Mixed plate

The highs and lows of serving cuisine on University Hill

Cafe Aion serves Spanish- and Moroccan-inspired cuisine on Boulder's University Hill, a challenging environment for restaurants. Credit: Kevin Hefferman

Every spot to eat and drink on the Hill

Half Fast Subs – Eclectic sub sandwiches
1215 13th St.

Alice & Rose – Brunch and high tea
1301 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Ginger Pig – Asian street food
1203 13th St.

Rush Bowls – Smoothies and acai bowls
1207 13th St.

Insomnia Cookies – Warm cookies
1203 13th St. #2

Cafe Aion – Spanish/Moroccan shareables
1235 Pennsylvania Ave.

Brasserie Boulder – French cuisine for takeout and delivery, 1235 Pennsylvania Ave.

Sushi Hana – Specialty rolls and sake galore
1220 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Sink – Landmark pizza and burgers
1165 13th St.

The Lab – Classic bar fare
1155 13th St.

Taco Junky – Tacos, tequila and tunes
1149 13th St.

Lollicup – Quick and easy bubble tea
1142 13th St.

University Hill Market & Deli (Smelly Deli) – Middle Eastern classics and deli sandwiches
1134 13th St., #7016

Ado’s Kitchen – Global cuisine and killer pupusas
1143 13th St.

Illegal Pete’s – Burrito bowls and cocktails
1124 13th St.

Gaia Masala and Burger – Indian fusion
1116 13th St.

Fat Shack – Monster sandwiches and shakes
1110 13th St.

Nana’s Dumplings – Dim sum and noodle bowls
1125 13th St.

Chicken on the Hill – Chicken tenders and well drinks, 1119 13th St.

Deun Deun Box – Authentic Korean boxes
1107 13th St.

The Corner – All-day organic grub
1100 13th St.

Peckish – Chicken wings and cold beer
1320 College Ave.

Thai Avenue – Staple Thai plates
1310 College Ave.

Seoul Kitchen – No-frills Asian fusion
1310 College Ave.

Prime Nutrition – Healthy smoothies and tea
1087 13th St.

D.P. Dough – Loaded calzones
1310 College Ave.

Pizza 3.14 – Chicago tavern-style pizza
1313 College Ave.

Deli Zone- East Coast breakfast sandwiches
1322 College Ave.

Kim’s Food to Go – Vietnamese lunch and dinner
1121 Broadway

Kung Fu Tea – Bubble tea and coffee
1121 Broadway, #102

Alpine Modern Cafe – Coffee and contemporary bites, 904 College Ave.

University Hill has been, and always will be, definitively odd — and proud of it. Once a vibrant hub for counterculture, some would argue that the Hill has lost its luster in recent years. 

For Dakota Soifer, owner of Cafe Aion, the neighborhood where he set up shop in April 2010 is still special. Soifer’s passion for the Hill runs deep, so much so that he is president of  The Hill Boulder, a group whose mission is “to bring life, activity and prosperity to Boulder’s University Hill district,” according to its website. 

Soifer has seen countless visitors, locals and students peruse the streets outside his restaurant, but one thing remains constant: You never know who will walk through your doors. 

“I love how on any given day, we could have groups speaking foreign languages from different departments at one table and Nobel Laureates at another,” he says. 

The mix of students and residents on the Hill mirrors the dining options within its two neighborhood blocks. Therein lies a cornucopia of good eats: shrimp shumai dumplings, Chicago tavern-style pizza, bacon egg and cheese sandwiches, birria tacos, chicken tikka masala and pupusas. Soifer serves Spanish- and Moroccan-inspired cuisine; across the street from him is Sushi Hana, and to his right is Ginger Pig, which dish up Japanese and Asian street food, respectively. 

It’s this sort of variety of guests and grub that attracted Holley Ellis, owner of Alice & Rose, to her location overlooking campus less than a year ago. The all-day brunch spot is inspired by Alice in Wonderland, with offerings from lobster eggs benedict to pancake towers.

“We want to be the spot students bring their parents, the place university faculty meet up and of course the place everyone wants to eat and drink at before and after events,” Ellis says. 

Alice & Rose opened in September 2023, joining a roster of recent additions to the Hill — Ginger Pig, Nana’s Dumplings and Deun Deun Box to name a few. Over 25 food and drink spots now inhabit two blocks.

But for every opening, there was likely a closure that preceded it — a testament to the difficulty of operating a food spot in a location with seasonal clientele. 

“The flow of business on the Hill — since traffic is dependent mostly on CU’s schedule — can be difficult to navigate,” says Soifer. 

Ado Salguero, owner of Ado’s Kitchen, a sitdown restaurant featuring authentic dishes from El Salvador, is straightforward about his position on 13th Street. 

“The Hill is not appealing to serve my cuisine,” Salguero says. “I should have listened when people told me to avoid it.” 

Among other things, Salguero cites “high rent, the stressful swings of the college year, staffing and parking,” as some of the consistent challenges he faces. 

Two changes could bolster the spirits and bottom lines of the Hill’s entrepreneurs. In November 2023, Boulder City Council voted unanimously to repeal a law that required (among other things) restaurants, brewpubs and taverns close no later than 11 p.m. and earn 50% of their gross income from food sales every given month — two rules specific to University Hill.

Second is the introduction of a conference center and two new hotels just blocks from Cafe Aion, Ado’s Kitchen and Alice & Rose.

“Having a more ‘adult’ group of potential guests year-round on the Hill within walking distance of the commercial core will be a real boost,” Soifer says. 

Students come and go, and so too will hotel guests. For owners like Soifer, Salguero and Ellis, turning a local into a regular is the challenge. 

Whether they’ve been serving food for 14 years or a few months, their doors are open, inviting the people they share a city with to give them a chance to help keep the Hill alive for the next generation. 

Christina Kiffney A spread from Cafe Aion.