Eating Adventures

Eat Here: 100 Restaurants We Can't Live Without

Eat Here: 100 Restaurants We Can't Live Without
Westword
Denver’s culinary culture can be traced from Colorado’s frontier days, when wild game hunters put food on the table and herds of cattle passed through on the Goodnight-Loving Trail; through the oil boom that brought big money — and big appetites — to the state; and on into the current boom fueled by people from all over the United States coming here for sunshine, outdoor recreation (maybe a little indoor recreation, too), friendly neighbors and, yes, good food.

Thanks to Mexican settlers who were cooking here long before state boundaries were drawn, the flavors of the Southwest also permeate Colorado cuisine (you can thank their descendants for our unique Den-Mex green chile and wonton rellenos), and more recent immigrants brought their own regional Mexican styles and traditions. Italians, too, played a part in building Denver as we know it today, especially on the “Northside,” where red-sauce joints were once more common than fast-food outlets are now.

And while we're far from the "sea-washed, sunset gates" of the East and West coasts, where new arrivals from other continents have typically landed, Denver has seen its own waves of newcomers yearning to breathe free, many of them refugees from Vietnam, Ethiopia, Syria and other points on the globe; they’ve all added their own seasoning to the city’s surprisingly diverse dining scene.

The result is a cornucopia of old-school steakhouses; divey neighborhood joints that serve big menus of Italian, Greek, Mexican and American fare (sometimes all in the same place); staid and storied destination dining rooms; and pockets of ethnic eateries that keep suburban strip malls vibrant with the aromas of unfamiliar spices. The city is also full of the fast-casual counters that Denver has spawned in larger numbers and with more success than any other town, as well as the head-spinning array of new and hip spots bringing in the national trends — and often creating trends of their own that have rippled out to the rest of the country. With so much going on — from Golden to Aurora, from Boulder to Parker, and from quiet neighborhood enclaves to booming, cleverly named new zones clogged with traffic and construction dust — there’s more than any single hungry person can sort through in a day to determine what’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner.


And so we’re setting the table with Eat Here, our compilation of the 100 restaurants that we can’t live without, places that define Denver’s dining scene. Price and privilege weren’t considerations in coming up with our list; we've included some of the city's cheapest eats alongside some of its poshest. We focused on homegrown restaurants, rather than chains that opened Denver outlets. What mattered most was good food, though an eatery’s historical significance and intangible appeal also factored in — because sometimes we simply love reminders of where we came from as well as where we’re going.

We’ve only included places that opened before this year and can provide a full-on meal (so ice cream parlors and sweet shops, for example, weren’t considered). We also held off on including watering holes; we’ll pour out our list of bars we can't live without in Drink Here, coming in early 2018. But otherwise, we just went with our hearts and bellies, thinking about what we’d miss if it disappeared, wondering what Denver would be like if a certain restaurant had never existed and, above all, remembering what wakes us up in the middle of the night with undeniable cravings.

So read up and then eat up: Here are 100 restaurants for you to discover — or to return to again and again.

click to enlarge 12@Madison shows off its skills with vegetables. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
[email protected] shows off its skills with vegetables.
Danielle Lirette
[email protected]
1160 Madison Street
720-216-0190
12atmadison.com

Restaurateur Jeff Osaka’s first fine-dining establishment since he closed the acclaimed twelve, [email protected] 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 [email protected] became a Colorado classic the moment it opened last December.


Acorn
3350 Brighton Boulevard
720-542-3721
denveracorn.com

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.

Atomic Cowboy/Denver Biscuit Co./Fat Sully’s Pizza
Three metro locations
303-377-7900
atomiccowboy.net

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.

Bar Dough
2227 West 32nd Avenue
720-668-8506
bardoughdenver.com

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.

Barolo Grill
3030 East Sixth Avenue
303-393-1040
barologrilldenver.com

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.

Basta
3601 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
303-997-8775
bastaboulder.com

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.

click to enlarge Bastien's still grills a great steak. - MARK ANTONATION
Bastien's still grills a great steak.
Mark Antonation
Bastien’s
3503 East Colfax Avenue
303-322-0363
bastiensrestaurant.com

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.

Beast + Bottle
719 East 17th Avenue
303-623-3223
beastandbottle.com

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.

Beatrice & Woodsley
38 South Broadway
303-777-3505
beatriceandwoodsley.com

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.

Biju’s Little Curry Shop
1441 26th Street, 303-292-3500
4279 Tennyson Street, 303-975-6886
littlecurryshop.com

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.

Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs
2148 Larimer Street
720-746-9355
bikerjimsdogs.com

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.

Bistro Barbès
5021 East 28th Avenue
720-398-8085
bistrobarbes.com

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
1420 Larimer Street
303-825-3232
bistrovendome.com

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.

click to enlarge Seasonal produce on the plate at Bittersweet. - MARK ANTONATION
Seasonal produce on the plate at Bittersweet.
Mark Antonation
Bittersweet
500 East Alameda Avenue
303-942-0320
bittersweetmusic.com

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.

Blackbelly
1606 Conestoga Street, Boulder
303-247-1000
blackbelly.com

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.

click to enlarge Black Cat Bistro owner Eric Skokan digs sweet potatoes on his farm. - LINNEA COVINGTON
Black Cat Bistro owner Eric Skokan digs sweet potatoes on his farm.
Linnea Covington
Black Cat Bistro
1964 13th Street, Boulder
303-444-5500
blackcatboulder.com

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.

Blue Pan Pizza
3930 West 32nd Avenue, 720-456-7666
3509 East 12th Avenue, 720-519-0944
bluepandenver.com

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.

click to enlarge The Bonnie Brae Tavern is one of Denver's oldest restaurants. - MARK ANTONATION
The Bonnie Brae Tavern is one of Denver's oldest restaurants.
Mark Antonation
Bonnie Brae Tavern
740 South University Boulevard
303-777-2262
bonniebraetavern.com

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.

Bourbon Grill
571 East Colfax Avenue
303-355-3821
facebook.com/bourbongrill

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.

Breakfast King
300 West Mississippi Avenue
303-733-0795

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.

The Buckhorn Exchange has to be the weirdest restaurant in central Denver. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BUCKHORN EXCHANGE
The Buckhorn Exchange has to be the weirdest restaurant in central Denver.
Photo courtesy of Buckhorn Exchange
Buckhorn Exchange
1000 Osage Street
303-534-9595
buckhorn.com

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.

Cafe Brazil
4408 Lowell Boulevard
303-480-1877
cafebrazildenver.com

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.

Casa Bonita
6715 West Colfax Avenue, Lakewood
303-232-5115
casabonitadenver.com

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.

Cherry Cricket
2641 East Second Avenue
303-322-7666
cherrycricket.com

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.

click to enlarge Chipotle's original location, on East Evans Avenue. - MARK ANTONATION
Chipotle's original location, on East Evans Avenue.
Mark Antonation
Chipotle
1644 East Evans Avenue
303-722-4121
chipotle.com

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.

ChoLon Modern Asian
1555 Blake Street
303-353-5223
cholon.com

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 xiaolongbao 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.

Chubby’s
1231 West 38th Avenue
303-455-9311

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.

City, O’ City
206 East 13th Avenue
303-831-6443
cityocitydenver.com

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.

Domo Japanese Country Food Restaurant
1365 Osage Street
303-595-3666
domorestaurant.com

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.

Duo
2413 West 32nd Avenue
303-477-4141
duorestaurants.com

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.

El Chingon
4326 Tennyson Street
303-248-3641
elchingondenver.com

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.

El Taco de Mexico
714 Santa Fe Drive
303-623-3926
eltacodemexicodenver.com

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.

Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen
1317 14th Street
303-595-4255
euclidhall.com

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.

Flagstaff House
1138 Flagstaff Road, Boulder
303-442-4640
flagstaffhouse.com

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.

Frasca Food & Wine
1738 Pearl Street, Boulder
303-442-6966
frascafoodandwine.com

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.

click to enlarge The scene at Fruition. - WESTWORD
The scene at Fruition.
Westword
Fruition
1313 East Sixth Avenue
303-831-1962
fruitionrestaurant.com

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.

Gaetano’s
3760 Tejon Street
303-455-9852
gaetanositalian.com

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.

Highland Tap & Burger
2219 West 32nd Avenue
720-287-4493
highlandtapdenver.com

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.

click to enlarge Hop Alley on Larimer Street. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
Hop Alley on Larimer Street.
Danielle Lirette
Hop Alley
3500 Larimer Street
720-379-8340
hopalleydenver.com

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
3920 Tennyson Street
303-477-7000
hopsandpie.com

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.

Meats and sausages curing at Il Porcellino. - MARK ANTONATION
Meats and sausages curing at Il Porcellino.
Mark Antonation
Il Porcellino Salumi
4334 West 41st Avenue
303-477-3206
ilporcellinodenver.com

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.

click to enlarge Il Posto's new RiNo home. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
Il Posto's new RiNo home.
Danielle Lirette
Il Posto
2601 Larimer Street
303-394-0100
ilpostodenver.com

Before Il Posto made its move this year to swanky new digs in RiNo, it occupied a tiny cubby of space in Uptown where Italian chef/owner Andrea Frizzi created an atmosphere of controlled chaos and effervescent celebration, augmented by a frenetic open kitchen that turned out excellent traditional northern Italian fare. We worried that the move might dampen some of the charm, and it did make the place grow up: The mezzanine level of the two-story restaurant features a stunning view of the skyline, and downstairs diners cozy up in sleek round booths beneath a chic and snaking chandelier. But the fun-fueled vibe remains, helped along by Frizzi’s struts through the dining room, where he proves that he’s the unofficial mayor of his neighborhood by greeting just about everyone by name. You can help the vibe along, too, by sending a six-pack — of Jack Daniel's — to the kitchen, as prodded by a prominent sign. Whatever you do, don't miss the risotti, the homemade pastas or the dessert bombolini.

Izakaya Den
1487 South Pearl Street
303-777-0691
izakayaden.net

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.

Jax Fish House
Three metro locations
jaxfishhouse.com

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.

click to enlarge Jerusalem on East Evans Avenue. - SCOTT LENTZ
Jerusalem on East Evans Avenue.
Scott Lentz
Jerusalem
1890 East Evans Avenue
303-777-8828
jerusalemrestaurant.com

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.

King's Land Chinese Seafood
2200 West Alameda Avenue
303-975-2399

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.

The Kitchen
1039 Pearl Street, Boulder, 303-544-5973
1530 16th Street, 303-623-3127
thekitchenbistros.com

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.

La Loma
1801 Broadway
303-433-8300
lalomamexican.com

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.

Linger
2030 West 30th Avenue
303-993-3120
lingerdenver.com

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.

click to enlarge Appetizers at Lola. - LOLA COASTAL MEXICAN
Appetizers at Lola.
Lola Coastal Mexican
Lola Coastal Mexican
1575 Boulder Street
720-570-8686
loladenver.com

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.

Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizza
2129 Larimer Street, 303-296-7000
10111 Inverness Main Street, Englewood, 303-790-9000
marcoscfp.com

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.

Maria Empanada
1298 South Broadway, 303-934-2221
8000 East Belleview Avenue, Greenwood Village, 303-221-9013
mariaempanada.com

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.

The Market
1445 Larimer Street
303-534-5140
themarketatlarimer.com

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.

Masterpiece Delicatessen
1575 Central Street
303-561-3354
masterpiecedeli.com

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.

Mercantile's Union Station dining room. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
Mercantile's Union Station dining room.
Danielle Lirette
Mercantile Dining & Provision
1701 Wynkoop Street
720-460-3733
mercantiledenver.com

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.

Mercury Cafe
2199 California Street
303-294-9258
mercurycafe.com

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.

click to enlarge The mural at Mister Tuna. - LINNEA COVINGTON
The mural at Mister Tuna.
Linnea Covington
Mister Tuna
3033 Brighton Boulevard
303-831-8862
mistertuna.com

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
225 East Seventh Avenue
303-832-4778
mizunadenver.com

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.

New Saigon Bakery
640 South Federal Boulevard
303-935-7859

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.

Oak at Fourteenth
1400 Pearl Street
303-444-3622
oakatfourteenth.com

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.

click to enlarge Spam musubi at Ohana Island Kitchen. - LINNEA COVINGTON
Spam musubi at Ohana Island Kitchen.
Linnea Covington
Ohana Island Kitchen
2563 15th Street
303-718-6580
ohanadenver.com

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.

click to enlarge Old Major is a major part of lower Highland. - SCOTT LENTZ
Old Major is a major part of lower Highland.
Scott Lentz
Old Major
3316 Tejon Street
720-420-0622
oldmajordenver.com

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.

Olive & Finch
1552 East 17th Avenue, 303-832-8663
3390 East First Avenue, 303-955-0455
oliveandfincheatery.com

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.

Osteria Marco
1453 Larimer Street, 303-534-5855
osteriamarco.com

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.

click to enlarge Patzcuaro's has changed a lot over the years, at least from the outside. - FACEBOOK/PATZCUARO'S
Patzcuaro's has changed a lot over the years, at least from the outside.
Facebook/Patzcuaro's
Patzcuaro’s
2616 West 32nd Avenue
303-455-4389
patzcuaros.com

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.

Park Burger
Multiple metro locations
720-242-9951
parkburger.com

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.

Pete’s Kitchen
1962 East Colfax Avenue
303-321-3139
petesrestaurants.com

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?

Pho 95 Noodle House
1401 South Federal Boulevard, 303-936-3322
6879 South Vine Street, Centennial, 303-797-9535
pho95noodlehouse.com

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.

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