Ah, Boulder. The liberal mecca to the north. Home of the CU Buffs, Pearl Street Mall and bangin' restaurants. We have to give a nod to the town that was named America's foodiest in 2010 by Bon Appétit magazine. From its top-notch farmers market on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings, to its Portlandia-type "Is it local? Yes, it's local" menu options, you pretty much can't miss, anywhere you hit. Even those seeking a leafier diet can find completely meat-free destinations, like the all-veg, upscale Leaf and the vegan, quick-serve VG Burger.
But if you think Boulder ends there, think again. A few weeks ago, a friend and I ventured beyond the basic grass-fed Birkenstocked bohemians and found locally made potato vodka, Andy Warhol Polaroids and what I like to refer to as "summer camp for adults."
Like Dirty Dancing, but not
In 1898, in the Boulder foothills, a gathering of 4,000-some Colorado and Texas residents met to kick off the western start of a cultural movement that had its beginnings in the east. Today Colorado Chautauqua (chautauqua.com) still embodies that mission — and according to Ann Obenchain, marketing and development director, is the only Chautauqua west of the Mississippi that has been in continuous operation since its founding, original structures intact. It provides the local community with educational, social and artistic opportunities amid natural surroundings.
As we pull onto the grounds, we're met by expansive lawns, blooming wildflowers and the heavy scent of a massive horse chestnut tree. On the main green, a couple of men practice flyfishing casts, and a few families picnic. Homey cottages with porches and kitchens, most available for rental year-round, fill the southeastern part of the grounds. Hikers head into more than 45 miles of trails on thousands of acres of open space.
In the summer, Chautauqua blossoms with music — the six-week Colorado Music Festival features evenings of classical and world music from June through August. Touring artists such as Marc Cohn (Aug. 7) and Andrew Bird (Aug. 10) grace a 1,300-seat auditorium from May through September. Live music accompanies silent films. Talks by speakers such as Colorado Poet Laureate (and Colorado College professor) David Mason, actor John Lithgow (Aug. 28), and clean-food farmer Joel Salatin (Aug. 29) round out Chautauqua's summer event schedule.
Obenchain notes that programming continues throughout the year. And, she adds, in the winter "it's really gorgeous. The Flatirons look like they've been dipped in a sugar bowl."
I can imagine the peacefulness of that atmosphere. Even though it's raining today, the people around us couldn't care less; it's idyllic And hard to believe Pearl Street Mall is just a few minutes away. If I didn't have a packed schedule, I wouldn't leave.
6,000 and counting
Apparently you can't get that far from the University of Colorado's Folsom Field up here, as my GPS sends me right past it on a fruitless search for the CU Art Museum (cuartmuseum.colorado.edu, free admission). A friendly student trumps my tech toy, and a few minutes later we arrive.
The Art Museum opened last September, and now holds the largest university art collection in Colorado. Today four of five galleries are open, with the fifth being prepped for an upcoming show. Visitors enter through a collaborative exhibition by contemporary artists from China and the United States. (This exhibit closed July 22; come Sept. 8, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes, a collection of six decades of pieces from Soviet photojournalists, will be on display.)
While these temporary curated exhibits are interesting, particularly in their cultural emphasis, what is most impressive about the museum is its 6,000-plus-piece permanent collection, art from which is rotated in and out of galleries on a regular basis (between one to four times per year, according to one of the museum staff members).
Since 1939, the university has garnered African, American, ancient, Asian, European, Latin American and modern pieces. Today, two walls are covered in glass-encased Polaroids and gelatin silver prints by Andy Warhol — 112 of the 156 gifted to the school by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
The rest of the collection currently on display can only be labeled eclectic. Consider: Compressed dryer lint embossed with low-relief text addressing war atrocities from California-based conceptual artist Mary Kelly; an eight-color woodcut from 1980 by New York abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler; a 1934 watercolor on rice paper by Mexican painter Diego Rivera.
And in the video gallery, an installation by the Houston-based Art Guys that encompasses three hanging mirrored garden tools, which circle like disco balls. With stars in our eyes, it's time to move on.
Striking Russet gold
Tucked in a warehouse district east of downtown is Boulder Distillery (303vodka.com), home of 303 Vodka and 303 Whiskey. A reclaimed barnwood and fencing bar greets guests, as does a wall lined with potato sacks, scattered antiques and ceiling-hung model planes.
Owner Steve Viezbicke welcomes us in for a tour and a tasting of his small-batch spirits: San Luis Valley potato vodka, both straight and infused, and the first gluten-free, potato whiskey licensed in the United States. The Boulder native shares space with Monument resident Rob Masters (pictured above), who mixes up batches of Rob's Mtn Gin, made from Colorado juniper berries he harvests himself. (Get a tasting of both guys' spirits at the Craft Lager Fest in Manitou Springs, Aug. 13-14.)
Viezbicke's story sounds like those of many recent entrepreneurs. In 2008, he got laid off from a 20-year career as an engineer and decided to make a go at something new — or not so new, as the case may be. He'd been holding on to a bit of a golden ticket for a while: his Polish family's recipe for potato vodka, brought over to the U.S. in a steamer trunk with his grandfather in 1907. "Two generations later," he says, "I started toying with it."
There was one hurdle he had to jump over from the get-go — the recipe was written in Polish. A few runs through an online translator got him to a starting place, and "the rest is new history."
He says standard grain vodka is known for its lack of odor and taste, but he says that's not the case with potato vodka. "It has a nose, it has a flavor."
Of course, Viezbicke has been playing with many different flavors: He infuses his vodka, and Masters' gin, with a variety of primarily organic ingredients. Four large, lidded glass jars are featured behind the bar, and on this day, rosemary sprigs float in gin, and two vodkas feature vanilla beans, one with the addition of bloated dark cherries. And the final? Claussen Pickles.
If I weren't driving, I could drink the rosemary gin and the cherry vanilla vodka all day. The whiskey also slides down nice and smooth. The pickle makes me pucker, but both men swear it's great in Bloody Marys and martinis.
Well ... it is a foodie town.
In the midst of Chautauqua's 26 acres sits the Chautauqua Dining Hall (900 Baseline Road, 303/442-3282, chautauqua.com). With seating on an old-fashioned, covered, wrap-around porch and surrounding views of the Rockies, you wouldn't blame them if the food was just so-so. However, it's anything but.
Chautauqua proudly states on its menu that it acquires produce from local farmers as much as possible, and sources natural beef and chicken. With so many tasty-sounding choices, we had a list of questions, none of which daunted our knowledgeable server.
We started with a snappy but simple pimento cheese and water crackers appetizer ($6) and a bowl of smoked paprika and sour cream-topped sweet corn soup ($7), which smelled and tasted so fresh you could have been spooning it right off the plant. Next came the shrimp and grits ($12): perfectly cooked white corn grits ever so nicely cut the sharp Creole spices, and the buttermilk biscuit side showed that management hasn't skimped on a baker. They know how to impress with just one little tender-inside, flaky-outside, fat-filled disc of heaven.
— Kirsten Akens