Best Restaurants in Boulder: For People and the Planet

by Brianne Miers

The best restaurants in Boulder, Colorado – my former hometown – all strive to be good to both people and the planet. I recently put together a list of my five favorite places to eat in Boulder that show an impressive commitment to sustainability.

Best Restaurants in Boulder: A Sustainable Guide

If you find yourself in the idyllic college town of Boulder, Colorado, chances are you’re going to work up an appetite at some point. Boulder is consistently named one of the fittest cities in the U.S. – it’s easy to squeeze a great workout into your day when miles of biking, hiking and running trails are right outside your door.

When you are ready to indulge, there are plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars from which to choose, ranging from hole-in-the-wall to high end. Commonly found on the menus at these diverse establishments are the words “locally sourced,” “all-natural” and “organic” – and they are taken quite seriously. That’s no surprise given the location – Coloradans joke about the “People’s Republic of Boulder,” given the town’s majority progressive population. 

I spent about three years living in Colorado after college and go back regularly to visit my dear friends. So I finally decided to put together a list of some of my go-to places to eat in Boulder – all of which take their commitment to both people and the planet to the next level.

statue of woman on Pearl St. in Boulder Colorado

Pearl St. statue

The Sink

The Sink has been a fixture on the “the Hill,” the neighborhood frequented by CU-Boulder students, for close to 100 years. It serves up guilty-pleasure fare like burgers and creative pizzas – my brother and his friends particularly enjoyed the “Slaughterhouse 5,” which is topped with five different kinds of meat – in a dark, dive-bar atmosphere (there is graffiti scrawled on just about every surface – tables, walls, ceilings, stalls).

While The Sink is far from a vegetarian paradise, it uses all grass-fed beef. Back in 2006, it made a commitment to run 100 percent on wind power, and over the years has started composting, and using low-flow water fixtures and energy efficient light bulbs, resulting in a significant drop in water and energy usage. (Fun fact about The Sink: Robert Redford worked as a busboy there while he was in college.)

Illegal Pete's restaurant on Pearl St. in Boulder Colorado

Illegal Pete’s Pearl St. location

Illegal Pete’s

One of my all-time favorite lunch places in Boulder is Illegal Pete’s, which serves up hearty Mexican eats both on The Hill on Pearl St., Boulder’s pedestrian mall (There are also locations in Denver and Fort Collins as well as Arizona). While I stick with the bean burrito, its meat is sourced from a network of independent American farmers that ensures livestock is humanely raised, never given antibiotics or added hormones, and is grass fed.

In 2015 the company launched the Living Wage Initiative to boost compensation for all employees well above the minimum wage so that they can lead comfortable lives with one job – leading to a retention rate well above the industry average. Illegal Pete’s also has a strong commitment to strengthening local communities by donating to various schools, nonprofits and causes, and sponsoring artists, musicians and athletes.

veggie burger at Southern Sun in Boulder Colorado

a post-hike veggie burger at Southern Sun

Mountain Sun

On the east end of Pearl St. is another long-time favorite of mine, Mountain Sun, where I spent many, many Saturday nights. (Its sister Boulder locations are Southern Sun and Under the Sun.) It’s a place that wants you to feel like you’re in your living room, except for one thing – there are no TVs. The narrow space has a large communal table at its center that encourages patrons to talk to each other, play games and cards, and listen to live music as they enjoy microbrews and fresh comfort food.

Burgers are made from grass-fed Colorado beef free of antibiotics and steroids, and its additive-free, unprocessed fries are cut by hand every morning. Mountain Sun’s owner, Kevin Daly, was also a strong advocate for Amendment 70, which will raise Colorado’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. 

The Kitchen

The Kitchen’s Boulder location is a hip, sleek spot on the west end of Pearl St. that strives to be the heart of the community like the kitchen is the heart of the home. A weekly family-style dinner takes place around the community table, where diners have the unique opportunity to share a meal with some of the farmers that grow the food that’s being served, and 20 percent of proceeds are used to fund gardens in local schools.

Its nonprofit, the Kitchen Community, has built hundreds of Learning Gardens across the country to help children develop a connection with the food they eat. The Kitchen also prides itself on recycling and composting at each of its locations, as well as using wind energy and eco-friendly packaging.

chalkboard at Shine restaurant in Boulder Colorado

chalkboard at Shine

Shine Restaurant & Gathering Place

During a recent visit, I had a particularly memorable meal at Shine Restaurant & Gathering Place, owned by triplet sisters Jill, Jessica and Jennifer Emich (Side note: When I lived in Boulder, they owned a bar and nightclub at the same location – I think we’ve all grown up a lot since then!). Shine’s specialty is serving simple dishes made with all local and organic ingredients that are 100 percent non-GMO. And since one sister has celiac, the entire menu is gluten free, and there are plenty of paleo, vegan and vegetarian options.

Its in-house brewery, Shine Brewery – one of the only women-owned breweries in the U.S. – uses sustainable brewing practices like recycling spent grain by giving it to farmers for chicken feed. And the location features a community space that hosts both public and private workshops, music performances, dance classes, and yoga classes.

beets at Boulder County Farmers Market in Boulder Colorado

beets at the Boulder County Farmers Market

Favorite Boulder Restaurants: A Few More

Here are two Boulder restaurants that both have an impressive commitment to sustainability. I haven’t been to either of them myself yet, but they both come highly recommended:

The goal of Blackbelly Market in East Boulder is to completely eliminate the “middle man.” Blackbelly Farm raises the pigs and lamb that end up on the menu, and what is not grown or raised there is sourced directly from local farms, dairies and ranches. Award-winning chef Hosea Rosenberg uses only 100 percent organic and in-season ingredients, there’s an on-site butcher shop that sells all-natural, hormone and antibiotic-free meats from Colorado livestock. 

If like me, if you prefer to follow a plant-based diet, head to Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant. It serves only organic fare, and its produce, herbs and eggs come from its own garden at Three Leaf Farm outside of town.

What do you think are the best restaurants in Boulder?

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Banner image: Chautauqua Park

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Mikkel July 31, 2019 - 1:51 pm

Such a great article! I love that they’re either supporting independent farmers, or raising the living wage or are really thoughtful about serving local/organic. Great article!

Brianne Miers August 4, 2019 - 6:37 pm

Thanks for reading! Boulder has a special place in my heart, and I’m glad I could share some of my favorite ethical restaurants.


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