When I lived in Boulder, I was always surprised at how much better the Denver vegetarian dining scene was. (Growing up here, I ate meat and took no notice of vegetarian options.) Now I’m back in Denver and it’s gotten even better. If you don’t eat meat, you have a couple of options — you can go to a place that doesn’t serve meat at all, or you can go to a place that does better than simply offering one vegetarian option.
1030 E. 22nd Ave.
I’ve encountered Beet Box more often at the farmers market at East High than at their brick-and-mortar location, but in either place, you’ll find their distinctive purplish beet brownies and other vegan pastries. They also offer the ubiquitous tofu banh mi, a chickpea of the sea and other sandwiches.
Try: The beet brownies.
City O City
206 E. 13th Ave., Denver
I’ve seen square government types here (it’s down the street from the Colorado Department of Revenue and the State Capitol), I’ve seen hip-as-hell millennials here, and I’ve personally brought my kid here. It’s not health food — it’s just vegetarian.
Full bar: Yes.
Meat substitutes: Yes. Small touches like seitan sausage as an ingredient, all the way up to barbecue tofu and seitan wings.
Cost: Large entrees $12-14.
Try: The chilaquiles or seitan sausage, peppers and cheddar jack omelet for breakfast; for lunch or dinner, cauliflower chorizo tacos or the more-than-filling el jefe burger with cheddar, sautéed mushrooms, onion rings, hot sauce aioli and a fried egg or scrambled tofu.
You can also pop by in the morning for a coffee and a vegan treat. The “ho-hos?” Delicious. Big enough to share with someone you love. Do not share with someone you don’t love; your acquaintances are not worth it.
1400 Cherry Street, Denver
All vegan. Crunchiest place you can find. Buckle up for “happytizers,” not appetizers. Open only for weekend dinner and Wed.-Fri. lunch, like a Hare Krishna Brigadoon buffet which, by the way, Govinda’s is part of the Denver Hare Krishna temple. Largely Indian cuisine. Closed for the week of Labor Day.
Full bar: No.
Meat substitutes: Sometimes. Mock fish sticks, for example.
Cost: Buffet $12.95.
Try: It’s a buffet with rotating featured entrees. Try it all. Happytizers, like pakoras and samosas, and desserts, like cakes and cookies, cost extra.
2958 Downing St.
Open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. every day except Wednesdays, this little diner has been around since early 2016. I haven’t gotten up there to check it out but the menu, seen here on its Facebook page, looks great and straightforward. Among the options: Pancakes, breakfast burrito, rancheros, oatmeal, porridge or a “chickpea fried steak” for breakfast; grilled cheez, burgers and, yes, a banh mi for lunch.
Full bar: No.
Meat substitutes: I mean, “chickpea fried steak” counts, right?
Cost: Looks like it tops out at $9/entree. Breakfast is cheaper.
680 S. Colorado Blvd.
There were briefly three Native Foods locations in Denver — the 16th Street Mall spot, the one on Colorado at Evans, and this one in Glendale. Only the Glendale location has survived.
This is fast-casual vegetarian food, with burgers, bowls, sandwiches and salads. You can eat reasonably healthy or you can get something fried and top it off with a peanut butter parfait.
Full bar: Beer and wine only.
Meat substitutes: Yes. Chicken and bacon substitutes in addition to different seitan and tempeh treatments.
Cost: Large entrees $9-10.59
Try: The soul bowl, with kale, fried “chicken,” red beans, steamed veggies, ranch and BBQ sauce with cornbread on the side, the Thai meatball bowl, with seitan meatballs covered in mango-lime chili sauce, roasted red peppers on quinoa with slaw, or the southwestern burger with salsa, guacamole and jalapeños and a side of fries or potato salad.
3915 Tennyson St., Denver
Hippest and newest. Usually, you can’t have those words together without adding expensive-est. A quick glance at the ol’ menu PDF (hnnnngh) returns $9 “legit” smoothies, $11 sandwiches, $13 bowls, which is in line with City and Watercourse. Portions at Vital Root are a bit smaller.
Feels most like new Denver out of any of these places, which fits with its location — food is presented attractively, and in forms that are a bit unfamiliar. You’ll see words like “burrito” and “ravioli,” but these terms are interpreted pretty loosely; buy entrees here based on the listed ingredients.
Full bar: Beer, wine and select cocktails.
Meat substitutes: Yes. “Coconut bacon.”
Cost: Large entrees $11-15.
Try: My dining companion enjoyed the hijiki salad, pictured here.
837 E. 17th Ave., Denver
This one’s all-vegan. Was a sister restaurant to City O City, now it isn’t. Best brunch vibes for my money, but I’ll get some pushback from Vital Root fans (see below). Full bar.
Full bar: Yes.
Meat substitutes: Yes. Smoky tofu bacon, beer-battered “tofish” and more.
Cost: Large entrees $12-16.
Try: At breakfast, the Big Rig, which is country-fried seitan steak with gravy, scrambled tofu and the usual breakfast sides; at lunch or dinner, I’d lean toward the baja tacos platter with crispy tofish and black beans, but I’ve also never tried the beet wellington — “Whole roasted beet with mushroom duxelles, wrapped in phyllo pastry and served with roasted vegetables and a red wine and Earl Grey reduction” — and I am curious.
If you limit yourself to vegetarian-only restaurants, you’re going to get tired of the rotation.
Lots of meat substitutes
I have an occasional love of the unhealthy, highly processed, indulgent meat substitute. A few places on my list when I need that sweet vegetarian junk food fix:
3 S. Broadway
Attached to the Hi-Dive, here’s a spot that can please everybody, so long as “everybody” is reasonably tolerant of cool kids and their posses. Vegan brunch options include quinoa cakes and a hangover scramble. Lunch and dinner options include a tofu banh mi, jackfruit cubano and the mac-n-cheese tempeh steak sandwich (yes, your first instinct is correct — eat this). Here’s the vegan menu.
If you’re new to Denver, you’re probably familiar with leaning on Indian restaurants for vegetarian-friendly menus. You can do that here, too. But you should add Denver’s Ethiopian restaurants to your rotation.
Ethiopian restaurants are the only places where just having “vegetarian combo” or “vegetarian option” qualifies a place as being vegetarian-friendly, because you know you’re going to get a good mix of four or five distinct flavors with spices you probably wouldn’t have done at home.
One example (but try the others, too — this one has won for me because of geography and I like that it’s been around a long time):
The Ethiopian Restaurant
2816 E. Colfax Ave.
You’ve seen this one. It’s on Colfax, just east of East High School, painted in the bold, horizontal, green, yellow and red stripes of the Ethiopian flag.
It’s also been in Denver since 1985, and feels like it in location, appearance and service, which is to say it’s authentic, by now part of the fabric of East Colfax — and a bit slow, even if there aren’t many people around. The food is good. Open only for dinner, 4:30-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 4:30-10 p.m. Fri.-Sun. Cash only.
Mexican places that make the cut
Look. Some people get pretty hung up on “authentic” Mexican food vs. everything else. I can respect that, but if you’re not eating meat, you’re pretty much not taking part in that conversation. So don’t hit me up with complaints that these aren’t the best / most authentic Mexican places in Denver. That’s somebody else’s blog post.
With that out of the way, there are a few places that do a particularly good job of making room for vegetarians. Here’s my go-to:
3230 E. Colfax Ave.
You can put Soyrizo in pretty much anything here. The vegetarian entrees without it are good, too.
What did I miss?
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