So you've settled into your seat at Acorn or Oak at Fourteenth, and you're looking over the menu as your drinks arrive. Look carefully. What you're holding isn't just doing what most menus do — laying out the options and listing ingredients to help you decide what to order. After you've eaten as many meals at these restaurants as we have, you begin to see the menus for what they really are: culinary haiku. Okay, so dish descriptions don't have exactly seventeen syllables, but the way the ingredients come together on your plate is nothing short of poetry — and chef-owner (and 2015 James Beard Foundation semi-finalist) Steven Redzikowski is the reason why. Like any good poet, Redzikowski is a master of juxtaposition, putting together cuisines, spices, flavors and textures in invigorating, unexpected ways. Take carrots, for example. Who else would pair these root vegetables with burrata, blood oranges and chile-almond jam? Or sprinkle togarashi over shaved apples and kale? With an eye to the seasons and a global curiosity, Redzikowski dreams up the food we long to eat, with numerous dishes so good, they've become the standards against which others in town are measured.

Readers' choice: Jennifer Jasinski

In November 2004, chef Jen Jasinski and partner Beth Gruitch opened Rioja, an immediate hit in Larimer Square. But the two didn't rest on their laurels. They took on the nearby Bistro Vendôme, then opened Euclid Hall, a beer-and-sausage emporium around the corner. And they didn't stop there, either. Even while Jasinski was competing on Top Chef Masters and picking up a James Beard Best Chef Southwest award, they were planning their next move: Stoic & Genuine in Union Station. We can't wait to see what the next decade brings.

Union Station

Over the years, halfhearted attempts have been made to open bars and restaurants inside Union Station, but it took a massive overhaul of the building, including the addition of a high-end hotel, to turn the historic train station into a destination dining area with multiple options for breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks. Whether you’re just looking for a cup of joe — Pigtrain Coffee will fill that need — or going all in for a multi-course meal from one of Denver’s hottest chefs, you’ll find what you’re looking for: weekend brunch at the latest location of Snooze, a beer at the Terminal Lounge, a quick snack at Acme Burgers and Brats, and some of the freshest seafood in town at Stoic & Genuine. Go casual and healthy at the Kitchen Next Door or dress up for a special occasion at Alex Seidel’s Mercantile Dining & Provision (with a stop in the market for some housemade cheeses, salumi and pickles, of course). And if you absolutely insist on going outside, there are more eateries in the brand-new buildings that flank the station, including some of Denver’s best Chinese cuisine at Zoe Ma Ma. All aboard!

Readers’ choice: River North

Work & Class
Molly Martin

When Delores Tronco and Tony Maciag took a chance on a shipping-container development in the Ballpark/RiNo neighborhood for the home of their new restaurant, the area was trending in the right direction — but its success wasn't yet a fait accompli. Work & Class, with its feel-good combination of craveable eats and drinks, sealed the deal, making the neighborhood one of the hottest in town and a seat on the restaurant's patio or at its concrete communal table even hotter. Putting out spectacular Latin and American food that has since nabbed chef-owner Dana Rodriguez a James Beard nomination for Best Chef Southwest, the packed, noisy place is on a perpetual wait, as people can't get enough of the meats such as cochinita pibil, cabrito (roasted goat) and coriander-roasted lamb served by the quarter, half or full pound. Sides and desserts — think custardy chickpea croquettes, Brussels sprout-apple-bacon hash and deeply caramelized butterscotch pudding — reflect Rodriguez's high-end training and unpretentious approach.

Readers' choice: Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery

Table 6
Cassandra Kotnik

Man could live by bread alone, but how much better that life would be with a smear of softened butter. The crew at Table 6 knows this, which is why they start your meals with thick slices of crusty bread and plenty of salt-sprinkled butter. And not just any salt, but an artful trio of the red Hawaiian, sel gris and black Hawaiian lava varieties, all of which add slightly different textures and mineral components. Bread and butter are complimentary, an increasingly rare gesture these days, and yet another sign of the thoughtfulness that makes Table 6 a restaurant to return to, despite all the new kids on the block.

Mercantile Dining & Provision
Danielle Lirette

Rarely does a restaurant come along with such grand ambitions as Mercantile Dining & Provision. Even rarer is the restaurant that pulls them off. But under the scrupulous eye of chef-owner Alex Seidel, Mercantile does: effortlessly, elegantly, charismatically. By day, it bustles with the purpose and energy of Union Station, drawing people through its doors for croissants, coffee, perhaps a croque madame to enjoy while sitting in the light that streams through the historic building's windows. By night, the bar fills and guests take their seats with an anticipation that's almost palpable, eager for a meal befitting this repeat James Beard Foundation honoree. Seidel and chef de cuisine/proprietor Matt Vawter clearly relish the opportunities afforded by Mercantile's expansive kitchen, putting out a menu as sweeping as the space. Though it's easy to make a meal of exquisite starters such as cured meats and Fruition Farms cheeses, bone marrow and foie gras with duck-confit blinis, you'll regret it if you do, and this isn't the place for regrets. So give in and order whatever pasta, vegetable and heartier protein strikes your fancy, knowing that the night isn't over until you've tried one of Lonne Cunningham's exuberant desserts.

Readers' choice: Work & Class

Blackbelly
Danielle Lirette

Tucked into an east Boulder shopping center in an old building that was once the cafeteria for Ball Aerospace, Blackbelly doesn’t look like much from the outside, but step inside and two features immediately stand out: the gleaming stainless-steel and white-tile butcher shop up front, and the wide-open chef’s counter where Blackbelly mastermind Hosea Rosenberg and his crew ply their trade. Chef’s counters were definitely a trend in 2014, but how many of them feature a celebrity chef who burst onto the scene after a come-from-behind win on Bravo’s Top Chef? Despite his early fame, Rosenberg chose to lie low for several years while building a catering business and Boulder County farmstead that supplies meat and produce for his solid menu packed full of quiet surprises. But now he’s back in the limelight, at least for those lucky enough to snag a seat at the counter, where steak tartare is diced by hand with meticulous and deliberate knife strokes and hangar steaks are seared to a perfect medium-rare. While guests may show up to get cozy with the affable Rosenberg, it quickly becomes clear that the food is the real star.

Readers' choice: Mercantile Dining & Provision

The Village Cork

Every neighborhood needs a welcoming, relaxed, romantic little wine bar like the Village Cork, which was renovated last year but kept its original wine-bar ambience, which has drawn fans for fourteen years. Wine snobbery isn’t on the menu here; instead, the staff is friendly, easygoing and knowledgeable, eager to walk you through a refreshingly off-the-beaten-path wine list. Wine flights focus on region or varietal, and the liquor list is heavy on small-batch, locally produced spirits. The seasonally inspired menu highlights French and American cuisine — mostly organic, and free of added hormones or antibiotics. But it’s the seductive interior, awash with warm, golden light and the clink of glasses touching, that makes the Village Cork a first-date no-brainer. That, and the unbeatable wine offerings, which make everything seem a little more romantic.

Readers’ choice: The Infinite Monkey Theorem

The best happy-hour dishes capture the feeling and intent of a restaurant on one small, cheap plate. That's a tall order for most places, but Old Major rises to the challenge. The lauded Highland restaurant offers a happy-hour bill of fare that evolves and shifts based on the kitchen's whims. The best of the rotating dishes is the sausage plate, a small yet significant taste of Old Major's wonderful ways with meat. Five bucks gets you a sample of a housemade sausage of the day, enough to appreciate its details — the fine grind, the balance of spices. And the presentation alone elevates this dish to art: Thoughtful condiments are daubed with care, and the sausage is plated with a smattering of complementary veggies. This is a refreshingly contemplative snack even in the rush of a happy hour, a reminder of why Old Major still enthralls.

Picking a favorite joint for green chile can often come down to what camp you’re in: Are you a New Mexico Hatch-head, a Den-Mex devotee, or a newcomer caught in the crossfire who’s just looking for a spicy bowl? Since most of the New Mexico versions around town tend to be watered-down shades of verde, Colorado-style is the way to go here. And while better-known chile kitchens attract much of the attention, Señor Burritos (at 12 East First Avenue) quietly turns out top-caliber blue-collar sauce right around the corner from one of the city’s most buzzed-about culinary zones along Broadway. The green chile here has a warm, orange hue magnified by a slick of glistening fat on top – all the better to soak up with a steaming tortilla. The chile is thickened just enough to make it rib-sticking (or burrito-sticking, if you opt for a smothered breakfast bomb) without becoming gravy-like glop. Bits of green chiles and tomato bob in the broth, and chunks of pork too big to fit on the spoon lay mostly submerged like meaty icebergs. The pork is so tender that all you’ll need is that spoon to break the pieces apart into more manageable bites. It’s a spicy stew but not painfully so, which means that by the spoonful or atop a fat breakfast burrito, you’ll be able to taste the deep flavor from the first to the last bite. Readers' choice: Santiago's

Best Of Denver®

Best Of