My two cents' worth: Ever since Denver's Best Restaurants, by Susan Permut, came out this past fall, local critics have been offering their own Top Ten lists. But as one caller pointed out on my voicemail, these lists are nearly identical and consist almost exclusively of high-end joints. Please, she asked, would I publish my own list of winners (and include some lower-cost options)?
Considering the number of places at which a reviewer has to eat, the highest compliment I can pay a restaurant is to return on my own dime--or someone else's, in the case of the out-of-towners I'll let dirty my guest towels in exchange for a meal at an eatery I love. And sometimes a place just calls to me, and I'll come up with any excuse to go there again.
For instance, when my daughter wanted to have me all to herself at lunch one day, I immediately drove her to Mel's Bar and Grill, at 235 Fillmore Street, which is casual enough that a toddler doesn't look completely out of place, but classy enough that we both felt special. We shared a sizzling platter of mussels ($6.95), and then she tried to take down one of Mel's large, fantastic hamburgers ($6.95) on a nice Bluepoint bun. Meanwhile, I ate a sublime piece of salmon ($8.95) atop a mound of quinoa, and together we tackled a pastry purse of apples ($5.50) in a sinful caramel sauce.
But Mel's, while certainly not the most expensive place in town, leans a bit toward higher-end. Somewhere in between is Aubergine Cafe, at 225 East Seventh Avenue; its Mediterranean-inspired dishes are fabulous. And when I'm looking to eat ethnic and/or flat-out cheap (the two often overlap), there are five I always think of: Yorkshire Fish and Chips, at 7275 Pecos; El Azteca, at 3960 South Federal; Cafe Jordano, at 11068 West Jewell in Lakewood; Pavilion Chinese, at 3333 South Tamarac Drive; and Taste of Thailand, at 504 East Hampden. Yorkshire calls to me anytime I'm craving such fried items as oysters and fish-and-chips; El Azteca cooks the heck out of a rotisserie chicken (the tortas rule, too); and Cafe Jordano puts together incredibly rich and flavorful Italian sauces. Pavilion serves top-notch Chinese, particularly off a separate menu of unusual items that Americans rarely get to try; its best offerings, though, which I had the pleasure of sampling again when I celebrated Chinese New Year there, are the heavenly steamed dumplings ($5.95) and the addictively salty tea-smoked duck ($9.95). And Taste of Thailand is my health fix, because the kitchen uses so much fresh, homegrown produce and herbs.
Two more healthy favorites--hey, these are important when you chew the fat for a living--are City Spirit Cafe, at 1434 Blake Street, as much for the refreshing fare as for the soothingly funky atmosphere, and Mediterranean Health Cafe, at 2817 East Third Avenue, which serves good, hearty food from all around that sea. When it's the Middle East I'm thinking about, Jerusalem, at 1890 East Evans Avenue, is my first choice. In a few months this spot will be even better, since a zoning change recently went through that will allow Jerusalem to convert the house behind it into more dining space, something it's sorely needed for years. For Vietnamese, New Saigon, at 630 South Federal, has terrible service but killer chow, and Cafe Brazil, at 3611 Navajo, is the only place I know of in the Denver area to get exclusively Brazilian fare. It's also excellent food.
There are a few spots further afield that I think about often. I haven't been able to revisit the Savoy...yet; I'm biding my time until the right circumstances find me near 535 Third Street in Berthoud. And while I might have to add Jax (reviewed above) to my Denver roster, I also try to hit another one of Dave Query's places, Zolo Grill, at 2525 Arapahoe, whenever I'm in Boulder. That town is also home to my favorite Indian restaurant, MijBani, at 2005 18th Street.
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For those who insist on a more exclusive compendium of what I think are the best restaurants in town--as another caller put it on my voicemail, my "big-ticket winners"--here they are from A to Z: Aubergine, Barolo Grill, Bistro Adde Brewster, Cliff Young's, Cucina Colore, Hugh's (the former Greens), Mel's, Michael's of Cherry Creek, Papillon Cafe, Starfish, Tante Louise, Today's Gourmet, Tuscany at the Loews-Giorgio Hotel, 240 Union and Zenith. And yes, that's more than ten; it's impossible to eliminate even one of these consistently excellent eateries.
Speaking of Zenith, the latest venture from owner Kevin Taylor is now open. Brasserie Z is supposed to be his "fun, sexy, reasonably priced restaurant," according to Taylor himself. The reasonable part certainly applies, since the tab at Zenith averages $50 and at Z it will be a mere $25. And while the food is French in theory, true to Taylor, there's a wide interpretation involving ingredients from all over.