Foliage frames the back door of the potager garden in the back of the AAA Three Diamond-rated Potager restaurant in Denver. © Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Originally published: July/August 2017
By John Lehndorff
The Japanese call it “Shinrin-yoku,” a charming practice which translates as “bathing in the forest.” It is not about showering among the trees, but rather about enhancing your well-being, reducing anxiety and reviving your sense of joie de vivre by dining outdoors, al fresco.
In his novel Dandelion Wine (Doubleday, 1957) Ray Bradbury writes that a “sandwich outdoors isn’t a sandwich anymore. Tastes different than indoors, notice? Got more spice. Tastes like mint and pinesap. Does wonders for the appetite.”
It seems like every new Colorado eatery has a patio and plenty of others offer breathtaking vistas. EnCompass found AAA-rated destinations on mountainsides in Telluride and Boulder, by a gurgling stream in Beaver Creek, and in a Denver urban oasis. These restaurants dish cuisine as fresh as their distinctive open-air environments.
1109 Ogden St., Denver, 303-832-5788
Summer dining in the city is not all rainbows and sunsets. Denver offers a wealth of patios, decks, and roofs, but the sun can be brutal, the traffic fumes obnoxious, and the winds abrasive. Cafés offering outdoor intimacy protected from the elements are rarities.
Chef Teri Rippeto poses next to a planter full of fresh herbs and greens she grows in the courtyard of her Denver restaurant, Potager. She uses the herbs in the restaurant’s recipes, but also uses them as a reminder for staff to know what’s currently in season and to feature that in the food. © Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images
With an open kitchen, concrete walls, and an artistic mix of old sofas, tables and chairs, AAA Three Diamond-rated Potager has always been known as a loud and lively place on busy nights. That makes it more refreshing when you step out back and discover a peaceful green enclave.
The “garden” was once a parking lot when the quirky restaurant opened two decades ago. Despite the (still) dire scarcity of parking nearby, owner Teri Rippeto dug up the lot and planted a garden. After all, “potager” means “kitchen garden.”
Muffled traffic noise doesn’t let you forget you are in the city, but you can also hear honeybees buzzing around the pots, barrels, and beds planted with herbs and vegetables that will show up on dinner plates as the season progresses.
Long before “farm-to-table” became an adjective, Potager sourced local produce, celebrated farmers and fishermen, and changed menus monthly. It has meant that popular dishes have been short-lived. A recent menu included a twice-baked soufflé with chives, chevre from Colorado’s Ugly Goat Dairy, and lettuce from Oxford Farm. The kitchen also pan-roasted Stonington scallops and served them over sunflower-seed risotto, with fresh pea tendrils.
Potager’s sole menu standby—dark chocolate pudding—is fine in the winter. Come August the lines will form early to sit in the garden and grab a slice of juicy Palisade peach pie a la mode with just-churned ice cream.
Words to the wise: Potager does not accept reservations.
1138 Flagstaff Rd., Boulder, 303-442-4640
The Flagstaff House’s outdoor terrace offers spectacular views of the city. Courtesy of Flagstaff House
Many AAA Diamond-rated restaurants in Colorado give their guests a picture-window view of the mountains, but at a few others, such as Four Diamond-rated Flagstaff House, diners sit above 6,000 feet and look out from every table over the far eastern horizon.
Fine dining, attentive service, and a 15,000-bottle wine cellar make it worthwhile to dress up and make the drive to Flagstaff Mountain, but the terraced patio adds a remarkable element in summer. This perch overlooks spruce, pine, mule deer, and occasional bear cubs, and opens the diner to spontaneous showers, rainbows, and lipstick sunsets smeared across the clouds.
The outside menu includes splendid-looking plates of lobster prepared two-ways—tempura-fried and butter-poached—and Colorado lamb rack, loin, and shank with truffle polenta.
If you aren’t ready to commit to a full feast, young Flagstaff House chef Chris Royster (recent winner of the Food Network’s Chopped competition) devises a terrace-only menu 5–7 p.m. Sunday through Friday. The nibbles range from coconut-crusted oysters with pineapple to “Steak & Eggs” presented as crispy soft eggs with Avery Stout-braised short ribs. Other small treats might include diver-caught scallops with olive and sundried tomato salad, and charcuterie and cheese plates with house-baked raisin walnut toast.
Few fresh air experiences in the state are more pleasant than the eatery’s coffee service. Well-roasted coffee is accompanied by a glass platter centered by a heaping ramekin of whipped cream. Surrounding it are lime candy slices, sugar cubes, dark and white chocolate chips, and other neat sweets to enjoy. It’s almost enough to distract you from the scenery.
Madeline Hotel, 568 Mountain Village Blvd., Telluride, 855-923-7640
Located rinkside in Mountain Village, the Black Iron Kitchen & Bar’s signature fire-tables accent the outdoor plaza, and provide the perfect seat for people watching and casual family dining. © John Lehndorff
Summer outdoor dining is only partially about the food and scenery, especially at the state’s mountain resorts. If we’re honest, people-fashion-watching is part of the fun. The free gondola up from Telluride lands you right next to an ideal vantage point—the European-style, AAA Four Diamond-rated Madeline Hotel and its plaza-facing Black Iron Kitchen & Bar.
You can choose outside under cover, between tall tables centered by leaping gas flames that also have nearby heaters for chill summer nights at altitude. Wicker chairs line bigger family-style tables—ideal for families taking in the lawn games, live music, and passers-by speaking a dozen languages.
Black Iron’s menu offers bright flavors at lunch, ranging from short rib street tacos to steamed bao buns filled with crispy duck confit. Their Back Country BBQ Burger is centered with Colorado-made Camembert and topped with smoked bacon and green chile BBQ.
On summer and early fall evenings, after a breathtaking bike or hike, order heartier platters—a New York strip steak with blue cheese sauce, or Telluride Blonde Ale-battered halibut and chips. Summer on the patio calls for something more than red wine; consider an ale, a flute of bubbly prosecco, or a Colorado cider.
For a fitting finale, s’mores come with a small burner to meld marshmallows and premium milk chocolate into a gooey graham cracker treat.
Staying at the Madeline Hotel allows guests to access its aptly named Sky Terrace. They can lounge next to the pool with a pressed Cubano sandwich and a choice of panoramic azure skies by day or a grand wash of galaxies at night.
55 Village Rd., Beaver Creek, 970-949-7728
Diners feel so at home on AAA Four Diamond-rated Mirabelle’s patio that they kick off their shoes. Daniel Joly says he understands completely. The Belgian-born chef and his wife, Nathalie, drink coffee there on sunny mornings amid quaking aspen and above a sometimes-gurgling, sometimes-rushing creek.
The summer-only lunch—available Thursdays through Saturdays—gives diners a lighter (and less pricey) French-inspired but not snooty fare: perfect medium rare burgers on brioche buns, simply herbed roast chicken with potato chips, and vegetarian risotto du jour. Fresh, seasonal produce stars in such dishes as baby romaine salad with silky avocado mousseline and chickpea croutons and steelhead trout in an aromatic Thai coconut broth.
Dinner on Mirabelle’s patio as sunset fades to twilight offers a chance to appreciate nuanced classics like buttery, lemon-y Dover sole meunière or Colorado lamb rack with sweet potato gratin. Joly’s award-winning wine list is stocked with big ticket bottles but deserves attention for the obscure vintages he stocks that go well with his cooking.
Kids under 10 are welcome in the dining rooms but sitting outside they can be chattier while chomping down on Parmesan-Emmental croquettes and beef tenderloin.
At the end of the evening, kicking back with a snifter of Cognac and a warm Belgian chocolate soufflé almost guarantees a natural glow.
John Lehndorff eats well for the benefit of Boulder Weekly readers, which publishes his Nibbles column, and listeners of Radio Nibbles every Thursday on radio station KGNU 88.5 FM in Boulder.
What do those Diamonds mean?
The five AAA Diamond levels describe the kind of experience you can expect. They identify which AAA-Approved restaurants will provide the best fit for your occasion and budget.
Think of each additional Diamond as another reason to sit back and enjoy the experience—from quick and tasty to utterly amazing.
= grab and go.
= relaxing break with expected favorites.
= fresh and trendy dining-out event.
= culinary experience to savor and enjoy.
= entire evening of wow moments.