One recent evening in Fort Collins, before the snow started again and as a late sun came pouring in, Little on Mountain began to fill.
Diners scooted over, packed in and then spilled onto a side rail. Introductions were exchanged, plates of crab tostada and glasses of Sardinian red served.
By the end of the meal, the two-month-old, corridor-sized dinner spot had reminded me what I love about Fort Collins all over again:
One, that it feels like home, always. Two, that it also always feels on the verge of change.
In the few years since I left, Fort Collins has seen a major hotel open at its heart (The Elizabeth) and a blossoming River District start to unfold.
More destination bars and cafes have opened up or received a refresh (others, thankfully, haven’t changed). And more restaurants have fed their diners direct from local farms.
Even still, Fort Collins remains known as a craft brewery town, while its dining scene is overlooked next to those of Boulder and Denver.
I remember the first time I pulled off the freeway onto Mulberry Street and asked, “Well, where is it?” Now, heading back for a day trip or weekend, I appreciate knowing where to look.
So this is a very personal guide to dining in Fort Collins today. For ease, most spots are walkable from Old Town, with a few exceptions. They’re organized by meal and time of day. When you arrive, I hope there’s still some late-afternoon sunlight streaming over the foothills and a free counter seat where you can fit right in.
Harbinger is your first stop of the day to fuel up on house roasts — in batch brews or pour-overs — as well as espresso drinks with real flavorings. Grab a cup to go or sit at the counter to chat with friendly baristas or get some work done. 505 S. Mason St., 847-274-2253, harbingercoffee.com
Across town, Bindle Coffee is another favorite local roastery and shop. Here, pastries from morning buns to empanadas are also made in-house. The setting, a former farmstead in a converted mechanic’s garage, is magical year-round. 1933 Jessup Drive, 970-999-4201, bindlecoffee.com
The manchego biscuits at Little Bird Bakeshop in Old Town Square have their own dedicated following, but you’ll have to get there early because they always sell out. Otherwise, try the daily quiche or scone, or take your pick from croissants, cinnamon rolls, shortbreads and more. 11 Old Town Square, 970-568-8906, thelittlebirdbakeshop.com
Go to The Elizabeth Hotel’s Emporium for weekday breakfast or weekend brunch (with plenty of people-watching on the side). There’s even a lounge area with a market and coffee shop for alternative morning plans. Try the steak and eggs or Hazel Dell mushroom omelette. 378 Walnut St., 970-493-0024, emporiumftcollins.com
Restaurant 415‘s bustling dining room consistently fills with local lunch-goers. Order from the salad and sandwich menus and then pick a few sides for the table to share — like crispy polenta, Brussels sprouts and mac and cheese. If it’s a non-working lunch, the house cocktails are top-notch, too. 415 S. Mason St., 970-407-0415, thefourfifteen.com
For a more intimate lunch, try Butterfly Cafe. Be a rebel and get a breakfast sandwich at noon, or order the lunch box with a sandwich, drink, chips, cookie and a pickle on the side. Third option: Get a sandwich, salad or soup a la carte. The smoothies and pastries are an extra treat. 212 Laporte Ave., 970-999-5793, butterflycafefortcollins.com
Because Fort Collins deserves a separate category for its pies, make sure to stop by Ginger and Baker for thick slices of coconut cream, lemon meringue, pecan and other rotating varieties. The bakery’s historic mill building is also home to a teaching kitchen with baking and cooking classes, two bars, a wine cellar, multiple patios and two restaurants, The Cache and The Cafe. 359 Linden St., 970-223-PIES, gingerandbaker.com
If you’re taking a scenic drive around Horsetooth Reservoir and through Laporte, stop by Me Oh My on your way back into town. The quaint shop is Fort Collins’ original pie destination, with woodsy vibes and scratch-made pies (that change daily) from its baker and owner. 3310 W. County Road 54-G, 970-817-2252, meohmypie.com
Aside from more than 20 craft breweries, Fort Collins also boasts plenty of beer bars to try. Head to The Forge Publick House in Firehouse Alley for craft beers both local and national served in a tucked-away setting with cozy seating and live acoustic sets. 255 Firehouse Alley, 970-682-2578, theforgepub.com
For an even more FoCo experience, try a pint at Wolverine Farm, which is the nonprofit home to a local makers market, letterpress, various workshops, concerts and other weekly events. The small selection of beers fits the smaller bar, but you can spread out at community tables and on the patio when the weather warms up. This is a place to meet and gather at any time. 316 Willow St., 970-682-2590, wolverinefarm.org
For happy hour
Shoestring fries, sliders, boozy milkshakes, egg creams and other throwback snacks are on tap at Union Bar & Soda Fountain. Go on a nice day to enjoy Old Town’s best restaurant patio. And don’t miss out on sparkling cocktails and wines. Happy hour runs daily from 3-6 p.m. and all day Wednesday with food and drinks for $3-$8. 250 Jefferson St., 970-825-5558, unionbarsodafountain.com
Old Town’s wine and cheese bar The Welsh Rabbit also makes seriously good small plates to fill up on. Cheeses are sourced from the sister shop by the same name around the corner. During happy hour (Monday-Friday, 4-6 p.m.), order from a selection of snacks and wines by the glass, all for $5. 200B Walnut St., 970-232-9521, thewelshrabbit.com
A short drive or longer stroll down Mountain Avenue, where Fort Collins’ historic trolley line runs, leads to Little on Mountain. A former chef and a general manager of The Kitchen own the place, and you’ll see them both here running the Little show. Sidle up and be sure to ask for wine recommendations with your dishes — chicken liver toast, crab and citrus tostada and duck confit cassoulet, to name a few. 1046 W. Mountain Ave., 970-286-2336, littleonmountain.com
Like Little, The Regional is all about supporting small and local farms, whose ingredients go into comfort foods like fried oyster mushrooms, achiote-rubbed lamb loin and pork spare ribs. Here, everything from the food to the setting tastes and feels like home — only better. Go on Wednesdays for fried chicken dinners and Thursdays for a chef’s menu for $35. 130 S. Mason St., 970-689-3508, theregionalfood.com
Social is a sexy underground cocktail bar with the best drinks in town. Find it off Old Town Square where the street clock meets a stairwell (and very likely a line outside). Once you’re in, order a house gin and tonic, lavender sour or old stogie with rye whiskey and smoked Earl Grey. Be sure to peruse the wine list and late-night snacks, from deviled eggs to salmon pate. 1 Old Town Square, 970-449-5606, socialfortcollins.com
Underneath the newly renovated boutique Armstrong Hotel is an even more newly renovated jazz lounge, Ace Gillett’s. There, the team behind Death & Co. has remade the bar menu, and three low-slung rooms feel warm and lodge-like with leather couches, knick-knack-filled bookcases and oversized chairs. When there’s not a live jazz band, you can select your favorite records from a vinyl collection for the DJ to spin. 239 S. College Ave., 970-449-4797, acegilletts.com
And some food-loving shops
Before you leave town, stock up on some local treats for the road. Nuance Chocolate is a real bean-to-bar chocolate maker, with a bicycle that even carries chocolate bars from the factory to the shop (or so I like to think). Try the single-origin bars, the real white chocolate bars that will make you rethink white chocolate and the brewing chocolate. 214 Pine St., 970-484-2330, nuancechocolate.com
For home cooks, The Cupboard is a multilevel playground of Fiestaware, chef’s knives and specialty foods. After wandering through the kitchen gadgets and aprons display, head upstairs to peruse cookbooks old and new. This store has been family owned for nearly 50 years. It’s an institution. 152 S. College Ave., 970-493-8585, thecupboard.net
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