So, here’s the dirty little secret about Denver that we eventually have to admit to out-of-towners...at least half of downtown sucks. The main drag, 16th Street Mall, is like a level of Paperboy, but instead offighting off dogs and lawnmowers, you have to dodge buses, bums, and thoseclipboard guys who actively stand in your way and ask, “Do you care about children?” It’s a mess, and the only redeeming factor is the people watching, which is equal parts entertaining and embarrassing.
But when you head over to nearby Larimer Square, it’s like you’ve entered a different city. Strung lights and handsome brick buildings are a fitting backdrop for Rioja, one of the pioneers of the Denver restaurant scene. This is the James Beard Award winning crown jewel in chef Jennifer Jasinski’s empire, which also includes Euclid Hall, Stoic & Genuine and Bistro Vendome, and it's one of the best restaurants we have. Just don't let the name throw you off - there’s nothing remotely Spanish about Rioja. It’s American all the way, but with a strong Mediterranean influence. The menu changes seasonally and we’ve rarely had the same thing twice. We've also rarely been anything but completely satisfied with a meal here.
The scene at Rioja is a bit stiff, so if you’re trying to impress someone on a first date, this probably isn’t where you want to be. This is where you take your significant other after you've decided that they aren’t crazy, but before you find out how crazy they really are and stop letting them leave the house. You know - the honeymoon phase.
No matter what, you're definitely going to want a reservation, and you're going to want to sit outside if the weather is nice. That's where all the good people watching goes down. Rioja is also an excellent option for brunch in this part of town, and we even like to hit it from time to time for a post-work drink and bite at the bar. Just make sure you prepare yourself for that stroll down 16th Street Mall on your way here. It'll be worth it, but it'll definitely be a little bit weird.
Note: Rioja will be closed for renovations starting Jan. 9, 2015, but should open a few weeks later. We look forward to the new digs.
The menu here changes frequently, so don't be surprised if some of these things aren't available when you make your next visit. Here's a sample from recent meals.
The drinks here at Rioja are strong, so you should take the opportunity to lay down a base before dinner starts. That's where the bread comes in. On your table will be some combination of caramelized onion bread, rosemary goat cheese biscuits, and maybe some whole-wheat bread with currants and candied ginger. You want it all.
Your options here will vary widely depending on the season, but when it comes to the cheese plate, you're safe ordering this all year. On our most recent visit, we had a couple of goudas, a gruyere-ish block, and a nutty cheese with some herbs. The star was the homemade quince paste, which is definitely one of our favorite foods that starts with the letter Q.
About as good an example of octopus on a plate as you'll ever find. We love the saffron-tomato pureé in this dish. A must order if available.
Super juicy quail with a creamy risotto. The bites of pear and brussels sprouts give this dish some good texture, and we love the fig and cherry-based dipping areas. All around, pretty fantastic.
As a native Midwesterner, I’m a sucker for any dessert that involves bread, fruit, and ice cream and this does not disappoint.