Hot men, a funky vibe, a thriving downtown scene and easy acess to the mountains add up to make Denver the Austin of the Rockies

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

“There are two seasons in Colorado,” asserts Cartman on South Park. “Winter and July.”

That’s not really true, anymore than the cliché that Dallas is always hot. (Remember three snowstorms this year?) In fact, it’s not all that unusual to see folks walking around in shorts or without winter coats, albeit in weather that would chill most Texans.
With summer on the horizon, the already highly livable Mile High City is ideal for warmth-seekers who want to enjoy the outdoors — or the many sophisticated options Denver offers.

Some cities are tweedy; some are silky or denimy or flannely or, God bless ’em, polyester’d; Denver is a hybrid of Gor-Tex and burlap — in the best possible way.

What is it about hilly college towns with capitols that breed a certain crunchy, alternative-lifestyle vibe? Dallas doesn’t have it, unless you count Deep Ellum, which you can’t (at least not since 1996). With its comfortable, old condos and warehouses, an easygoing pace, overcast skies and small-city atmosphere, Denver resembles a Rocky Mountain version of Austin or Seattle.

But there’s more to the appeal of Denver than just the environment. Colorado is the state with the fittest population in the Union, and many of the men here exude an unpretentious, earthy masculinity — one local woman told me the unofficial nickname of the city is “Menver.” Scruffy guys are common here, hot in a granola-hiker-outdoorsy way. (Grindr, though, is a lot more popular that Scruff; go figure.)

Maybe what attracts them to this city of 600,000 is the diversity of options, from fine dining to museums to history.

It’s easiest to stay downtown, where tons of options — from a performing arts center to an urban mall with moviehouse to a full-fledged convention center — provide a hub of activity. The Hyatt Regency, a skyscraper of a hotel with an upper floor bar overlooking the Rockies, an extensive in-house gym and refreshing spa (complete with expert massages), provides a comfortable, mainstream and centrally located hotel option. Clean, well-appointed and easy to spot, it fits the bill nicely.

Denver was founded in 1858, and has long remained the hub of culture and industry in the mountainous part of the western plains. Cowboy culture exists, of course, just like in Texas, but there’s an urbane sensibility as well.

Consider the Tattered Cover, a cavernous hardwood-and-exposed-beam-and-brick bookstore and café in a former warehouse on 16th Street in LoDo (Lower Downtown). While bookstores across America are closing, Tattered Cover is a destination for locals who line up for their scones and to read a paper. Then, you can stroll around the corner and visit Rockmount Ranch Wear. The storefront for the company that invented the sawtooth pocket design and snap short buttons is a friendly place where you can see a display of their most famous shirt: The one worn by Jake Gyllenhaal (and rescued by Heath Ledger) in Brokeback

DESTINATION DOWNTOWN | Public art, thriving businesses and a free shuttle makes Denver accessible and packed with options. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Mountain. (It sold at auction for $101,000.)

Both are in the LoDo district, near the terminus of the 16th Street Mall. This mile-long plaza, designed by I.M. Pei, is served by a fast, convenient and free shuttle that makes getting from one part of town to the other a breeze. While in LoDo, visit the old Union Station, now undergoing a facelift but still operational. Across from the station, duck into the historic Oxford Hotel, a charming boutique property with an enchanting foyer (much refinished after years of disrepair following its stint as a brothel.)

In addition to accommodations, the Oxford offers food and drink worth your time. The Cruise Room Bar is a reproduction of the interior of the Queen Mary cruise ship, complete with art moderne accents and classic cocktails. Across the hall, McCormick’s prepares mouthwatering fresh-off-the-boat seafood. The clam chowder here is among the best I’ve tasted, and the crab and mango tower was heavenly.

In general, Denver is a great city to enjoy exquisite food, including seafood (unexpected for a landlocked state). I arrived during Restaurant Week, a nationwide event held in many cities throughout the year; but I have never encountered a town where diners take it so seriously.

ChoLon may be the hottest place in town, a spacious, Asian-inspired bistro from chef Lon Symensma that recalls New York’s Buddakan or Las Vegas’ Tao, both in décor and in clever twists on Vietnamese and other Asian dishes. A sesame rice cake the size of an hibiscus bloom, served with tomato chile jam, replaced the traditional bread basket, while the peanut and tamarind glaze on the lamb shank perfectly balanced its savory and sweetness.

Not far from LoDo is Larimer Square, a fashionable pocket of fine dining and high end shopping a la Highland Park (stop in at Goorin Brothers Hat Shop not just for the novelty of a hat shop, but for exquisite toppers). Local celebrichefs predominate here, including Jennifer Jasinski, chef/co-owner of Rioja, a Mediterranean restaurant of intimate charm and intense, flavorful dishes, like sturgeon with grilled artichoke and tomato tart mousse and sea scallops with a tower of potato and carrot medallions. For a quick drink, Corridor 44 is unique: A champagne bar serving flights of sparkling wine.

You can get drinks and more at the Corner Office Martini Bar and Restaurant inside the distinctly boutique-y Curtis Hotel. The food is a hodgepodge that includes yummy shishito peppers, excellent mac and cheese and delicious fish tacos, plus on Sundays a disco brunch that gives life to the campy retro character of place.

History buffs will enjoy exploring the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which currently has a massive exhibit called Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah, a slave ship that became a privateer. (The collection includes an authentic reproduction of the gally — complete with creaky floorboards and a rocking motion — as well as countless artifacts from gold coins to iron cannons to the ship’s bell, unearthed from a sandy grave after 300 years underwater.) Closer in town the Denver Art Museum houses an impressive collection of Western art as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

You can buy some of your own art from local artisans at the First Friday art walks in cultural neighborhoods across the city. The Santa Fe District boasts an eclectic array of galleries displaying everything from abstract paintings to handmade jewelry and sculpture to Warhol-esque, ultra modern art. North Denver’s Tennyson neighborhood features a different style of galleries, including bookstores, glass blowers and antique dealers. The Pattern Shop, a beautiful home and gallery in the RiNo (River North) area, is worth the trip.

Like most cities in North America, Denver celebrates its Gay Pride Week in June (PrideFest 2011 is June 18 and 19). The community in this region is sizeable, with the gayborhood in Denver concentrated on the opposite end of the mall from LoDo. It’s a refreshing walk off the shuttle to the Denver Wrangler, a neighborhood leather-and-Levis bar with pool tables and videos. On Sundays, the patio turns into brunch central, resembling a corral of beefy gay men penned for branding. Close by are JR’s Denver and Hamburger Mary’s, which are hubs of gay life here. You’ll have to take a car to get to one of the rougher clubs, Compound, but like most things in Denver, it’s worth the hike.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 27, 2011.