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Denver Is Open for a Party (Shopping Too)

When the country’s most high-powered political players — some 50,000 dignitaries, delegates and superdelegates (plus 15,000 domestic and international media and dozens of Hollywood celebrities and do-gooders) — descend upon Denver on Aug. 25 to formally crown a Democratic presidential candidate, you have one of two choices: Run like the wind or embrace Denver’s mile-high altitude (and friendly attitude) with gusto.

Here, in the Mile High City, framed by the Rocky Mountains and named for its sky-high elevation of 5,280 feet — exactly one mile above sea level — you can expect to wine, dine, party and shop till you drop with other like-minded Democrats in lively neighborhoods such as the Ballpark District and LoDo, or Lower Downtown — Denver’s epicenter of bars, restaurants and boutiques. Because location is everything, LoDo is just a short jaunt from the Pepsi Center, where the Democratic Party is set to rumble and tumble.

If you want to hobnob in the heart of downtown Denver, Larimer Square, a one-block enclave in the middle of LoDo, is action central. Strut around downtown in whimsical cowboy boots or chunky turquoise jewelry purchased from Cry Baby Ranch or hit up Square 1, a funky den of designer denim, for jeans that fit like a glove.

Just make sure you give yourself a bit of waist-expanding liberties, especially if you make reservations (a must) at Rioja, a terrific Mediterranean-influenced restaurant helmed by star chef Jennifer Jasinski, who also happens to own Bistro Vendome, directly across the street. This Parisian charmer, frequented by Francophiles, turns out everything from mussels and frites and foie gras to steak tartare and roasted chicken crepes. Since Denver is renowned for its sunny skies — some 300 days of rays per year — take up residence on Bistro Vendome’s patio, a lovely courtyard strewn with leafy vines and botanicals the color of popsicles.

Breakfast-goers tuck into omelets, pancakes and waffles at Dixons, a political meeting ground that also pours potent Bloody Marys and margaritas. As an added bonus, Dixons resides next door to the Tattered Cover Book Store, one of the largest independent booksellers in the country. There are myriad nooks and crannies and comfy sofas and chairs in which to curl up with a newspaper and catch up on the convention coverage — without the glare and spotlight of cameras.

Another notable breakfast bet is Snooze, on the fringe of LoDo at Larimer and 22nd streets, in the burgeoning Ballpark District. Snooze’s T-Bird turquoise booths and other retro trappings coincide with the menu, which offers addictive pineapple upside-down pancakes, chocolate chip flapjacks and biscuits and gravy. In downtown proper, locals migrate to Sam’s No. 3 for a Denver omelet brimming with ham, onions, green peppers and American cheese. The joint is besieged with TVs, which will undoubtedly air ongoing commentary of your favorite (and not so favorite) political pundits. It’s the American way.

And speaking of all things American, Rockmount Ranch Wear, at the corner of Wazee and 16th streets, embodies the true American spirit by way of the Western wear clothing that crowds every inch of space in this cowboy- and cowgirl-themed shop owned by “Papa Jack” Weil, the amicable, 107-year-old chief executive officer who put the first snap on a cowboy shirt. Celebrities including Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton have donned Papa Jack’s apparel.

You can flaunt one of his shirts at a testosterone-charged meat palace such as the Capital Grille or Elway’s (named for the former Denver Broncos quarterback), which is in the Ritz-Carlton, Denver’s newest slumbering pad for affluent jet-setters. If you can snag a reservation at the steakery’s wine- tower table, congratulate yourself: You’re now officially part of the powerful elite. But even if you can’t score a dining-room table at Elway’s, the spacious bar and lounge, bedecked with luxurious leather, provides unparalleled people-watching.

And while the Buckhorn Exchange doesn’t parade Elway’s eye candy, it’s worth the two-mile cab ride from downtown to explore the menu’s homage to game meats — rattlesnake, alligator, elk and buffalo — and to feast within the confines of a bona fide Wild West atmosphere, complete with wall-to-wall taxidermy. The Buckhorn also lays claim to the first liquor license ever issued in Denver. Drink up.

If jolts of java are more in line with your whims and fancies, then join the throngs of downtown denizens who spill onto the sidewalk of the Market, a groovy Larimer Square institution that pours strong coffee drinks and serves excellent sandwiches. You’re bound to see a delegate or 100 lining up at the counter to cash in on their caffeine fix.

Directly across the street from the Market is Crú wine bar, an intimate gathering space that lays claim to more than 70 wines by the glass, plus flights. Dim-lit and sleek, it’s a stylish watering hole that lures oenophiles with sophisticated palates.

Just a few blocks northwest sits the Wynkoop Brewing Co., Denver’s first brewpub, which was opened by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper in 1998. The quirky (and insanely popular) Democratic politician no longer has any affiliation with the suds and ale emporium, but he can often be seen raising a glass in the bar with other imbibers who wax poetic about the chile-infused brew.

From there, stumble over to the Cruise Room, a throwback bar from the 1930s that shakes some of the best martinis in town in a swank atmosphere packed to the rafters with cosmopolitan hipsters who can’t forgo their nightly cosmopolitan. Saturated in smoldering red hues and dark woods, the sultry bar, reminiscent of the Queen Mary, is conducive to cozy tête-à-têtes.

For a grittier alternative, head to El Chapultepec, on the corner of Market and 20th streets and just a short toss from Coors Field, where the Colorado Rockies play baseball. Open since 1933, the “Pec,” as it’s affectionately called, is Denver’s most celebrated — and venerable — jazz venue. The weathered stage, once graced by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, is still a hot spot for local and national talent. Oh, and for the record, even former President Bill Clinton hauled out his saxophone and jammed here.

Anyone want to take bets on whether Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will follow suit?

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