Ten Best Tiny Restaurants in Denver
Cafe critic Gretchen Kurtz has been extolling the virtues of small dining rooms in recent reviews, including this week's look at Bistro Barbes. In fact, she seems to be having a summer-long, cross-country love affair with tiny, independent restaurants, writing that "they tend to exude honesty, urgency and passion."
We agree -- and her passion for small but focused eateries inspired us to make a list of ten of the top tiny restaurants in Denver. Our criteria? Aside from great food, we kept the seating limit to no more than forty (including bars and counters, but not counting outdoor tables) and listed only full-service (not walk-up or fast-casual) restaurants. Here they are, counting down from largest to smallest.
Uncle's noodle bowls are bigger than its dining room.
2215 West 32nd Avenue
The crowd outside Uncle, which doesn't take reservations, is often bigger than the number of guests eating inside, so popular is Tommy Lee's homage to Asian noodles. A brimming bowl of Uncle's chashu ramen seems more voluminous than the joint itself, which can get cacophonous at the height of dinner service. Keep your elbows in at the counter or risk dunking your shirt sleeves in your neighbor's broth.
There's as much seating on the patio as in the dining room at Bones.
701 Grant Street
Bones, Frank Bonanno's joint at the corner of Seventh and Grant, is big only on flavor and accolades; the space itself has only 36 seats. Not exactly traditional, the menu at Bones typically spans Japanese and Korean flavors with typical Bonanno flair: tsukumen ramen gets a Western punch with hominy and green chiles while bibimbap receives a scattering of earthy quinoa and farro.
The best seats at Glaze by Sasa.
1160 Madison Street
A seat at the sushi bar offers the most ambiance and intimacy at this Japanese bakery-by-day, restaurant-by-night overseen by Wayne Conwell, owner of the original Sushi Sasa at 15th and Platte streets. Expect the same precise and creative seafood dishes at this second spot, along with a few elegant versions of soba noodle bowls and cooked seafood dishes. Oh, and then there's the strangely beautiful spit-roasted cakes that emerge from the "Red Dragon," a Japanese baumcake oven that dominates the tiny space.
Keep reading for more diminutive dining rooms...
If Gaia's dining room is full, try the patio.
1551 South Pearl Street
Eating breakfast or lunch at Gaia is like dropping in on an old friend; the neighborhood cottage-turned-restaurant has maintained much of the charm and decor of a vintage bungalow common in the Platt Park neighborhood. The morning menu offers crepes large and thin enough to be used as window coverings and supplemented with garden-fresh (really -- just take a peep out back) herbs and greens. Dinner's still a warm and charming affair, whether you sit inside or on the spacious wrap-around patio with a great view of Old South Pearl.
Bistro Barbes feels bigger when the garage door is open.
5021 East 28th Avenue
Bistro Barbes opened in April this year in a restaurant-starved Park Hill neighborhood. Owner and chef Jon Robbins offers an ambitious and frequently shifting menu of dishes touched by North African, Spanish and Middle-Eastern cuisines. The atmosphere is neighborhood-comfortable and when the weather is nice, the garage doors open the place up. Previous tiny eateries Satchel's (now the cavernous, 55-seat Satchel's on 6th) and Parry's also once occupied this shoebox of a space.
DiFranco's started out as a deli, then added seats.
955 Lincoln Street
When it comes to Italian cuisine, simplicity, craftsmanship and unassailable ingredients are what count -- and DiFranco's, an unassuming, low-key joint in the Golden Triangle that Ryan DiFranco opened in 2012 as an Italian deli, then expanded into a (tiny) restaurant, embraces all of those attributes. But fair warning: If you're heading over for some heavenly homemade pasta, DiFranco's has only two tables, a community counter and a few spots on the patio.
On the outside of Z Cuisine, looking in.
25 seats (40 in À Côté Bar a Absinthe)
While Z Cuisine and its sister bar, À Côté, operate under the same ownership and kitchen, the main bistro stands on its own as one of Denver's smallest -- and tastiest -- restaurants. Come early for a table, since Z doesn't take reservations, or have a seat at the bar next door and enjoy a few sips of the green fairy while you wait for a dinner table. The menu leans toward traditional French preparations --think crusty bowls of onion soup and cheesy gratins -- but changes regularly. A chalkboard lists daily specials -- but the place is small enough that you can listen in as your neighbors get the rundown from their server.
Keep reading for our last three diminutive dining rooms...
Mayan Manjar Yucateco's tiny cabin houses big flavors.
5209 West Mississippi Avenue, Lakewood
"Once you've tasted Mayan Manjar's food, you'll believe in the power of the underdog," writes Gretchen Kurtz in her recent review of this tiny, Yucatan-flavored joint. With the appeal of a fur trapper's lodge on the outside and not much more than a typical cinder-block taqueria on the inside, Mayan Manjar may not be located in one of the city's trendy neighborhoods, but it's a trendsetter in focusing on hyper-regional cuisine rather than offering bland stand-ins or dumbed-down fare.
Cheesy arepas at Empanada Express grill.
4301 West 44th Avenue
This cozy corner of Venezuelan cuisine features the namesake empanadas, plus fat arepas made from white corn flour and a few hard-to-find appetizers like tequeños (fried dough sticks), cachapas (corn flour pancakes) and mashed yucca. Additional treats include South American soft drinks and fried plantain -- both the sweet, ripe slices and the starchier chips made from the green fruit. Service is relaxed but friendly, so don't go if you're in a hurry -- but if you don't mind the slow pace, the food is worth the wait.
This is most of To the Wind Bistro's dining room.
3333 East Colfax Avenue
Another miniature marvel that garnered positive print from our critic, To the Wind is run by chef Royce Oliveira and his wife and pastry chef, Leanne Adamson. Oliveira focuses on beer-friendly foods that are far from typical bar fare. Surprising escargot empanadas or lamb sweetbreads and pastrami with sauerkraut give way to Adamson's desserts -- like chocolate stout cake and seasonal fruit tarts. With seven local brews on tap and more by the bottle than there are seats in the place, To the Wind might be the state you leave in as well as the name of the restaurant.
5209 W. Mississippi Ave.
Lakewood, CO 80226
3333 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
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