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The Denver Zoo, the “Cookie Lady,” and Larimer Square

Why do WE love Denver?

Hey City Casters,

To state the obvious: We really love Denver. And during this, a time of great love and gratitude, we are reflecting on all the unique things we cherish most about our beautiful city. So this week, we’ve got something special for you — each day leading up to Christmas Eve, a different City Cast team member will shine the spotlight on five things they think make Denver such an awesome place to live.

Today, City Cast Writer Peyton’s picks:

1. The Denver Dining Scene:
Ok, you all knew this one was coming, right? I LOVE Denver’s dining scene. I’m so proud of how much it’s blossomed. In just a matter of decades, Denver has evolved from a steak-and-potatoes “cowtown” to not just a place with good restaurants, but — dare I say it? — a culinary destination. Nationally-acclaimed chefs are actively leaving the gastronomic sanctuaries of San Francisco, New York, and Chicago to come here. But don’t get me wrong, we had to work for it. When Anthony Bourdain visited Denver back in 2002, he had notoriously terrible things to say about our restaurant scene. (Though, it should be noted Bourdain eventually returned and sang praise for Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs and Frank Bonanno. If only he could see us now!) As a food writer, the question I get asked most often is also the question I most dread: “What’s the best restaurant in town?” or sometimes “What’s your favorite place to eat in Denver?” I hate it because it’s an impossible question! Gourmet sushi, exotic hot dogs, hole-in-the-wall Thai, super fancy French, Latin American dim sum, Detroit-style deep dish — the list could go on and on and on. So no, for this list, I couldn’t just pick one restaurant that I love in Denver to recommend, because I love the whole damn delicious, beautiful thing. *Chef’s kiss*

2. Santa Fe Cookie Co.:
The Denver “Cookie Lady.” That’s how many Denverites, including myself, affectionately referred to Debbie Kuehn, founder of Santa Fe Cookie Co. She spent most of her years baking in a tiny kitchen on 16th Street Mall. It was a real “if you know, you know” type situation. A “cookie speakeasy” some might say. But man, if you knew, you knew. Debbie’s were the best cookies in town. Sharp-dressed business folk, mall buskers, day shoppers, kids like me — people from all walks of Denver life lined up for Debbie’s cookies. And her baking skills were only paralleled by her kindness. She was known for her “scout’s honor” payment system as much as her delectable cookies, putting out a simple jug for cash collection — three cookies for $1. It was a monumental loss to the community when Debbie passed away unexpectedly in the summer of 2017. But her legacy was resurrected only a few months later by her niece Alexis McLean. It was smooth sailing for a few years until the pandemic struck in 2020. Since then McLean has been unable to fully reopen, but in her semi-regular correspondence with customers, she is hopeful for an early 2022 reopening at a brand new location in LoDo where she is planning on offering delivery services for the first time ever. (And trust, City Cast Denver will be sure you know as soon as the doors open.) And if you feel so inclined, McLean is still accepting GoFundMe donations to help get Santa Fe Cookie Co. back up and running. 

3. Denver Zoo:
I know zoos can be controversial. I totally get that. But they can also be incredible champions of wildlife conservation and youth education. If you’re conflicted about patronizing a zoo, consider doing some research beforehand to learn more about their standards of ethics and how they give back, if at all, to conservation efforts. But we in Denver should count ourselves lucky — we have a pretty awesome zoo! In fact, the Denver Zoo was named one of the best and most ethical zoos in the country by Travel + Leisure just last year, joining the prestigious ranks of some of the most renowned animal facilities in the U.S. including the San Diego Zoo, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in D.C. The Denver Zoo also recently debuted a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital where the public is invited to get a peek behind the curtain and learn more about the zoo’s majestic residents. You can meet all the zoo’s animals and acquaint yourself with the zoo’s educational programs and conservation efforts on their super-easy-to-navigate webpage. And if you follow the zoo on social media you get regularly inundated with adorable animal photos! 

4. Tattered Cover:
The only thing I love more than eating is reading. Oh, to get lost in a book! Is there anything more magical? (You other bookworms know what I’m talking about.) As a kid, the bookstore was my Disneyland. Because it’s not just reading the book, you know? It’s the whole experience from start to finish. It’s running your fingers along rows and rows of glossy spines. It’s that intoxicating “new book” smell. It’s the rickety wooden tables and worn leather armchairs. It’s the fact that there’s no judgement, only camaraderie, when you sit on the ground cross-legged at the end of an aisle just to read the first few pages. And I, for one, am grateful to have found that solace and ritual in Tattered Cover, Denver’s largest independent bookstore — and growing! This past year, Tattered Cover celebrated 50 years in service and opened up shop at a brand new location in McGregor Square where they now have extra space for author talks, book signings, storytimes, and community gatherings. Plus, the staff always has great recommendations.

5. Larimer Square:
You wouldn’t be wrong in saying that Larimer Square is a bit of a tourist trap. It is. But I don’t think I’m wrong in saying it’s also kind of the beating heart of Denver. Lightning history lesson: the city of Denver actually began at current-day Larimer Square in 1858. In fact, Larimer Street was named after Denver’s founder William H. Larimer, Jr. and guided tours of the area will actually point out where his cabin once stood. By 1900, Larimer Street fell into a decline, transforming from the city’s main thoroughfare to Denver’s “skid row” until it was saved and revitalized by Dana Crawford in the 1960s, becoming the pulsing entertainment hub we know it as today. Larimer Square still stands as one of the best-preserved blocks in the city, its architecture offering a glimpse into Denver’s past. In 1971 it became Denver’s first historic district, and in 1973 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it’s home to some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants and trendy boutiques, and is immediately notable by the iconic Colorado flags and string lights draped over the streets. And while finding parking is near impossible, and you’re bound to bump into tourists with cameras at the ready at least a few times, I still love Larimer Square. Standing there under the twinkling string lights, I find myself thinking back to Denver’s beginnings and appreciating how much it’s evolved since then — for better or worse — because all of it culminated in the Denver that it is today. And when I’m feeling anxious or unsure about the direction in which our city is growing, I find solace knowing that our city’s forefathers probably stood in that exact same spot racked with the exact same uncertainties. And somehow, that thought fills me with hope. 

— Peyton Garcia, City Cast Denver Writer


🎧 LISTEN: It’s Casa Bonita Week at City Cast Denver! The Denver thing we just might be the most thankful for? Casa Bonita! The fate of our favorite Mexican eatertainment venue had us on the edge of our seats all year long. And we covered it on the City Cast Denver podcast… a lot. But it’s officially here to stay, its future looks bright, and to celebrate, we are revisiting our favorite Casa Bonita episodes of the year. Enjoy!
Today: The Casa Bonita Saga, Part 2: Welcome to South Parkland?