Local chefs dish on Denver's dining scene
If you're anything like us, even the most pressing concerns — Is there life after death? By what percentage will Obama beat Romney in the presidential election? How much longer till Lindsay Lohan gets caught with hoisted diamonds in her bra? — are kicked to the asphalt at the mere mention of dinner. Where should we eat? That's the real question, the one that most of us ask ourselves nearly every day around five or six, when our bellies begin to burp with hunger pains.
Lucky for us, the choices in Denver are almost endless — even top chefs and restaurateurs have a hard time narrowing down their favorite spots for a meal. But we prodded them anyway, and their answers, much like ours, span the spectrum. And we weren't done questioning them: We also asked them to give us insight into the trends that have shaped this year's culinary climate.
Herewith their quirky, serious and, at times, eyebrow-arching answers.
Steuben's/Vesta Dipping Grill/Ace
Your favorite restaurant in town: I love going to Il Posto. The kitchen staff is doing some really great things right now with fresh seasonal foods and a bit of progressive technique. I really like the space, too, and the entire staff is amazing and makes you feel right at home. Not only did I spend my daughter's fifth birthday there — her choice — but also my 35th, and both evenings were exceptional.
Westword has a new restaurant reviewer. What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Like all reviewers, they should give a fair, unbiased review, as well as be a person who explains or interprets the restaurant scene to the non-restaurant worker. A middleman of sorts, I suppose.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Denver has really continued to blow up this year. There are great places, big and small,
everywhere you turn, in every part of town. It's great to see so many independent restaurants find success and not feel like there's a big air of competition, but just one of camaraderie and support.
Your favorite restaurant in town: ChoLon. I love Lon's cooking, and his dedication and hard work are showcased in every dish he serves.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? A reviewer should help the reader get excited about new restaurants, warn us when they think a place is less than good, and entertain and enlighten the reader.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Breakfast joints seem to be all the rage. There aren't enough really good breakfast places, but those that are good are killing it. Oh, great — now I want pancakes.
Vesta Dipping Grill/Ace/Steuben's
Favorite restaurant in town: Right now it's Strings. While I haven't been in for food, I do know that Tammy is carrying Noel's torch and that the Strings family is recovering more and more every day. Nothing but love for the past, present and future of Strings.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? The role of the reviewer should be to educate and entertain, but to do so in a way that understands and respects the livelihood of the restaurateur.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: That once again Denver had a huge year of restaurant growth with very few closings. Denver continues to grow, and its food scene just continues to get better and better.
Cellar Wine Bar
Your favorite restaurant in town: Lao Wang Noodle House. I love it for its simplicity and authenticity. It's just two people who love what they do — and they do it so damn well. I think it's representative of something that's rarely seen in American dining but is often the general rule elsewhere in the world: someone doing something very specific — in this case, noodles and dumplings — and doing it extremely well. All too often, restaurants try to do too many things rather than using restraint and focusing on doing just one thing perfectly. Perfect noodles and dumplings — that's what I crave.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? In this age of blogs and apps and Yelp and Urbanspoon, the professional — and hopefully trained reviewer — is actually more important than ever. It's awesome that anyone can go to a restaurant and immediately write a review, but that immediate reviewing privilege is often misused or simply used inappropriately due to ignorance or naiveté about the realities of our industry. The professional reviewer or critic serves a vital role as a standard-bearer — someone whom the general public, as well as the industry, can look to as a reputable measurement among all of the online reviews written by just anyone.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: I'd love to say that the proliferation of food trucks has been a good and interesting development for the food scene in Denver this year, particularly because Denver has always been lacking in street food. But just the other day, I saw an Applebee's food truck, and with it, I witnessed the death of everything good about that trend. On a better note, I think the sheer talent in this town, combined with the number of wonderful restaurants — new and old — putting out good, wholesome, made-with-love thoughtful food, is a tremendous development. The fact that Denver is finally starting to get a little bit of national recognition as a serious food town is pretty awesome.
Big Red F Restaurant Group
Your favorite restaurant in town: In Boulder, I like to eat at Oak at Fourteenth, Radda Trattoria, Sushi Zanmai, Marie's and, of course — and forever — my all-time favorite: Mustard's Last Stand.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? A reviewer should know what the fuck he or she is talking about. They should have experience in the restaurant business, understand the industry, and possibly have a bit of knowledge and craft to pull from so that he or she doesn't sound like a complete fucking idiot when they talk about, describe, or tear apart a dish that they have no understanding of. Industries as a standard usually require the person critiquing them to have some previous experience and knowledge of the business they are reviewing — and in most cases, they aren't respected if they don't. Except somewhere along the line, anyone who can make a reservation and properly hold a fork was given carte blanche in the hospitality industry to sometimes review a restaurant and talk about a chef's ability, or inability, to do his or her job. They are really just being asked to give an opinion — because at that point, that's all it is: an uneducated opinion.
Please. Get a food reviewer who has some experience. Who knows what the fuck he or she is talking about. And who has spent some time in the business, so that we can get back to really looking forward to food reviews, respecting what's being written, and finding some consistency and intelligence in the rankings and reviewing(s) of restaurants along the Front Range. It's the next step to Denver being taken even more seriously as an evolving food town.
What's been the most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year? Meat glue.
Your favorite restaurant in town: I'm a big fan of Fuel Cafe. I dig Bob Blair's creativity with local and seasonal foods and his commitment to organically raised foods. He understands, as well as anyone, that local and fresh really does taste better.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Give kind reviews to my pizza. I'm kidding...kind of. The reviewer should give an honest, non-partial opinion of Denver's eateries — and promote Denver's arrival on the culinary scene. I'm sick of hearing people say that Denver lacks great restaurants. Are you kidding me? I've been in Denver for, well, forever, and it's come a long, long way in terms of culinary greatness.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Beer — and lots and lots of it coming out of our amazing breweries. I like that beer is becoming the new wine and how well it pairs with...pizza.
Your favorite restaurant in town: I have many favorites, and it all depends on what kind of food I'm in the mood for. For tacos, it's El Taco de Mexico; for Vietnamese, it's New Saigon; for a totally local dinner, I love Potager; and I go to Euclid Hall for inventive pub fare. And those are just a few of my favorites. There are so many great restaurants in the city that I can't begin to list all the ones I love.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? A reviewer should objectively review our local eateries and then give us the highs and lows of the experience. It would also be awesome if the reviewer would help promote Denver chefs. We ain't a cowtown no more.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: It was — and is — the battle between the health department and chefs on food preparation.
Around the World in 80 Plates contestant
Your favorite restaurant in town: I love, love, love twelve. I think Jeff Osaka makes beautiful food, and I truly respect what he creates, not just within his kitchen and with his own hands, but also within the culinary community here in Denver. He works to foster the same things I believe in.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? A reviewer best serves its readers by offering an unbiased opinion of a restaurant experience after at least a few visits to the restaurant. I also love it when a reviewer offers me background on a restaurant's story and staff, as well as an accurate sense of what to expect when dining.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The continued forward motion of our burgeoning culinary scene. It just gets better every year.
Your favorite restaurant in town: Squeaky Bean. I remember back about ten years ago, sitting around a campfire in Breckenridge, talking with Max MacKissock. He had a very clear vision of the restaurant he wanted to own and the career path he needed to take in order to make that happen. His ability to surround himself with talented, driven people who share the same goal of doing the best they possibly can has allowed him to open one of the best restaurants I've been to. The food is amazing food, and everyone who works there is kick-ass. It's nice to see good friends reap the success of their hard work, especially when it tastes so goddamn good.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? I think of a reviewer as a well-versed entertainer. By that I mean I want to read a review by someone who has a legit culinary background combined with the wit and wisdom to provide keen insight into the workings of the reviewed establishment. I've read enough quotes about how tasting a certain dish evoked thoughts of...blah, blah, blah (fill in region or past restaurant of your choice). Tell me about the subtle clues you perceive by watching the staff work together. Or open it up and ask the chef/owner/manager questions about what they're trying to achieve. Make it fun, but have humility.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: I'm not much of a trend spotter, and I'm a little too busy to glean a theme for the Denver scene, but I'll admit that I'm amazed by how full and busy our numerous restaurants are. Many of our quality establishments raise the bar for all — so cheers to the Denver restaurant patrons and their love of good food. Without them, we'd all be screwed.
Williams & Graham
Your favorite restaurant in town: That's going to depend on the day, my mood, where I am and how much time I have — all that. But overall, speaking to design, service, food and drink quality, and fruition of concept, I have to say the Squeaky Bean. It's a beautiful blend of elegance and irreverence, culture and kitsch — much like Johnny and Max themselves. Plus, I love ogling that French top range.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Foremost: To be, or at the very least appear to be, honest and knowledgeable. Secondly, to actually review restaurants. That means commenting on good and bad things about food, drink, service and ambience. Get people going to new and/or great places, or knock the wind out of someone's pretentious sails. It doesn't mean continuing campaigns of food politics, helping a friend or stroking some "Denver Big Dog." Lastly, like everywhere else in the industry, I don't care if it was raining and your pretty hat got wet, or if you've had a bad day. And I certainly don't need to hear about it. Just do the job.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Love, or a resurgence of energy. There are a lot of new places out there putting out great things, because they care, and there are a lot of new spots with familiar faces changing it up or feeling a breath of fresh air. And I appreciate the established icons that are sticking to their standards of service — not getting complacent. These things make me happy. I love having two great new breakfast spots in my neighborhood, neither overrun with hipsters or douches. I love seeing friends out there with new menus, new spaces and new toys. And I love going somewhere I've been going to for years and having it feel like the same great place I remember.
Your favorite restaurant in town: Based on the sheer frequency that I eat there, it's probably Jerusalem. I live nearby and usually end up eating here at least a few times a month. I've been going late-night ever since high school, and it's definitely become comfort food to me. Sometimes their consistency lacks, but when it's right, it's incredible.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? To be honest, I don't think I should know that a restaurant reviewer is a restaurant reviewer until after they've reviewed me — so, anonymity. After that, the role of a reviewer should be to report their experience from the standpoint of a customer. If I'm a guy choosing where to take a date and I'm relying on Westword to point me in the right direction, I want the review to have the upsides and downsides of each place. Every restaurant has both, even if they're closer to one side than the other.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: For me, it's the fact that there are a lot of new places opening — and even better, they're independent places with some character. Guests seem to be going out on a limb and trying new things, and I think Denver has a lot of chefs with great ideas and a willingness to push the envelope. Everybody's been beaten over the head with the recession since 2008, but I think it's turning out small-business owners who are more willing to invest in themselves than leave it up to somebody on Wall Street to play with their money.
Elway's Cherry Creek
Favorite restaurant in town: When I need to get a break from the beef world, Jen, my wife, and I go to Sushi Den. We're fortunate to have an amazing friendship with owners Yasu and Toshi, so they create an awesome tasting menu for us every time we come in. They're gifted and talented chefs who always blow us away with their passion for food.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Knowing a lot about the restaurant business as a whole. The reviewer should have a lot of experience in tasting many different types of cuisine, and they should also have experience in knowing how service plays a very important role in the restaurant world. It's a difficult job, because as we all know, the culinary world is subjective. I just hope the reviewer has the ability to take all of this into account.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: What keeps this city interesting year after year is that a lot of us chefs in Colorado are continuing to create a bigger and better dining scene all across our beautiful state.
Keegan Gerhard/Lisa Bailey
D Bar Desserts
Favorite restaurant in town: Fruition. It's simple, fresh food done well, plus Alex Seidel is amazing, not to mention just a great guy.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Be truthful and informative.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Denver is quickly becoming a food city worthy of national acclaim. From new restaurants opening with new blood to veteran restaurateurs opening second and third places, it's definitely an exciting time to be cooking in Denver.
Bentley Folsebr>Finley's Pub
Favorite restaurant in town: Mizuna. Frank won't let me down. I hate to be let down. Four words: slow-roasted pork belly.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Has this role been filled? Because if not, let me throw my name in the ring. In the event that it has, then the critic should write an unbiased review without any preconceived notions as to what said place is all about. Honesty is a pretty rare occurrence.
Most interesting Denver restaurant scene development: I would love to be able to answer this question...but the fact that you're asking me about the most interesting restaurant-scene development is ridiculous. I don't get out enough to even dream about answering this question; in fact, I haven't been out to eat in so long that my opinion of the "scene" is as dated as the croissant (think 1980s) or the bagel (think 1990s). But the fact that you asked makes me feel important, so thanks!
Luca d' Italia
Favorite restaurant in town: Sushi Sasa. They always do me right. I think it's really rare to find a group of sushi chefs who are willing to think outside the box, especially when you're talking about such a traditional, rigid cuisine. I can draw the same parallels between sushi and what people think Italian food is "supposed" to be. But Sasa is the only place where I'll happily spend over $100 on dinner.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Provide insightful, well-written reviews of actual restaurants. The fast-food reviews worry me, as they're completely unnecessary, and there are plenty of great independent, chef-driven restaurants that could use a review — bad or good. I'd like to see more re-reviews of current spots, too; a lot has changed within the restaurant culture over the years, and it should be noted.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The sheer volume of new restaurants opening up. You have an endless bucket of fodder to review, and there are so many people opening such odd, niche-y joints. I'd love to know who talked Hawt Dog & Sausage Eatery in Cherry Creek and that fucking grilled cheese restaurant in the Streets at SouthGlenn into opening.
Favorite restaurant in town: Tom's Home Cookin' has great food, great value and great owners. Did I mention great food?
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Be honest — but not brutal. Most people don't realize what it takes to launch and run a restaurant. An unfair, brutal, personally motivated review could destroy a business.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Street food totally came into its own.
Project Angel Heart
Favorite restaurant in town: Just one, eh? Well, the restaurant that's got it all for me right now is Euclid Hall. I get to the Project Angel Heart Kitchen at 6 a.m., and twice a week, I head right over to Metro State to teach in the evenings. Those are long days, so wandering over to Euclid Hall after class on those nights for a boudin noir, along with the perfect brew to cap off those long days, is a true comfort. Plus, sitting at the chef's counter and chatting up the crew is a fun time. I can even learn a little while watching. Can I put in a quick shout-out to Hops and Pie, too? They also have great food and a killer beer list, not to mention a real cool crowd, and it's a five-minute walk from my house. As a bonus, they make vegan mac and cheese for my wife.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Fairness and impartiality, of course, but it would also be cool to highlight some of the things restaurants do above and beyond food and service. I may be biased in saying so, but an occasional mention of an establishment's community supporting activities in reviews might be something nice. We have so much generosity in this town's restaurant scene — and I'd love to see it highlighted more. Also, while a certain amount of snarkiness can be entertaining, with all due respect, there's a fine line between sarcasm and just being an asshole. Be cool, be funny, but don't be a jerk.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: From the inside looking out, it seems to me there a whole lot of local chefs who are branching out, opening additional joints and trying new concepts. From Bob Blair's new place at the TAXI complex and Justin Brunson's Church of Swine to Jensen Cummings's balls, Mark DeNittis's beginning of an empire, and all the rumored second and third places some chefs around town may be starting, there seems to be a coming wave of new, great places run by the tried and true of Denver's culinary scene.
Jorge de la Torre
Johnson & Wales University
Favorite restaurant in town: I love the Federal-Alameda area in general: JJ's Chinese, Lao Wang Noodle House, Saigon Bowl, Baker's Palace and Columbine Steak House.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? To give fair, constructively criticized reviews of all restaurants and to remain anonymous.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: I'm optimistically impressed by how restaurants keep opening in these uncertain economic times and how the level of quality keeps improving since I got to Denver ten years ago.
Favorite restaurant in town: Aside from my wife's restaurants — Rioja, Euclid Hall and Bistro Vendôme — I really love Frasca Food and Wine, in Boulder. I love going up there to celebrate special occasions or just to have a casual dinner, and I love that we have a restaurant that can cover both ends of the spectrum like that.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? I hope the person is informed about the food community and doesn't just focus on trends and everything — and everywhere — that's new. A review can make or break a restaurant that's teetering on the edge in their early days, and critics need to remember that it's people's lives that are at stake. I find that there's a way to inform the public on whether a restaurant is on the level or not without ruining — or trying to ruin — someone's livelihood.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The number of great concepts opening in Lower Downtown, as well as all the prospects at the Union Station development. I'm pretty sure this area is really going to continue to grow and attract serious talent from all over the country.
Culinary director, Big Red F
Favorite restaurant in town: Always a tough question to answer, but since we typically dine out with our six-year-old daughter — who's an adventurous eater, for sure — our favorite spot is the Bagel Deli and Restaurant. The owners, Joe and Rhoda, are always there with Jared in the back somewhere handling biz, and that family presence makes for a great family atmosphere. The hospitality, earnest nature of their tableside visits, homemade vittles, endless possibilities for ordering — from the sublimely salty and rich to light and fresh — make for a great mainstay for our family.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? A reviewer is a reporter, by my standards, and because of that, they should do just that: report. While stories about their vacations and outings, parents and boyfriends/girlfriends might make for easy reading, the main points get lost, which are: As a diner, what will I be getting into when dining at the reviewed establishment? What is the service like, the decor and flow, rhythm and vibe? How is the wine/drink/beer list, and what's going on behind the bar? What does a snapshot of the menu look like in terms of offerings, theme and pricing? In the end, a reviewer should use their knowledge and experience to relate to their readers the experience they had while reviewing. A review should never be an opportunity for self-ingratiating horseshit that does nothing for the review but everything for the reviewer. And while they should be friendly, they should never be friends with the chefs. And it would be refreshing to not set the precedent that it's the reviewer and dining community against the chef and restaurateur community.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: What intrigues me the most is that in many cases, a new generation of chefs are opening restaurants. While I love seeing iconic chefs and owners/operators who've been around a while still growing and expanding, the cooks-turned-chefs-turned-owners are really thriving and starting their own legacies. That's not only cool, but beneficial to all of us. Their new visions, energy and passions are bringing better ingredients into town, which means more exposure for our amazing culinary scene and progressing the work we all do. New, fresh ideas melding with the old, and everyone wanting to maintain the mellow vibe and mutual respect that's been cultivated for decades is a great recipe for awesome things to come. I'm stoked.
TAG/TAG|RAW BAR/Madison Street
Favorite restaurant in town: I love Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza. It's family-friendly, Mark and Kristy Dym are great people, it's an independent restaurant in a cool neighborhood, the atmosphere is comfortable, and the food is always fresh and on point, with lots of imported ingredients; it's food I can eat a couple times a week, although I always get the Abruzzo pizza...it's so fucking good. And I know it's my own restaurant, but TAG|RAW Bar is still my fave. There are just a ton of great places to eat in Denver.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Reviewers need to be more structured. What kind of restaurants are you reviewing? Pho 78 one week, and then the next week Squeaky Bean? To me, that doesn't make sense and isn't evaluated correctly. It should be the same caliber of restaurants.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Seeing Denver grow and chefs and restaurateurs pushing the envelope both in terms of food and decor. Look at Linger, Pinche Taqueria, Squeaky Bean, TAG|RAW BAR and even DIA, which is getting some great independent restaurants, for proof of that. Also: lots of gardens and farms that restaurants are using, and the local food movement, of course.
Former chef-owner of Encore
Favorite restaurant in town: Il Posto is consistently great. Andrea does a great jobof extracting as much flavor as possible out of every seasonal ingredient in a uniquely Italian style.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Denver deserves better than our last two critics. Be informed; use a professional tone; keep in mind the weight of your words; and write like a periodical critic and not a social media blogger.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The advent of the many craft-beer tap rooms is pretty unique. Pretty soon, we really will be the Napa Valley of beers, bringing more national attention to the great things happening in Denver kitchens.
Favorite restaurant in town: Sushi Sasa. The food is clean, healthy, light, delicious, craveable and thoughtful, and I like that there's an evolving menu. I can eat there all the time and not get sick of it and always feel great after I eat. My new favorite is Uncle. The food is delicious, with big flavors that are totally craveable, plus it's unpretentious. The chef has restraint, so while he does great combinations, he doesn't overdo it; they're a fusion of flavors that only a chef truly familiar with both Asian and American cuisine can pull off. There's also an evolving menu, and I bet over the next few years, the menu will mature even more and be out of this world — and it'll also impossible to get a seat there.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? Keeping up with new restaurants and trends, including all levels of food and types. I look for new information.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Beer gardens. I like what beer does for food, and for me, it really ties in with the food-truck trend — or at least that type of food, where a small kitchen, quick-fire dishes and small bites hit the culinary crave G-spot.
Favorite restaurant in town: Fruition is by far my favorite. I admire Alex for being a major catalyst in bringing national attention to Denver's emerging culinary landscape, and I also appreciate the importance he places on cooking with the highest-quality ingredients, much of which comes from his own farm.
What do you think the role of a reviewer should be? The most important quality in a reviewer is maintaining objectivity and steering away from favoritism. A reviewer should also accurately showcase the menu they're tasting while giving an opinion that's honest and provides value to the reader.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: It's been amazing to see how LoDo has exploded with so many new restaurants in such a short period of time. The sheer volume of openings is extraordinary and exciting, and we're looking forward to seeing how the Union Station project will enable independent businesses and restaurants in the neighborhood to thrive even more.
Favorite restaurant in town: Squeaky Bean. I missed it so much when they closed to search for a new location, and now that we have it back, the food is better than ever and it's a real treat — in part, I think, because of the kitchen tools they have now, and because of the fantastic leader Max has become to one of Denver's most elite and skilled kitchen crews. And Johnny hasn't made many mistakes, if any, in the dining room or bar, either. Kudos, gentlemen.
What should the role of a reviewer be? To review restaurants for what they propose to be and how accurately they pull it off. And I'm not a fan of measuring different concepts against each other. You know — apples to apples, and all that jazz.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: People growing their own stuff. It's crazy to think that anyone has time to farm and cook, but a number of chefs are doing it. It scares me to even imagine trying.
Elway's Cherry Creek
Favorite restaurant in town: Fruition. It's consistently consistent, beginning with the food all the way down to the details of service.
What should the role of a reviewer be? A reviewer should have a comprehensive knowledge of food and ingredients — and they should know their audience.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The taco and burger joints that keep popping up. I'm not sure how many of them we really need around town...but they keep coming.
Favorite restaurant in town: I love what twelve is doing. Their monthly menus are every chef's dream, and they do it so well. And the space is just amazing.
What should the role of a reviewer be? Reviewers should review the status of the food, service and atmosphere and steer clear of any drama. Let the food and the establishment speak for themselves.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Elegant comfort food.
Favorite restaurant in town: I don't get to other restaurants as often as I'd like, but I've found myself more often than not at Steuben's. It's nothing fancy — just great food, great service and comfort-food heaven. I haven't locked on to a favorite, and I'm still touring the menu, but I have to say that the habanero honey-fried corn is crazy-good, and the pork chops have been very, very good to me, too.
What should the role of a reviewer be? Food and wine are very subjective. I like red, you like white. What attracts me to various restaurant reviews is not the opinion of what tastes "good" or "bad" that night, but what's unique about a particular establishment. Restaurateurs as a whole are the hardest working people I've come to know, and we're always striving to do something fresh, new and exciting. On my menu, our pizza is the biggest draw, and I'm constantly told by so many people that it's the best they've ever had. But, hey, try the unique and amazing fiocchi sautéed in brown butter and almonds, too; it's something you just don't get anywhere else. Tell me about those unique surprises, and then you're talking my language as a reviewer.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: How savvy and knowledgeable customers are becoming when it comes to the ingredients restaurants use in their dishes. "Where did this come from?" "Is this gluten- wheat- or peanut-free?" Things like that. I love the questions, because they give us a chance to really differentiate what we do from everyone else in our food genre. For example, we make our own mozzarella fresh every day. The fiocchi? They're imported from Italy, and since you asked, the pear inside comes from trees right on site where they make the pasta. Our pastries? We do those ourselves. Gluten-free pizza? Absolutely, and I have to say, it's the most amazing gluten-free pizza you'll ever try. To me, the more discerning a customer is, the more he or she will fall in love with Virgilio's all over again.
Favorite restaurant in town: Colt & Gray. Clean flavors, a professional waitstaff and amazing sticky toffee pudding.
What should the role of a reviewer be? Critics should revisit the classics — the restaurants that are responsible for starting our independent restaurant scene — and also provide a history about them and their classic dishes.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Neighborhoods are now flooded with independent restaurants, and there seems to be less of a focus on the new downtown hot spots. People are asking themselves, Which neighborhood should we check out tonight, this week or this month?
Favorite restaurant in town: That's a tough one, because it depends on the kind of mood I'm in. If I'm feeling more casual, I'm pretty much going to Jax Denver to see what kind of good stuff Sheila and Amos are coming up with, and to get a cold beer and some king crab at the bar. I like Jax because I feel comfortable there, and I love all things seafood — and their seafood is killer. If I'm feeling more upscale, I'm headed to Fruition, and if I'm after sushi, which is my usual day-off eats, I'm definitely going to Hana Matsuri in Westminster.
What should the role of a reviewer be? A restaurant reviewer should be fair, impartial and keep the guests of the restaurant and chef in mind. Their role should be to honestly review an establishment based on more than one visit, and only after tasting multiple things on the menu. And a new reviewer should remember that this is Denver: By that I mean that even though Denver's culinary scene is reaching new heights thanks to the hard work of so may talented chefs and owners, it's still not New York, Chicago or San Francisco. We still have a way to go as chefs, as restaurateurs, and as a general eating public to catch up to those culinary sanctuary cities. Don't compare a restaurant in Denver to one of the food temples in NYC, and keep your frame of reference in the Denver market. In addition, their job is to review the restaurant for the purpose of informing the public — not to publicly (and personally) slam the establishment, their managers or their chef. People make mistakes, and reviewers need to realize that their comments can ruin years of hard work and million-dollar investments overnight. Take mistakes and shortcomings with a grain of salt, and give the restaurant a chance to improve.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: I like the resurgence of small plates and sharing, the increasing popularity of Nordic cuisine, the decreasing attention to molecular gastronomy, and how fine dining has become more approachable. I also like seeing how smaller, chef-owned restaurants in Denver can hold their own against bigger names coming to town. Denver's cool like that. Word.
Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar
Favorite restaurant in town: I've been a sucker for Lola for years. I've made my way through their menu, but mostly I eat 1.5 orders of their housemade pork rinds followed by a chile-rubbed flatiron steak with bacon collard greens. (Can you tell I'm originally from Mississippi?) They're one of my staples, and I always wish the best for their crew.
What should the role of a reviewer be? To receive my brown-nosing overtures as sincerely and earnestly as I do Hail Mary beads in hopes of being blessed with a good review.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: I never want to see restaurants fail — but the thesis of 2012 so far, at least to me, has been the victory of independent Denver restaurants over highly acclaimed national operators. High-profile and nationally acclaimed chef Charlie Palmer's efforts with District Meats weren't embraced by Denver diners the same way Le Grand, the Kitchen and the Squeaky Bean — all four venues in the same geography — were embraced. We independents are thriving, while District Meats went dark, and that says something about the Denver diner that I really appreciate. By the way, welcome back, Bean!
Lala's Wine Bar + Pizzeria
Favorite restaurant in town: Twelve. I love Jeff Osaka's concept: simple, clean, straightforward, seasonal and well-priced food considering the quality. I love how you walk in and feel as though you're in a completely different world. It's so comfortable, and just a great place to linger.
What should the role of a reviewer be? Be honest but not degrading.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The opening of Squeaky Bean. They're doing everything right, from the amazing food and amazing cocktail program to the equally amazing management, not to mention snapping up a great historic location. It's great to see them back on the map; they're part of the reason why Denver in one of the best food cities in the country.
Favorite restaurant in town: Bocadillo, in Sunnyside. It's a small staff — just two chefs and a maître d'. All of them went to CIA, and none of them is older than 25. The food is done with local ingredients, and it's beautifully handcrafted, whimsical (especially the Philly cheesesteak rolls) and full of flavor. What I also like about Bocadillo is the way it mixes high and low: The place used to be a scruffy taqueria, and you can still see that — it looks like a luncheonette with lots of funky touches, like a library of fine cookbooks and an indoor herb garden. It reminds me — just a little bit — of Momofuku in its earliest days.
What should the role of a reviewer be? The best restaurant reviewers are very partisan; they spot a trend they love and do everything they can to make sure the world knows about it. There would have been no nouvelle cuisine in France in the '70s without the passionate advocacy of Gault and Millau; there would have been no New American without Gael Greene; and a critic like Jonathan Gold also recognized a huge trend in the transformation of L.A. into what David Rieff called "The Capital of the Third World" — and his food writing tends to de-emphasize conventional fine-dining restaurants in lieu of giving importance to the really interesting and delicious food of recent immigrants to this country.
A reviewer should know what he or she is talking about. If you're going to criticize my coq au vin, it should be because you've tasted the coq au vin at Benoit in Paris, the coq au vin at a farmhouse in Burgundy and the coq au vin your French friend made for Sunday dinner. And if you don't know about, say, Peruvian cooking, then do your research and thoroughly fact-check your article.
A reviewer should not be afraid to call bullshit. A restaurant that's claiming it's farm-to-table when it's buying all of its produce and meats from Sysco should be called on the carpet. This is something Jason Sheehan, thankfully, wasn't afraid to do.
A reviewer should write well, clearly, vividly, humorously and with a winning personal voice. A restaurant review should be as well-crafted and pleasurable as a beautiful plate of food. To my mind, there are only three restaurant critics writing in English who fill the criteria above: Jonathan Gold at the Los Angeles Times, the mighty Alan Richman at GQ and Jay Rayner.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The success of the Kitchen in LoDo. It's great to see a high-quality, real farm-to-table restaurant succeed in what had been a culinary wasteland.
Justin Brunsonbr>Old Major
Favorite restaurant in town: Twelve is one of the best. Jeff does a great job using local seasonal ingredients and doesn't get nearly enough recognition. It also has a great room to dine in.
What should the role of a reviewer be? It would be cool to see a food critic who's not worried about being blunt and not afraid to admit that what they're eating sucks. I feel like a lot of restaurant reviews are sugarcoated when they should be more truthful.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: It's been cool to see the boom that we're having in Denver with all the new places opening. Now if we could just get more local farmers to work with us.
Favorite restaurant in town: Pizzera Basta, in Boulder. It's out of the way, which is at the same time good and bad (good if you don't want to be seen, bad because I would eat there way more often if it wasn't in BFE). But they're turning food that's as good as — or better than — anywhere else in Boulder. Denver's harder to pin, but I'm a massive fan of Fruition and anything Alex Seidel does, and I also love Sushi Den and everything that Yasu does.
What should the role of a reviewer be? The role of a restaurant reviewer is to do just that: review. They should always go at least three times before making a judgment, and they should talk about every aspect of the experience. I really appreciate knowing about the highs and lows, and I really like it when they show a few pictures of the food. I don't want to read a bunch of stuff about the writer's life experiences; I want to know why I will — or won't — love going there.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The amazing success of Linger. I can't think of a better example of "killing it" in the restaurant business. Root Down is a fantastic place, but when Linger opened, Justin Cucci showed us all just how good he really is at doing what he does.
Favorite restaurant in town: Star Kitchen for shumai on a Sunday is all I need. I love going with a big group and seeing the look on the faces of the cart-pushing ladies when I order six to eight orders of shumai right off the bat. You get the VIP treatment from that point on. I always order two Tsing Taos, though, because they're quick with the food but slow with the drinks. It's a social dining experience that I love to introduce to friends. Just make sure if you go that you have a strong person on your anchor seat, or those adorable little cart ladies will own your table. They're the best salespeople in the world, because it's not their responsibility to sell you on an item; it's your responsibility to stop them from just giving it to you. Love them.
What should the role of a reviewer be? A reviewer should be hungry, open-minded and objective, and they need to have a strong respect for the industry they serve and the readers who take their words to heart. They should also be head over heels in love with my restaurant.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Meatballs! Well, in my scene, at least. I've seen the emergence of more chefs turning their attention to fast-casual, no-fuss and affordable concepts. I think we spend so much time trying to make food into more than it needs to be, when sometimes food should be a work of art and other times it should just feed people. More chefs are really embracing the notion of giving people what they actually want. Rather than fighting the fact that people want simple, flavorful food quickly, they're bringing just a bit more thoughtfulness to making food fast. "Food fast" is much different from "fast food," and that's a great thing.
Favorite restaurant in town: I have a lot of favorites, so it's kind of like picking between your children. They all have different qualities that you look for on different occasions. ChoLon, Sushi Den, Squeaky Bean, twelve, Table 6, Park Burger, Lao Wang Noodle House and Front Room Pizza are just a few of my favorites, but I guess if I had to pick just one, it would be the one I frequent most often: Sushi Den. I need to eat healthier, and if I'm going to eat healthy, I want to eat food that has pure, clean and fresh flavors. The sushi, the rice and the fish that's coming out of that kitchen are the most consistent in town, and I've also had the opportunity for many conversations with Toshi over sake and noodles. I truly respect him as a chef and business owner. He's shared many stories of his past with me — and what drives him as a chef and what's in his heart is far greater than I think I will ever possess.
What should the role of a reviewer be? Hopefully Westword hired someone outside of Colorado — someone who has no connections or relationships and no bias, but does have high expectations. I hope it's someone with a strong knowledge of food, wine and hospitality, and I hope it's someone who will give it to us straight and remain anonymous. We can only get better as a food community if these are the standards. I know we're all striving to make sure Denver is on the food map and stays there.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The most interesting development on the food scene this year has actually been taking place for the last five years, with Denver attracting better chefs, restaurateurs, cooks and mixologists. For those who have been here longer than five years, we are educating ourselves and improving the quality of restaurants and the quality of experiences we offer. Look around downtown: You can go to so many places now and have a great meal. Oh, and of course there's the Squeaky Bean, which is definitely showing its potential of what it's capable of doing in a real restaurant space.
Favorite restaurant in town: Vesta Dipping Grill. Matt Selby, Brandon Foster and the crew continually crank out awesome food. I love sauces with my food, and Vesta never ceases to amaze me with the creative accompaniments for my grilled duck breast. The setting is awesome, too, and the service is always done with a smile and never any attitude.
What should the role of a reviewer be? Review restaurants with a non-biased attitude. Everyone deserves a fair chance, even if you don't like the particular cuisine or you think the owner/chef is a complete asshole. I also think that the new reviewer should really write about the experience of that moment, not carry on about all the nostalgia of past experiences of when they used to do something important in a restaurant. We're counting on you to do the job at hand — so do it.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: This city has definitely grown with wonderful new places to eat and new chefs at established restaurants. And we're seeing cool things like old motor homes being lifted onto the rooftop patio at Linger, which has a great view in the city. And we're seeing a community of farmers and gardeners coming together to really make Colorado a sustainable state. Our Colorado wine has really started to take off, too, with simply amazing blends and full flavors.
Bistro Vendome/Rioja/Euclid Hall
Favorite restaurant in town: Squeaky Bean. The menu and space is progressive and well thought out but not trendy, the service is fun and spot-on, the wine list is eclectic and has interesting choices, and I love cheese — and that cheese cart is great.
What should the role of a reviewer be? A restaurant reviewer should explore new restaurants, revisit older ones and keep current on food trends without being too trendy. They should be anonymous, keep their comments professional, remark on service — good and bad — and include everything from bar service to the attitude of the hostess. They should evaluate all areas of a restaurant — not just the kitchen.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Beer dinners and local breweries are killing it, and the prevalence of street food turned gourmet just keeps expanding, which is cool.
Wynkoop Brewery/Ghost Plate & Tap
Favorite restaurant in town: While Bittersweet is my favorite restaurant in Denver, I'm craving a meal at twelve, and things just are jelling quickly enough for me to get in there. I see a lot of similarities in the thoughtful qualities of both Jeff Osaka and Olav Peterson's food. I truly appreciate the little things, especially when done with purpose. Olav definitely does that, and I get the same feeling whenever I see the new menus roll out at twelve.
What should the role of a reviewer be? The reviewer should really take into consideration the fact that we as a whole are trying to promote Denver as a food-centric city. While I don't expect every review to be warm and cuddly, I think the days of trashing a restaurant into submission are long gone, something that Westword, although not lately, has been known for. It's a critique, not a stoning.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Food carts. Not the trucks, but the actual food stands on the 16th Street Mall. True, there's some extremely mediocre (at best) food coming out of some of them, but there are some real winners, too.
Beatrice & Woodsley
Favorite restaurant in town: Right now, Señor Burrito. It's close, family-owned, and there are no surprises. It's great for a nice, quick taco fix.
What should the role of a reviewer be? As a chef and consumer, all I expect from a reviewer/critic is a fair and objective look at a restaurant. No agendas, favorites or axes to grind.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: Over the last year or so, I've been happy to see the use of more local and responsibly raised/farmed products. And the reduction of trend-following — in Denver, especially.
Favorite restaurant in town: Twelve, although I haven't been there for dinner — just for their special lunch. I really appreciate Jeff's dedication to his ingredients and making sure his dishes aren't overly complicated.
What should the role of a reviewer be? A food critic should be opinionated and not wishy-washy. Love it or hate it, too many reviews end up being squarely in the middle, which leaves us wondering how the critic really feels. Have an opinion and be clear.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The proliferation of good-quality, quick-service concepts like Stick It to Me, Pinche Tacos and Larkburger.
Favorite restaurant in town: The Empress...for several reasons. Tasha, my girlfriend, introduced me to the Empress a few years ago, and I fell absolutely in love with their baked pork buns. In fact, I haven't had a better one anywhere else. The Peking duck display case filled with roasted ducks, chickens and sides of pork rules, and if you get the right angle, you can see back into the kitchen where they often have whole pigs hanging from the ceiling by chains, just waiting to be butchered and roasted. It's really cool. I also love the cheesy irony of the place, like how the servers all wear tuxedo-style black-and-whites, which fools you into thinking it's all fancy...until you realize that you're sitting on what was probably once a cheap rental chair. It's also very quick and extremely affordable, too, plus I haven't had anything there that I didn't like with the one exception of the roasted duck feet; they weren't my favorite. Another plus (kind of) is that you can go around the corner to the absolute worst strip club in Denver, Dandy Dan's, when you're done gorging yourself.
What should the role of a reviewer be? First and foremost, review their experiences as a whole, from the food down to the decor and service, while remaining unbiased and fair. Don't go into a restaurant with high expectations because of what everyone is saying about it: Approach it like you've never heard of the place. The reviewer should have a strong — very strong — food background, and not just be someone who likes to eat. I want to read about a place from someone who has been in the industry — maybe they went to culinary school or worked in a diner through college. I don't care, just as long as you understand what the people in the hospitality business do on a daily basis to ensure that you have a great time. And please keep the review at least a bit interesting or funny. I don't want to read about just the facts, because that shit can quickly make me lose interest. (Insert Jason Sheehan reference here).
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: The proliferation of new restaurants. I feel like people are always talking about the economy and how it isn't so great, yet more restaurants have been opening rather than closing, which is a great thing. A friend of mine once told me what he really liked about cooking, and it made me laugh. He said: "I really like my job because I know I'll always have one; people will always need to eat." Ha!
Favorite restaurant in town: ChoLon is still killing it. I continuously find myself craving the soup dumplings, Kaya toast and the Full Moon margarita.
What should the role of a reviewer be? Reviewers are a delegate of sorts between restaurants and their current and potential guests. The reviewers should be more educated and have access to more inside information than a normal guest.
Most interesting development on the restaurant scene this year: I'm really digging the move to casual food done really well. Throughout the country, the really noteworthy restaurants are becoming more and more casual, and really accomplished chefs are making huge strides in unpretentious, comfortable food, which I think is great. It really opens up what we do to the masses.
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