When executed correctly, the theme restaurant can be a truly remarkable place, where entertainment and food join forces to create an experience that is bigger than just what's being served for dinner. The normal black and white dinner can become something different. Good and evil can coexist.
Here’s our guide to the best of the best when it comes to theme joints around the Denver area, of which there are many. Use it to save you from another predictable meal at a new place with an ampersand in the name.
The absolute mecca of theme restaurants. This place has everything: cattle call food lines, cliff diving, pirate skits, a Japanese arcade, purple dragons, The Fray CD release parties…and unlimited sopapillas delivered every time you raise a tiny little flag at your table. And it's all been happening since 1974, when the fountain out front actually worked. Name a better theme restaurant anywhere, and we’ll punch you square in your Black Bart parts.
Some of our best childhood memories involve a visit to The Old Spaghetti Factory after a good report card, or right after stepping off the Ski Train on a Saturday evening. Some of our worst childhood memories involve going to The Old Spaghetti factory and not getting to eat dinner in the giant train in the middle of the restaurant. This restaurant is more about the environment than it is the food. If you want quality Italian go to Luca. If you have kids or a prom date (hopefully not both), come here.
There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible than a man in the depths of a Crawling Crab binge. The Crab is a sunken ship-themed restaurant, and you’ll feel right at home in the murky depths after bare-handedly destroying eight pounds of king crab and crawfish without blinking an eye. When you’re done and staring guiltily at your sauce-covered hands and the carnage spilled about the table, take comfort in the fact that you’ll find your dignity again at some point. It is, after all, only Tuesday.
The Buckhorn Exchange is Denver's preeminent restaurant to eat a giant steak while a stuffed wolf watches. This restaurant is a Denver staple, partly because it’s a little creepy, partly because the food is very good, and partly because some of the menu items are as off the wall as the decor. If you can put up with the barrage of dead stuff staring at you, the Buckhorn can’t be missed. Just don’t try to steal anything. You may end up on the wall with the others.
You had us at puppets and patio furniture, which are the two main features at this theatre. The Puppet Theater isn't technically a restaurant, but they do serve coffee and ice cream. If you’re entertaining a niece or nephew, your own kids, or even an adventurous first date, this is definitely a place to hit up.
Every city needs a tiki bar. Well, maybe not “needs” but every city has one, for whatever reason…money laundering most likely. Why else are tiki bars always empty but always open? Regardless, Adrift Tiki fits the bill if you’re in need of big umbrella drinks that come in a cup with a face, or on fire. Down a few Singapore Slings and then stumble over to Sputnik a few blocks away for dinner.
Whoever came up with the idea for this place was either really into the forestry program at CSU, or really high on acid. Probably both. Wanna go to a bar and pretend we’re camping with gnomes and fairies? Welp, here you go. Aside for the Friday the 13th/Crystal Lake vibe this place gives off, the Forest Room is a great change of pace in the LoHi area, and the hooch tastes just like the stuff everywhere else. Not sure what they're doing in the treehouse room just off and above the outdoor seating area, but it's probably best we don't know.
On a recent Uber ride home, we learned that Gaetano’s used to be (might still be) HQ for Denver’s mafia elite. “Check the walls for bullet holes.” was the last thing he told us as we exited the car. We’ve been to Gaetano’s quite a bit, and no sign of bullet holes, but we still hope our driver was right. Outside of Jon Benet Ramsey (she’s still alive and she’s Katy Perry) and her parents, we don’t have a lot of crime family stories here in Denver. Either way, Gaetano’s is one of the best Italian spots in town, and the mystique of an organized crime house sitting just off 38th makes it even better. Plus, they have Frank Sinatra night now and then. And the dude that pretends to be him is actually really good.
We hate that Williams and Graham keeps winning awards. What was once a fun ten-minute wait in a fake library before being escorted back to a secret speakeasy-like bar is now a much bigger time commitment, thanks to all the crowds. That said, there only a few places in town making cocktails at this level, and they deserve the recognition. While you wait, head across the street to Lohi Steak Bar for one of the best late night happy hours in town: from 10pm to close (as late as 1:30am depending on the crowd), there's 2 for 1 wine, discounted snacks, and $1 oysters.
Face it. You wanted to be Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. He made pioneering the West look sexy. At the Fort, you can spend a night pretending you’re back in the early 1900’s and dine on “tatanka” the way our forefathers did. Make sure to order the Rocky Mountain Oysters. You don't really live in Colorado until you've eaten some bull testicles.
Talk about a genius business model. A seafood restaurant in an aquarium? File this one under “how to eliminate overhead.” We’re pretty sure that the Denver Aquarium isn't serving yesterday's post mortem from the trout tank, but there is something delightfully morbid about eating fish while their brethren are watching you. Sort of like eating a cheeseburger at the Stock Show. Take a date here and "surprise" her/him with an impromptu snorkel session in the shark tank after dinner. Yes, you can really do that.
School House has embraced its school decor charm with the loving veracity of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. Globes, Pee Chee folders, and even a few protractors decorate the space. The food is forgettable, but they do have an awesome bar and a huge booze/beer list. Nobody’s been this hammered in an elementary school since your third grade art teacher let you use oil-based paint.
One of Denver’s oldest and coolest bars, located inside The Oxford Hotel. The room layout was designed to look like a bottle of booze, and served as a hot spot for soldiers on leave needing strong drinks during World War II. Rumor has it some of the original tapestries featured Hitler and Mussolini, until a handful of U.S. Navy Boys came in and ripped them down. Ask your server about the story. This is one of our favorite places for an after-dinner cocktail Downtown. God Bless America.
It’s hard to call yourself a Denverite if you haven’t been to Lakeside. Some of that stems from the history of the place (it opened in 1908), some of it stems from the bravery you need to step foot inside the park. Hang around Denver long enough, and you’re sure to hear urban legends about people flying off the roller coaster into the “lake” the park sits beside. Pretty sure none of that actually happened, but we also aren’t taking any chances, thus the picnic recommendation. Pack a sandwich, pay less than $5 bucks for admission, and settle in for a few hours to watch carnival culture at its best.