to eat: The 740 chopped steak, an early 1900s dish of chopped top sirloin served over caramelized onions.
Fun fact: OK, so it’s not exactly a “fact,” but believers swear that the place is haunted by a ghost named Samantha, a lady of the evening who was killed inside by a dissatisfied customer.
740 Front St., Louisville, 720-519-1972; 740front.com
History: The Minturn Saloon (possibly called Boo’s at the time) was built in 1901 after a fire destroyed much of downtown Minturn. It quickly became a popular spot at which to eat, drink and gamble. It’s still a good spot at which to eat and drink, but alas, gambling is no longer encouraged. In 1976, Bob Cherry purchased the saloon and, because someone already owned a business called The Saloon, his first choice for a name, he decided to call it The Saloon Across the Street from the Eagle River Hotel. That was a bit of a mouthful, and today it’s known simply as the Minturn Saloon. Since 1986, it’s been owned by Steve Campbell and Andy Kaufman.
What to eat: Pancho Villa’s ribs, or the quail and enchilada combo. Because where else are you going to find a quail and enchilada combo?
Fun fact: Cherry used to hold target practice with his .22 inside the Saloon. So that’s fun.
146 N. Main St., Minturn, 970-827-5954; minturnsaloon.com
The Red Onion
History: Originally called the Brick Saloon when it opened in 1892, locals nicknamed it the Red Onion — slang for something quirky or out of the ordinary — and the moniker stuck. Despite changing hands numerous times over the years, the bar is still almost exactly as it was 126 years ago.
What to eat: You can’t go wrong with the wings or a burger.
Fun fact: Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong performed at the Onion.
420 E. Cooper Ave., Aspen, 970-925-9955; redonionaspen.com
History: The Bastien’s legacy began in 1937, when the Bastien family bought the Moon Drive Inn on East Colfax Avenue. In 1958, they tore down the Drive Inn and built the current restaurant. There haven’t been any modern makeovers here; Bastien’s is still one of the best places to get a taste of old Denver.
What to eat: The world-famous sugar steak! It’s exactly as it sounds: steak grilled with sugar.
Fun fact: Turns out, Bastien’s is one of the best Denver representations of Googie-style architecture, according to History Colorado.
3503 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, 303-322-0363; bastiensrestaurant.com
History: Considering that old-school, red-sauce Italian restaurants have become an endangered species in Denver, we had to include one of the last spots standing, Gaetano’s. Opened in 1947 by the Smaldone mob family, Gaetano’s became very popular for its food and drink (and for the gambling that went on above the restaurant, accessed by a hidden door in the mensroom). The family sold the restaurant to John Hickenlooper’s Wynkoop Holdings restaurant group in 2006 (Hick left the company soon after), but it’s now back to being independently owned and operated (by Ron Robinson, a long-time member of the Breckenridge-Wynkoop team).
What to eat: Sausage and peppers with cavatelli, or the biggest seller: lasagna with ground beef and sausage.
Fun facts: In the 1950s, the Smaldone brothers couldn’t be in the restaurant at the same time because judges had ordered them to stay away from convicted felons, i.e., each other. Regulars swear that Frank Sinatra once played poker in the restaurant’s basement in the 1960s.
3760 Tejon St., Denver, 303-455-9852; gaetanositalian.com
The Cherry Cricket
History: Mary Zimmerman opened the aptly-named Mary Zimmerman’s Bar in Cherry Creek in 1945. Lloyd Page bought the restaurant in 1950 and changed the name to The Cherry Cricket. Why? Nobody knows! (The rotating “Duffy’s” sign was added in 1963 when Bernard Duffy took ownership and, presumably, wanted to immortalize his name.) The Cricket’s kitchen caught fire on Thanksgiving Eve 2016, closing the neighborhood spot for five months. It’s now back and better than ever. Or, rather, the same as ever. Which is a good thing.
What to eat: With a smorgasbord of toppings — Peanut butter! Grilled pineapple! Green chile strips! — your burger is your own personal work of art.
Fun facts: The Cricket made appearances on both the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” (Aarón Sánchez chose it as his all-time favorite burger) and Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” (host Adam Richman didn’t square off against anything at the Cricket, but he did enjoy some crazy burger concoctions). The original Cherry Cricket serves between 5,000 and 6,000 burgers a week.
2641 E. 2nd Ave., Denver, 303-322-7666; cherrycricket.com