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Insider: Denver's Mountain Makeover

Denver has come a long way since the boom and bust of last century's gold rushes, through the "old bums and beat cowboys" of Jack Kerouac's On the Road days, beyond the empty warehouses and defunct railroad tracks of the eighties. Now a thriving oasis of altitude and swagger, this town gets our vote for most-improved American city. With droves of newcomers—one out of four residents has arrived since 1990—its forward-looking airport, and a growing cultural scene (the theater center won 1998's Tony Award for best regional theater), the Mile High City is riding higher than ever.

where to stay

At the Hotel Teatro (1100 14th St.; 800/996-3426 or 303/228-1100; doubles from $129), you can E-mail your friends back home, then put the phone on voice mail, shower in your Indonesian marble bathroom, wrap yourself in Frette sheets, and dine on room service from Restaurant Jou Jou. Get it?This is the most elegant and up-to-date of downtown's new addresses. • Part of the stylish Kimpton hotel chain, the Hotel Monaco (1717 Champa St.; 800/397-5380 or 303/296-1717; doubles from $155) is decorated in an explorer theme—compass designs in the carpet, vintage-suitcase tables, globe desk lamps. Pets are welcome, but if you don't bring your own, you can borrow a goldfish during your stay. • The queen bee of Denver lodgings, the Brown Palace Hotel (321 17th St.; 800/321-2599 or 303/297-3111; doubles from $205; see Best Deals in this issue for weekend specials), has played host to almost every prominent passer-through from Lionel Barrymore to the Beatles to Boris Yeltsin. These days, it's where you're most likely to hear local politicians making deals or catch the latest crop of Denver debutantes descending the staircase into the eight-story lobby. Be sure to indulge in the tap water; the Brown sits on its own artesian well. • In spite of some wear and tear in the rooms, there are plenty of reasons to stay at the landmark Oxford Hotel (1600 17th St.; 800/228-5838 or 303/628-5400; doubles from $135)—great service, for one, and the most stylish gym in Denver, housed in a turn-of-the-century addition, for another. Corner rooms are best, and biggest. The hotel's Cruise Room Bar is legendary.

nightlife

Thursday nights are a hit at the Acoma (99 W. Ninth Ave.; 303/572-8006), when the 10-piece band Conjunto Colores beats out its salsa rhythms. (Free dance lessons at 9.) • The Bluebird Theater (3317 E. Colfax Ave.; 303/322-2308), in a renovated cinema, is one of the best concert houses in town. You're as likely to see Canadian blues guitarist Jeff Healey as El Vez, the self-proclaimed Mexican Elvis. • Built to look like the bar aboard the Queen Mary, the Art Deco Cruise Room Bar (1600 17th St.; 303/628-5400) has been serving up cocktails—Gibsons, Icebergs—since the day Prohibition ended. • No doubt the Wynkoop Brewing Co. (1634 18th St.; 303/297-2700)—the nation's largest brewpub—is the only bar in the country with its own curator; local artists' work hangs on the walls. Watch for special beer bottle labels printed with short stories by Colorado writers such as Hunter S. Thompson. • You'd probably have to go back to ancient Rome to find a city more dedicated to athletics. Even so, more Denverites attended cultural events last year than all sporting events combined. And such support must count for something. Check out the Denver Center Theatre Company (Speer Blvd. and Arapahoe St.; 800/641-1222 or 303/893-4100) for the season schedule, which includes four world premieres.

eating

Named for the Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta Dipping Grill (1822 Blake St.; 303/296-1970; dinner for two $60) is 28-year-old Josh Wolkon's saucy and spirited answer to the ubiquitous sports bars and proliferating chain restaurants of Lower Downtown (a.k.a. LoDo). Here, skewered meats and vegetables can be matched with 30 different sauces. The copper menu folders and stainless-steel skewers were hand-made by Wolkon's parents (so don't steal 'em!). • Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge (930 Lincoln St.; 303/839-5100; dinner for two $60) stirs up the best martinis in town, and the food is every bit as good. Have the smoked duck with almond-curry sauce and mango chutney, or roast pork loin with mashed potatoes and Chinese mustard. They're perfect precursors to El Niño—on the drinks menu. • While taking in one of the best views in Denver at Fourth Story Restaurant & Bar (atop the Tattered Cover Book Store at 2955 E. First Ave.; 303/322-1824; lunch for two $40), try the garlic, chive, and caraway soup or the beef tender tails with grilled asparagus and pancetta balsamic demiglace. Finish up with apricot bread pudding—made and delivered daily, as are all the desserts, by Blue Valentine Pastries (4628 E. 23rd Ave.; 303/331-1250). • With its high-ceilinged airiness and bistro banquettes, Restaurant Jou Jou (inside the Hotel Teatro at 1100 14th St.; 303/228-0770; dinner for two $80) has the best kind of French menu—all of the flavor and none of the fuss. Try the flaky croissants for breakfast, onion soup gratiné for lunch, or roast duckling with cabbage, bacon, and lavender honey for dinner. • Gaku Homma came to Denver in 1978 from Japan's northern city of Akita; his Domo (1365 Osage St.; 303/595-3666; dinner for two $40; open Thursday-Saturday) is an essay in Japanese country living. Order nabemono, a traditional stew of meat or seafood, tofu, seaweed, and vegetables.

best coffee

A modern miracle in this Starbucks-ridden nation is the independent coffee shop. Seven years ago, Tina Pappas and Eric Alstead were pioneers of LoDo's return to cool when they started brewing at St. Mark's Coffeehouse on Larimer Square (1416 Market St.; 303/446-2925). Their new location (2019 E. 17th Ave.; 303/322-8384) is near City Park. Eric's welded furniture will keep you upright while you indulge in Tina's devastating home-baked cookies (yes, she bakes them at home) and pastries. The Market (1445 Larimer Square; 303/534-5140) is as much a yuppie haven as a hangout for Kerouac wannabes. Order a bran muffin with your Chai tea or a Linzer torte with your latte; they also have great sandwiches, locally made chocolates, and an ice cream counter.

shopping

Denver's beloved institution, the Tattered Cover Book Store (2955 E. First Ave.,303/322-7727; or 1628 16th St., 303/436-1070; www.tatteredcover.com), was bought in 1974 by Joyce Meskis, a former library assistant, and has since grown into one of the largest independent bookstores in the United States. Its old-fashioned personal service and cozy atmosphere put its chain counterparts to shame. • Cherry Creek North is a neighborhood bordered by Denver's oldest mansions on one side and a Sears on the other. Whatever your approach, there's a shop here to suit your sensibility: At Djuna (221 Detroit St.; 888/883-5862 or 303/355-3500), Karen and Jeffrey Moore offer a mix of old and new objects, including their own iron bed-frame designs (hand-wrought locally). Ultra-fashionable Max (3039 E. Third Ave.; 303/321-4949) is where you'll find a well-edited selection of frocks from Chaiken, Joseph, Dosa, and others. There's a balm for any ill at the Alchemist (2737 E. Third Ave.; 303/377-7567), Ninfa Laughlin's tiny beauty boutique carrying a vast selection of hard-to-find soaps, skin-care products, and perfumes. • Antiques lovers, beeline it to South Broadway, otherwise known as Antiques Row. Don't miss: Decade (56 S. Broadway; 303/733-2288), Kristen Tait and Dylan Moore's ever-changing collection of items culled from their rummaging at estate sales and in alleyways. The largest on the block is the 8,200-square-foot Antique Brokers (1438 S. Broadway; 303/722-1350). Here six dealers sell Arts and Crafts furniture and collectibles—his-and-her embroidered pillowcases from the forties, copper cowboy-hat ashtrays—that make it a must-stop for unusual Colorado souvenirs. Devoted to scientific instruments, Packrat Antiques (1594 S. Broadway; 303/778-1211) is the most specialized dealer on the South Broadway strip. An astrolabe inscribed MADE FOR EL KAJABA IN 1695 is offered at $1,250; it comes with the shop's dubious description "used to find oneself in the desert" (how handy!). There are also microscopes, surgical tools, telescopes, even a Chinese geomancer's compass ($500) whose markings were used by mystics to instruct people on "plantings, construction, and how to proceed."

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