More Denver Chefs on 2017: Underrated Dishes, Rising Stars, and Hot Issues

Sean Kenyon thinks B&GC bartender Chris Cleary deserves more attention in 2017.
Sean Kenyon thinks B&GC bartender Chris Cleary deserves more attention in 2017.
Courtesy of Sean Kenyon/Williams & Graham

Happy 2017, Denver! Here's round two of our interview with local chefs and hospitality professionals, wherein they share their opinions and predictions on rising stars, old favorites, the service-industry labor shortage and the rise of gratuity-free restaurants. For more, read part one of the Q & A, which includes pleas for better service and better breakfast, putting the kibosh on lists and snobbery, and predictions for more tapas and $15 cocktails.

Westword: What rising star should get more attention in the coming months?

Sean Kenyon, Williams & Graham and Occidental: I think Chris Cleary at B&GC doesn't get near the recognition that he should. He's an extremely thoughtful and creative bartender. It's rare to find his level of humility paired with that kind of talent.

Sam Charles, the Way Back: Kevin Grossi [of the Regional]. Though he has been cooking in this area for awhile, I don't think he gets the love he deserves. He is amazingly talented and truly cares about the product that he sources. After leaving Big Red F, he opened up in Avanti and I think he is killing it. Simple food with great ingredients. His is a non-pretentious approach to get people the food they deserve.

Aileen V. Reilly, Beast + Bottle and Coperta: Andrew Birkholz of Cart-Driver offers some of the best hospitality in Denver. He makes you feel comfortable and welcome and it's always a pleasure to see him running the FOH.

Josh Wolkon, Vesta and Steuben's: Chef Nick Kayser, who’s leading the kitchen at Vesta right now, is a Denver-raised chef who left town for twelve years to gain culinary experience in top kitchens in New York, Las Vegas and Hong Kong before returning to his roots to take the helm at Vesta. His new menu is the best Vesta has ever had, with nods to his experiences around the world.

Jorel Pierce, Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall, Stoic & Genuine and Ultreia (opening 2017): I think that Tina [Chon] and Craig [Field] at Carbon Knife Co. deserve a shout out for being there for us, the chefs. It would be interesting to pay them credit along with the chefs that use the tools. Also, Dave Ellicot at Innovative Foods (one of our preferred slaughterhouses) should be given credit for his methods, attention to local and federal standards and becoming/maintaining his position as a HAACP poster-child operation.

Brendan Flood, Bistro Vendôme: Alex Figura and crew at Dio Mio Pasta. They're doing a fantastic job with a fun concept.

Nate Singer, Blackbelly Market: Daniel Asher [of River and Woods] on attitude alone. He's a great guy just starting to do great things for the community of Boulder

McLain Hedges, RiNo Yacht Club and the Proper Pour: Tough one! I want to be selfish and take this opportunity to promote our awesome staff (like Heather Haas who is going to be the fifth female Master Bladesmith in the world when she finishes her apprenticeship), but I will save that for another time. There are so many great people in this city and a few I know that will be moving here very soon that will be incredible additions to our growing industry. Brian Rossi at Adelitas and Palenque is THE agave guru and Denver is so fortunate to have him and those incredible places! I think the team at B&GC is doing great things, namely Daryl Prior and Chris Cleary. They have incredible personalities and are very knowledgeable, genuine, and humble (there are those traits again!). Blake Edmunds and Max MacKissock are just the best and I am SO excited to see what they do with their new concept, Señor Bear — not exactly rising stars but people who continuously push the envelope and elevate their industry. Elliott [Strathmann] and Cindhura [Reddy] over at Spuntino are amazing and everyone should be paying more attention to what they're doing. Also [RiNo Yacht Club and Proper Pour co-owner] Mary [Allison Wright]'s bro David and his better half, Alex Jump, will be moving here in February and they are both forces to be reckoned with! You will be catching her behind the bar and him in the kitchen at some of your favorite spots in town VERY soon.

Kevin Burke, Ste. Ellie and Colt & Gray: I am amazed and in awe at the work and skills of my work-husband, Dwight Long, and work-wife, Minetta Gould. Dwight is one of the kindest bartenders in Denver; he possesses a great palate, and has a very strong sense of emotional intelligence. Minetta is a rock, she’s able to run a room and control the (sometimes) chaos that is the rowdy party we throw in Ste. Ellie. She maintains our standards of service while still providing some of the best cocktails and bartending in town.

CoraFaye's is Elise Wiggins's standby.EXPAND
CoraFaye's is Elise Wiggins's standby.
Mark Antonation

Name an old standby (restaurant, dish, drink) that should get more love in the coming year.

Troy Guard, TAG Restaurant Group: I love Racca’s Pizza – Mark and Kristy Dym paved the way from downtown into RiNo when they took a risk on a less-than-ideal location and cranked out the best pizza in Denver from day one. It’s a great spot to go with the family — Mark always takes the kids into the kitchen and gives them dough to play with — and it also serves as an awesome date night with a bottle of wine and some fresh-sliced prosciutto. There are so many new players in pizza in Denver, but Racca’s is still the best.

Juan Padro, Bar Dough, Highland Tap & Burger, Sloan’s Lake Tap & Burger and Señor Bear (opening March 2017): I don't understand how Bistro Vendome's brunch doesn't get more attention. Oxtails and goat at Jamaican Grill.

Mary Nguyen, Olive & Finch: I still love dropping into Carmine’s on Penn, which has been there for decades. It’s a warm, cosy, hearty and friendly restaurant, and is definitely my old standby. Sometimes I just want a great, giant bowl of pasta.

Aileen V. Reilly, Beast + Bottle and Coperta: The sugar steak at Bastien's deserves more love!

Sean Kenyon, Williams & Graham and Occidental: My Brother's Bar. So much love for it. They just do what they do. Great hospitality and simple things done well. I just wish they were open Sundays.

McLain Hedges, RiNo Yacht Club and the Proper Pour: Clam pizza at Bar Dough. It's perfection for those looking for a classic east coast style of clam pizza. Also, El Chingon makes the best Mexican rice. Really everything from there is great — soulful, comforting, and delicious (and Valentina [Panic] makes a mean cocktail).

DJ Riemer, 24 Carrot Bistro: Corpse Reviver No. 2. When it's made correctly, it's borderline spiritual.

Elise Wiggins, Cattivella (opening in 2017): CoraFaye's soul food. When I need my southern food fix, I go here. The atmosphere is like going to my old Southern grandma's house, and the food is like my Louisiana grandmother used to make!

Jeff Osaka, Sushi-Rama, Osaka Ramen and 12@Madison: Even though I moved out of the ballpark neighborhood, I still frequent Hi-Rise Bakery, which more often than not, doesn't get a ton of recognition. My go-tos there are the lox bagel in the morning or their Italian sub for lunch, and it doesn't hurt that Doug Anderson is a pretty darn nice guy.

Paul C. Reilly, Beast + Bottle and Coperta: The hand-sliced to order prosciutto and bread at Pizzeria Locale at $3 is the best deal in town. Get a glass of house wine on tap, and you're still under $10.

Chad Michael George, the Way Back: The anchors of the restaurant groups that made Denver what it is: Root Down from Justin Cucci, Mizuna from Frank Bonanno, Vesta from Josh Wolkon. Very different places but all of them are still purring like a well-tuned motor. You don't see them on many "lists," but they deserve to be noticed and visited.

Nate Singer, Blackbelly Market: Basta piada with sardines.

Hosea Rosenberg would like diners to know more about whole animal butchery.
Hosea Rosenberg would like diners to know more about whole animal butchery.
Danielle Lirette

What food- or drink-related topic do you think Denver diners should know about?

Brian Cohen, Stella’s on 16th (opening January 2017): Our local industry is having a shortage of cooks. The rising cost of living and new high demand for talent from so many restaurant openings makes it tough on a role that traditionally gets paid the lowest.

Hosea Rosenberg, Blackbelly Market: The resurgence of whole-animal butchery and charcuterie (like at Blackbelly!) — a method that is responsible and better for humans, animals and the environment for a multitude of reasons.

Bobby Stuckey, Frasca Food and Wine, Pizzeria Locale and Tavernetta (opening in 2017): Gratuity included: It might not become mainstream this year, but it will happen.

Jorel Pierce, Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall, Stoic & Genuine and Ultreia (opening 2017): I think that Denver needs to know where we stack up in the national platform of food-drink markets. Our diners are very appreciative and with a little loose change, an interest in the unknown and the willingness to reach out and embrace our efforts as food-beverage professionals our clientele can help us rise. We’re close, and committed and motivated. I think that our guests are as well. The synergy between the dining populations and professionals in larger markets helps push competition and perpetuate progress; we are totally capable and very, very willing.

Josh Wolkon, Vesta and Steuben's: With the constant influx of new restaurants the labor shortage will continue to be a major issue. We are competing with the marijuana industry and services like Uber and Lyft for employees. A major shift in the industry will have to occur to continue to attract professional cooks and front-of-house staff while allowing full service restaurants to remain sustainable. I’m not sure where the tipping policies will eventually go, but we need to find a way to level compensation between the front of house and back of house staffs.

Juan Padro, Bar Dough, Highland Tap & Burger, Sloan’s Lake Tap & Burger and Señor Bear (opening March 2017): I think wine on tap is an interesting topic at a time when restaurants are struggling with cost-to-perceived-value questions.

Jensen Cummings, Brewed Food: Order a high-quality beer with your high-end dinner! Please be willing to pay more for craft beer at restaurants. We are stuck in the mentality that beer should be cheap and consumed only in casual settings in copious amounts. Yet are willing to pay for a $40 bottle of wine without hesitation. Many beers, for example, which have been thoughtfully sourced, fruited and then barrel-aged for nine months actually cost more per ounce to produce than that wine you just bought. Plus they can truly enhance your dining experience far more than that wine in many cases. Especially...where you get to taste the "terroir"of our city, just as if you were drinking pinot and eating escargot when you travel to Burgundy.

Mary Nguyen, Olive & Finch: I would love to see more attention given to food waste, and how we as compassionate and caring restaurateurs are addressing the issue. We have so many hungry people in our community, and there is so much that can go to waste in restaurants. I’d love to see more public support of organizations like We Don’t Waste.

Lon Symensma, ChoLon, Cho77 and Concourse (opening in early 2017): The no-tipping movement is very intriguing to me. I think that in the next couple of years, we are going to see a lot of restaurants transition away from the traditional tipping format.

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