Ten Things Visitors Should Know About the Denver Restaurant Scene

Visitors, don't settle for another Denver omelet.
Visitors, don't settle for another Denver omelet.

Out-of-towners may have specific ideas about what they'll encounter when trying to get a meal in Denver: there's nothing but steak houses, they'll have to resort to a chain restaurant, or dinner will likely consist of a Denver omelet. While our city certainly has its fair share of good beef, variety and quality have always been here when it comes to other options (those who were around to remember the oil-boom days of the late '70s and early '80s can attest to that), but in the past few years, the proliferation of new restaurants has outstripped Denver's undeserving reputation as nothing but a Midwestern cow town. We love our old favorites and our unique traditions here, but there's also plenty of the new Denver to give locals, tourists and business travelers alike a great taste of the city.

See Also: Denver's Ten Best Old-School Italian Restaurants

Bison: the other red meat.
Bison: the other red meat.

10) Bison really is popular

It's not just a myth of the West; bison is an integral part of Denver menus, from fast-casual joints to fine dining restaurants. According to the National Bison Association, national bison consumption is only a minuscule .07 pounds per person annually, but Denverites, who value healthy eating (bison --often called buffalo -- is lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than beef, pork or even chicken), help make Colorado one of the top bison-consuming states. Park Burger -- with locations in Platt Park, Lower Highland and Hilltop -- grills up the quintessential buffalo burger: flavorful and lean but still juicy. For something other than burgers, head to Second Home in Cherry Creek North for a savory bowl of bison chili. They also do seasonal braised bison short ribs if you're in the city in the fall or winter. Newcomer Guard & Grace downtown makes buffalo the star of one of its starters: Colorado bison tartar.

The many Colorado beers available at Colorado Plus Brewpub.
The many Colorado beers available at Colorado Plus Brewpub.
Phillip Poston

9) Everything goes better with beer

There are currently more than forty breweries within Denver's city limits, with more opening every week, and that's not even counting the suburbs. With all that beer to go around, it makes sense that restaurants keep beer in mind when menus get written. For an excellent roundup of the state's best beers, head to Colorado Plus Brewpub, which boasts 56 Centennial-State beers on tap, including a few brewed in-house. But it's not just the casual places that are bringing the beer; Mercantile Dining & Provision, the newest eatery from farm-to-table champion Alex Seidel, offers only four draft beers, but they're all local and small-batch: Grimm Brothers, Crooked Stave, Hogshead, and Comrade Brewing. And diminutive 19-seater To the Wind Bistro offers more than forty beers, many from Colorado, to complement creative dishes like rabbit empanadas and chanterelle-dusted monkfish with quinoa.

The Far East Center on Federal Boulevard offers multiple Vietnamese and Chinese options.
The Far East Center on Federal Boulevard offers multiple Vietnamese and Chinese options.
Mark Antonation

8) The ethnic food scene is better than you think

Many cities build a reputation for ethnic eats on one or two nationalities; places with large China Towns like San Francisco and New York City offer regional specialties not found in the rest of the country. Denver may not have a central enclave of any single cultural or ethnic group, with the possible exception of South Federal Boulevard's Little Saigon Business District, but with a little patience, some great treasures await in the strip malls and suburban landscapes of Denver's perimeter. Certainly, head first to Federal for great pho at Pho Duy or a range of traditional and exotic dishes at Viet's -- like a stellar goat hot pot. Then head down Alameda Avenue for dim sum at King's Land or Super Star Asian before filling up on a dizzying variety of street tacos at La Calle.

Ethiopian options abound too, whether at the venerable Queen of Sheba on Colfax or the newer, and menu-free, Megenagna in Aurora, which specializes in a range of traditional kitfos and tibs. While on the east side, seek out Seoul BBQ or Han Kang for Korean. For a unique taste of Southern Indian, make the trip down to Lone Tree for a variety of dosas and vada (lentil-flour doughnuts) at Khazana.

The original Chipotle.
The original Chipotle.

7) We invented fast-casual restaurants

Chipotle is the patriarch of fast-casual, point-and-serve dining; visitors to Denver can make a pilgrimage to its first location near the University of Denver. While the fast-casual concept can be likened to a cafeteria line, Chipotle mastered the art of serving fresh, customized burritos to the masses beginning in the early 90s. Since then, a wave of followers -- Smashburger, Qdoba, Noodles & Co., and Quiznos -- have spread through Colorado and into the rest of the country, while Mad Greens and Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill are also slowing making national inroads. But you'll still find small chains here that have yet to jump state lines. Pizzeria Locale, operated by the owners of fine-dining Boulder destination, Frasca Food and Wine, now has two locations in Denver, with more planned for the Front Range, while Bubu is serving fresh and vibrant bowls with international flair and Chop Shop is giving a taste of sous vide cooking to neighborhood families on East Colfax.

Keep reading for more of what visitors to Denver should expect.

 

Cafe Brazil.
Cafe Brazil.

6) Check out the neighborhoods

Staying near your downtown hotel will certainly yield good results, especially if you're staying at the Hotel Teatro, where the Nickel's menu features wood-grilled specialties, or at the Hotel Monaco, where Panzano has been turning out world-class Italian-influenced fare for more than a decade. But if you're feeling a little more adventurous, head to Denver's historic residential neighborhoods, where great food awaits in some unlikely spots. Serene Park Hill is home to Tables, which has been quietly amassing praise with its eclectic menu, while the uber-hip River North (call it RiNo at the risk of ridicule from Denver old-timers) district features small-plates masters The Populist and Acorn. Head to happening Berkeley, home to local treasures Cafe Brazil, Empanada Express and Hops & Pie, or hit Old South Pearl, where Sushi Den and sibling restaurant Izakaya Den have made a national reputation for Japanese cuisine.

Seafood on display at Jax Fish House in Glendale.
Seafood on display at Jax Fish House in Glendale.

5) The seafood is actually pretty good Speaking of Sushi Den, it's only one of many great seafood-based restaurants bringing in ultra-fresh fish from both coasts and beyond. The owners of the 30-year-old Japanese eatery import some of their finest fare from Southern Japan, where family members keep an eye on the best the fish markets have to offer and ship to Denver several times a week.

But that's just the tip of the fin. Jax Fish House, with locations downtown and in Glendale and Boulder, has also earned praise as one of the top seafood restaurants in the U.S. by Travel & Leisure. And newcomer Stoic & Genuine hits the right notes with its lively raw bar, featuring three varieties of oysters grown just for them.

Green chile at La Loma.
Green chile at La Loma.

4) Our green chile is different

Visitors from New Mexico may lament the dearth of Hatch chiles and soupy bowls of spicy goodness that match their ideas of good chile verde, but Denver-style green chile is its own thing, having diverged into a thicker, saucier stew to combat Denver's colder winters. The hallmark, although not everyone's favorite, can be found at Chubby's, which has been serving it's off-orange spicy gravy on burritos, fries and Mexican hamburgers for more than 40 years. Be warned, it's spicy, it clings and you'll want more. For thinner versions of the Denver favorite, which usually includes pork and often skews more orange than green from the addition of tomatoes, try Santiago's (with multiple locations along the front range), La Loma or the Bonnie Brae Tavern. But serviceable versions can be found on just about every breakfast menu in town -- smothered breakfast burritos are the go-to choice of Denver early risers.

 

My Brother's Bar.
My Brother's Bar.

3) We actually do have a little restaurant history here

Despite the incredible rate at which new joints are opening in Denver (July alone saw 40 or more), there are still plenty of vintage charmers, many of which have operated in the same family for decades. For a little history, try a late-night jalepeño cream-cheese burger (another Denver invention) at My Brother's Bar, a famous Beat-era dive, sip a cocktail in the Ship Tavern in the Brown Palace Hotel, or get swanky at Bastien's, with its circular bar and sugar steaks.

Alex Seidel at his Fruition Farm.
Alex Seidel at his Fruition Farm.

2) We have seasons and menus change

Farm-to-table restaurants are a nationwide trend, to the point where many diners roll their eyes at the mere mention of heirloom tomatoes or hand-picked baby greens, not to mention the words organic and artisan. But there are plenty of restaurants that mean what they say; some have gone so far as to start their own farms to provide meat, dairy and produce, taking advantage of Colorado's warm, sunny summers, and long, cool autumns. Fruition gets much of its menu items from Alex Seidel's Fruition Farms, including award-winning aged sheep-milk cheeses. In Boulder, Erik Skokan operates Black Cat Farms with such efficiency and attention to the seasons that he's able to provide almost everything on the ever-changing menus at Black Cat Bistro and Bramble & Hare -- even in the dead of winter. Bradford Heap, owner of Salt and Colterra, looks to his Soul Patch farm to fuel the menus at his GMO-free restaurants.

A charcuterie plate at Old Major.
A charcuterie plate at Old Major.

1) Meat is still king, but it's way more than just steakhouses

Denver chefs have jumped on the nose-to-tail bandwagon with a passion, offering offal and off-cuts served with skill, creativity and whimsy. Euclid Hall, a vaguely-German beer hall just off Larimer Street, serves delicious pad Thai pig ears; LoHi's Old Major, which builds a rotating nose-to-tail plate of several different pork preparations, went so far as to name itself after the pig in George Orwell's Animal Farm. Over in Uptown, Beast + Bottle brings in whole animals to butcher in its tiny kitchen -- so small in fact that beef is not even a consideration. Instead, you'll find seasonally changing options like braised goat shoulder, ash-roasted lamb, and charcuterie like house-made sausage and head cheese.



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