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HomeLifestyleDenver’s Surprising Late-Night Dining Drought

Denver’s Surprising Late-Night Dining Drought

Living in Denver in 2023 has its fair share of annoyances. The constant traffic, rising crime rates, and increasing temperatures are enough to get on any Denverite’s nerves. However, many who live in the metro area took to Reddit last week to voice their displeasure with a more unexpected topic: the dearth of food available after normal dinner hours.

In the comments of a post asking what the drawbacks are to living in Denver, a Reddit user pointed out that it is weirdly hard to find food past 9 p.m. in the city. This post resonated with many, as nearly 1,400 other users agreed and shared their concerns. 

“Denver is a happy hour city,” commented Reddit user detroittobuffalo. “Not much going on in the morning, because folks are driving to their outdoor activity, and not much going on at night, because folks are sleeping early in preparation. It’s an odd phenomenon when you first move here.”

In the end, it wasn’t traffic or crime that most residents voiced their rancor over, but instead, what seems to be a late-night food drought.

“It’s really difficult to find food [in Denver] after 9 p.m. because there’s really only a couple of places that stay open late,” said Denver resident Sam Evins, who lives near the University of Denver. 

For those looking for food downtown at night, fast food chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell have proven to be some of the only options for those living in the area.

“As someone who doesn’t eat fast food, it’s pretty much only Mediterranean food for me,” Evins said. “And you can’t eat Mediterranean food every night, which makes it difficult. There’s a definite lack of variety.”  

Denverites who don’t want a fast food burger but are instead looking for a nicer, sit-down restaurant will likely struggle to find a business that stays open and serves food late-night.

The decline of the 24-hour diner has never been more apparent. Post-COVID, spots like Pete’s Kitchen on Colfax—which had offered up quality full-plate meals all day, every day since its opening in 1962—now closes early on weekdays. Tom’s Diner, which shut down for renovation in March 2020, has rebranded from a 24/7 food institution to Tom’s Starlight, a mid-century modern cocktail lounge

Denver food trucks noticed the lack of options in the city, and have begun to serve the city’s after-hours food needs. However, these food trucks really only cater to the bar-going crowd and are not viable options for those just seeking a late-night meal.

“The food trucks only really camp out near the bars and clubs, which is where they know they’ll make money. If you don’t live near the bars or clubs, you have to seek out the food trucks, which isn’t easy,” Evins said. “The food trucks are also just super overpopulated with people from the bars. If you’re looking for a chill and relaxing meal, you’re not gonna get that with the food trucks.”

The lack of late-night eateries is due to several factors, including the lasting effects of COVID closures, labor shortages and high inflation. Last year, a Colorado Restaurant Association survey found that 54% of the 174 restaurants examined were at risk of closing. The Colorado Restaurant Association highlighted that establishment owners are finding it increasingly difficult to hire staff, despite their efforts to increase pay and benefits. And although conditions have improved with COVID cases dwindling, restaurants are still struggling. 

“Unfortunately it’s not that shocking,” Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, told KDVR. “On average restaurants have $180,000 in pandemic-related debt. The last two years have been devastating for the industry and it’s going to take some time to get out of that.”

The sheer difficulty of finding a good meal near downtown at night has become an inconvenience to many living in the area. For those like Evins, it’s even affecting the housing search.

“It’s such an inconvenience when it’s around 10 p.m. and you’re getting hungry, and you know you can’t get food,” Evins said. “I want to live in a place where I can walk to get food at restaurants later at night. I don’t want to have to drive out of my way to go find food if I’m hungry.”

For other night owls who are desperate for after-hours food options, Evins recommends a restaurant called Pita Fresh. The restaurant is located on the 16th Street Mall and serves classic Mediterranean dishes and pizza to customers until 2 a.m. Fat Shack is an option for those who want classic, greasy American food late into the night in South Denver. For those craving Asian food, the Bao Brewhouse located in Larimer Square is a reliable option. Open until midnight on Thursday through Saturday, night owls can order a wide selection of classic Chinese dishes. In RiNo, late-night eaters can grab a wood-fired pizza with specialty toppings at Cart Driver. Interested in some higher-brow fare? Pony Up serves French dips and a number of other salty snacks. 

Restaurants in and around Larimer Square have begun to expand their operation hours to close at either 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., but Redditors hope the rest of the city follows suit. 

“In a modern city like Denver, I feel like there should be more food options later at night,” Evins said. “Pretty much everywhere stops selling food at around 10 pm, and I just wish things were open later.”

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