New restaurants just kept coming last year, with many great ones opening in the final weeks of 2016 — something restaurateurs would never have considered in decades past. But now that the dust has settled and we've had time to taste our way through the city's menus, we know which eateries are drawing us back again and again with tempting food, stellar service and welcoming ambience. Here are the ten best restaurants to open in 2016, in alphabetical order.
1160 Madison Street
Although 12@MADISON didn't open until the middle of December, the early results are now in — and chef/owner Jeff Osaka has another hit on his hands, winning our 2017 award for Best New Restaurant. This reboot of twelve, his original restaurant that closed more than two years ago, feels like the completion of a circle. The menu shifts with the seasons, offering small plates grouped from light to heavy, with subcategories divided into three of each: soups/salads, vegetables, pasta, seafood, light meats (chicken and friends), heavy meats (think beef) and desserts. The style of food resists easy categorization; Osaka avoids farm-to-table, sustainable, New American or other catchphrases that could lead guests to the wrong conclusion. Instead, dishes are thoughtful — almost intellectual — in design and execution under the eye of chef de cuisine Ashley McBrady. Favorites include a play on toads in a hole, veal sweetbreads and ricotta gnudi in brown butter.
909 Walnut Street, Boulder
When Arcana opened in Boulder last February, it eschewed the New American style of cooking (a mashup of traditional American cooking techniques and international ingredients) so prevalent in restaurants today. Instead, Arcana carefully and deliberately went about creating an Old American restaurant, emphasizing traditional American techniques with a distinctly regional bent — Colorado grains, locally farmed meats, foraged ingredients and seasonal vegetables. Chef Kyle Mendenhall (previously of the Kitchen) took over the culinary program last summer, piloting Arcana to new heights. Combine all that with a downright luxurious dining room with plush bar stools, tin ceilings and custom dinnerware, and everything old is new again.
1550 17th Street
Avelina was helmed by culinary power couple John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom when it opened last September, but the two departed just a few weeks ago, leaving questions about the future of the dinner and dessert menus they created. Things are holding steady so far, though, keeping the restaurant among Denver's elite. What makes the downtown spot so alluring? Avelina proves that industrial chic isn’t everything: The lighting is gentle, background music stays in the background, and stools and banquettes — covered in Italian leather and chenille — are so comfortable, so you’ll want to stay all night. The menu offers seasonal New American with Mediterranean flair. Wood-fired flatbreads feature Moroccan-spiced lamb and roasted cauliflower. Warm artichokes, quartered and fully cleaned, form striking silhouettes, their slender stems tucked against roasted shiitakes. Yuzu-and-chile-glazed short ribs arrive in three paves on a rectangular platter spread with carrot purée and gingery sautéed vegetables. We hope that Avelina can continue to wow customers despite the changes in the kitchen.
400 East 20th Avenue
Brother-and-sister team Paul and Aileen Reilly couldn’t have picked a better spot for Coperta, their Italian followup to Beast + Bottle. Its location across from Benedict Fountain Park means that after a leisurely meal, you can walk out the door, belly full of wine, pasta and cheese, and engage in that most Italian of traditions: the passeggiata, or evening stroll. Prior to launch, the pair traveled widely throughout Rome and points south, and came home with a menu that includes several knockout dishes, including chewy cavatelli with meat ragù, bucatini all'amatriciana with salty nubs of guanciale, and polenta, which defies its humble origins with a richness that comes from butter and leftover whey. Chicken isn’t always the most exciting dish on a menu, but Coperta’s pollo allo diavolo makes you reconsider that assumption: Diavolo means “devil,” and this wood-charred half-chicken lives up to its name, fiery from its chile marinade, Calabrian chiles and the red-tinged chile oil ringing the plate. While dinner can be be a destination affair, Coperta aims to be a neighborhood gathering spot, with coffee and pastries for breakfast and smart combinations of soups, salads and panini for lunch.
Fish N Beer
3510 Larimer Street
The understated simplicity of restaurateur Kevin Morrison's latest effort — from the plain name to the spare fish-house menu — does little to prepare diners for the quality and execution of each dish coming from a kitchen headed by chef/partner Aniedra Nichols. Fans of Morrison's Tacos Tequila Whiskey will understand that great food doesn't need to be fancy or fussed with. Fish N Beer serves up deep-fried fun from uniquely delicious blowfish tails to crispy little smelt, but whole fish grilled over oak coals puts the tiny RiNo eatery above the standard seafood shack. Even the ubiquitous charcuterie plate gets a seaside makeover here, with tonnato, smoked-fish dip and soy-glazed salmon collar standing in for more common sausage, pâté and cheese.
Keep reading for the rest of the list of best new restaurants...
98 Steele Street
The new Matsuhisa in Cherry Creek — one of many in chef Nobu Matsuhisa's international collection — is everything we expected from the seasoned chef, who combines Japanese tradition and culinary artistry with worldly flavors. The space is opulent and stunning, the reservation list tight, and the plates executed with a painter's skill and mastery of color and form. This is no Friday-night hangout, but rather a destination event for the most special of occasions. We're saving our pennies.
3033 Brighton Boulevard
After years of opening all manner of restaurants, executive chef/partner Troy Guard returns to his roots with Mister Tuna, a high-energy spot in RiNo’s Industry building. And what a fun restaurant it is — but not in the default-casual way, with free-flowing craft beer, wings and cornhole on the lawn. Here the best tables are inside (not on the patio), where the room comes into its own as night falls. Under the cover of darkness, the long, narrow space becomes increasingly grown-up, with a wall-sized portrait of the chef's mom overlooking the dining room and a black-and-gold color scheme that totters between sexy and elegant. Divided into the categories of raw bar, appetizers and entrees, the menu reflects influences ranging from Hawaiian to Vietnamese to Indian. This being Guard’s house, the most memorable fare involves the sea: kampachi with mint, Thai basil, chiles and cilantro; ahi poke with buttery avocado and quinoa; and corvina with kimchi-tossed wheat berries. But other dishes shine, too, and many capture the best of Guard’s fusion-rich background, including carrot agnolotti with a Thai carrot-herb salad, grilled pizzas and rotisserie pork collar with lavender mustard.
1560 Boulder Street
Mizu was another latecomer, opening the first weekend of December. According to owner Hong Lee, an izakaya is a Japanese bar with tapas-style dishes, small plates meant to be eaten with alcoholic beverages. "Traditional izakayas don't have a sushi bar," he adds, but Mizu does — which is a good thing for customers, since it shows off seafood from Lee's extensive network of purveyors that he's built up while running eight other restaurants throughout the metro area. Beyond sushi, meats and fish grilled over Japanese binchotan charcoal are among the draws, but don't miss the foie gras or the housemade tofu, served chilled and drizzled with a salty-sweet sauce — so smooth and creamy it's like savory soft-serve ice cream.
3040 Blake Street
Perhaps no other restaurant captures the direction of Denver’s food scene as much as the Preservery, the brainchild of wife-husband duo Whitney and Obe Ariss. To wit: The Preservery is in RiNo, the turbo-thrusted neighborhood that’s the envy of many a city planner. Gratuity is built into the pricing, in line with the owners’ socially minded outlook. Live music happens on a regular basis, including classical piano from Obe himself. The Arisses are clearly the heart and soul of the place, but it is chef de cuisine Brendan Russell who translates their vision and lifts the Preservery out of the realm of the super-trendy and into the much narrower category of memorable dinners you'll want to experience over and over. The seasonally inspired menu is full of choices – think octopus to vegan salads to wagyu – but salads and desserts are particularly strong. Russell spent time at Frasca Food and Wine as well as Foliage, a Michelin two-star establishment in London, and his background shows in accents like cilantro purée alongside buttermilk panna cotta, earthy turmeric to temper the sweetness of onion jam, and edible flowers. This is cooking for right now, in this adventurous, booming heart of the New West.
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The Way Back
4132 West 38th Avenue
Is the Way Back a great bar or an understated restaurant with a secretly stunning menu? We don't mind thinking of it as both — and the secret won't be kept for long, since the West Highland wonder also won our best cocktail bar award this year. Balanced yet creative cocktails, a surprising slate of ciders and a thoughtful wine list add to the bar's appeal, while a series of seasonal small plates — many with vegetables as the stars — bolster a few larger entrees, including an always-comforting roasted half-chicken. If you've taken our suggestion and headed over for drinks, now's the time to find your way back for an excellent dinner, too.