Two decades ago, before Coors Field opened, the area just past LoDo was known as "NoDough." But even then, the area had a lot of promise. And over the last year, that promise has finally been realized, with all those turn-of-the-last-century warehouses now filled to bursting with residences and offices, and the Victorian storefronts housing excellent restaurants and innovative businesses. And over the past few months, as construction explodes in LoDo to the southwest and RiNo to the north, the Ballpark neighborhood has seen new buildings open, too, buildings that house cutting-edge enterprises and eateries -- including Denver's Best New Restaurant. As Denver's Best New Restaurant Neighborhood, Ballpark hits it out of the park. Here are ten reasons why:
See also: The twelve best brunch spots in Denver
10) Amerigo Delicatus Restaurant & Market 2449 Larimer Street
Iain Chisholm, chef/owner of Amerigo, which opened in the summer of 2012 in the Ballpark neighborhood, is the epitome of an entrepreneur. His first food venture was a lemonade stand when he was in elementary school; he went on to earn two degrees from Johnson & Wales and work for local restaurateur Jenna Johansen. Then he got a gig in the construction industry for three years, learning skills that would help him save lots of money when he finally opened his own place, Amerigo. Although he scrimped on the buildout and still focuses on manageable food costs, he's dedicated to serving new-world Italian cuisine at affordable prices. The highlights are his housemade pasta dishes; the roster is always changing, but the high quality is a constant. Other reliable deals: the sandwiches at lunch, the Monday-night dinner special of roasted suckling pig or linguini, and the Tuesday Cheap Date Night with a $50 dinner for two, wine included.
9) Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs 2148 Larimer Street
Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs has been hawking fat sausages from a handful of carts for years now, but in 2011, Jim Pittenger also opened a brick-and-mortar establishment that quickly became a mainstay for those looking for a cheap dinner before a night on the town -- or a cheap dinner at the end of a long night, since this spot stays open after last call on weekends. Most of the dogs -- including such exotic sausages as boar, elk and veal -- run just $6 or $7 and come piled high with caramelized onions and decorated with a ribbon of cream cheese.
8) Buenos Aires Pizzeria 1319 22nd Street
The menu at this understated Argentinean pizza joint lists forty types of pizza, each as unique as a snowflake, and not one bearing a single slice of pepperoni. Hearts of palm? Absolutely. Corn? You bet. The salty Crudo features prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes; sliced oranges, pineapple and shredded coconut top the Tropical. And shredded hard-boiled egg adorns about half of the offerings: Apparently the Argentine people were the first to discover that hard-boiled egg (both whites and yolks) lend a weird, wonderful, almost nutty flavor to a slice.
7) Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria 2129 Larimer Street Owners Mark and Kristy Dym wanted their place to have a sense of fantasy-Italian bonhomie, where two visits make you a regular and three a member of the family. And they succeeded. Their friendly pizzeria has a contemporary feel even though the building is more than a century old, and the service is uniformly great. But what matters most is the pizza, made in huge ovens brought over from Italy. This is about as close to a true Neapolitan pie as you're going to find anywhere outside of Naples, and Marco's has the VPN certification to prove it. Bonus points for the chicken wings fired up in that same oven. Keep reading for more of the best restaurants in the Ballpark neighborhood.
6) Mexico City Lounge 2115 Larimer Street
Want a taste of what Larimer Street was once like? Although the space has been updated, Mexico City's menu boasts that the restaurant has been family-owned for forty years -- and every year shows in the depth of flavor this modest kitchen gives its green chile (offered hot or mild), its fried tacos, its steak and breakfast burritos, even that squeeze bottle of salsa. Although this stretch of Larimer has become almost unrecognizable over the past decade, Mexico City remains a down-home cantina full of guaranteed good food and good times. Fair warning: the place closes early.
5) Sugarmill 2461 Larimer Street
Upper Larimer is experiencing a serious case of sugar shock now that Sugarmill -- a dessert bar and lounge that Noah French, pastry chef at TAG, opened in late 2013 -- is teasing everyone who walks through the door with extravagant display cases of cookies and cupcakes, French macarons and fat muffins, cakes and croissants, parfaits and tarts. The alluring sweets, all of which are created in an open display kitchen where French is front and center, are complemented by a lunch menu of sandwiches and salads and a dinner menu that highlights heartier dishes like turkey pot pie and short-rib tortellini. Grab your goodies to go, or sit down and enjoy Sugarmill's very sweet surroundings.
4) Trillium 2134 Larimer Street
When veteran chef Ryan Leinonen decided to strike out on his own, he drew knowledge from his experience and inspiration from a trip to Scandinavia and his own roots to create Trillium, a sleek, Scandinavian-American hot spot that opened in late 2011. Leinonen is drawn to strong flavors, and Scandinavian cuisine, with its preponderance of roe and assertive fishes, is certainly full of them -- but the most successful dishes here showcase his skills in coaxing maximum flavor from simple ingredients. Leinonen says his place is named for a rare blue wildflower that only blooms when conditions are right; on nights when the planets align at Trillium, a meal can be out of this world.
Keep reading for more of the best restaurants in the Ballpark neighborhood.
3) twelve 2233 Larimer Street
Jeff Osaka's twelve derives its name from its focus on monthly menus that highlight seasonality as far more fluid than just spring, summer, fall and winter. Seasonality wasn't all that hot when Osaka opened twelve in late 2008; neither was the Ballpark neighborhood, where he turned an old storefront into a spare, elegant dining room laid out with nicely spaced tables and anchored by a giant antique mirrored bar. The vintage-theater-like marquee out front does little to suggest the eatery within, and the location has been a challenge from the start. But slowly, Osaka won over the city. Denver's chefs became his first big fans -- Osaka has been a tireless cheerleader for the scene -- and then Denver diners caught on to the undeniable delights of twelve. This is an intimate spot with a tightly edited, protein-centric menu that glides through the seasons. The service is almost as seamless, with Osaka himself sometimes pitching in to serve.
2) Work & Class 2500 Larimer Street
Work & Class is a class act. A collaboration between industry veterans Delores Tronco, Tony Maciag and chef Dana Rodriguez, who left a gig at Bistro Vendome to become a partner here, the restaurant opened this January and quickly began packing in the crowds. And packing is the right word: Work & Class's smart, streamlined home is constructed of shipping containers. That's just one of the reasons Work & Class works. Another is the equally smart menu, which Rodriguez describes as "half Latin and half American," a mix of small plates that's a "combination of all our childhood favorites" -- favorites that range from veal-and-pork meatballs with polenta to braised goat. Bonus points for the great happy hour.
1) Lower48 Kitchen 2020 Lawrence Street
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"I've worked in restaurants my whole life," says Mario Nocifera, who co-owns Lower48 with business partner and executive chef Alex Figura; the pair met while working at Frasca Food and Wine. "I've always wanted to build a restaurant -- that's been my dream for years -- and our goal is to continue to make Denver a great dining destination; we're striving to be great regionally, and we want to be a part of why people go on destination food trips." And they've succeeded. Four months after they opened Lower48 Kitchen in the sleek new 2020 Lawrence building at the edge of the Ballpark neighborhood, Westword named it the Best New Restaurant in the Best of Denver 2014. And recent menu tweaks have only made it better. Why should food this good be reserved for special occasions? Fortunately, with Lower48's menu format -- which puts control in diners' hands with two-dollar bites and refined yet affordable small plates -- it doesn't have to be. Watch for our list of the Ten Best Bars in the Ballpark neighborhood...and post your suggestions below.