Denver is a playground of historic spots that teleport you into the Wild West era. From the oldest standing structure in Denver once used by pioneers to a multitude of mining tours in the mountains, the Old West vibes are endless in this state.
But one place that is definitely unique in this regard is the famous Buckhorn Exchange restaurant.
Below, I’ll talk about my recent experience at the Buckhorn Exchange and give you some insight into what to expect.
What is the Buckhorn Exchange?
The Buckhorn Exchange is the oldest restaurant in Denver.
It’s home to a 500+ piece collection of taxidermy and is known for serving up a range of game meat and appetizers such as rocky mountain oysters.
The restaurant was established back in 1893 by Henry H. “Shorty Scout” Zietz.
Zietz was a member of the famous William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody scout band where he started by the age of 12 after coming to Colorado from Wisconsin in 1875.
Valued for his sharp tracking skills and aptitude, he became lifelong friends with Buffalo Bill and also close to other members of the band like Chief Sitting Bull, making him an ally to many Native Americans.
The building housing the restaurant was initially built in 1886 but in 1893 Zietz utilized some savings and opened up the Rio Grande Exchange, which he would later change the name to the Buckhorn Exchange in the early 1900s.
The Buckhorn Exchange’s location directly across from the Rio Grande railroad yards made it a popular stop for many people of diverse walks of life.
In the early days the Buckhorn Exchange served miners, silver barons, gamblers, roustabouts, businessmen, and railroadmen who could simply walk across the street and cash their checks.
As Zietz became more renowned for his hunting abilities and growing collection of taxidermy on ths walls, the restaurant also quickly developed a solid reputation and attracted the likes of high-profile guests, such as US presidents.
In fact, in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt arrived and enlisted Zietz to be his hunting guide. Zietz obliged and accompanied the president hunting big game on Colorado’s Western Slope where they hunted buffalo and antelope.
Several other presidents also visited this famed restaurant over the years including Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. And it’s also been a hit among Hollywood legends like Bob Hope and other notable humans such as astronauts and even Great Britain’s Princess Anne.
Part of the history is found upstairs where there is a white oak bar worth checking out. It was built in Essen, Germany, over 150 years ago and then eventually transported over to the US, where it eventually found its way to the restaurant.
This historic establishment also has an interesting connection to the prohibition era.
During prohibition it said that Zietz converted the front of the restaurant and saloon into a grocery and that he would hollow out loaves of pumpernickel bread to hold bottles of bootleg whiskey inside. After prohibition the bar reopened and was issued Colorado’s first liquor license which is still on display in the restaurant.
Today, the site is just as much a museum as it is a restaurant with loads of memorabilia on display. It has sort of captured the essence of the wild west in a way that is unique, especially for a restaurant.
Designated a historic landmark by the City and County of Denver in 1972, it’s certainly one of the key historical sites in Denver.
My experience dining at Buckhorn Exchange
As soon as you enter the restaurant, you’re hit with the overwhelming number of taxidermy pieces and memorabilia occupying seemingly every inch of the walls. It’s quite the spectacle and instantly immerses you into a wild west vibe like no other.
I made reservations (highly recommended) for a 7:30 PM dinner, and as soon as I entered my table was ready and I was immediately seated.
I had a couple of different servers helping me out as the place was pretty busy and both of the servers were pretty outstanding. I certainly had no complaints about the staff.
I loved the vintage menu with news excerpts from over 100 years ago telling some interesting history and tales about the restaurant. From President Theodore Roosevelt’s praises of Shorty Scouts’ guide skills to a foiled hold up at the restaurant, it certainly has a colorful past.
But on my visit I didn’t need a menu because before I entered the restaurant I knew exactly what I was going to order so I put in my order of the elk with peppercorn (medium rare), Caesar salad, and went with an order of their famous rocky mountain oysters.
In that past, I always went back-and-forth on whether or not I would ever try Rocky Mountain oysters which are fresh-water oysters harvested from pristine alpine lakes in the Rockies.
Just kidding, they are of course, bull testicles.
Ultimately, I decided that I could not pass on the novel experience, especially with only a couple of days left in Colorado. After all, they are all full of vitamins, minerals, and protein and with them being deep fried, it couldn’t possibly be that bad.
After putting in the order, I did a little bit of strolling around just to check out more of the taxidermy animals. It’s pretty amazing to see such a vast collection including things like zebra, moose, bighorn sheep, a golden eagle, a wall of antelope — the collection is seemingly infinite.
You may want to enjoy your meal first but at some point I’d recommend you getting up out of your seat and just kind of wandering around a little bit, just like you would in an exhibit hall.
Be mindful of the servers who are moving about pretty quickly so that you’re not getting in the way and try not to encroach too close to people at their tables. For the most part I think people are understanding that they’re essentially dining inside of a frontier museum and that others will want to check out some of the exhibits.
Also, make sure that you go upstairs to check out the additional rooms including the historic bar.
Most of the newer collections are upstairs and there’s a lot to see including a grizzly bear and black bear duo which is pretty cool to see both of them together.
But back to the food.
Call me crazy but I actually mostly enjoyed the rocky mountain oysters.
They came with two different sauces including the horseradish sauce which I think really helped the “stomaching” factor of eating them.
There was a kind of an odd aftertaste that I couldn’t quite place and was always eager to get rid of.
But now that I have tried them, I think I would be much more interested in trying some of the other appetizers that sounded really good like the bison sausage. If you wanted to keep the costs in check, you could probably just get by with appetizers, which would probably make for a good bar visit.
Soon after the appetizer came out, I was served up some fresh bread and also my salad.
The servers were very attentive as I progressed through my meal and I never felt like I had to wait around for the next dish. It was a very smooth operation, which really helps enhance the experience considering that this place is not so cheap.
Soon, the main dish came out, which was the elk steak with four peppercorn crust.
I have to be honest, I saw a lot of reviews that sort of talked about the food being less than amazing. The idea was that you come here for the unique atmosphere and experience and the food is sort of secondary.
But that was not the case at all with my elk steak.
It was absolutely delicious and perfectly cooked. It had just the right amount of juiciness to it and crispiness on the outside and it also did not taste overly “gamy.”
There was a special sauce that came along with the elk but I only use that sparingly because I just enjoyed the meat by itself so much. The elk steak also came with some very good garlic mashed potatoes.
It looked like they also had some tasty desserts on the menu but I was heading over to the Cruise Room at the historic Oxford Hotel after this so I didn’t want to stick around for too long.
After finishing up my meal, that’s when I made my way upstairs to check out the historic bar and some of the other taxidermy animals mentioned above.
At that point, the restaurant was set to close in about 45 minutes and I feel like the crowds really thinned out on this Sunday evening which made it a lot easier to appreciate lots of the photos and artifacts. So maybe try to avoid the peak times if you really want to admire everything.
I really can’t recommend a stop at the Buckhorn Exchange enough.
Yes, it is definitely not a standard dining experience having so many dead animals look down at you while you feast on your choice of animal proteins.
I’m sure some people feel a certain type of way about so many dead animals showcased and this of course may not be the right spot for people with certain non meat-eating dietary habits.
But if you just stop and realize the history of this place and appreciate the novelty of it, it’s hard not to be a huge fan of this restaurant.
It was the perfect place to try out Rocky Mountain oysters for the first time and I honestly can’t believe that I found them to be pretty tasty.
And to cap it all off, the elk was just a fantastic dish that left me fully satisfied.
With the great service and staff, this honestly was a perfect dining outing for me and I couldn’t say enough good things about the Buckhorn Exchange. Money well spent.