Boulder may well be the hippest city in Colorado. On the doorstep of both Denver and the Rocky Mountains, it’s small enough (less than 100,000 population) to easily get around, yet sophisticated enough for the outdoors and arts crowds, thanks largely to the state’s biggest college, the University of Colorado (CU-Boulder). It is more touristy than Fort Collins, especially along Pearl Street. The good news is you can park for free, for a couple of hours, a block or two away and walk to many of the better eateries and coffee shops in town.
Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery may be the busiest, noisiest joint on Boulder’s Pearl Street, which is saying something. Locals and visitors alike gather en masse in early evening to toss back some house-brewed ales and dig into large burgers and burritos. A couple of Mountain Sun beers are poured through a nitrogen tap to produce a smoother taste and thicker head. Menu highlights include a pulled chicken and black bean burrito, a blackened chicken quesadilla and a lineup of 12 third-of-a-pound burgers, the Colorado-raised beef cooked to medium. The signature burger is called Date Night, an unusual medley of roasted poblano peppers, smoked bacon, melted goat cheese and, wait for it, date puree. The combination works surprisingly well, with the sweetness of the dates proving a counterpoint to the poblanos’ pungency. It’s certainly one of the juicier burgers I’ve encountered. The obligatory accompaniment is a generous serving of hot fries that, the menu promises, will be redone if they’re not perfect.
Mountain Sun Pub
1535 Pearl Street (a second Boulder location at 627 South Broadway)
Daily 11 am-1 am. Cash only
There seems to be a fraternity of coffee gurus in northern Colorado. While waiting for my handcrafted coffee to be brewed at *Ozo Coffee Co., I start chatting with the barrista, Greg. He knows Jonathan, the statistics-spouting savant in Fort Collins, is familiar with Scott Rao, (the guy who wrote the barista’s bible) and can quickly list half a dozen cafes in Denver and Colorado Springs dedicated to first-class, individually prepared cups of java. Ozo certainly fits that bill, roasting some lovely single-origin and blended beans in Boulder and preparing drip coffee three ways: French press, Chemex and pour over. My French-pressed El Salvadorian is so complex and flavourful, I add a Brazilian pour-over to my empty stomach and jitter out into the morning air.
1015 Pearl Street (second Boulder location at 5340 Arapahoe Avenue)
Monday to Saturday 6 am-9 pm, Sunday 7 am-7 pm
Yet another style of handcrafted coffee, though this one might be unique. Boxcar Coffee Roasters has a refined, somewhat pricy update on cowboy coffee, with the coarse grounds lightly boiled in water for a couple of minutes. It’s largely done to counteract Boulder’s higher elevation, and hence lower boiling point. The resulting coffee, cooled with a couple of ice cubes and then filtered through a sieve, is definitely full flavoured and much better than the stuff you might have pulled from a campfire. Boxcar shares a space with Cured, which sells specialty meats and cheeses and makes a couple of delicious daily sandwiches such as one with fennel salami, Gruyere and arugula.
Boxcar Coffee Roasters
1825 Pearl Street, Boulder
Monday to Saturday 8 am-6 pm, Sunday 8 am-5 pm
1825 B Pearl Street, Boulder
Weekdays 10:30 am-7 pm, Saturday 9 am-6 pm, Sunday 11 am-5 pm
At Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant, the jasmine dragon blossom green tea arrives with a little, old-fashioned hourglass. When the salt has run through the top of the timer, the tea is steeped and not yet bitter. It’s attention to such details that makes Leaf a pleasure to visit. My happy-hour Asian Mizuna salad—a well-arranged stack of wakame seaweed, mizuna, jicama, snap peas and other green goodies, topped with a perfect sesame sweet chili vinaigrette—has lovely crunchy bits; indeed, it’s one of the better salads of my road trip. Popular dinner entrees include a vegan winter squash enchilada and a sesame-crusted beet steak. Around the corner from Pearl Street, Leaf is a quietly elegant space, with high ceilings, light brick walls and a little waterfall seeping past plants.
Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant
2010 16 Street, Boulder
Lunch 11:30 am-3 pm weekdays, brunch 10 am-3 pm weekends, dinner 5 pm-close, happy hour daily 3 pm-6 pm
A lot of places offer eggs done a dozen ways, with pancakes seemingly no more than an obligatory concession to starch lovers. Not so at Walnut Cafe, a Boulder breakfast institution. Here, the pancake selection extends to blueberry-cornbread, pumpkin and one combining granola, bananas and chocolate chips. I choose the namesake walnut banana cakes, the nuts lending a nice crunch to the banana’s sweet gumminess. Speaking of starches, I watch a neighbouring diner gamely tackle a large bowl of slow-cooked oatmeal and raisins but scarcely making a dent in five minutes. Another refreshing change from most breakfast joints, Walnut Cafe offers a fresh fruit bowl, not that I saw anyone ordering it.
3073 Walnut Street (and two other Boulder locations)
Daily 7 am-3:30 pm
Want to relive college days? Just wander up onto The Hill, west of the University of Colorado campus. Make your way past frat houses pounding with music and alcohol-infused packs of students stumbling down sidewalks (it’s football game day) and then squeeze into The Sink. It’s a longtime CU institution (Robert Redford waited tables as a student), with a rabbit’s warren of dining rooms and colourful drawings blanketing the walls and low ceilings. Have a shoulder-to-shoulder pint of beer with the tall lads at the bar or sit down and order the excellent Buddah basil pizza, its nicely blistered crust covered with pesto tomato sauce, tofu, spinach, basil and artichoke hearts. The Sink is loud, like the streets all around, but it’s dripping with character.
1165 13 Street, Boulder
Daily 11 am-10 pm with the bar open till 2 am
I’m not often inclined to go to Italian restaurants when I’m on the road—it’s something about the formality and higher prices of many such places. So it’s with pleasure that I venture to Il Pastaio, a decidedly informal place with about 10 high tables and sheets of spatter-absorbing paper covering green vinyl tablecloths. This is a family-run business, where you’re greeted warmly at the door and engaged in tableside conversation, to the point where you feel part of the family. The focus is on the food, which includes lamb, chicken and beef specials as well as starters like a gazpacho bursting with fresh tomato flavour. But I’m here for the extruded semolina pasta, which I can see being run in sheets through a cutting machine. My mix-and-match choice of a papperdelle pasta with an arrabiatta sauce (tomato, garlic and red chili) arrives hot, in both temperature and spiciness. It’s simple food, but when it’s this fresh, you don’t need anything else. As a Boulder food devotee tells me, “You can pay more at a finer restaurant, but you will not eat better.”
3075B Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
Monday to Thursday 11 am-9 pm, Friday 11 am-10 pm. Closed Saturday and Sunday
I have a hell of a time finding Avery Brewing in the dark (it’s behind a bunch of buildings on Arapahoe Avenue). But the locals obviously don’t, as the taproom is jumping, albeit as part of the Great American Beer Festival, which happens to be on during my October visit. They are there to sample the several dozen beers on tap that day at this avant garde Boulder brewery. It’s an eye opener for me, with sour beers, beers blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2012 Beast Grand Cru—featuring six hops, six sugars and six malts and adding up to a whopping 16% alcohol content. Prices are largely tied to alcohol per centage, ranging from $4.50 for a standard pint to $5 for a snifter sampler. I mostly play it safe with an Ellie’s Brown Ale, which the bartender says is his favourite skiing beer. I do sample the adventurous orders of my seatmate, who, before hopping on his bicycle for a wobbly ride home, delivers the night’s best line: Folks in the US. Northwest, he says, read books; in Colorado, they read magazines. Avery’s also serves some nice sandwiches, pizzas and other pub food.
5763 Arapahoe Avenue, Unit E
Taproom open daily 11 am-11 pm, free tours weekdays 4 pm and weekends 2 pm
I’m told Dot’s Diner is an old-fashioned breakfast joint with attitude. Well, the poor waitress doesn’t have much time for attitude, let alone conversation, as she juggles a dozen tables, impressively balancing three laden plates up one arm. Tucked into a strip mall, Dot’s (“Where folks meet for yolks”) is a Boulder breakfast standard, with green vinyl booths and aprons tacked to the walls. Other than a sourdough toast offering—topped with grilled ham, melted Swiss and an egg—the breakfast menu provides the usual staples. The difference is in the execution. My chorizo-cheddar omelette, hash browns and biscuit (the latter one of the better I’ve had) all arrive hot off the grill and, unlike many breakfasts, I eat every crumb. With a Nepali cook on staff, Dot’s also offers traditional chais and daily curries.
2716 28 Street, Boulder
Weekdays 7 am-2 pm, weekends 8 am-2 pm