The concept for Alex Seidel’s second restaurant was as grand and ambitious as that of Union Station itself, where Mercantile launched in the summer of 2014. The refurbished train station showed off vaulted ceilings, gleaming marble, dark woods and a variety of new bars and restaurants that fit nearly every traveler’s needs. Likewise, Mercantile offered something from morning to night, whether they had a pocketful of change or a lavish expense account: a cup of coffee and a croissant for breakfast, some deli meats and cheeses (oh, and throw in a jar of housemade pickles!) for a picnic lunch, or an elegant dinner from chef/partner Matthew Vawter for an evening of refinement and exquisite service. Even as the restaurant offerings in and around the station continue to grow, Mercantile hasn’t lost its luster.
Restaurateur Jeff Osaka’s first fine-dining establishment since he closed the acclaimed twelve, 12@Madison quickly won our hearts with its thoughtful, intelligent menu filled with dishes as spare and striking as the dining room itself. Grains and vegetables are given the utmost respect, with starring roles in such small plates as quinoa congee and rainbow carrots with North African spices and labneh cheese. Meats match the seasons, with unctuous braised pork, lamb and beef in the fall and brighter, livelier preparations in the spring. This is the newest restaurant on our list of 100, but 12@Madison became a Colorado classic the moment it opened last December.
When Bryan Dayton and Steve Redzikowski planned a Denver followup to Oak at Fourteenth, their Boulder hit, they signed on to anchor the Source, the redeveloped brick foundry on Brighton Boulevard. Amid soaring ceilings and exposed, graffiti-covered brick walls, they again installed a wood-fired oven as the centerpiece of the open kitchen. Acorn has a bit more casual vibe than Oak, definitely louder, but the cooking here is just as serious, with seasonal improvisations interspersed with such greatest hits as the meatballs on polenta, shrimp and grits, and beef tartare. Don't overlook the large plates; Redzikowski and his crew work wonders with steak and poultry. And the drinks list is so well-rounded that you'll want to start with a cocktail, move into wine, and finish with amaro or sherry. Acorn is a favorite not just with locals, but with out-of-towners, too; there’s something for everyone here, and all of it is done well.
From its early days as an East Colfax hipster bar to its current configuration of breakfast joint, late-night pizzeria and retro-swank watering hole, Atomic Cowboy/Denver Biscuit Co./Fat Sully’s Pizza has evolved into one of Denver’s most gleefully indulgent stops for wallowing in comfort food and whiling away hours with friends. Not content to cater just to Colfax carousers, owner Drew Shader has expanded into Baker and Berkeley, so that carb cravers are never far from the Franklin (a hot mess of fried chicken, bacon, cheddar and sausage gravy on a cat-head biscuit) or a floppy slab of New York-style pizza. The Denver Biscuit Co. has also invaded Stanley Marketplace solo, giving Aurora and Stapleton residents a good reason to get moving in the morning.
With just Highland Tap & Burger, Juan Padro and Katie O’Shea Padro were on their way to becoming some of the most successful restaurateurs in town — and when they partnered up with Max MacKissock, one of Denver’s most exalted chefs, they became virtually unstoppable. For Bar Dough, the team’s first project together, they decided to do an Italian restaurant — but rather than be limited by authenticity, Bar Dough uses Italian constructs as a loose base, whimsically improvising on pastas and small plates and making good use of its wood-fired oven for pizzas and other flourishes. While the menu changes seasonally, some staples remain — like the pan-seared pollo al limone, a succulent half-chicken. The restaurant also has one hell of a happy hour, which is a good way to experience a little bit of everything. And for something really special, book Segretto, the secret upstairs dining room, for a custom feast.
Restaurateur Blair Taylor opened Barolo Grill in 1992 as a tony tribute to Italian cuisine and fine wine; the Cherry Creek neighborhood and Denver’s jet set took to it like fish to water. Over the years, the restaurant experienced ups and downs in both popularity and culinary excellence, and in 2015, Taylor sold the business to his general manager, Ryan Fletter, who’d landed a job there 22 years earlier. Since the sale, Fletter and executive chef Darrel Truett have worked on modernizing the service and menu while still maintaining a touch of the classic — and today Barolo Grill is informed by its past without being weighed down by it.
When chef Kelly Whitaker plotted Basta eight years back, he envisioned a wood-fired pizzeria flavored with the Italian passion for using nearby ingredients. So he went to local purveyors for flour and tomatoes instead of importing ingredients from overseas, and gave anglicized names to his Napolitano pies. Those pies quickly garnered a following, even if Basta was exasperatingly difficult to find (it’s nestled in the inner courtyard of a Boulder apartment complex). Today people still come for those pizzas — now built on crusts made from local heritage grains — as well as whole fishes and half chickens, wood-fired vegetables, exemplary small bites and lasagna that must be ordered two days in advance. Pair your meal with something from the Italian-heavy wine list, end it with an amaro or grappa, and don’t ignore the coffee, which Whitaker takes very seriously, or the ice cream, the base of which is toasted in the oven before it’s frozen into dessert.
There may not be another restaurant in Denver that’s used its history to such great advantage, keeping everything noteworthy from the past — from the chi-chi mid-century aesthetic to the quality steaks that meet the expectations of modern diners. The family-run business dates back to the 1930s, but the current incarnation was constructed in 1958, giving distinct Googie style to the roofline and neon sign outside. Inside, dinner in the bird’s-nest loft feels intimate and old-school, and a sugar steak — served no more than medium-rare — gives a taste of Colfax Avenue’s swingin’, stylish earlier days.
The brother/sister duo of Aileen and Paul Reilly have built a beautiful operation in Uptown since opening Beast + Bottle in 2013, with an emphasis on warm, gracious and genuine service to bolster a brief but ever-changing slate of beast-based bites. The plates that fly from the tiny kitchen have an artistry that matches their creative flavors, from verdant vegetable terrines to local lamb and heritage pork presentations. And, of course, a meal wouldn’t be complete without the fig + pig flatbread (a staple since Reilly’s days at Encore, which he helmed until 2012). A cocktail list filled with pop-culture puns reveals a sense of humor that’s a counterpoint to what is otherwise some seriously sophisticated dining.
Magical, whimsical, transporting: These are the words that have been used to describe Beatrice + Woodsley since the fairy-tale dining room debuted on Broadway in 2008, the vision of restaurateurs Kevin Delk and John Skogstad. The experience of stepping from the gritty reality of Broadway into a woodland fantasy where a lumberjack seeks out his beloved (and leaves behind timbers and chainsaws as proof of his passage) is topped only by the food itself, which early on foretold the rise of a new kind of cuisine in Denver, one where local ingredients and clever combinations come in waves of small plates.
Frustrated with the Indian food he was seeing in the Mile High City, Biju Thomas, whose roots are in the southern Indian region of Kerala, decided to take matters into his own hands. He opened the first fast-casual Biju’s Little Curry in RiNo, giving Denver an Indian cuisine it had never seen: lighter curries, brighter flavors, plenty of spice, and all healthy. (Thomas is also an athlete, so his food is balanced for nutritional needs.) Biju’s serves all this goodness in bowls that combine masala beef, coconut curry chicken, lentils or potatoes with chutneys and yogurt over basmati rice; wash them down with tap kombucha or housemade chai. When his concept attracted appreciative crowds, Thomas opened a second spot on Tennyson; to further this city’s appreciation of Indian food, he’s also created a line of retail products including spice blends that are available at Whole Foods Markets.
How does a humble hot-dog cart rise to the status of one of Denver’s top dogs in the restaurant business? Chalk it up to the creative and obsessive mind of Jim Pittenger, who started out with Coca-Cola onions and cream cheese as a topping combo that elevated his wieners above the competition; today Biker Jim’s continues to innovate with an array of wild-game and specialty sausages, including jalapeño-cheddar elk, wild boar and reindeer. The wild combos and consistent quality have drawn national attention, with celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain, Ludo Lefebvre and Andrew Zimmern adding their praise to compliments from a long line of tube-steak tourists and frankfurter fanatics.
Jon Robbins combined his experience as Mizuna’s chef de cuisine and his time in Michelin-starred French kitchens to launch Bistro Barbès in Park Hill in 2014. The tiny eatery transcends neighborhood-joint status with a menu that touts exacting French technique while experimenting with ingredients introduced to Parisian fare by North African immigrants. Over the past few years, Robbins has continued to expand his repertoire into the various traditions of the Mediterranean and beyond, defying easy categorization while continuing to delight. Bistro Barbès is the perfect date-night adventure for those who think they’ve figured out the Denver dining scene.
Bistro Vendôme rises above kitschy French shtick with an alluring menu and warm hospitality typical of the restaurants run by chef Jennifer Jasinski and business partner Beth Gruitch. Timeless classics like onion soup, steak frites and escargot vie for attention alongside more modern, seasonally driven creations, giving guests plenty of options. Despite its Larimer Square location, the bistro maintains its charm as a hidden secret surrounded by brick walls, ivy and shady trees; the garden seating is lovely in the summer. Whether you’re stopping for some happy-hour bubbly or a brunchtime croque madame, Bistro Vendôme is as close as you’ll get to Paris in the heart of Denver.
In a neighborhood better known for convenience stores and takeout Chinese, Greek and Thai, chef Olav Peterson and his wife, Melissa Severson, have carved out a reputation for avant-garde cuisine with an eye toward seasonality. Never pretentious or unapproachable, Bittersweet’s offerings instead delight with discovery while remaining grounded in familiar flavors. Thai, Mexican, Italian and French influences broaden the palate of garden-fresh dishes, enhanced by a stellar wine list and more than a few food-friendly beers hailing from everywhere from Colorado to Belgium and beyond. A summer seat on the patio surrounded by tomatoes and chiles ripening on the vine is as treasured as a fireside table in the winter; both come with an incredible basket of house-baked bread.
Black Cat offers the ultimate farm-to-table experience, and that’s because chef/owner Eric Skokan runs his own farm, which provisions his restaurant nearly year-round. On the menu you’ll find not only such Colorado standards as heirloom tomatoes, bold peppers and a plenitude of greens, but hard-to-grow crops including sweet potatoes, artichokes and peanuts. Pasture rotation, organic farming and biodynamic practices result in the highest-quality produce and meats, all expertly utilized by Skokan and his team. The pillows in the dining room are stuffed with wool from Black Cat Farm sheep, and even in the dead of winter, storage cellars and cold frames ensure that there’s something fresh on your plate.
Those who have followed chef Hosea Rosenberg’s career from his days at Jax Fish House in Boulder to his surprise victory on Bravo’s Top Chef in 2009 knew that it was just a matter of time before he would move on from a food truck and catering company to a full-fledged restaurant. That happened in 2014, when Rosenberg opened Blackbelly, a butcher-driven eatery that now encompasses all of the chef’s passions: charcuterie, top cuts from locally raised animals, Southwestern flavors from his childhood in New Mexico — and even killer breakfast burritos. A sense of humor and easygoing demeanor have kept Blackbelly grounded, even while the kitchen delivers steakhouse-caliber dry-aged beef, delicate pastas and seasonal vegetables with a locavore mentality.
Who knew that Denver would embrace Detroit-style pizza when Blue Pan Pizza debuted in 2015 in West Highland? Under the focused eye of chef and co-founder Jeff “Smoke” Smokevitch (who now runs two Blue Pan locations with partner Giles Flanagin), the cozy pizzeria starts with a traditional base — an airy, crackly crust, Wisconsin brick cheese and a thick, tangy sauce — and adds toppings that modern customers crave, from paper-thin folds of prosciutto and fresh piles of arugula to burrata, green chiles and Tender Belly bacon. Beyond the Detroit-style pies, Blue Pan also offers award-winning Italian thin-crust, an even thinner Chicago cracker crust, and big slices of New York-style pizza.
Family-run since 1934, Bonnie Brae Tavern is far more than just a restaurant. Regulars and neighbors from every walk of life come in to enjoy a solid meal, a familiar face and the comforting fact that slow change is a better path to success than a fast grab at elusive trends. Not that the Tavern is incapable of change: The Dire family was an innovator in Denver when they added pizza to the menu, shortly after World War II. Green chile, wonton-skin rellenos, hefty burgers and stuffed shells show the range of Italian, Mexican and American influences that have shaped Denver’s eating habits for decades. The Bonnie Brae isn’t a relic stuck in the past; it’s a living tribute to this city’s history and an ongoing reminder of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
Colfax Avenue is an ideal home for a budget lunch counter that’s as adept at turning out char-grilled chicken and mac and cheese as it is egg rolls and barbecue sandwiches. A native of Vietnam, founder and chef Lien Vo has lived and cooked in New Orleans, Los Angeles and elsewhere — and it shows on the eclectic menu where the signature bourbon chicken, sweet with soy and smoke, is the star. In 2017, Bourbon Grill graduated from its original walk-up window to a larger spot complete with a dining room just a few blocks west, but Vo continues to dish up big portions at low prices for Colfax denizens looking for good value and good food.
At 3 a.m. on a chilly Denver morning, the dining room of the Breakfast King feels like a movie set. The wood paneling, orange vinyl booths and swiveling bar stools evoke the diners and roadhouses of a different era. Waitresses in crisp white shirts and pumpkin-hued aprons hustle platters of pancakes and oozing tuna melts to bar-hoppers out after last call, long-haul truckers and other inhabitants of the night. The smells of grease, coffee and diesel waft through the air, and the near-constant ring of spatulas and clatter of plates mark the cadence of middle America. Every town has its Breakfast King, but this one belongs to Denver; only in this town can you find green chile thick as country gravy and the oddly named toro pot (which is actually more of a burrito) — a Denver diner staple made well at the Breakfast King.
Many restaurants along the Front Range re-create the Wild West experience, but most of them deliver the mild West. The Buckhorn Exchange is the exception, a true old-timey spot that still has meaning for today’s diners. Before Henry “Shorty Scout” Zietz opened the Buckhorn in 1893, he rode with Buffalo Bill; in 1905, he fed President Teddy Roosevelt, then headed off with him to hunt big game. And you’ll find plenty of big game on the menu of the restaurant today, meat that demands a pretty big price tag. Those on a nineteenth-century budget should head to the historic bar on the second floor, where you can order from the appetizer menu, enjoy entertainment, and gaze upon all the taxidermied specimens distantly related to what might arrive on your plate.
In a city with few Brazilian restaurant options, Cafe Brazil has managed to remain vital and popular for more than twenty years while teaching us the finer points of feijoada and xim xim and the various tropical preparations of peixe. If you’ve been in Denver long enough, you probably knocked back your first caipirinha at Cafe Brazil, possibly even at the eatery’s original Highland location (long before folks started calling the area LoHi), if not at the newer Berkeley cafe. While Brazilian steakhouses downtown offer showmanship and piles of grilled meat, Cafe Brazil relies more on flavorful stews and seafood — often imbued with dende oil, coconut and spicy chiles — to win Denver diners over to Brazilian cuisine.
You do not go to Casa Bonita for the food: dated Tex-Mex, though the meal-ending unlimited sopaipillas, accompanied by a squeeze bottle of honey, are a consolation prize. Think of the entree, which every adult is required to purchase, as the price of admission: Eat what you can and buckle up for a wild ride. Beyond the cafeteria line in this four-decade-old institution, cliff divers leap into a minuscule pool in a variety of vaguely dated shows, hawkers offer overpriced light sabers and tiaras, an arcade teems with teenagers, and Black Bart’s crystal-filled cave continues to torment toddlers. Request a table in the grotto, and ask for the booze menu when you sit down — you’ll find a decent run of Mexican beer and too-sweet margaritas to help you get in the mood. Denver’s weirdest Mexican restaurant is a rite of passage, so gather a group, pony up your plate fee, and get ready to sword-fight, gorilla-wrangle, flag-raise and Skee-Ball your way into official residency status.
Over its almost eight decades, the Cherry Cricket has morphed from smoky bar to burger institution, consuming adjacent storefronts along the way to grow into the warren-like beer-drinkers’, game-watchers’, everyone-is-welcome-here watering hole that it is today, even as Cherry Creek gentrifies around it. But this isn’t just a place for a game of darts and a brew. As anyone who’s been in Denver for a month or more knows, the Cricket is a classic burger joint, beloved by chefs, musicians, Creekers, night creatures and neighbors for its smoky, char-grilled patties and the lengthy list of toppings with which you can personalize them, from sauerkraut to salsa to raspberry jam. (We prefer standards such as green chiles and cheese.) True, the beef isn’t dry-aged or grass-fed, and the lettuce and tomato slices aren’t organic, but that doesn’t matter at the Cricket, where burgers taste the way they did when you were growing up.
Denver is the fast-casual restaurant capital of the country, and it has Chipotle to thank for that honor. Steve Ells launched his burrito chain in a former Dolly Madison ice cream parlor back in 1992, marrying high-end culinary technique with Mexican flavor and counter service. It’s now commonplace to move down a line and assemble your own dish from vats of ingredients on offer, but when Chipotle first rolled out its steam table of such high-end meats as barbacoa beef and carnitas, black and pinto beans, freshly made salsa, and guacamole that garnered a cult following, it started a dining revolution, eventually birthing an entire industry of good food made fast. The original Chipotle at 1644 East Evans Avenue recently underwent a remodel to bring it in line with its more modern siblings around the world; it’s worth a visit to see where it all began.
Chef Lon Symensma, who’d already done time in top New York temples of pan-Asian cuisine and taken culinary tours of Southeast Asia, came to Denver to unveil ChoLon in 2010. And then he waited: Six months in, diners weren’t exactly busting down the doors. But then the rave reviews began to come in, and suddenly there wasn’t a soul in town who hadn’t tried — or swooned over — Symensma’s French onion soup dumplings or kaya toast with coconut jam and egg cloud, even if most of us had never had real xiaolong bao or Malaysian street food. ChoLon gave Denver something new: a menu that balanced the exotic with the familiar in dishes built for sharing. At seven, the restaurant now feels like a mainstay of the Denver dining scene, but many newer eateries owe a debt of gratitude for the ground that Symensma broke on his way to success.
Denver transplants, heed our advice: Acquire an opinion on green chile, and quickly, for no food in the Mile High City is as fervently debated among friends. While many greens are contenders, the Chubby’s chile is legendary. Stella Cordova took over the Chubby Burger Drive-Inn in the 1960s, keeping the burgers and fries and adding her own gravy-like green chile, spicy enough to impart a mouthful of flames. Over the years, several members of Stella’s sizable extended family have worked the line at Chubby’s; many opened their own spinoffs, each claiming to be the only one to whom Stella gave the real green chile recipe. Stella herself presided over the original Chubby’s until 2009, when she passed away at age 100, and the restaurant, which recently moved into a new structure on the same lot in northwest Denver, continues to pay homage to her legacy. Our favorite time to go is after 2 a.m., when a cross-section of Denver bar-hoppers and nightshift-workers line up for burritos, cheese fries and chile-injected grilled cheese.
Part hippie coffeehouse, part dive bar and part hipster hangout, this meat-free Capitol Hill haunt somehow manages to be all three with equal aplomb. Founder Dan Landes has a knack for turning the niche into the noticeable, as was evidenced by his first vegetarian kitchen, WaterCourse Foods; he opened City, O’ City in its original home. While Landes has since sold WaterCourse, City, O’ City continues to draw vegetarians, vegans and the just plain hungry with craveable meatless Buffalo wings, the best gluten-free waffle in town (doused not in syrup, but in a velvety Asiago cheese sauce) and other fare displaying both down-home and international influences. Vegetarian restaurants are few and far between in a city known for healthy living and alternative foods, but this eclectic joint has kept all comers happy for close to twenty years.
Few Denver restaurants are as transportive as Domo, a fantasy land that’s delighted diners for nearly two decades. Decorated as a traditional farmhouse, the sizable but dimly lit dining room features wall-ensconced Japanese porcelain and other artifacts, stone-carved tables and an actual tree, around which the walls and ceiling were built. The menu here is a compendium of Japanese country foods, which push way beyond sushi and ramen (though the ramen is delicious). This is the place to dabble in buckwheat soba noodles dipped in dashi broth, donburi rice bowls, thickly gravied Japanese curry and deep-fried mackerel. In the winter, try the nabeyaki udon, a specialty of chef Gaku Homma’s northern Japanese home, presented here as a broth redolent of caramelized onions swimming with fat udon noodles, pink-edged fish cakes, kelp, scallions, thin slices of pork and a fried egg. In summer, try a cold tsukemen noodle dish on the lovely, secluded patio.
A dozen years seems like a lifetime in LoHi years, and that’s how long Duo has been keeping the neighborhood wined and dined. Under the guidance of owners Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin, Duo has somehow always managed to feel fresh and classic at the same time, even in its early days. Exposed brick, shabby-chic decor and a simple menu unadorned by ego-driven feats of gastronomy aren’t what’s sexy these days, but a consistent philosophy and respect for both staff and customers are things that never go out of style. Earlier this year, Arnold and Bonin instituted a 2 percent living-wage service charge to help kitchen employees make ends meet, but even before that, the restaurant had a loyal employee base, something that regulars notice and love.
Naming the best Mexican restaurant in Denver would be a nearly impossible task, given the variety of styles, price points and traditions represented here. But El Chingon is certainly among the elite, possibly because it combines so many traditions so seamlessly. There’s the Mexico City cooking of Gloria Nuñez, the classical French training of her grandson, David Lopez, and the north Denver sensibilities of owner (and Lopez’s uncle) Lorenzo Nuñez Jr. That El Chingon is a family affair gives every dish just a little more soul and a little more flavor, whether it’s a favorite like carnitas or soft chile rellenos or a more upscale offering such as rabbit roulade or vegetarian mole verde over roasted cauliflower. This little Berkeley cottage is up to big things.
Perhaps no Mexican spot in the Mile High is as beloved as El Taco de Mexico, a no-frills joint that offers little in the way of ambience, and even less in the way of service. But that hasn’t deterred the crowds that have been coming here since 1985 for anything smothered in the lip-tingling green chile, be that a burrito or tamales, enchiladas or chile rellenos. Don’t get so overwhelmed by the chile that you skip the excellent tacos, though: Soft corn tortillas wrap tender beef cheek, tongue or crispy fried pork, augmented by a pungent smattering of diced onions and cilantro. On the weekends, there’s a terrific menudo, the offal-saturated stew that’s a traditional hangover cure. Belly up to the counter to place an order and then find a stool — or, better yet, a table on the patio, a good perch for people-watching in the heart of the Art District on Santa Fe.
Sausage, beer and a little craziness: That’s the recipe for success at Euclid Hall, the third restaurant in Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch’s stable. Pig-ear pad Thai and duck poutine came at a perfect time in the evolution of Denver’s dining scene, when restaurant-goers were bored with the standards and seeking thrills. How else to explain why blood sausage has remained a house specialty since opening day back in 2010? But seven years later, the vaguely Germanic beer hall is still taking chances — and still making new fans with bar food for a fearless generation.
Old-world elegance, attention to detail, an award-winning wine cellar and a great view from its perch above Boulder have all contributed to the staying power of the Flagstaff House, opened in 1971 by the Monette family, which still runs the place. Not content to rest on its laurels, the Flagstaff House keeps its menu updated and seasonal while still making use of such high-end products as foie gras, morel mushrooms, Japanese wagyu beef, Maine lobster and fresh truffles. Dinner’s a splurge, but you’ll be treated like nobility from the front door to the last glass of dessert wine. Even a seat at the bar is an experience in hospitality the way it’s rarely practiced anymore.
When French Laundry alums Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson opened Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder in 2004, their paean to the northern Italian region of Friuli was quickly elevated to best-restaurant-in-Colorado status. Thirteen years later, it’s only gotten better. The exactingly executed food channels the alpine-influenced flavors from across the Atlantic while taking cues from local produce and Colorado seasons. Classics like the gooey frico caldo — a crispy cheese-and-potato pancake — and a stellar salumi platter front an ever-changing lineup of pastas, meats and a traditional multi-course Friulian feast. Stuckey is a master sommelier, and the wine knowledge of his team runs deep — so don’t pass up an opportunity to explore the sharply curated cellar. Tellingly, Frasca is named for the tree branch that Friulian tavern owners hang above their doors to welcome in passersby: Frasca is a national leader in hospitality, and it continues to elevate dining expectations across the metro area, making our scene better and better, thirteen years on.
Alex Seidel is another Mizuna graduate, having served time under chef Frank Bonanno before leaping into the restaurant game himself in 2007. The close quarters of Fruition, his jewel box on East Sixth Avenue, have forced Seidel to look outward for inspiration and expansion, so he started his own farm and sheep dairy to provide seasonal produce and artisan cheese for Fruition (and for his second restaurant, Mercantile Dining & Provision). An artist’s focus (combined with a tiny kitchen) results in a menu of only a handful each of starters and main courses, but each plate is an unforgettable work of art. Fruition isn’t flashy or trendy; a more meditative approach puts the emphasis on what really matters: the food itself.
Most of the red-sauce joints that once proliferated in northwest Denver have dried up, but Gaetano’s just celebrated its seventieth birthday. Of course, it’s gone through some changes over the decades; founded by the Smaldone mob family, who installed bullet-proof glass in the front door and ran illegal poker games in the basement, Gaetano’s was purchased by the Wynkoop family of restaurants in 2005, which in turn sold it to longtime employee Ron Robinson in 2013. Today he runs a true neighborhood joint, one flavored by the traditions of the past but still very much ready to go another seventy years as a Denver landmark. A meal here is an offer you can’t refuse.
When Highland Tap & Burger opened in 2010, it was designed as a watering hole for a neighborhood in flux: Northwest Denver was rapidly gentrifying, displacing much of the Mexican-American community that had been there for multiple generations (most of the Italian families were already gone). But Highland Tap wanted to bring everyone to the table, to be a place where people could gather and talk about community issues while enjoying a good burger and a drink. It accomplished that goal quickly: Highland Tap was busy almost from the moment it opened, filled with neighbors, kids’ sports teams, and new residents looking for a craft beer. It helps that the burgers and other dishes coming out of the kitchen are so good, that the beer list is robust enough to please geeks, and that the cocktails are so accessible. As testament to its success, the Highland original spun off a sibling, Sloan’s Lake Tap & Burger, in 2016.
Building on the success of his ramen joint, Uncle, Tommy Lee set up shop in RiNo to give Denver Hop Alley, an exhilarating take on Chinese food. Named for Denver’s historic Chinatown, which dried up when Chinese laborers were run out of town at the turn of the twentieth century, the restaurant’s gritty-chic aesthetic is infused with a hip-hop vibe. Lee looked to his Cantonese roots for inspiration, but the menu at Hop Alley pulls from across the Chinese diaspora, from Beijing duck (packed here into an egg roll) to a take on Sichuan’s famous la zi ji (a mouth-numbing spicy fried chicken) to Singaporean char kway teow, a dish of fried rice cakes, clams and sausage. As for us, we never miss the Shanghai-style garlic shrimp noodles, the salt-and-pepper soft-shell crab, or the suan ni pork chop. Or the cider list, which is under-sung and excellent.
Hops & Pie raised the bar on the classic pairing of beer and pizza. In fact, it raised the bar on both individually. In a beer-filled city, this restaurant’s tap lineup floats to the top of the barrel, with a rotating roster of local favorites and little-seen rarities. As for the pizzas, the team builds its pies on cracker-crisp crusts, with an elevated run of toppings like confit duck, housemade mozzarella and blackberry barbecue sauce. Kids and pizza purists should know that the classics are also available, and vegans and gluten-free eaters will be pleased to find appropriate substitutions available. Remarkably, though, our very favorite thing about this bare-bones joint is neither the pizza nor the beer: It’s the IPA mac and cheese. Elbow noodles glazed with sharp cheddar are studded with ham and peas beneath a crispy breadcrumb crust. The IPA’s contribution? It cuts the richness of the dish, so you can eat the whole pot.
At Il Porcellino, owner Bill Miner and his staff of butchers and cooks make every meat product themselves: pink hams, fat-streaked bacon, dry-cured salami and other sausages, as well as less common Italian-style meats that hang for months — sometimes upwards of a year — before they’re ready to slice and sell. Il Porcellino sources pork and beef from Colorado farms and ranches and turns it into salty, delicious salumi through exacting effort and lots of time. You can take it home by the pound or you can sit down and enjoy sandwiches that will haunt your dreams: ribbons of soft-cooked bacon drowned in cheese sauce between slices of jalapeño cheddar bread; bison pastrami shaved into piles atop rye with housemade sauerkraut; an Italian hoagie more appropriately called the Hoggie because it’s mounted with so much pig-based product. There’s nothing else like it in Denver — and every bite makes us wonder why.
When Andrea Frizzi moved Il Posto from its cubby on East 17th Avenue to a sleek bi-level cube in RiNo, we held our breath: Would the new address be a good home for this restaurant's semi-chaotic charm? We needn't have worried. Il Posto 2.0 presents some of the team's best cooking yet, from new meditations on its always-stellar risotti to a masterful pappardelle with pork ragu to a showy and delicious beef tallow candle (impossible at the old address, says Frizzi, because there just wasn't enough space to make candles). And despite its more grown-up vibe, this space is infused with the old Il Posto magic: Frizzi bobs around frenetically kissing the cheeks of friends and strangers alike, wine from an expertly curated list pours freely and easily, and the energy of the kitchen spills out from an open window beneath a sign that suggests sending the cooks a six-pack...of Jack Daniel's. As a bonus, Il Posto now has one of the best tables in Denver, a second-level corner seat that looks out on the Denver skyline. Trying to impress someone? Request it.
More than two decades passed before Sushi Den owners Yasu and Toshi Kizaki decided to expand upon their successful sushi business, but when they did, they went big. While the word “izakaya” means little more than “bar and grill” in Japan, in Denver it has become synonymous with the same style, service and dedication to fresh seafood that Sushi Den customers have come to expect. Izakaya Den originally took Old South Pearl by storm in 2007 in a lavish location kitty-corner to its older sibling, but a real estate deal saw the Kizakis swap out the original digs and build a spectacular new spot across the street in 2013, where today traditional Japanese bar food collides with Mediterranean cuisine in wondrous ways and the sushi and ramen live up to the family’s stellar reputation.
Sip, slurp and shuck your way to shellfish bliss at Jax, the fish house and oyster bar that Dave Query launched in Boulder in the ’90s; he soon launched the concept in Denver, and it’s since gone beyond Colorado. Built around seafood and specializing in shells, each Jax offers grilled and fried oysters in addition to an excellent oyster happy-hour deal, which turned the LoDo location, in particular, into a boisterous post-work beacon. Once you’ve had your fill of the mollusks, though, don’t miss the rest of the menu, which is geared toward sustainably caught fish and changes seasonally.
Jerusalem has been many a Denverite’s first introduction to the world of baba ghanouj, fatoush, tabbouleh and stuffed grape leaves. The little shack near the University of Denver has been satisfying late-night munchies and mid-day cravings near since 1978. A steady stream of college students and bar patrons from around the neighborhood keep the place busy at all hours of the day and night, selling creamy hummus, crunchy falafel and deeply spiced grilled meats. The “Super Dish” combo with a bag of pita is still one of the best deals in town, with enough food for multiple meals. While Jerusalem closes for a few hours in the wee hours of the morning, it’s still one of only a handful of Denver restaurants that serves food well past last call.
Kings Land is mostly known for its dim sum, rolled through the banquet room-sized space on trolleys, along with the traditional tea. Sweets are particularly good here, so once you’ve had your fill of taro cakes, chicken feet and pork buns, don’t skip out on the egg custard tarts. But to see this place as just a dim sum joint is to undersell its nighttime offerings, which come out after dumpling service ends for the day. Take your cue from the rotisserie at the front of the restaurant and go for a Beijing duck, its skin crisp and burnished bronze; Kings Land also does a good trade in hot pot — try the spicy Sichuan broth for this fondue-like ritual. But take time to study the vast menu, too: You’ll see many dishes from across China tucked among the offerings, including a clay-pot black-pepper beef and eggplant not to be missed.
When it opened its doors on the west end of Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall in 2004, the Kitchen had ambitions. Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson envisioned creating a gathering place that would draw from local farms to give diners well-executed but simple dishes — comfort food, but lighter, healthier and better sourced. Musk and Matheson took their mission to the Boulder community, too, engaging with school gardens to teach kids where food comes from. That first Kitchen has since spawned an empire that includes additional outlets of the original concept, plus the faster, more casual Next Door chain and the wood-fired Hedge Row. As the company grows, it plants the seeds of change in the communities it enters, setting up partnerships with local schools and farms before it breaks ground. The ambition of that first place still burns, though: Musk and Matheson are intent on upending the American food system, using the power of their eateries to do it.
When word got out that the Brinkerhoff family, which had owned La Loma since the ’80s, had sold the restaurant’s sprawling digs in Jefferson Park, we despaired; although the family promised to reopen quickly elsewhere, how could it possibly be the same? We didn’t just go to La Loma for the great Den-Mex food; we went because La Loma was a north Denver institution, with an old-school vibe that gave you the sense that you were part of this city’s history — not to mention big margaritas that almost made you history. Fortunately, La Loma’s new location is also an iconic spot — the moody former home of the Trinity Grille downtown — and the owners have worked hard to make sure that the food is as good as ever. We like to start with an order of the mini chile rellenos, basically cheddar-cheese egg rolls that you dunk in this restaurant’s iconic green, and those same margaritas served in glasses the size of fish bowls.
First came Root Down, chef Justin Cucci’s uber-hip eatery built in a former service station in LoHi. While the reclaimed and upcycled decor and worldly small plates, many of them vegetarian, blew minds back in 2008, they did little to prepare us for Linger, which opened three years later in the Olinger Mortuary building. An international menu mapped out by continent (complete with crackly Indian dosas, hangover ramen and German currywurst) and a theme to match the surroundings (cocktails listed on toe tags, tables built from gurneys, water served in apothecary bottles) made Linger stand out immediately. Although development has blocked much of the splendid view from the rooftop bar/deck, Linger’s continued dedication to sustainable practices and carefully sourced ingredients have kept the restaurant at the top of the list of dining destinations in this city.
Yes, we know it’s odd that the city’s best chicken-fried steak is served by Lola, which added the words “coastal Mexican” to its name a few years back. But that’s just one of the reasons we love this restaurant, whose move to the renovated Olinger Mortuary in LoHi a decade ago helped turn the area into a hot dining destination. Other reasons to love Lola: the expansive tequila bar and delicious house margs, the tableside guacamole service, the taco-filled happy hour, the fresh oysters, the inventive specials, and the basement space that could be the best party space in town. Our favorite spot here, though, is the enclosed deck, a lovely place for a solitary drinker to soak up the last days of summer or a group of pals to fortify themselves against the wintry night ahead.
Every restaurant is cooking with wood these days, it seems, but in the Ballpark neighborhood back in 2008, true Neapolitan pizza was unheard of. Owner/pizzaiola Mark Dym’s obsession with every step of pizza production led him to becoming the only restaurant in Colorado certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the organization that makes sure the right ingredients, equipment and techniques are used to produce the perfect pie. Those exacting standards result in a light crust with just the right amount of bubbling and char, a delicate sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, and toppings that capture the spirit of the old country. Despite changing names to Racca’s and then back to Marco’s, Dym’s pizzeria has remained the first word in Denver pizza for nearly a decade.
What started out as little more than a cottage-industry bakery working out of a tiny Lakewood storefront in 2011 has evolved into an empanada mini-empire, thanks to the recipes and dedication of founder Lorena Cantarovici. In 2014, the chef moved her Argentinean cafe to a sunny corner on South Broadway, expanding her offerings and adding a liquor license to serve malbec from adorable penguin-shaped carafes called pinguinos. Since then, Maria Empanada has expanded to the Denver Tech Center and Stanley Marketplace, and even appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. But Denver diners didn’t need that national nod to fall in love with these half-moon pastries filled with savory meats and cheeses and baked to a golden brown.
Larimer Square wouldn’t be what it is today without the Market, which was opened as a small grocery store in 1978 by Dana Crawford, the woman responsible for saving much of LoDo’s historic architecture. Gary and Mark Greenberg took over in 1983, adding East Coast elements like an espresso bar, a full deli and Jewish specialty foods. Today the Market still hums with activity as locals and tourists alike tread the old wooden floors in search of baked goods, home-style sandwiches or just a good cup of coffee. A seat on the patio is the perfect place to watch for local celebrities and politicos, many of whom might be popping in for a sandwich, bagel or quick slice of cake.
Before chef Justin Brunson opened his own fine-dining restaurant, Old Major, he was learning the ropes at places like Zengo, Luca and Fruition. But he had an idea about sandwiches, and so began peddling deli-style offerings out of the Lancer Lounge just around the corner from Luca; that endeavor eventually led to him opening Masterpiece Delicatessen in LoHi with partner Steve Allee. The fine-dining magic still sparkles through the bread, in truffled egg salad, in a twelve-hour braised brisket with red-wine gastrique and Taleggio fondue, and in a breakfast sandwich loaded with wild mushrooms. Masterpiece Deli has evolved over the years, adding a liquor license, a little more space and a wider range of hot and cold options. But the basics that Brunson and Allee started with are still there, making lunch-goers happy for the past nine years.
For more than forty years, Marilyn Megenity has hosted the town’s most eclectic party at the Mercury Cafe, her club/cafe/community gathering place. Today it’s an institution known as much for its enlightening entertainment options — plays, poetry slams, tango parties — as it is for its healthy hippie fare. Whether vegan or carnivore, libertarian or commie, everyone feels at home at the Merc. A restaurant, dance club, music venue and speakeasy, the Mercury Cafe is in an orbit all its own, hosting everything from lindy-hop lessons to poetry readings, high teas to Green Party meetings. Rock-and-roll shows were axed years ago, but classical, jazz, avant-garde and singer-songwriter performances still go on in the Merc’s three baroque rooms. Every cultural subset can find something at the Merc, the embodiment of Denver eclecticism.
Troy Guard has channeled his hybrid Pacific Rim/Mediterranean/Latin style through many venues since landing in Denver in the early 2000s. But at Mister Tuna, which opened in RiNo in 2016, it all comes together: his childhood in Hawaii, time under fusion powerhouse Roy Yamaguchi, and a career absorbing Rocky Mountain influences. The result is a smashing combo of wood-fired cooking where meats and whole fish absorb notes of smoke; raw and cooked seafood capturing the spirit of Hawaii and Japan; and a smattering of fresh-made pastas that convey the Southwest and Italy with equal aplomb. Add homages to Guard’s pop and mom (in the name and dining-room mural, respectively), and Mister Tuna feels like an eatery with a genuine heart.
Mizuna was the first restaurant from chef Frank Bonanno, whose empire now numbers ten concepts and counting. Mizuna is still the flagship, though, a small, charming spot that encapsulates all that the chef has come to stand for in Denver’s restaurant scene: upscale tradition (in this case, French) without an over-reliance on the past, enough experimentation to keep diners entertained without becoming perplexed, and development of talent to help spread excellence through Bonanno’s various enterprises and beyond. Bonanno counts fourteen Mizuna chefs who have gone on to open their own restaurants, several of which are also restaurants we can’t live without. Without Mizuna or Bonanno himself, Denver’s culinary landscape would be far less rich and varied than it is today.
Thai Nguyen and Ha Pham presided over New Saigon restaurant for more than three decades, long enough to watch it become the oldest Vietnamese eatery in Denver — and to watch their daughters open New Saigon Bakery next door. Although the couple sold their restaurant this year, the bakery is still under family control. An and Thoa Nguyen serve up the kinds of snacks you find on bustling Vietnamese streets: banh mi sandwiches, all crusty bread loaded with pâtés and cured pork, pickled vegetables and jalapeños; sweet sticky-rice pudding, or che, made with taro and served cold with coconut milk; and jackfruit with coconut gel and coconut string. But don’t let us spoil the fun: The best way to experience the bakery is to go in and explore. You’re sure to uncover something surprising, be it a nostalgic bite of the past or an ingredient you’ve never heard of.
Shortly after Bryan Dayton and Steve Redzikowski opened Oak at Fourteenth, their plans very nearly went up in smoke. A fire forced a three-month closure that dampened some of the considerable momentum Oak had already begun to build. But from the ashes rose a restaurant that swiftly landed at the top of the dining scene, thanks to Redzikowski’s inventive wood-fired cooking and Dayton’s eye for top-notch service. Seven years later, Oak has settled into an easy groove, turning out seasonal fare culled from local farms and combined in novel combinations like scallops with kiwi and coconut, duck confit with brûléed clementine, and grilled-octopus risotto with Jimmy Nardello peppers. From disparate-sounding flavors come superb compositions, simultaneously fortifying and awe-inspiring. The cocktail program can be similarly mind-expanding, and the deep wine list and well-edited roundup of heavy-hitting beers offer myriad ways to drink with dinner.
Louie and Regan Colburn launched Denver’s poke craze when they opened Ohana Island Kitchen in the back of the Truffle Table, where they shared a bit of Louie’s native Hawaii with the Mile High. Their tuna found so many fans that they couldn’t handle them all; fortunately, they landed a lease for a sunny space across the street, which now boasts formidable lunchtime lines. Eschewing the trendy tendency (you know the places) to load bowls with such toppings as avocado, fruit, peppers and even cheese, Louie focuses on classic renditions of poke, serving cubed fish with soy and onion or tobiko-imbued spicy mayo over a bed of rice (or kale, if you’d like it lighter). A couple of other Hawaiian staples make up the rest of the limited menu, including spam musubi and kalua pork; on Fridays and Saturdays, you can try your poke with silky salmon instead of tuna. A number of imitators are now swimming in the restaurant’s wake — none as good as this one.
Pork was trendy and bacon sizzled everywhere when chef Justin Brunson opened Old Major in the up-and-coming LoHi neighborhood in 2013. But Brunson went beyond bacon, instituting a cured-meats program that followed difficult and time-consuming old-world methods. And while meat still stars on the plates — especially the continuously evolving Nose to Tail entree — served in the rough-hewn dining room that reflects the chef’s personality, respect is also given to seasonal produce and foraged ingredients. Old Major is named for a famous swine from the American literary canon, but the menu transcends pork with enough variety to make the restaurant a Denver classic.
Mary Nguyen has operated several compelling eateries over the past decade, but Olive & Finch was at once approachable and revolutionary when it opened in Uptown in 2013. Using the fast-casual model to build a restaurant with fine-dining aspirations and a quick-service price point, the chef turned out hearty breakfasts, delectable pastries, drool-inducing lunchtime sandwiches and rustic and homey dinner entrees, served in a coffeehouse vibe. The original Olive & Finch served as a prototype for future expansion; this year a second location opened in Cherry Creek with more space and a slightly more upscale vibe. The Greggers tongue sandwich, on the menu since day one, remains a favorite in our book.
Frank Bonanno followed up his posh Mizuna and Luca in Governor’s Park with Osteria Marco, a more festive Italian eatery in a basement space on Larimer Square. In 2007, things like burrata, housemade salumi and Sunday pig roasts weren’t part of the Italian-restaurant lexicon in Denver, but Bonanno made them household phrases, serving less common regional dishes alongside pizza and panini to help demystify the more esoteric side of the cuisine. Everything seemed to be ready for bare-hands eating, the food washed down with Italian beers and something called a Negroni. These days, Denverites swill Campari-based cocktails by the carafe and ask for the provenance of their white orb of burrata — all thanks in part to Osteria Marco.
The first Park Burger opened in an underserved neighborhood in the middle of one of America’s worst recessions, with a simple menu that didn’t exactly undercut fast-food prices but appealed to families looking for a night out that wouldn’t break the bank. It was an instant success, and today is still packed to the rafters with toddlers and their parents enjoying quality burgers, beers and shakes in an atmosphere so casual it barely differs from home. Park Burger has parlayed that success into similar outposts in Highland and Hilltop, along with a slightly hipper version in RiNo. But none of this would have happened had it not been for one simple fact: The burgers are great, whether topped with a fried egg, bacon and bleu or more exotic options, and there’s also a standout vegetarian patty. Founder Jean-Philippe Failyau made Denver realize the value of the locally owned burger joint in an era of fast-food giants.
Patzcuaro’s is named for a secluded mountain lake in Mexico, and like that lake, it remained a secret from all but a lucky few from its opening in 1978 until the neighborhood around it began to grow and change. In the 2000s, an influx of new residents in the Highland neighborhood fueled the cantina, originally called Taqueria Patzcuaro, to its own growth spurt. The exterior was modernized, a patio was added, and a new sign lit up West 32nd Avenue. But inside, the simple pine benches and traditional food of Michoacán didn’t change much. Meanwhile, such dishes as carnitas Michoacán, served in juicy chunks, and tacos albañil, with thin slices of potato, jalapeños and beef, continued to attract new fans. After nearly forty years on Denver’s north side, Patzcuaro’s is a fixture in this city’s Mexican-restaurant scene.
Unassuming, comfortable, reliable. Though hardly the most sophisticated table in town, Pete’s Kitchen has been sobering up late-night revelers for decades. The crown jewel of Pete Contos’s restaurant empire — which includes the Satire Lounge, just down the street — Pete’s Kitchen serves up breakfast staples that can soak up turpentine, as well as solid diner fare, much of which pays homage to Contos’s home country of Greece. Open 24/7, Pete’s even makes its own hot sauces, which pair perfectly with greasy breakfast potatoes or juicy hamburgers. A hot-sauce-making Greek running a 24/7 diner? How much more American can you get?
Every bowl of pho is just a little bit different, and every fan of Vietnamese cuisine has a preference. But Denver as a whole has latched on to Pho 95 as its favorite destination for big bowls of beefy broth and rice noodles. And that’s no wonder, as owner Aaron Le has delivered consistency and quality since he opened in a hole-in-the-wall spot on South Federal Boulevard. Pho 95 quickly outgrew those digs and in 2012 moved into a freestanding building, where many more customers could slurp noodles and sample other Vietnamese specialties. A second Pho 95 also cropped up at the Streets at SouthGlenn in 2010, giving the south suburbs the same great steaming bowl of pho.
On East Colfax Avenue, restaurants tend to get lost in the long procession of storefronts, many in various states of disrepair. But Phoenician Kabob has managed to stay in people’s memories despite its setting. Silky hummus, housemade pita and perfectly prepared Middle Eastern standards (don’t miss the namesake kabobs) are all draws, but the details — a rusty-red dusting of sumac, a savory sprinkling of za’atar, an unmistakable hit of fresh herbs — are what stick in the mind long after a meal is over. Little pastry boats called fattayer convey cheeses and meats for a unique appetizer, while bigger plates exhibit an expertise with chicken, beef and especially lamb. Food is one of the surest triggers of memories, and at Phoenician Kabob, those memories are all good.
After Frasca, Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson looked to another part of Italy for inspiration: the city of Naples. The first Pizzeria Locale, which opened in Boulder in 2011, attempted to re-create exactly the Napolitano pizzeria experience, from the custom-built imported oven to pies served uncut, meant to be eaten with a knife and fork. As Locale expanded, though, it’s revised its offerings, adjusting the menus and service to a fast-casual model; it also picked up Chipotle as a partner. The team rethought the oven to accommodate counter ordering and jettisoned more exotic toppings in favor of customary pepperoni and supreme pies. While this model is now rolling out around the country, the Boulder location remains true to the original vision, with table service and wood-fired pizzas paired to the kind of wine list you’d expect from a master-sommelier owner. No matter which Locale you choose, don't skip the butterscotch budino, a sweet caramel pudding that makes for an excellent end.
Denver clearly has a love for tiny neighborhood eateries that turn out meals on par with the big boys downtown. The Plimoth, under chef Peter Ryan, has captured the hearts of both City Park residents and those willing to take a drive into unfamiliar territory, despite its location in a somewhat ramshackle row of shops in an otherwise residential zone. Classic European technique, local ingredients and regional inspiration (masa gnocchi, puffed amanranth and tomatillos all make appearances) give guests something new to look forward to with each visit to this charming spot. And the Plimoth’s popularity continues to grow, as a recent dining-room expansion proves.
The Populist was a precursor of the RiNo restaurant boom, and with its subtle signage, it’s still easy to miss. The Populist is not a spotlight-seeker (hell, it’s named for the common man), but every time we eat here, we fall in love anew. Under chef Jonathan Power and owners Noah Price and Cliff White, the Populist continues to turn out some of the best food in the city, paired with one of the best wine lists. Power deftly integrates European, Asian and classic American flavors: In one small-plate session, you may encounter Old Bay seasoning, Tandoori chicken and Swiss raclette. Our favorite way to dine here is to spring for the tasting menu, a playful traipse through seven or eight dishes that really shows the kitchen's range. Also worth knowing: In the warmer months, the Populist has one of the most charming patios in town, secluded under twinkling lights.
Until the Post Brewing Company came along, it was almost as if Denver had no fried chicken at all, so quickly did fans flock here. Quaffable beers and a supporting cast of other countrified fare bolstered the Post’s reputation, and devotees had no trouble trekking to the bedroom community of Lafayette for a fix. Thankfully, founder Dave Query, who also runs Jax Fish House and other Denver and Boulder eateries, has expanded the scope of the Post, adding chicken and beer outposts in Longmont and south Denver. And this fall he launched another full-fledged Post restaurant/brewery on the Pearl Street Mall, making him the undisputed fried-chicken champion of Boulder County.
When Teri Rippeto opened Potager twenty years ago, naming the restaurant after the French word for “kitchen garden,” her mission put Potager on the cutting edge of dining: She planned to serve a locally sourced, seasonally driven menu, using comfort and satisfaction as her guiding light rather than any particular style of cuisine. Restaurants of that ilk now abound in Denver, but to this day, few are as good or as devoted as Potager, which remains a homey, underrated oasis. The menu evolves throughout the year as local farms, which feature prominently on the menu, move from spring greens to early summer strawberries, from August tomatoes to winter squash. No matter the season, diners can always be sure of a meal as delicious as it is simple, served in a cozy room that, yes, is as comfortable as your kitchen.
Denver’s thriving Ethiopian population supports a surprising number of restaurants devoted to the complex, spicy and warming cuisine of the east African nation. But none stand out quite as much as Zewditu Aboye’s Queen of Sheba, a one-woman show. Meals here start with tart, springy injera and progress through stewed legumes and vegetables into an array of tender meats in rich sauces. A shared platter loaded with miser wot, kitfo, doro wot and gomen (spicy lentils, seasoned raw beef, stewed chicken and collards, respectively) at Queen of Sheba is as integral a part of Denver’s diverse dining tableau as pho, ramen, enchiladas and red sauce.
For more than three decades, Racines has been the meeting spot of first and last resort in Denver. Neighbors and power brokers, college kids and yuppies: It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re coming from, there’s room for you at Racines — and for your car, since the owners added a parking structure when they built a new home for the restaurant in 2004. The eatery is still run by two of the original partners, Lee Goodfriend and David Racine, who met at a fern bar where Goodfriend was a server (“It was called a ‘waitress’ back then,” she notes) and Racine was a bartender; together they went on to build a mini-restaurant empire, of which Racines is the last vestige. But it’s quite the survivor — busy day in, day out, with an expansive menu that makes this the go-to place when you can’t decide where to go.
Rebel is an outlier in many ways, confounding expectations with its location (an industrial stretch of no-man’s land between Globeville and Five Points), menu (organ meats, vegetables that defy international categorization, a rotating pierogi special) and ambience (as if your grandma ran a pop-up supper club in a dive bar). The food changes monthly, giving owners Bo Porytko and Dan Lasiy a chance to experiment and have fun, coming up with such dishes as tripe poutine with foie gras gravy, Chinese long bean funnel cakes, and whole chimichurri octopus. While Rebel is outside RiNo’s prime hot zone, it personifies the brash vigor and DIY ethos on which the arts district was originally founded.
In late 2004, chef Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch used their considerable restaurant experience to open Rioja, a game-changer in Larimer Square. From the start, the place was packed almost every night of the week, and over the past dozen years, Rioja has only gained in popularity and national praise, even as the partners have added other, nearby eateries to their empire. The fare coming out of the open kitchen remains a jumble of Mediterranean, Spanish and loose, fusion-y concepts with handmade pastas and excellent sauces; a seat at the chef’s table is one of the hottest tickets in town. But a spot at the cozy bar is equally prized, the ideal place to grab a drink and a snack before heading out for a night in this increasingly vibrant town.
Denver’s barbecue scene has evolved considerably in recent years, giving rise to regional specialists who know their Carolina hog barbecue from their Texas oak-smoked brisket. But the city still lacked its own identity when it comes to smokehouse meats, a gap finally filled when Coy and Rachel Webb opened Roaming Buffalo in 2015. Coy, a trained chef with roots in Texas and a career in professional kitchens, decided early on to capture the spirit of Colorado in smoked lamb shanks and shoulder, bison ribs and game sausage; he also turns out more typical pork ribs and pork, sliced beef brisket and smoky chicken. His efforts have gone over well with barbecue tourists and neighbors alike; the open sign is often turned off well before the dinner hour because everything on the menu has sold out.
When Root Down opened in an old garage in 2009, it immediately took off, establishing chef/owner Justin Cucci as one of the top restaurant design talents in the city. The conversion drew on automotive and blue-collar concepts without being cheesy: rolled-up garage doors, a bar top made from a bowling alley lane, mid-century modern flourishes, artwork that channels a car-focused past. In fact, Root Down looks so good that it would still attract people even if the food were an afterthought — but Cucci’s vision for his menu was just as assertive: The kitchen puts out such big-flavored mashups as carbonara risotto, ratatouille salad and a vegetarian charcuterie board. Drinks are similarly sexed up, and brunch here is one of the most popular in town, with dishes like Vietnamese almond pancakes and fried chicken with goat-cheese biscuits. The menu is particularly vegetarian-friendly; nearly half of Root Down’s dishes are either vegetarian already or can easily be modified.
When Josh Pollack moved to Colorado from the East Coast, he lamented the lack of good bagels. Years later, after a short-lived career in the mortgage business and other entrepreneurial ventures, he decided to change that, and opened Rosenberg’s. Pollack is so obsessed with correct bagel-making technique that he reconfigures his water, adjusting the mineral content so that it more closely mimics New York City tap. And the rest of the bagel-making process at Rosenberg’s, from proofing to boiling to baking, is just as exacting. We’d poke a little fun, except that it does turn out a truly exceptional bagel, mildly crisp-skinned on the outside with supple chew within. Stack those bagels with housemade lox and gravlax — or house-cured pastrami, which Pollack rolled out when the Five Points location reopened after a fire. A word of warning: Prepare for a line, whether you're patronizing that original restaurant or the new outlet in Stanley Marketplace.
From her first store in Brighton to a Front Range flotilla of Mexican fast-food outlets, over the past 27 years, Santiago’s owner Carmen Morales has helped make breakfast burritos and green chile into Denver’s most iconic dishes. Cheap, hearty, fresh and filling are what Denverites crave in their Mexican eats, and Santiago’s fulfills all of those requirements, offering family recipes that evolved in New Mexico before coming to Colorado. Yes, the green chile’s orange — the color of a Rocky Mountain sunset — but the fire of the Hatch chiles shines through, waking up palates and sleepy brains every morning throughout the metro area.
Seoul BBQ is a labyrinth of rooms large and small, all filled with grill-inlaid tables beneath boxy exhaust hoods. This restaurant has its ’cue down to a science, churning out such standards as bulgogi beef and galbi short ribs along with more specialized cuts like pork jowl, beef tongue and pork collar with octopus. Consider the combinations if you'd like to sample a variety; they include soju and beer in their price tags. Good as the meat is, you shouldn’t overlook the rest of Seoul’s menu, which spans a number of Korean specialties, from stews to snails to bibimbap; we particularly like the bibim naengmyeon, in which cold noodles are pooled with savory, chile-imbued broth. Seoul recently added a catering shop next door, from which you can carry out Korean pastries and vats of the excellent banchan you were served as sides.
Hard as it is to believe, Snooze has only been in existence for eleven years, and today it boasts more than twenty locations in four states. Brothers Adam and Jon Schlegel started it on a then-destitute block of Larimer Street as a late-night breakfast joint before switching to more traditional breakfast and lunch hours. Denver embraced the first Snooze with such vigor that the stains of spilled coffee and Bloody Marys are visible on the sidewalks outside — if you can see them through the throng of hungry customers waiting sometimes upwards of an hour for a table. With each new iteration of the breakfast phenom, the crowds kept coming, and Snooze has maintained its hip persona even through a corporate purchase. Not bad for a little flapjack house in a flyover state.
Chef Cindhura Reddy and her husband, Elliot Strathmann, took over Spuntino from John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom in 2014, adding their own personal touches to the intimate Italian eatery. Today hand-rolled pastas and braised meats are the stars, while goat from El Regalo Ranch and creamy arancini (sometimes with Hatch chiles) have become signature items. At the bar, Strathmann has amassed a collection of Italian amari, the bitter after-dinner spirits (including several versions he makes himself) that give diners one more reason to linger. Spuntino is the neighborhood hangout that every neighborhood wishes it had.
When Steuben’s shimmied into Uptown in 2006, it filled a void in Denver dining that the city hadn’t realized existed. Owners Josh and Jen Wolkon channeled the neighborhood diners so essential to communities of yesteryear, updating the concept for the modern world. So while Steuben’s offers classic American fare — cheeseburgers and fries, pot roasts and macaroni and cheese, milkshakes and egg creams — it’s honed the execution so that the dishes are nostalgic yet well made, with elevated ingredients. Even more elevated are such items as the skirt steak with chimichurri, excellent Nashville hot chicken, an award-winning green-chile cheeseburger, and a Boston-worthy lobster roll. A kid-friendly place that’s also friendly for adults, Steuben’s offered one of the first high-end cocktail programs in Colorado, and it continues to turn out perfect classics and fun inventions that match its vibe — loud, energetic and a little rock-and-roll. The second location, in Arvada, has more diner flavor, along with such breakfast fare as biscuits and gravy.
With Rioja, Euclid Hall and Bistro Vendôme under their belts, Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch made it a foursome in 2014 with Stoic & Genuine, the oddly named but well-appointed seafood bar inside the refurbished Union Station. Gleaming oysters from both coasts, including special Stoic & Genuine varieties grown just for the restaurant, and crudos, ceviches and fillets draw seafood lovers with their unparalleled freshness, while playful interpretations of tuna melts, Reubens (salmon-based, of course) and other delights (like the miniature sand pails — complete with tiny spades — used as salt cellars) make for a lively lunch or a serious supper. Every detail is planned out, whether it’s the housemade sodas in happy-hour mixed drinks or the granitas in exotic flavors that top mollusks on the half shell. And for those looking for something a little more cowtown, the burger rates as one of the best in Denver.
A cluster of dim sum parlors surrounds the intersection of Federal Boulevard and Alameda Avenue, and all of them have their strengths — but the most consistently excellent is Super Star Asian, a bare-bones cavern whose back wall is lined with seafood tanks. Cart-pushers throng the perpetually full dining room, offering such standards as barbecue pork buns and shu mai, shrimp har gow and chicken feet. Selections are most plentiful on the weekend, but if you don’t see what you want from the extensive list of dumplings and snacks, you can always ask for it. We always make sure to get the turnip cakes, crisp-edged and sided with plummy hoisin, and custard tarts, our favorite dessert. Dim sum is really a daytime food, so nighttime at Super Star gives way to feasts: XO crab or lobster, cod in black bean sauce, pork belly with preserved cabbage, and roasted duck, which should be ordered in advance.
Gone are the days when people were suspicious of the sushi served in this landlocked state, and that’s thanks in large part to Sushi Den, the pristine house of raw fish that brothers Yasu and Toshi Kizaki opened on South Pearl Street in 1984. As testament to Sushi Den’s status, most owners of Denver’s other revered sushi restaurants spent some time within these hallowed halls. The Kizaki brothers import top-quality fish daily from Japan; it gets worked in the kitchen into an eye-popping and ever-changing run of nigiri and sashimi, twists on classic sushi, rolls and inventive Japanese dishes. Supplement your meal with classics like kobe beef kushiyaki, udon, miso cod and gyoza; better yet, book yourself into the chef’s table for this restaurant’s omakase feast, a private romp through six courses based on whatever Toshi Kizaki hauled in from the fish market that day.
There have been many changes at Table 6 since the cozy eatery opened in 2004, but after Aaron Forman took over in 2008, you knew you could count on finding not just an excellent meal, but hospitality that imparts a true sense of belonging. While chefs have come and gone, the menu has remained eclectic and often whimsical, without ever seeming too clever for its own good. A surprising wine list, an amazing brunch and Forman’s stellar collection of ties and sport coats have endeared the eatery not just to the neighborhood, but to all Denver diners in the know, with barely a slip over the years.
Park Hill has some neighborhood gems, for those who care to explore the narrow, tree-lined streets. The most sparkling? Tables. Thanks to husband-and-wife chef duo Amy Vitale and Dustin Barrett, a trip to Tables feels like a personal journey through a couple’s life in food. Fine-dining standards such as sweetbreads, rillettes, duck-liver mousse and New York strip steaks are interwoven with what seem almost like inside jokes between the two: a harissa “schmear,” sweetbreads served with bacon and “goodness,” a pumpkin-and-green-bean sauté that almost dares you to eat your vegetables. But the regulars are in on the quips, too, knowing that they’d better eat those vegetables before the offerings change with the season.
Kevin Morrison has taken a taco cart with a bawdy name and turned it into a thriving taco business. Back in 2010, Morrison often had trouble getting licenses to set up street-food sales because of his business’s original name: Pinche Tacos. At one point, he used the name Tacos Borrachos for a second stand, just so he could get past the 16th Street Mall censors. On Halloween night of 2011, he launched the brick-and-mortar version of Pinche to big crowds and critical acclaim, earning our Best New Restaurant award that year. Shortly thereafter, Morrison officially changed the name to Tacos Tequila Whiskey, but the two locations remain favorites with taco hunters looking for food as bold and audacious as that offered at the original cart. Watch for a third location soon in Governor’s Park.
Taste of Thailand was one of metro Denver’s first Thai restaurants when it opened in Englewood in 1994, and though it moved to South Broadway in 2015, it remains one of the best. Rather than being stuck in time with a set menu of unchanging dishes, chef/owner Noy Farrell visits her home country regularly, touring Thailand for new flavors and trends. So light and vibrant salads share space with blazing hot preparations and complex soups — all with the fresh flavors of Farrell’s kitchen garden. For the winter months, Taste of Thailand prepares its famous “flu shot” soup, an elixir heady with ginger, garlic, lemongrass and other herbs and spices.
Well-edited: That’s how we’d describe To the Wind Bistro, the restaurant from husband-and-wife Royce Oliveira and Leanne Adamson. The space is snug but smartly appointed, the wine list short but clever, and the menu brief but long on winners — no easy feat, given that it changes seasonally. Oliveira taps simple concepts for inspiration — a bao bun, a waffle, a Reuben sandwich, a little bone marrow — and what turns up on the table exploits nostalgic longings at the same time that it’s deliciously new. Although we still dream about the bison-tongue pastrami, paired as it was with rye-and-caraway gnocchi, Grafton cheddar and tart sauerkraut, we’re never sad when the kitchen casts a menu to the wind and starts over: That just means you’re about to make a discovery. While To the Wind is an ideal setting for a romantic date, we like the chef's counter, where you can watch the open kitchen as you eat.
Uncle was Denver’s first modern entrant in the ramen-shop category, and what an entry it was: Owner Tommy Lee took a less traditional approach than the legendary Momofuku, creating intensely complex and tasty broths as a base for a nest of noodles and other delicious accoutrements. Purists should look to the chashu, the bowl most rooted in Japanese history: Fat and rich with collagen, the soup has nearly the consistency of over-easy egg yolk and leaves a sticky sheen on your lips. The spicy chicken broth pushes at the edges of the cuisine; the soup is refined and delicate, yet redolent with generous quantities of garlic and salt, giving it the rib-sticking richness characteristic of Japanese junk food. Supplement the ramen with at least one bun — we’re partial to the soft-shell crab — and don’t overlook the small bites, which are inventive and delicious. And be prepared to wait: Four years into this restaurant’s run, the crowds show no sign of abating.
Vesta is a Denver icon, a pioneering LoDo restaurant that’s become a neighborhood staple. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t evolved: Last year, two decades after Josh and Jen Wolkon first opened the restaurant, they gave it a significant refresh, dispensing with the "dipping grill" theme that had anchored the concept and been part of its name. They kept the sleek interior, the dramatic bar and the focus on bold flavors, built from marrying global inspiration into one seasonal menu. Vesta’s well-honed food (which still includes a multitude of optional dipping sauces) means the restaurant remains special-occasion-worthy, but it’s also mellowed into a good place to find yourself on a weeknight with a bowl of cioppino and a glass of wine.
The flavorful Vietnamese sandwiches called banh mi are big these days, but the Huynh family that founded Vinh Xuong Bakery pioneered the sandwiches in Denver years before son Duc Huynh opened his stylish and sunny cafe on West Alameda in 2011. Since then, he’s served up banh mi built on fresh-baked baguettes made in the shop every morning and loaded with barbecue pork and chicken, pâté, meatballs and other housemade meats. Espresso drinks, Vietnamese coffee and traditional baked goods like moon cakes and sesame balls are also available here, providing Denver with a wonderful taste of Vietnam’s cafe culture.
Five Points has long been the focal point of African-American culture and community in Denver, with jazz and supper clubs playing a major role in the neighborhood’s history and homestyle cooking offered at a variety of storefront restaurants over the years. The one with the most staying power is the Welton Street Cafe, where the Dickerson family has kept the catfish, fried chicken, smothered pork chops and other soul-food specialties coming for customers for more than two decades. Jerk chicken and Caribbean meat pies called pâtés add to the restaurant’s repertoire — just make sure you leave room for some peach cobbler or a slice of sweet-potato pie.
Former Rioja and Bistro Vendôme employees Dana Rodriguez (the chef) and Tony Maciag (the front-of-house specialist) envisioned something egalitarian when they opened Work & Class in 2014 in a space built from shipping containers. Loud and lively, the eatery leans heavily on the chef’s Mexican upbringing — cochinita pibil and slow-cooked goat are customer favorites — while also embracing regional American cooking, from fried trout and Cajun-spiced chicken to cornbread and biscuits. The drinks flow freely and the eats come to the table in tin pans, without much fuss or adornment. But every bite is as vibrant and alive as the space itself.
Most Denver diners now realize that the orange chicken of their youth was about as Chinese as Barack Obama. But when Edward Zoe rolled out Zoe Ma Ma in Boulder, he showed that the dishes of his own youth were the real thing. So was the cook: His mother created noodles, dumplings and rice bowls rooted in the family’s native Taiwan, which also showed the influences of northern Shandong Province, where Zoe’s father was from. The place became so popular that Zoe eventually opened a second location, near Denver’s Union Station. While everything on this small but mighty menu is a hit, Zoe Ma Ma also makes the best beef noodle soup in the city. The Taiwanese staple comes laden with tender morsels of a steak’s worth of beef, a handful of baby bok choy and pickled vegetables, and fat chewy noodles, all swimming in a five-spice-inundated broth.