Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant closes 23-year downtown Denver location, moves to Wazee

As more Mexican-inspired restaurants continue to open along the Front Range, the relatively old-school Rio Grande wants diners to know that it’s still alive and kicking.

After shuttering its 23-year location on Blake Street on Monday, the restaurant will reopen just three blocks away, at 1745 Wazee Street, on Friday, June 3. Rio owner Pat McGaughran said he bought the Wazee property to be able to better control his destiny as a restaurateur.

The new space will require less staff, it will offer fixed-mortgage costs in a highly variable market and it will come with a built-in clientele of baseball fans and Union Station neighborhood residents, he added.

“LoDo is a different space in today’s world with regard to things that are happening on the street level,” McGaughran told The Denver Post. “So I think that the energy changes block by block these days. And when this location became available on Wazee, we knew that it’s headed in the direction of some pretty significant investment. And we felt like the space, even three blocks away from where we are now, was more manageable for us.”

The Wazee Street Rio is located inside the space that Morton’s last occupied until its pandemic closure in 2020. Surrounded by recent Ballpark neighborhood dining additions at the Dairy Block and McGregor Square, the Rio can be part of a “new energy” downtown, McGaughran hopes.

“You’ve got to stay on your game here, and that’s what I’m hoping that today’s presentation of the Rio (does),” he said.

The move has allowed the 36-year-old restaurant concept to hit refresh without closing for weeks or months. McGaughran said he completely scraped the former steakhouse to create a light-filled and fun corner dining area, complete with a sidewalk patio.

A similar transformation just took place at the original, Fort Collins Rio, which closed following a kitchen fire in July of 2021 and reopened with its redesign late last month.

The Northern Colorado restaurant had operated in a temporary location while its Mountain Avenue original was rebuilt and redesigned. “It’s been a wild year,” McGaughran said.

Fort Collins was the first Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant to open in 1986, serving Tex-Mex fare and margaritas — of which three is the limit, as locals know. Now the brand includes five locations including outposts in Greeley, Boulder and Park Meadows.

“Back when we opened the (Denver) Rio in 1999, many people said, ‘Why would you go to Downtown Denver, it’s dead down there,’” McGaughran recalled. “But we saw the potential… . Now people are asking us the same question: ‘Why stay in LoDo?’ And the answer is the same.”

Opening at 5 p.m. on Friday, June 3, 1745 Wazee St., 303-623-5432, riograndemexican.com.

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