It's been a banner year for Denver restaurants... and restaurateurs

It was the year of the entrepreneur and the restaurateur," says Jim Pittenger, owner of Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs. After six years of slinging sausages from street carts, he opened his own brick-and-mortar outpost at 2148 Larimer Street this past spring.

And Pittenger has a point. By our count, close to 300 restaurants have opened in metro Denver in 2011, a big increase over last year, when just over 200 concepts — many of them food trucks — arrived on the scene.

This year several of those food trucks' owners — like Pittenger and Kevin Morrison, owner of Pinche Taqueria, which opened in October at 1514 York Street — picked up permanent addresses. "Our goal was to test the market with the truck during one season," Morrison explains. "We would have opened earlier, but we couldn't find the right location."

Hot dog! Jim Pittenger opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant on hot, hot Larimer Street.
Mark Manger
Hot dog! Jim Pittenger opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant on hot, hot Larimer Street.

Pittenger went indoors after he "got tired of taking phone calls on Sunday afternoon," he says. "They'd say, 'Hey, is this the hot dog guy? Where you at?' And then I'd say, 'You know it's snowing out, right? And you know I'm a cart, right? I'm at home in my underwear. Where you at?' It's nice to say, 'We're at 22nd and Larimer.' That was a good enough reason to get the doors open on the place."

But Pittenger also acknowledges that nailing down the right spot was a deciding factor. "The Ballpark neighborhood worked out pretty perfectly for us," he says. "Two blocks from Coors Field is a pretty good place to have a hot dog place." Or a pizza place. Or a Scandinavian place. The stretch of Larimer that's home to Biker Jim's has become a veritable restaurant row, with his hot dog joint, Trillium and Ignite joining a lineup that already included Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria, Snooze, Hi-Rise, twelve and a few longtime Larimer institutions like Mexico City Lounge and Herb's Hideout.

Why there? "Parking's a little better than downtown," says Pittenger. "The neighborhood is still sketchy enough to be interesting. And rental rates are still a little cheaper than downtown, though not a ton. It's pretty up-and-coming, and a lot of people are living in that neighborhood now. There's a good shot that eighty days out of the year, you're going to do pretty well with a ballgame going on within a couple of blocks."

Ryan Leinonen, who opened Trillium at 2134 Larimer earlier this month, agrees. "The north end of Larimer is still up-and-coming," he says. "There's the ballpark, and the residential tide is turning. In a couple of years, that area is going to be more expensive." And, he adds, "I wanted to be surrounded by other destination restaurants."

So did Aaron Lobato, who — along with his brother, Andre, and their friend Joey Newman — opened a second restaurant, the Crimson Canary, at 141 South Broadway in the also up-and-coming Baker neighborhood, just a few years after they'd put Interstate Kitchen and Bar, their first venture, in the Santa Fe Art District. "With the location of Interstate, we knew it was going to be a fight," he explains. "We thought, 'Can we keep this thing alive for five years and then maybe really grow?' It's a developing neighborhood, and we knew we had to be in the show. It's not a fight we wanted to do over. The old Mona's spot was a more ideal location. People are already out and on that street spending money on food and drink. We just have to convince them to give us our fair share."

Robert Thompson, who opened Le Grand Bistro and Oyster Bar in August at 1512 Curtis Street and plans to open Punch Bowl in February in the Baker neighborhood, also thinks that area is a good bet. "Baker has had its own momentum for ten years," he explains. "The Hornet was the pioneer in the neighborhood. Since then, Baker has had a train that got moving and got moving slow, but it built up steam and it'll be hard to stop. Baker will go through another change, and it will be more food- and restaurant-influenced as opposed to focused on bars."

A few blocks of Alameda made for a third hot stretch of restaurant real estate in 2011: Bittersweet opened at 500 East Alameda Avenue just in time for the ball drop, and a handful of other restaurants moved into the area north of Washington Park. "There's a lot of good exposure here and a lot of volume of traffic," explains Eric Rivera, the chef who opened Cafe|Bar at 295 South Pennsylvania Street at the beginning of October. "This spot was perfect. There's a marketing opportunity of having the building here." Plus, there was the prospect of diversifying restaurant options in the area. "There are seven Asian restaurants within a block and a half, and there's Bittersweet on the high end, but there's little else in between," Rivera notes.

And once he and partner Dane Huguley found the spot, they weren't about to be deterred by the still-lousy economy. "If you open when it's the toughest, you'll survive later on," Rivera says.

They weren't the only entrepreneurs to take that tack. "People would say, 'Are you crazy? You're opening a restaurant in this economy?'" recalls Diane Coohill, who opened Coohills with her husband, nationally recognized chef Tom Coohill, at 1400 Wewatta Street this fall. "But we were going to all these restaurants, and they were packed."

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You need to check out Maxlunch, they have expanded on their food wagon concept, opening a killer sandwich shop at 1899 Wynkoop street. They opened in early October and have plans to open two more shops in 2012. You can check them out at and on facebook


Add Charcoal to the list of best new restaurants.