By we I mean myself, your trusty feisty, always hungry writer, and my husband who can eat whatever he wants and retain the lithe figure of a 19-year-old athlete. God love him.
Anywho, we went, we saw, and we ate everything, or nearly everything. Here's what you missed: the amazing, the not-quite-as-amazing, and the place you're making dinner reservations at tomorrow night.
You probably know it, and if you know it, you probably love it. Ace Eat Serve, the ping pong bar/fusion-like-you've-never-had-it eatery was one of the starting points for the Uptown Sampler. We traded in our tickets for buttons that signified our VIP status for the night, and perched at the bar for our first bite of the night: Shrimp dumplings (see lead picture). Truly one-bite-sized, the amuse bouche was over as soon as you put it into your mouth, but it echoed the the full menu that manages to pull me back time after time. Savory, perfectly cooked, unique and with a taste that one could only describe as: "Intriguingly Funky." We'll be back, Ace. For the wings, the brussels sprouts, and the funk.
Mere feet from Ace, we came to our second tasting at the Ace's sister (or brother) restaurant Steuben's. Known for their upscale Southern comfort cuisine, Steuben's did not disappoint with a sweet little BBQ slider on a soft white bun with homemade coleslaw. The BBQ was perfectly vinegary and saucy; I only wished there was twice as much of it and half as much of the pillowy, processed roll it was served on. Once again, I've been to Steuben's, and I can recommend it highly. They know BBQ, they know everything.
For every tiny bite at the Uptown Sampler, there's another restaurant that lays out a buffet. Enter Tony P's. A moment after we stepped in, a host at the restaurant labeled my husband a hipster, because he wore his event button (ironically? unironically?) pinned to the front of his shirt. He quickly moved it. Upstairs in the restaurant, Tony P's offered a full buffet of pizza, meatball sliders, some kind of rolled appetizer (eggplant?!?!? I don't know?!!?) and pan braised mushrooms with toasted bread. We took a little of everything and a lot of marinara sauce (you know, for health). Everything was good — "Okay, fine," as my dad would say – but nothing really wowed me. Still, if you're in the neighborhood and in the mood for homey Italian flavors, mosey on over to Tony P's.
Uptown Sampler is great for many reasons, but notably because it lets you taste restaurants you always meant to go to but never got this chance. That was the case for me and Watercourse Foods. I'm a huge fan of City O City, which uses Watercouse's breads, so chances were I was going to love their sample. I was right. Savory black bean patty on homemade bread with baked onion rings and a BBQ sauce. We both agreed that this was a favorite of the night. Despite the fact that it's a vegetarian restaurant, Watercourse runs with the big dogs. A full meal there is on my to-eat list.
5. 3 Little Birds Salon, right next door
Not a restaurant (obviously), but still involved in the Sampler, 3 Little Birds put out an awesome contribution of iced coffee/salted caramel shots. Sweet, salty, with a bit of a kick, it was the perfect segue to our next bites of food.
6. Gumbo's, 17th between Ogden & Downing
Is it really a surprise that we had gumbo at Gumbo's? Just a Dixie-cup sized serving, so it's hard for me to give an opinion either way. I guess I could say it was forgettable – because I forgot the details about it – but it wasn't memorably bad either. It neither gave me a good cross section of the menu like Tony P's nor left me intrigued like Watercourse. I did appreciate the depth of flavor in the stew base, but in the end, it was one of many bites.
This Brit-ophile gastropub was the first in our route of number of new restaurants in the uptown neighborhood. Argyll has already received rave reviews for their English dishes, from the traditional (shepherd's pie) to the iffy (head cheese). The sampler spread, which really was a spread, featured tamer dishes like their house-made potato chips, pickled vegetables and a simple charcuterie plate. Argyll has a lot going for it: a great space (the former Las Margarita's) with flashy, modern decor; a sexy, hip fan base; and a great, very popular concept. A love a lot of what I've tried, but I was equally perplexed by other things. The shepherd's pie, for example, seemed as though it had been put out with the assumption that it was good just because it was a classic. Argyll get's 10 out of 10 for ambience, but not yet full marks for taste.
8. Waffle Brothers, 17th between Marion and Lafayette
One of many returning champions from last year, Waffle Brothers did their thing and did it well. My only complaint is that I wasn't quite ready for dessert, and only savory waffle options were available. Still, not wanting to let my readers down, I took a healthy bite of a gluten-free waffle, covered in whipped cream. If I complained about mouthfuls of sweet, moist carbs topped with fluffy clouds of whipped cream, I might just be a sociopath. Yeah, it was good. They also have sandwiches if you're into going to restaurants that specialize in one thing and then not ordering that one thing
• Note: Conspicuously absent from this year's sampler was D Bar, the maker of tiny, adorable desserts that I didn't expect to like but ended up loving. (They made a banana dish that I actually enjoyed!) D Bar has since moved from their 17th Ave. location and will be re-opening soon. Keep tabs on this one, because it's a stunner – and a heck of a date spot.
9. Limon, 17th Ave. between Franklin & Gilpin
You know what I can't stand? Corn tortillas that have been sitting out for too long. I think you can see where this is going. When we entered Limon, the beginning of our walk back to our car, the platter of fish tacos had been sitting a minute or so too long. The tortillas were dry and not porous enough to soak up the juice from some kind of (pineapple?) salsa and the fish. I shuddered as fishy juice slid down my wrist. Eating while wet is only acceptable in hot tubs with chocolate covered strawberries. Shame, really, because I think I'd really like Limon under other circumstances, but I can only judge on what I had at the sampler. (I also almost took a shot of some kind of taco sauce that was served in a shot glass. Misleading.)
Once Parallel Seventeen and once serving more Vietnamese food, P17 is the new iteration of this restaurant, and their schtick it – well, I'm not actually sure. I've had brunch there and it left me full, yet wanting more. The arancini (stuffed, fried risotto balls), left me feeling the same. Arancini as a dish has always made so much sense to me. The ingredients, the preparation, the repurposing of leftovers, which is apparently a centuries old idea. But P17's dish left me confused. The texture was good, great even, but the aftertaste was not altogether pleasant and not quite describable. I have a vague memory of a vegetable medley mixed into the risotto that seemed it wold be more at home in a cup-o-noodles. I'm not giving up on P17. One and kind of a half-visit does not a review make. I had, and still have, high hopes for this restaurant. Cook on, P17.
11. Olive & Finch, 17th between Franklin & Humboldt
Another new restaurant, and after drooling over – I mean, perusing their menu online, I'm definitely going to try them out for my next sandwich craving. Take a look at their website to see what I mean. Unfortunately, the sample they laid out was neither sandwich-y nor very impressive. Small cups of macaroni salad, which I skipped because pasta and mayonnaise do not play well in my book, and plates of cookies that were not chewy and therefore wrong. Sorry, I can get one-minded about things sometimes. (But, seriously, you crunchy cookie-lovers are just wrong.) A misstep, but a forgivable one, because I would have gone no matter what they put out.
12. District Bistro, 17th between Humboldt & Lafayette
Here's a restaurant I'm kicking myself for not taking pictures of, because it was awesome! To get inside, we had to make our way through a busy patio, and it was clear that everyone was enjoying the heck out of themselves. The level of enthusiasm was comparable to the actors in an Olive Garden commercial, but the wine didn't come from a box, and they likely didn't need Pepto Bismol afterwards. District, which is not a reference to the Hunger Games as far as I know, offered several very good appetizers, including a reuben poppers (a new potato stuffed with fillings front the popular sandwich, a parmesan cup with date, goat cheese, arugula salad, and a duck crostini, starring onion marmalade. They also were offering $1 mixed drinks, but we didn't partake. (Opportunity lost, I know.) Something about the spunky flavors of the food, the bustling atmosphere and the novelty of a place I didn't know existed makes me want to hurry back to District as soon as possible.
Only in Denver – or Asheville, or Portland, or Boulder, I suppose – would a beer bar/bicycle shop make so much sense. Uptown Sampler participants were given a half-flight of beers plus unlimited soft pretzels with mustard. Can I still frequent this place if I don't have a bike?
14. Star Salon, 17th & Downing
Can't mention one salon and not the other. They had popcorn, but I only took shampoo samples and a comb for my "man friend," as the stylist referred to him.
15. Marczyk Fine Foods, near 17th & Clarkson
If this restaurant – really more a gourmet market and ready-made high class food emporium – were in my neighborhood, I'd probably spend inordinate amounts of time and money there. Looking at the thick slabs of meat and eclectic ingredients was one of the best parts of stopping here. The ricotta orange ice cream they served was also good, but not the best. They ran out of mint chocolate chip before we got there.
16. Hamburger Mary's, 17th & Washington
Didn't try – partly because our stomachs were reaching their physical capacity and partly because we couldn't remember being wowed or disappointed by it the previous year.
17. The Avenue Grill, 17th & Washington (other corner)
Tried, but just barely. Chili, which was old-school and okay, and a sheriff in a big cowboy hat jokingly threatening to pull his badge out on someone, were the things that stood out.
18. Tavern Uptown, 17th & Pearl
Despite having skipped breakfast and eaten a light lunch to prepare for the sampler, I was almost done at this point. The bar food offered at Tavern didn't appeal to me. I ate several florets of raw broccoli for fiber and called it.
19. Caveau Wine Bar, 17th & Pennsylvania
Two hours, too much food and about 2 miles later, we ended up at Caveau. They were out of food so we ordered waters – much to the annoyance of the waitress. (Sorry! We were hot and dehydrated!) We mulled over the idea of a glass of wine, but ended up driving home, ending the evening with boxed white wine and Top Chef.
The Uptown Sampler is proof that Denver restaurants have always had it going on. And judging from this year's crop, I think the neighborhood has at least another 23 years of awesome samplers in its future.