It's not every zoo that offers charcuterie with a stunning view, dishes a garden salad composed entirely of vegetables grown on-site, and delivers gourmet flair where yesteryear's sad corn dogs formerly reigned.
But the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is a unique, special place, with its many bragging rights — such as wonderfully designed new exhibits and a recent multi-species baby boom — befitting better-than concessions.
Credit goes broadly to Denver-based Service Systems Associates, which manages vending at cultural attractions nationwide. But it also goes to executive chef Nathan Dirnberger — anonymously critiqued here, but someone I'm friendly with professionally — who oversees around 100 staffers in high season. Most of those in chef coats are current or former culinary students at Pikes Peak Community College, Dirnberger's alma mater.
Among the handful of on-property eateries, the crew posts more than $2 million in food and drink sales annually, seeing up to 5,000 visitors on the busiest days. True, some of those sales, a significant portion of which go directly back to the zoo, are the low-hanging fruit: attic-insulation-textured, cloying cotton candy ($2.95) or waffle cones (single scoop/$4.50; double/$5.50) of fantastic Colorado City Creamery flavors like Burgundy Cherry and Chocolate Guinness, scooped out of the trolley-car-like Express Sweet Shoppe (near the budgie house).
But most are hard-earned inside the central Grizzly Grill, and now, the brand new "alfresco patio café geared toward upscale bistro food and drink," The Overlook.
At the grill, multiple hot-lines bustle with activity and items as simple as French fries are dressed up into outrageously good Parmesan-garlic fries ($1 up-charge as a side, $5.95/basket). Basic burgers become daily-special beauties like a roasted vegetable bleu cheese burger ($10.95) on a Harvest Moon Baking Co. bun from Denver. And gluten-free folks can procure salmon burgers ($9.95) inside a crisp lettuce wrap with house pickles and a zesty caper remoulade.
Barista Espresso drip coffee ($2.95) pairs well with house-made treats like carrot cake cookies (good flavor and chewiness, but a little under-baked in the middle) and chile-butterscotch-glazed brownies (commendably huge but palate-drying and underwhelming; each $3.50). Or grab a Denver-made Duffy's Rowdy Root Beer ($4).
The Overlook ups the ante with house-smoked sea salt chips (free with a food purchase) and a short beer and wine list — hooch being a recent first at the zoo. The Mountain Pub Board ($12) shows off house-smoked cheeses and homemade mozzarella with a varying array of salamis and the like, plus piquant bourbon brown-sugar mustard and a nice strawberry jam (both homemade), the latter of which didn't really pair well with anything else on the plate except the somewhat dried-out rustic bread.
A veggie flatbread pizza ($8) boasted ample flavor with crisp edges, but again an undercooked, doughy interior. Our fine, thick-cut ham Reuben on rye ($14) was served minus its necessary house Thousand Island (fixed promptly by friendly staff), but with a great potato salad. A Caprese salad ($12) comes cleverly deconstructed in a bowl as a romaine chop laced with basil strands, mozzarella chunks and juicy cherry tomato halves under a balsamic drizzle.
Look for house-ground sausages soon as Dirnberger continues to mentor chefs: "We want this to be a learning property," he says. Which certainly fits the educational atmosphere, though all you might care about is the delicious alternative to common captive-audience grub.