Next Door. Courtesy photo

Best Restaurants for Special Occasions


So many restaurants, never enough space in your belly.

The “paradox of choice” (the stress of making a decision when there are so many options) can feel too real in Boulder, especially when you are hangry. It can get even trickier if you add to that special situations, like a limited budget, a celebration or other people’s needs, like family visiting over the holidays.

Lucky for you, we have battled our way through Boulder’s infinite culinary maze and crowned a few victors.

Here are the best restaurants in Boulder for all those special occasions that may pop up this winter and spring.

The Perfect Winter Dinner

To qualify as the best winter restaurant, it must be cozy and it must have a crackling fireplace. Period. In Boulder, you can find fireplaces in many restaurants, such as Cafe Aion, the Kitchen Upstairs, the Dark Horse Bar and Grill and the West End Tavern. The latter has two options: a fireplace on the first floor and a fire pit on the rooftop deck (not ideal for winter).

Inside Carelli’s. Courtesy photo

But our favorite winter winner is Carelli’s, 645 30th St., Boulder. This restaurant in South Boulder has an impressive patio with a 360-degree fireplace and a soft, high-backed banquette. In fact, this patio was awarded “Best Design” by the American Institute of Architects. If weather allows (and in Boulder it often does), our ideal winter evening is spent snuggled around a dramatic fireplace with a glass of red wine or hot toddy. If the fire is a no-go, the indoor space feels just as sultry and warm.

Bonus: Carelli’s serves traditional or contemporary food from northern and southern Italy. Italian food is the supreme comfort food for winter time. We’re talking minestrone soup, housemade potato gnocchi and chicken parmigiana (with local chicken) baked with four Italian cheeses and pasta served with fresh garlic bread.

Date Night

Boulder is built for dates, and there are endless romantic restaurants. But a good bet for just about any date (casual or fancy, first or after 20 years) is The Kitchen, 1039 Pearl St., Boulder. While this downtown restaurant can fill up, it doesn’t tend to get too rowdy. And while it has sparkling chandeliers and elevated food, it’s far from pretentious.

It has an impressive wine list, too, including French, Italian, outliers and a separate rose list. After dinner, head Upstairs (the location and also that’s the name) to The Kitchen’s special cocktail lounge. Snag a seat by the fireplace to add some romance.

Upstairs From The Kitchen. Courtesy photo

Since opening in 2004, this bright, open, urban-inspired restaurant has earned a rep as one of Boulder’s best — and one of the best in the nation. The James Beard Foundation, Gourmet and Food & Wine Magazine have all deemed The Kitchen one of America’s top restaurants.

In total Boulder style, The Kitchen is concerned about the environment, too, and uses wind-power, composts whenever possible and recycles its used cooking oil to power one of the server’s cars.

With the Kids

Next Door. Courtesy photo

Next to The Kitchen is the Next Door American Eatery, 1035 Pearl St. This restaurant was founded with kids in mind. The goal: to offer families a place to eat where the food was all fresh, real and as local as possible, but in a relaxed environment and with a menu kids enjoy.

You’ll find kiddie faves like a quesadilla and ham and cheese lunchbox here, plus some equal comfort foods with a little more adventure, like a lamb sandwich, kale chips and burgers. For a splurge, Next Door serves Coke de Mexico and organic lemonade.

What really makes Next Door stand out, though, is that its kids’ meals help fund the Growe Foundation, which plans school gardens. So your kids get fed and other kids do, too.

Kids will feel at home with crayons and games, even a magnet board in the back. Celebrate with milkshakes and a walk down the Pearl Street Mall, right outside the front door.

With Your Relatives

A sampler plate at The Med. Courtesy photo

Whether you have relatives visiting for the holidays, for winter graduation or for fun, it can be hard to pick a restaurant that will please everyone. When in doubt, go to The Med, 1002 Walnut St.

The Med is a classic Mediterranean restaurant that offers a tapas menu (discounted during happy hour) that is perfect if you have a big family that loves to share. With classics like falafel, hummus and tzatziki, you can try some of everything for a reasonable price.

Sharing food not your thing? Don’t worry. The Med also offers a full dinner menu featuring pizzas, pasta, paella and more. Dive in and enjoy a little of everything.

For a Sweet Treat

Tee and Cakes cake pops. Courtesy photo

Need to feed your sweet tooth? Get your fix at Tee and Cakes, 1932 14th St., Boulder.

Tee and Cakes is a downtown Boulder icon — for its tasty and creative baked goods, as well as for its cute, food-centric apparel. Tee and Cakes makes it all, and it’s all from scratch: cake pops, cupcakes, brownies, quiche, granola bars, wedding cakes, breakfast sandwiches. The sweet and salty maple bacon cupcakes were featured on The Cooking Channel.

Local tip: Don’t miss Cheddar Biscuit Thursdays (if you want a snack that’s not too sweet) or Donut Fridays, when you can find a variety of fresh donuts in different flavors.

Something Novel

The patio at Sherpa’s. Courtesy photo

Here’s something you can’t find just anywhere: an authentic Nepalese restaurant run by a group of retired Mount Everest sherpas.

Sherpa’s is an authentic Nepali restaurant at 825 Walnut St. in downtown Boulder. Not only is the food authentic and tasty, but the lobby is filled with mementos of the incredible, true tales of the people who are making your food and serving it to you.

Tucked away on the West end of Walnut Street, Sherpa’s might be easy to overlook as an outdoor dining destination. But with a large, tree-shaded outdoor area, Sherpa’s is one of the best spots to sit outside for dinner. World-class mountaineers and adventurers gather on the patio, clutching cups of chai, to swap stories and tips.

Dinner on a Budget

Kim’s Food to Go, 1325 Broadway, is nothing fancy. It’s relaxed, inexpensive and fresh: perfect to conquer the munchies if you’re craving Asian food.

Kim’s serves Vietnamese fare, such as egg rolls, curry and even pho (and everyone knows pho cures everything). Kim’s is a unique spot in Boulder, located on The Hill and widely popular among college students. The unpretentious vibe makes it welcoming to any guest, even if you happen to be in your yoga pants or after a run.

You’ll love the large portions that are gentle on your wallet. You probably won’t get out in a flash, though. Everything made to order, so it takes a little time to get your food. Don’t want to be seen in public? Delivery is free.

College Students

Dot’s Diner. Courtesy photo

Dot’s Diner, 1333 Broadway St., has been a local favorite for more than 30 years. Dot’s serves a typical diner menu. Biscuits and Gravy. Eggs. Pancakes. Their green chili is amazing. Their house-baked pastries are to die for.

But Dot’s isn’t just a breakfast joint. It’s also known for its Nepali food, made by Nepali cooks. The authentic chai tea is a great way to get your feet wet if you’re not sure about trying something more adventurous than bacon.

A Celebration

Tahona Tequila Bistro. Courtesy photo

What’s more celebratory than tequila? Tequila drinks at a place that specializes in them. That’s why Tahona Tequila Bistro, 1035 Pearl St., is our go-to celebratory restaurant in Boulder.

Thou shall not sucker punch bar patrons with pre-made, syrup-thick sour mixes. This is a commandment we wish governed all bars. And we applaud Tahona Tequila Bistro for taking a stern stance against fake sour mixes. The bartenders here go so far as to say that they believe “adding sugary, fake tasting ‘juice’ to tequila should be punishable by jail time.”

Tahona serves tequila flights, as well as a variety of margaritas ranging from tart coin-style margaritas to smoky, mezcal margs. As for fruity margs, you’ll find some sophisticated ones here, made with guava or prickly pear.

Tequila tip: Try one of the “daily infusion” margaritas, which could include anything from watermelon and mint to cucumber and jalapeno. The spicy marg is a celebration for your mouth.

A Foodie Experience

Black Cat. Courtesy photo

For a dinner to please even the pickiest of foodies, head to Black Cat, 1964 13th St., Boulder. Black Cat is the epitome of farm-to-table. No, really.

It’s connected to its own 500-acre, certified organic and certified biodynamic farm (likely the only of its kind in the country, according to its spokesperson) whose produce goes straight to your plate, including a special corn that the chef dries and mills for polenta. The farm also raises sheep, pigs and chickens. Even the wild fruit and produce is foraged locally by Black Cat staff. Black Cat takes local, sustainable and healthy seriously. No GMOs here.

Food in this small bistro is classified as “inventive New American” and changes daily. Really, with all that natural, local influence, Black Cat’s menu is an honest reflection of Boulder’s land. Plus, Black Cat’s wine pairings are among Boulder’s best.

Local tip: Make sure you request one of the private booths in the very back of the restaurant.

Fine Dining

Frasca Interior
Interior of Frasca. Photo by Mike Thurk

If you want to impress your tastebuds, head to Frasca Food and Wine, a refined, high-end Northern Italian restaurant in downtown. This restaurant, 1738 Pearl St., boasts some of the most prestigious awards, including three James Beard wins. One of those is for its wine service. So if you’re looking for the best wine night out in town, this is your spot. Frasca is elegant, gourmet and famous for its impressive service.

In fact, that’s the most recent James Beard award: for outstanding service. The third honor was given to Lachlan Mackinnon-Patteson, the chef owner, who won “Best Chef: Southwest” in 2008.

Frasca offers menus featuring cuisine inspired by Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a region in northeast Italy. It offers a four-course and a chef’s tasting menu, which gives you the option to try a variety of the unique and impressive dishes.

On Mondays, Frasca offers a set four-course menu with wine pairings. At a significantly cheaper price point than the normal four-course dinner (but still far from cheap), Monday’s set menu is a great way to go if you want to save money and aren’t picky about what you eat.

The Holidays

Oak at Fourteenth. Courtesy photo

Oak at Fourteenth, 1400 Pearl St., is perfect for families over the holidays. It’s one of Boulder’s finer establishments, yet it’s welcoming with an open kitchen and open dining hall.

Oak offers family plates to share. While there is some cuisine that many picky eaters might not want to try (like the chicken liver pate), there are some that are all but a guaranteed slam dunk for even the kiddos: crispy fried pickles, housemade ramen noodles, a grilled double cheeseburger and housemade sodas. Yes, Oak makes soda right in the kitchen, so while you might otherwise not be big on letting your child sip Coke, this is a rare occasion that might warrant the splurge.

Need more convincing? Oak bakes fresh donuts every morning, in various flavors.

If you need a special holiday pie, the best bet is Shamane’s Bake Shoppe, 2825 Wilderness Place, Unit 800, Boulder. Shamane’s even releases a special Thanksgiving menu featuring traditional pie flavors along with a mix of other flavors and savory pies, quiches, rolls and breads. Flavors vary by season but may include apple, apple wildberry, pear cranberry, sweet potato chocolate ginger, maple pecan, pumpkin and banana cream.

To Celebrate the New Year

Dinner, entertainment and a party. Usher in the new year at BDT Stage, 5501 Arapahoe Ave. Boulder’s dinner theater presents a local fave, the FACE Vocal Band, on Dec. 31 and into 2020. FACE is a group of four wildly talented acapella singers and a vocal drummer. The New Year’s Eve event includes champagne, apps and a dance party.

As for the food, this isn’t your grandmother’s dinner theater. There are gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options, like ratatouille and organic bean corn tamales served with vegan, organic green chili. You can add on a cheese board, adorned with various cheeses, smoked salmon, lemon ricotta and crudité.

Just Drinks

Toast to the wintertime in Boulder in the St. Julien Hotel’s lobby at the T-Zero Lounge, 900 Walnut St. This contemporary nightlife destination is a step above any hotel bar you’ve visited. It serves hand-crafted martinis and cocktails (many made with local liquor) and boasts one of Boulder’s best wine programs.

Sit by the crackling fire and catch free, live entertainment. Or unwind in the intimate Round Room, if you have a private gathering.

Live entertainment runs 6:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday in the winter.

Comfort Food

Grilled cheese at Ruthie’s. Courtesy photo

If you’re on the Pearl Street Mall and crave some good, ol’ fashioned comfort food, pop by Ruthie’s.

Ruthie’s Boardwalk Social, 1397 Pearl St., is a new, walk-up, window-serving restaurant, named after the owner’s grandmother, specializes in gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and soft-serve ice cream. Only the most comforting of comfort foods.

Ruthie’s is a bit of a rebel in the face of ultra-healthy Boulder, advertising sandwiches like The Italian Caprese with “all the gluten, twice the dairy” (those are all but curse words in this town). Although, Ruthie’s adds below, gluten-free bread is available. (Because how else can you stay in business in Boulder?)

Still, it’s intended to be old-fashioned, from the hospitality to the home-cooked taste, and our top stop when we need to feed our inner child.

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