By Dan England
When this magazine reached out to me with a chance to explore midtown Fort Collins, I saw it as an opportunity for something my wife desperately needed: A Sunday without sports.
Valerie Vampola had, in the last month, started to call me a bro. Bros aren’t necessarily bad people, but jazz singers aren’t typically attracted to them—she’d never even dated a guy who liked sports at all—and she’d gotten married to me in October. I saw myself as someone who liked sports but also liked a lot of other things. I liked independent films and art and music—I still consider myself a musician—and the outdoors and dogs and games. A lot of my Sundays this winter, however, were occupied with my Kansas City Chiefs, and yet another deep playoff run meant the games were extra tense. That, mixed in with my Kansas Jayhawks basketball games during the week, had convinced Val that I had hidden my bro-ness. A Sunday exploring midtown, I hoped, would help salve the notion that she was a sports widow.
We got things off to a good start when Val spotted La Crêperie of Fort Collins, a French bakery, and shrieked for us to pull over. She loves boughie pastries such as macarons. I think macarons taste like bland, petrified wood. I think Oreo cookies crush them. But Val said macarons are difficult to make. She implored me to try a raspberry, and flavor burst into my mouth, wrapped in a cookie that was both soft and crunchy. That, she said, are masterful macarons.
The bakery is to the right of the eatery, so don’t be discouraged when you walk into what looks like a diner. The eatery looked and smelled good, but we had a job to do, so we left with a half-dozen macarons and went to our next quest, a place that served something with caffeine.
I had run 20 miles that day, starting early, so I needed a pick-me-up. Wonder Tea did the trick. The sparse but quaint Asian feel—I hope I don’t sound too American here or, uh, broish, but that’s what it felt like to me—is what you’d expect from a boba tea place, but the piano music, mixed with the occasional upbeat bop, soothed me, like a spa. There are no TVs, and the music is a companion, not a loud sister. They want you to relax here.
I’m not a fan of boba. I don’t like drinking anything with chopped up gummy worms or whatever boba is supposed to be. But boba is optional here, and they serve snacks such as Crab Rangoon. I didn’t love the Crab Rangoon—I’m a picky connoisseur when it comes to Crab Rangoon—but my drink, a brown sugar and Oreo milk tea—was scrumptious and refreshing. Val got a lavender milk tea with aloe vera, which seemed sleepy to me, but she loved it.
Our NOCO Explore series last year put a spotlight on our area downtowns, and my editor, Angie Grenz, did a good job with those. Before you accuse me of brownnosing, let me also say this: Grenz had it easier.
Downtowns are full of character, which Grenz wonderfully uncovered, and they are natural places for local, small specialty businesses. Fort Collins’ Old Town is a natural example of this. We wanted to keep our focus on local businesses—romantically called Mom and Pop stores—because they give our cities life. Those businesses are hard to find in what we called midtown, which was Harmony on the south and Prospect on the north, along College and the Mason Street Corridor.
You have to drive this area, as it’s really a bunch of small shopping centers anchored by a busy road, and Colorado drivers don’t want you sauntering along looking for places to browse, as I gathered by several dirty looks. This makes discovering places difficult. And these places, as a result, are where corporate America thrives, as they have the instant name recognition you need to stand out. People have to look for you rather than discover you. Cultivating word-of-mouth and a loyal customer base takes time, and many small businesses don’t have that luxury.
We decided to forgo browsing in corporate stores as a result, and a quick Google search reaffirmed our decision. Sundays, we decided, would be for eating and drinking, which is something nearly everyone enjoys anyway. Still, we did find places that would be fun if we had time or the energy to explore them. These included Create A Craft, a paint your own pottery place, Runners Roost, a Colorado chain of running stores, and ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms.
We also stopped by a couple midtown parks, because Coloradans love their outdoors, and Fort Collins has at least a half-dozen parks that would be the best park in most other mid-major cities in the U.S. The best was Edora Park. Midtown parks aren’t meant to be impressive swaths of open space, but Edora is a cool community park where an average suburbanite can go for a short run, enjoy a skate park, sled, have a picnic, walk or take the kids to burn off energy. It’s also a great place to play Pokemon Go, my favorite longtime obsession.
Places like these are not in my wheelhouse—I much prefer the long, wild trails of Horsetooth Mountain Open Space—but it’s easy to forget that while Fort Collins caters to its unusual number of extreme endurance athletes, even for Colorado, it’s also home to a lot more “normal” people who prefer half-day hiking and 5Ks and just want a predictable place to get outside. Edora is perfect for them.
OK, back to eating and drinking (it’s about time, right?). If midtown Fort Collins seems like a corporate mess, you can still find plenty of local dining and drinking options. In fact, there were so many, we had a hard time deciding where to go: There might be more in midtown than downtown.
I let Val pick—she was a terrific navigator—and she chose Music City Hot Chicken, which sounded like a chain to me but it isn’t. It started in Fort Collins and now there’s a place in Denver. This also helped us pick a brewery to visit among many terrific options, as Black Bottle Brewery is right next to Music City. However, the Mason Street Corridor has several fantastic options adjacent to it if you are looking for quality craft beer: Maxline Brewing, who frequently has tasty food trucks and live music; Purpose Brewing and Cellars, whose co-owner is craft beer celebrity Peter Bouckaert; and Zwei Brewing Co., which serves up traditional German beers with a great beer garden setting.
Black Bottle’s counterculture decor seems to shoot for what punks would want when they grow up. There are incredible skateboards on a small wall, and the rest of the wall space features fun, eccentric artwork or album covers of hip, off-beat artists such as Miles Davis, the Beastie Boys, N.W.A., the Beatles and Judas Priest.
The menu is, of course, great. I feel the same way about Northern Colorado breweries as I do about TV shows: There are too many great ones, and I’ll never get to all of them. Black Bottle features cocktails, unique brews and food as well.
Val ordered The Last Unicorn, a cherry sour, and I got both an Angry Elf, Black Bottle’s ninth anniversary brew with bite and a Bloody Mary because that’s my favorite drink. We sipped on all three together. The Last Unicorn was a nice palette refresher.
We headed next door for chicken a little buzzed, but maybe that’s the best way to eat Nashville Hot Chicken anyway. The dish is a trend now, but that’s because it’s delicious, and I doubt anyone does it better than Music City. The countertop service and relaxed dining, along with the hearty, filling, greasy food, reminded me of a BBQ joint, my favorite Kansas City callback.
Val got her chicken White Hot, which wasn’t even the strongest but scorched my throat, and I got the Southern, the weakest, which I regretted: I think if you want more flavor you just have to suck it up. The chicken, however, was succulent and came with dipping sauces. Ranch will always be my favorite because I am from Kansas, but Val got a hot maple syrup, which was both weird and delightful.
The Fox Shopping Center, probably my favorite puzzle piece among the three or four major locations in midtown, also features an Indian grocery store and restaurant and had a good feel to it and ample parking.
Both Music City and the Black Bottle had the Olympics playing on TV, but the food and the company was enough. I ignored them the entire time.