The Fifteen Best New Restaurants in Metro Denver in 2014

Cart-Driver features wood-fired pizza.
Cart-Driver features wood-fired pizza.
Danielle Lirette

11) Cart-Driver 2500 Larimer Street 303-292-3553

Cart-Driver opened this summer in a trendy, shipping-container development in the hot RiNo neighborhood. But while the 25-seat restaurant is new, the person behind it is not. For years, co-owner Kelly Whitaker has been building a name for himself at Basta, a full-service restaurant in Boulder that features short ribs, wood-roasted chicken, pizza and an admirable wine list. A wood-fired oven and Neapolitan pizza are also the driving forces behind Cart-Driver. Although this tiny spot takes the fast-casual approach, with counter service, a tightly edited menu of pizzas (no design-your-own options) and a handful of small plates, the ingredients are top-notch and the food is produced with care. Bargain-hunters should be sure to hit the late-night happy hour.

A crock of Chop Shop's 72-hour French onion soup gets a final touch.
A crock of Chop Shop's 72-hour French onion soup gets a final touch.
Danielle Lirette

10) Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery 4990 East Colfax Avenue 720-550-7665

Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery, which opened this summer on a revitalizing stretch of East Colfax Avenue, is not your normal fast-casual joint -- at least, not if your definition of fast-casual begins and ends with Chipotle. Run by Clint Wangsnes, a veteran chef with experience in Hawaii, Napa Valley and Miami Beach, the restaurant could easily moonlight as one of the trendy full-service spots that have taken over the city these past few years, with exposed brick and tables and booths crafted of wide-plank barn wood; even cocktails are batched and served with happy-hour nibbles such as sliders and hoisin-tamarind ribs. Wangsnes, however, decided to go in a more casual direction, adding an order line, glowing computerized menu boards and clip-on numbers to facilitate food delivery. And he did so because he wanted to serve a group that's barely tolerated, much less emphasized, by most restaurateurs: families, who deserve good food, too. And Chop Shop definitely delivers.

The cakes are the baum -- but so is the sushi -- at Glaze by Sasa.
The cakes are the baum -- but so is the sushi -- at Glaze by Sasa.
Danielle Lirette

9) Glaze by Sasa 1160 Madison Street 720-387-7890

Teaming one of Denver's top sushi masters with a bakery known for circular cakes that bake a layer at a time on a horizontal rod is either a recipe for weirdness or a stroke of creative genius that takes full advantage of the skills of Sushi Sasa owner Wayne Conwell and baum-cake expert Heather Alcott. The place opens at 9 a.m. every morning as a bakery cafe featuring tarts, macarons and coffee drinks; lunch and dinner showcase Conwell's creative and precise sushi along with other Japanese dishes like soba and udon noodle bowls and, of course, plated desserts, many built around slices of baumkuchen -- a Japanese-German hybrid that requires a special oven (Alcott says hers is the only one in the U.S.). Denver diners are often leery of cafe restaurants that try to be too many things at once, but everything that crosses the counter here, as much art as cuisine, demonstrates expertise, quality and sheer fun. With a modern, minimalist dining room and a sleek sushi bar, the restaurant still pulls off warmth and charm in part because of the confidence and sincerity pouring from the kitchen and bakery.

A bowl of wood-oven clams at Gozo.
A bowl of wood-oven clams at Gozo.
Danielle Lirette

8) Gozo 30 South Broadway 720-638-1462 In March of 2014, the Italian/Spanish-inspired Gozo finally opened in the South Broadway storefront that was once home to Deluxe and Delite. It's undergone a major renovation; the two spaces have been merged into a big, whitewashed room with a chef's counter that faces the wood-burning oven, a long bar and two cozy seating areas. A seat by that oven can get steamy, but Gozo is a hot restaurant in more ways than one. Founding executive chef Nicholas Petrilli (who has since moved on) and founder/front-of-the-house manager Frank Jolley IV both spent time in kitchens in Napa, and their experience is reflected in both the impeccable service and the amazing dishes you'll find at Gozo. Jolley likes to describe his place as an "Italian wine bar married with Spanish tapas," and that's a merger we're happy to toast. Keep reading for seven more of the best new restaurants in Denver in 2014.

Bruleed bone marrow at Mercantile Dining & Provision.
Bruleed bone marrow at Mercantile Dining & Provision.
Mark Antonation

7) Mercantile Dining & Provision 1701 Wynkoop Street 720-460-3733

Alex Seidel has a leg up on the farm-to-table movement: he operates his own farm to supply meat, dairy and produce to his first restaurant, Fruition, as well as Mercantile, which opened as a market, deli and dining room in Union Station in early September. Mercantile's menu is punctuated with preserves, pickles, cured meats and aged cheeses, many from Fruition Farms and Mercantile's own kitchen. Seasonal, local and foraged ingredients speak for themselves in simple presentations amid house-made pastas, subtle sauces and unfussy platings. Whole branzino propped upright on a serving platter and massive, Flintstone-esque tomahawk pork chops highlight the list of head-turning "Family Dinner" entrees. A well-trained staff moves with ease among widely spaced tables and booths, serving guests with with nonchalant grace that seems almost old-fashioned by modern, casual standards. Mercantile's style and comfortable sophistication fit perfectly in the restored grandeur of Union Station, which, while stunning, remains grounded in its roots as a hub of commerce and transportation.

The Nickel is an instant classic in the Hotel Teatro.
The Nickel is an instant classic in the Hotel Teatro.
Danielle Lirette

6) The Nickel 1100 14th Street 720-889-2128

When the Nickel opened mid-summer in the Hotel Teatro, it had a big void to fill, created when Prima and Restaurant Kevin Taylor closed to make way for a complete remodel of the hotel's ground floor. With only one restaurant to serve the hotel and its guests as well as hungry theater-goers and Denverites looking for a posh night out, the Nickel and its menu, centered on wood-grilled meats and locally sourced produce, has risen to the challenge. Oak- and cherry-wood smoke add subtle campfire touches to grilled octopus in a salad of celery, green olives and potatoes as well as to simple bites like toasted levain topped with rosemary goat cheese. Such rustic entrees as lamb Bolognese over ricotta gnocchi and short ribs Genovese warm the soul with strong Italian influence. Dark woods, gold and brown textiles, high, gauzy curtains and comfortable chairs swathed in leather give the Nickel the relaxed but sophisticated air of a period country manor -- fitting for one of Denver's top hotel restaurants. Keep reading for five more of the best new restaurants in Denver in 2014.

Fried chicken at the Post Brewing Co.
Fried chicken at the Post Brewing Co.

5) The Post Brewing Co. 105 West Emma Street, Lafayette 303-593-2066 One of the first new eateries to hang its shingle in 2014, the Post got off to a fast start thanks to guidance from Big Red F, the restaurant group behind Lola and the growing stable of Jax Fish Houses along the Front Range, among others. Drawing families and beer lovers alike from bucolic Lafayette and further afield with picnic-worthy delights like fried chicken, deviled eggs and pimento spread, chef Brett Smith and his crew aren't content to settle for ordinary renditions of Midwestern standbys. That chicken wallows in buttermilk before getting an herb-flecked coating of gluten-free flour for a serious crunch; the deviled eggs come topped with crispy shreds of pork cheek; and the pimento spread, served warm, features goat cheese instead of the scary orange stuff. Beers, like a malty-if-style-boggling session barleywine by former Dogfish Head whiz Bryan Selders, add to the fun. Daily blue-plate specials, like Saturday's thin-pounded chicken-fried steak, mean you can work your way through the regular menu or come back each week for your favorite.

Sarto's goes for a tailor-made experience.
Sarto's goes for a tailor-made experience.
Mark Antonation

4) Sarto's 2900 West 25th Avenue 303-455-1400 Fans of Barolo Grill will remember Brian Laird for his upscale interpretations of Italian classics. Now he finally has his own place at Sarto's, where he's delving into regional Italian specialties as well as a few Italian-American favorites. Sarto's cicchetti bar sets the restaurant apart with small plates tailor-made to guests' preferences. Those might include pizza with salt cod and shrimp, skewered sweetbread with caramelized pear, or a delicate fritto misto of calimari and scallops. For heartier fare, Sarto's excels at house-made pastas, like little agnolotti al plin stuffed with veal and kale, broad pappardelle with slow-cooked ragu, or even a wedge of lasagna that would make mama proud. There's nothing homey about the dining room, though; cool whites and soothing grays with splashes of orange make for an elegant but relaxing ambiance. Keep reading for three more of the best new restaurants in Denver in 2014

The oysters at Stoic & Genuine come with house-made granitas in a variety of flavors.
The oysters at Stoic & Genuine come with house-made granitas in a variety of flavors.
Danielle Lirette

3) Stoic & Genuine 1701 Wynkoop Street 303-640-3474

Aside from the name, everything about Stoic & Genuine shouts seafood. In the raw bar, oysters and crab legs glisten on ice. Emerald-glass floats, salvaged from fishing nets, fill a case by the hostess stand. Light bounces off mirrored panels like moonlight on silvery water. Sand fencing wraps around the ceiling, and oversized shutters hang over the windows in front, the ones that would let in sea breezes and the squawking of gulls if we were near the ocean. When the restaurant debuted in early July -- the first to open in the renovated Union Station downtown -- expectations ran sky-high. That wasn't surprising, considering it was the first venture from partners Beth Gruitch and Jennifer Jasinski since the latter had nabbed a James Beard award for Best Chef Southwest. And Stoic & Genuine is definitely a keeper, though you shouldn't arrive expecting a seafaring version of Gruitch and Jasinski's other restaurants. Instead, you'll find a hip spot to eat impeccably sourced seafood -- some elegant, some casual, much of it served on small plates.

A tapioca cherry tart at To the Wind Bistro.
A tapioca cherry tart at To the Wind Bistro.
Danielle Lirette

2) To the Wind Bistro 3333 East Colfax Avenue 303-316-3333

Bigger isn't always better, which is why Mizuna alum Royce Oliveira chose a 628-square-foot location on East Colfax Avenue for the home of To the Wind Bistro, the restaurant he opened in March 2014 with his wife and pastry chef, Leanne Adamson. "We were looking for something small," Oliveira explains. "That way, if I mess up, I mess up small rather than mess up big." But To the Wind Bistro rarely messes up. The menu is adjusted daily based on what sold well the night before and what's available at the neighborhood Sprouts, and the dishes in this tiny spot are cooked with the kind of urgency and passion that are harder to come by in restaurants with more seats, more cooks, more middlemen. There are no middlemen here, just two cooks who have put their heart into the place.

The cabrito at Work & Class.
The cabrito at Work & Class.
Danielle Lirette

1) Work & Class 2500 Larimer Street 303-292-0700

Rarely does a restaurant capture the moment as well as Work & Class, which opened in the Ballpark neighborhood in January. And we're not just talking about how it embodies 21st-century sustainability with its shipping-container shell. There's something about this American/Latin American eatery that seems so right now -- and so right, especially if you like rooting for the underdog. Delores Tronco, owner-buckstopper, as she jokingly calls herself, left a job in communications to take a risk in the food industry. Tony Maciag, owner-general manager, hails from Detroit, an underdog with a capital "U." Dana Rodriguez, owner-executive chef, grew up on a farm in Mexico without running water or electricity, moved to the United States with three young daughters, and worked her way up from dishwasher at Panzano to chef de cuisine at Bistro Vendôme. These backgrounds inspired the restaurant's name -- say it quickly and you'll hear "working class" -- and its concept, pitched by Tronco to investors as "a square meal, a stiff drink and a fair price." Work & Class delivers all that -- and so much more.



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