Denver: Where to Get a Drink After Tonight’s Presidential Debate

If you’re one of the lucky thousands to land a seat in the University of Denver’s auditorium and get an up-close look at Obama and Romney’s nosehairs, then you’ll need a good drink after their first presidential debate. Whether you’re craving a whiskey and some alone time, or an $11 pitcher and a chance to share your viewpoint that no one listen to, you’ll find the place for you at one of these top five Denver bars for a drink after tonight’s presidential debate. 

Denver Dispatch: Green Russell Is Prohibition-Era Basement Swank

In Denver, it’s easy to find yourself at a bar with the word “tavern” or “grill” hanging above the front entrance. I tried to find a watering hole there that was less sports bar, more personality. Ultimately—and effortlessly—I came to Green Russell.

Open less than three months, Green Russell is a little quirky. You don’t have make a phone call from a telephone booth inside a hot dog restaurant to get inside but you do have to walk through the backdoor of a pie shop (Wednesday’s Pie) into a dim-lit, cavernous den full of in-the-know drinking champs who thrive on serious cocktails. Both Wednesday’s Pie (yes, a pie shop that only sells pies on Wednesdays) and Green Russell (named after the guy who discovered gold in Colorado) are celebrated chef Frank Bonanno‘s masterpieces, though Green Russell is his first bar. It’s a tribute to old-school salons with red-vinyl booths, bartenders in neat uniforms and a sign that suggests you put away your cell phones. All herbs used in the cocktails are grown here (there’s a display behind the bar) and all ice is hand-made and chipped. image There’s a handful of curious cocktails like Smokey Bolognan Night and Storm Over Green Seas and equally enticing is the culinary selection. It’s not every day you have an award-winning, James Beard nominated chef whip up a bar food menu.

Denver Dispatch: Frank Bonanno’s Secret Cheese Closet

I spent a whole afternoon in Denver with Frank Bonanno, who you might recognize from the Food Network. Or, if you’re an actual foodie, you’ll know he’s a James Beard nominee who served under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. He talks with his hands and can go on for hours about food, which, to me, is often so esoteric that I find myself nodding at things I totally don’t understand. Anyway, he’s so passionate that he cures his own meats and makes his own cheese. It’s completely illegal, but he had no qualms showing me his secret cheese chamber, a closet in the office above one of his restaurants, Bones.

Sure, he was busted by the health department once, so he had to move all his perishables to a secret stash. Bonanno believes other chefs in Denver dislike him because he’s too opinionated, but he and I both know it’s because he’s successful. In fact, he spearheaded Denver’s culinary scene, bringing ethnicity (from French to Asian) and innovative dishes to the city – often for the first time. Frank just recently opened up his seventh establishment in Denver (Lou’s Food Bar, an “affordable” French-American restaurant inside a former biker bar), and plans on debuting his eighth (an upscale BBQ smokehouse) within the next three months.

Frank gave us the 4-1-1 on Denver dining, clearing up a few misconceptions along the way.

It’s not all about steak and potatoes. Our dining scene is really good, there’s really talented people doing some great things beyond steaks, and there’s a lot of passion in this city about cooking. I think denver has some of the better educated diners in the country. Our clientele is sophisticated. i think we’ve always had a pretty good palette, and we have everything you want that every other big city has.

Believe it or not, there’s fresh seafood in Denver. Some people ask: “Where do you get fish? How could the fish be fresh?” Oh, come on. You’ve never heard of Fed-Ex? All our seafood basically comes from New York. People think fresh seafood here is impossible but it isn’t.

There’s more to drink than Coors Light. I actually do believe our cocktail scene is outdoing New York and San Francisco. It’s a bold statement but every restaurant has a cocktail program.We have so many small batch brewers here, and it’s so widespread. Even our regulars will deviate from a simple drink to try our homemade gin and tonic (we make our own tonic) or Moscow Mule. Denver has come far with the cocktail scene. I can’t think of a restaurant in the top thirty that doesn’t have an extensive cocktail program.

It’s not all American. We have great Mexican food thanks to our huge Mexican community. We have really good ethnic food in Colorado in general. We have awesome pho, too. I would put our Sushi Den against Nobu’s fish any day of the week. It’s unbelievable. They get their fish from the Japanese fish market. And they have a certified sushi chef, which you don’t find a lot in this country.

Forget Rocky Mountain Oysters. Denver is all about artesianal cooking. Restaurants use whole animals, lambs, unpasteurized milk to make cheese. That’s something Denver’s been embracing for years, like farm-to-table, whole animal cooking. There is a ton of talent and great chefs here. We don’t set trends, but people are on par with what’s going on nationally.

Denver Dispatch: Who Comes to Denver, Anyway?

The pressing question no one seems to have the answer to: “Why come to Denver?” In fact, everyone I asked—from store clerks to barflies—was quite stumped. Nobody had an answer that wasn’t directly linked to the Rocky Mountains, inadvertently implying that Denver is a stop-over city. I was surprised no one commented on the thriving culinary scene or the nightlife or the burgeoning world of contemporary art or even the diverse shopping. Three days is enough for a touch-and-go destination, but you’ve got to stay a little big longer to really get Denver.

People are noticeably happy here, doing what they do, not because they haven’t seen anything outside Colorado (many who were born here have never left) but because they truly don’t have to. Denver is what it is, and what it isn’t is boring and uninspiring and competitive. Denver is laid-back, with a penchant for nature, farm-to-table meals, and medical marijuana. In some cases, it’s sexy. There are pockets of intrigue, whether standing outside the trendy Root Down restaurant in the Highland neighborhood, the only place to actually see Denver’s skyline, or browsing inside one of the nation’s last independent bookstores, Tattered Cover in the LoDo neighborhood, which has a strong concentration of Victorian and turn-of-the-century buildings and warehouses. The fact that Denver recently turned Blue State is evidence enough that it defies stereotypes, especially with the variety of cool, boutique hotels that ensure it also has a little quirk.

Speaking of hotels, I stayed at Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco, which recently unveiled a major renovation to all its rooms. All 189 rooms replaced carpeting, drapes, and furniture to give nod to Denver’s urban yet adventurous lifestyle. What hasn’t changed is the daily, free neck massages and wine in the lobby at 5 PM, and the token goldfish in the guestrooms. They even have a WII just in case you get bored, but I assure you, here in Denver, that probably won’t happen.

Denver Dispatch: South Broadway Is Your Denver Cool

The first mistake I made upon arriving in Denver was to refer to it as the Midwest. In my defense: the first person I saw after exiting the plane was a young man wearing a cowboy hat with—not luggage—a saddle. Then there’s the actual location of Colorado. If you look at a map, it’s pretty much Mid. West. Kind of in the middle of America. To avoid any future bar fights, I learned you simply call Colorado West or Rocky Mountain West. I can tell you anything about Europe and Asia, the best things to do in the Pacific, and even distinguish the unique characteristics of every Caribbean island for you. But I don’t know my America, which is why I decided to check out a domestic destination I could learn from.

Denver is flat, streets like a grid, and rather than building high, they went wide. It’s a sprawling city. Up until a few years ago, the highlights were major shopping centers like Cherry Creek and restaurants that served a damn good steak. But things have changed. Both Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons—opened within the past five years—brought an element of luxury, and iconic, local chef Frank Bonanno spearheaded a culinary movement that introduced the city to more creative and even ethnic dishes.

Neighborhoods have also claimed an identity, from LowHi (Lower Highlands) and LoDo (Lower Downtown), to Uptown and SoBo (South Broadway). Yes, locals actually use these terms.

The neighborhood that had the most personality was South Broadway, perhaps the more bohemian hipster part of Denver. It’s a one-way road on the lower half of Broadway that’s brimming with tattoo shops, independently owned restaurants, thrift stores, theaters, avant-guard boutiques and indie bookstores, art galleries, tattoo parlors and bars. I was down with the new El Diablo restaurant, open less than a year, which served some pretty amazing Mexican food (while there’s a strong Mexican community in Denver, authentic Mexican is hard to come by inside Denver proper) and the staff is more than eager to give you the proper Denver tour with their own tips. Strolling down the wide street also showcases some of Denver’s best outside the downtown core. While there’s a popular Goodwill (inside you’ll find all sorts of hipsters invading the racks), my favorite was Daredevil Apparel, which has the best selection of vintage swimwear for men I’ve ever encountered.

image Just a few stores down is Fancy Tiger Clothing, which relocated to a larger space just last month and specializes in local designer wear for men and women, including screen-printed T-shirts by Adam Sikorski and vegan wallets by Beans & Rice. image Denver’s got some cool, it turns out, and the more I explore, the more I’m sure I’ll be able to disassociate it with the Midwest

Vail Snow/Spa Packages Offer Rest For the Weary

The worst thing about skiing and snowboarding is getting beat up on the slopes. When I come off a mountain, I look more like I just stepped out of a ring with Lennox Lewis. So it’s only fitting that the best part of skiing and snowboarding is the excuse you have to go a’ spa-ing to soothe your poor, frozen, aching limbs. One of the best snow-season openings in my book is the Sebastian Vail by the reputable Timbers Resorts, which is offering the perfect package for intermediate mountaineers and spa lovers like myself. The boutique resort and private residence, which opened this month in Vail, Colorado, has put together a “Ski Free, Spa Free” package that includes free lift tickets to the mountain and complimentary massages at their destination spa, Bloom Spa. The spa itself is a centerpiece, and the incredibly-priced packages, with an on-site Pop-Up spa initiative, make the snow/spa deal even sweeter.

Bloom Spa, along with the San Francisco-based spa consulting firm Francis & Alexander, have focused their direction toward more therapeutic and restorative treatments. Treatments focus on six basic initiatives: Thrive, Nourish, Flourish, Luxuriate, Glow and Refresh, with a menu that includes appropriate treatments like the “8150 Elevation Attunement,” which includes oxygen inhalation, a high altitude massage, and an oxygenating elixir to promote adaptation to the higher altitude of the Rockies. For a pre-ski treatment, guests can book the “Morning Glory,” which is a 50-minute oxygen inhalation/stretching/foot balm and sunscreen application to prepare your body for the damage you’re about to inflict upon it (again, this could be just me).

The “Ski Free, Spa Free” package combines a day of skiing for free in Vail with complimentary massages at Bloom. It’s sort of the adventurer/relaxer’s package, for those who like the best of both worlds. The cherry? A three-night package starts at $199 per person, per night. Which, if you’ve ever purchased a lift ticket, you know is quite a deal.

On top of that, the Spa is aiming to offer a daily Pop-Up Spa, surfacing at The Sebastian’s on-mountain experience they’re calling “Basecamp.” No reservation required, the spa will likely be found near your favorite on-site après ski watering hole. Guests will be able to put their names on the list, order a cocktail or and relax in a—get this—zero gravity chair as their feet are skillfully massaged.

In a statement given by Spa Director Ivonne van Loveren, the focus is on luxury. “Bloom Spa will cater to the most discerning clientele,” she explained. I’m not sure how discerning one has to be to say “yes” to a foot rub after a day on the mountain, but I would agree that it’s not exactly roughing it.

It’s All About the Green at Denver’s Dankest Restaurant

Attentive waiters often try to guide first time customers to the ideal dining experience, inquiring about preferences and tastes in order to create the best possible meal. At one of Denver’s newest eateries, that waiter is named Joe, and as I tuck in at the bar, he politely inquires, “Are you looking to get absolutely wrecked?”

(‘DiggThis’)Welcome to Ganja Gourmet, billed as “America’s first marijuana restaurant.” Located in medical marijuana-happy Denver on a stretch of Broadway that boasts so many dispensaries it has been rechristened “The Green Mile,” “Reefer Row” and “Little Broadsterdam,” the establishment stands out, thanks to an enormous psychedelic mural painted on its exterior that gives the place a “happy dance around” vibe according to chef Jennifer Fowler.

Though pot dispensaries have been proliferating in the mile high city since 2001, few specialize in “edibles,” as weed-laced food is known. “There was a huge gap in the marketplace,” says Ganja Gourmet’s founder, 51-year old Steve Horowitz, who was personally disappointed with the refreshments that the other pot shops were offering. “People were selling four week old saran wrap brownies for fifteen dollars. I knew I was on to something.”

To eat at Ganja Gourmet, diners must present a state-issued license (hence the restaurant’s slogan, “Our food is so great you need a license to eat it,” seen below) and a medical marijuana card. The latter are relatively easy to procure (the majority are given to people with severe “chronic” pain), the former not so much. Since I’m not a resident of Colorado, I’m ineligible. I bring along a very willing taster, Max, who prefers that I only use his first name.

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We sit down at table that, instead of sweetener, boasts a ceramic sugar holder housing rolling papers, and consider the menu. Everything from pizza to hummus to cheesecake (above) is available, but Max opts for Ganja Gourmet’s version of the prix fixe, the Dinner Buzz Special. It comes with choice of entrée, dessert and a dinner joint, all for a very reasonable thirty bucks.

First out of the kitchen, however, is a complimentary appetizer, the ganjanade (below), served with crusty French bread. Clad in his tie-dyed uniform, Joe, our “budtender”, explains that the spread gets its kick from olive oil infused with cooked down herbal trimmings. Max diligently takes a moment to savor the flavors of the thick brown paste. “There’s no hint of marijuana,” he says, taking another bite for good measure. “It’s what you would think of as tapenade. With a real smell of olives.”

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When I ask Joe if the strain of pot used in the cooking affects flavor, he is matter-of-fact. “All ganja tastes the same when cooked,” he says. However, when it comes time to roll Max’s pre-prandial joint, he is more poetic, slipping into marijuana-sommelier mode. “It’s fruity and zesty,” he tells us, taking a long whiff of the dank herb. Locavores take note; all of the pot used at GG is grown in Colorado. This particular strain, Joe tells us proudly, as Max takes a hit, was grown on the Rockies’ Western Slope.

With his appetite whetted, Max digs into his entrée, the meat lasagna, or the LaGanja (below), as it’s known here. It’s based on Chef Fowler’s family recipe and the plentiful serving has the comforting appearance of home cooking, with a thick red sauce and feta topping. While Max wishes it had a bit more heat, when he praises its “good blend of herbs,” he’s referring to the relatives of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, not the marijuana. Joe suggests Max pay particular attention to the pools of red oil that collect around the lasagna. “It’s all in the oil,” he explains, in between hits off a water bong. “That’s the good stuff.” Fowler warns Mac that the high from the lasagna hits slowly, so Max should be prepared to feel it later. “It really builds up on you,” she says.

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Finally, comes dessert. Joe offers more advice. “If you have a sweet tooth, try the chocolate cups. You’ll like the high. It’s energetic from the caffeine,” he says of the mocha infused treats. He does warn, however, that with some of the desserts you can taste the pot, particularly with the triple dosed space cake. “There’s no way you can hide two grams,” he says.

Max, who by this point has gotten a bit giggly (“This is hilarious,” he whispers), opts against the super powered space cake in favor of a sticky raspberry brownie, topped with pink chips. Biting into the dense pastry, Max describes it as “rich, fudgy chocolate with pot undertones,” before sharing a piece with another patron who has saddled up to the bud bar. Max then offers up the rest of his joint to Joe (below), saying he’s high enough already. Besides he needs to get going as he needs to be off for the perfect post Ganja Gourmet outing – a matinee of Avatar.

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Gourmands—or more likely pot heads– looking for the full Ganja Gourmet experience should act quickly. The Denver City Council recently passed regulations banning onsite marijuana consumption that will go into effect in March. Horowitz, ever the optimist, insists that Ganja Gourmet will prevail – continuing as is or selling food to go. Besides, he says, narrowing the focus to carry out will make it easier to achieve one of his two main ambitions for the restaurant, expanding into multiple locations. His other goal is to receive a visit from his Howard Stern. “If he came,” says Horowitz, “My life would be complete. I think he’d really love the ganja ganoush.”

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15 Best Airports for Wi-Fi

Wireless internet service at airports is becoming more rule, less exception. Google has embraced the holiday spirit by distributing free Wi-Fi at 47 U.S. airports until January 15, 2010. And several airlines have begun to offer wireless service on board flights, ensuring that jetting won’t hinder your daily routine of stalking your exes on Facebook. In a recent survey by American Airlines and HP, 47% of business travelers indicated that Wi-Fi was more valued than food during their flight. People are looking to stay connected with the outside world, especially while in transit. While many airports now offer wireless, some are better at it than others.

1. Philadelphia International Airport – Check your Gmail while scarfing a cheesesteak — free wireless for diners within the food courts. Current students also have the privilege of free Internet access if they show their IDs at the Airport Information Counter. And on Saturdays and Sunday, wireless service is free for everyone. Outside of the airport, Philly once had plans for covering the entire city with wireless, until Earthlink dropped out of the agreement due to economic complications in February of 2008.

2. Phoenix Sky Harbor – No, it’s not a mystical village in a “Final Fantasy” game, but its connectivity is free and completely real. In 2005, Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon launched a free airport wireless project. Since then, Sky Harbor has never looked back. The signal is strong on both ends of the security checkpoint, near the shops, and at many of the gates. Given that both the mayor and city council collaborated on this project, residents hope that a citywide connection could soon be in the works.

3. Portland International Airport – Portland International Airport has free wireless within 70% of its complex, including some spots outside of secure areas. Users can log in with a VPN (Virtual Private Network) if top-secret info is required for their profession. Furthermore, the airport offers ample power outlets throughout its facilities, making it an ideal location for web surfers. But outside of the airport, Portland has become more disconnected. Recently, the city lost its free MetroFi wireless service due to financial complications.

4. McCarran International Airport – Feeling down after losing big in Vegas? Rest assured, McCarran Airport is there to lift your spirits (or at least give you the opportunity to continue gambling online). With seating and electrical outlets galore, McCarran is #3 on Forbes’ list of “Top Most-Wired Airports.” In addition, there are various free Wi-Fi hotspots within the city itself, distributed throughout shops and restaurants.

5. Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport – Way back in December 2003, Ithaca’s Tompkins Regional Airport was distributing free wireless through Clarity Connect services. Nowadays, Wi-Fi can be accessed anywhere within its terminals free of charge, no strings attached. For those hapless enough to leave their laptops at home, computer workstations are available with 15 minutes of free access near the café and gift shops.

6. JFK International Airport – While most airports of JFK’s size are rather stingy when it comes to Internet service, JetBlue’s 6th terminal offers free Internet access. This section of JFK is relatively new, having reached completion a little over a year ago on October 22, 2008. The new Wi-Fi section is consistent with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plans to increase connectivity throughout the city’s public areas.

7. Eastern Iowa Airport – Cedar Rapids- Free Internet is distributed throughout the Cedar Rapids airport thanks to Dynamic Broadband, which also delivers its services in parts of the Midwest, ensuring that the farmlands can easily be connected to the country’s urban centers. If you’re web-hungry enough to pull out your laptop while taking a ride, public buses around the airport offer Internet access to their riders as well.

8. Honolulu Airport – Pacific-bound travelers may find themselves at this intersecting crossroads of the States and the Orient. It may take some scouting, but Gate 13 at the Honolulu Airport offers free Wi-Fi. Those in the know say that you can also successfully “mooch” a signal near the Continental President’s Club and Northwest World Club across from Gate 12.

9. Denver International Airport – Jeppesen Terminal’s A, B, and C concourses distribute Wi-Fi in the vicinity free of charge. The city itself has its own share of free Wi-Fi hotspots in its busiest centers. As of April 17, 2006, the 16th Street Mall and Skyline Park of downtown Denver offers free Wi-Fi, thanks in large part to the city’s nonprofit Downtown Denver Partnership.

10. Louis Armstrong International Airport – Although this Louisiana airport is still trying to reach its original pre-Katrina service capacity, it has maintained free Wi-Fi in concourses A, B, C, and D. Originally, state laws prohibited the use of free broadband, but the city circumvented this ban after the state of emergency declared in Hurricane Katrina’s wake. With the state of emergency lifted, several groups like BellSouth moved to shut down the free service. Earthlink stepped up with a $15 million planned investment to take over the city’s service and build a network within a 15- to 20-mile radius. As of 2008, the Earthlink project was dead … but given current trends, there may be hope for its revival.

11. Harrisburg International Airport – For passengers, free access is as simple as selecting or typing “SARAA” as their preferred network. Left your laptop behind? Not a problem. The Harrisburg Airport offers plenty of Internet kiosks within its facilities, where you’ll be able to forward cute cat pictures before catching a red-eye. The city itself had aspirations for free Wi-Fi coverage as early as 2003 for 2nd Street and the Capitol complex. Unfortunately, logistics stymied these efforts, and they were put on hold.

12. San Antonio International Airport – Travelers can pick up a decent (and most importantly, free) Wi-Fi connection throughout most of the airport’s terminals. In 2007, the San Antonio City Council approved a plan to build a municipal wireless network throughout the city’s downtown areas, thanks to aid from AT&T.

13. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport – Sea-Tac is offering free wireless for the holiday season until January 15, 2010 (compliments of Google). Furthermore, the Port of Seattle is hoping to extend these benefits beyond the January 15 cutoff. We think that this is an appropriate plan for a place ranked #1 on Forbes’ “Top 30 Most-Wired American Cities”.

14. Orlando International Airport – With free Wi-Fi hotspots located within its parking lot and public areas, Orlando makes flight delays bearable. The city itself is ranked number four on Forbes’ “Top 30 Most-Wired American Cities” due to the high percentage of homes with high-speed Internet access and high Wi-Fi hotspots per capita.

15. Mineta San Jose International Airport – The NorCal vs. SoCal Wi-Fi debate rages on throughout the state of California. While there may be no clear winner, San Jose certainly gives NorCal a boost, thanks to its prestigious history as home to some of the world’s largest tech companies. As of May 30, 2008, Mineta San Jose Airport has offered free Wi-Fi services to travelers coming through the South Bay. Terminals A and C have excellent Wi-Fi offerings, with the exception of their baggage claim areas, which are currently dead zones.