Encore, was the last restaurant I visited before last week's Best of Denver 2008 issue went out the door. I'd already picked Encore for Best French Fries — after Fruition, my first choice, quit making them — and was relieved to find that the fries were just as delicious last Monday as they'd been a few weeks before, when I'd tried them at brunch. While that brunch was fun, it didn't come close to being the Best Brunch (that honor went to Lola). Encore's brunch might not even make the top five if I think about it hard — and yet I can still say with confidence that Encore offers an excellent Sunday-morning spread. Because if there's a theme running through this year's awards, it's this: Denver now has so many great restaurants that for the first time since I started working on the Best of Denver, six years ago, "Best" actually means "Best" — not "only," not "solitary," but actually the best when judged against what, in many cases, is some very stiff competition.
Let's start with the big one: Best New Restaurant, which went to Toshi Kizaki's new baby, Izakaya Den (1518 South Pearl Street). I was so blown away by the place the minute I stepped inside that it quickly took the lead in this competition, and my follow-up visits for Best of Denver "research" were really just excuses to expense a few more meals of this kitchen's mind-bending food. Izakaya Den would've been one of the best new restaurants in any city this year — but other worthwhile places also made their debuts in Denver over the past twelve months. Two share a single address: French 250 and Tambien, at 250 Steele Street. Two more are on the same block: the Corner Office (1401 Curtis Street) and Oceanaire (1400 Arapahoe Street). Up in Boulder, there's Dave Query's Centro Latin Kitchen and Radda Trattoria. For more Italian, Osteria Marco in Larimer Square and Il Posto on East 17th Avenue. That's a lot of competition — unlike last year, when Fruition, which opened in February 2007, won the race at the eleventh hour.
Even more telling than the number of excellent restaurants that opened this past year was the number of excellent restaurants that didn't get awards in the Best of Denver 2008, including perennial favorites like Vesta Dipping Grill (1822 Blake Street) and Rioja (1433 Larimer Street). To honor them this time, I would have had to create new categories, because the ones they've won before no longer apply. Vesta, for example, could've been Best Dipping Grill, but that would have been a one-dog fight. It's still an excellent restaurant, the best at what it does — what it has been doing, with very little alteration, for more than a decade — but it's no longer the Best Fusion Restaurant (that went to Izakaya) or the Best First-Date Restaurant (9th Door). Rioja is another fantastic restaurant — I love chef Jen Jasinski's pastas and recommend this place all the time — but with so much high-end Mediterranean/Italian action in the city right now, it didn't rise to the level of hands-down best, and I didn't give a Best Mediterranean at all. As for frequent winner Deluxe (30 South Broadway), while it continues to crank out phenomenal California cuisine, any awards are on hold until its expansion is complete and the staff settles in.
Best of Denver
While some longtime Best of Denver winners got bumped this year, others retained their positions. Bud's Bar, for instance. I'm beginning to think that no one will ever dethrone this joint in Sedalia from its Best Burger perch. My Brother's Bar came close, but when push comes to shove, I'll always be a sucker for a place that does burgers and nothing but burgers. Capital Grille (1450 Larimer Street) repeated as Best Steakhouse; in my mind, it's the Apollonian ideal of steakhouses, and will probably remain so until Peter Luger decides to open a location here. And how is anyone ever going to top the ramen served at Oshima Ramen?
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Those laboring here at Bite Me World HQ (i.e., me and my editor) are actually thinking of retiring some of these awards to make space for newcomers, discussing how we might create some kind of lifetime-achievement prize or permanent award of honor recognizing that certain restaurants (Domo, Sushi Den) or certain departments (the wine cellar at the Palace Arms, the moules-et-frites station in the Le Central kitchen) have accomplished feats of excellence that may never be matched. But so far, that's just talk.
I'm particularly proud of the Best Restaurant Neighborhood award that went to the bottom level at 250 Steele Street, home to Tambien and French 250. I can remember when Cherry Creek was starting to look like ground zero for high-end restaurant-concept development — but these days, most of it is a fucking wasteland of buyouts, condo redevelopments and chain restaurants. It's my fervent hope that the success of Tambien and French 250 will inspire independent restaurateurs to look at Cherry Creek and remind them that great restaurants can triumph over both a bad economy and a worse location. In fact, French 250 came close to unseating Izakaya Den as Best New Restaurant. I have such a soft spot for the kind of food being done by this kitchen and so much respect for owner Ted Reece, a first-time restaurant guy who basically runs the place on love and bluster (and lots and lots of money), that French 250 almost took the prize. Almost.
Some years, these awards are easy. Some years, they're tough. The only thing that's constant is that as soon as the book closes on one year's issue, the clock starts ticking on the next one. As of right now, we've got 51 weeks left until Best of Denver 2009 — so let's get to work.
By the way, if you didn't grab an issue, the Best of Denver 2008 is on the web, where you can also comment on any of my picks.