Colfax Avenue is known for many things: dive bars, gritty urban street life, a thriving music scene, late-night action. Most striking, though, is its diverse roster of restaurants, nearly as long as the street itself, including old-school greasy spoons and steakhouses, taquerias, walk-up windows, pizza joints, bakeries, coffeehouses, and culinary samples from nearly every region of the globe. You'll see shift workers hunched over pre-dawn bowls of green chile, Mohawked misfits lined up for bourbon chicken, bearded hipsters sipping craft cocktails and Greek grandfathers sipping retsina on timeworn patios. With everything from pupusas to Detroit-style pizza, here's our list of the twelve best restaurants on Colfax — in alphabetical order, with last year's best eatery on Colfax in the number-one slot.
12. Annie's Cafe & Bar
3100 East Colfax Avenue
At first glance, Annie's Cafe may seem like just one more cutesy diner packed to the gills with vintage kitsch, but this east Denver joint rises above the rest. That's because the history here isn't manufactured through fake '50s decor and faded film posters; it's real. Annie's has been serving such down-home fare as extra-large omelets, juicy burgers and peanut butter shakes since 1981, and when it moved from its original drugstore digs at Eighth and Colorado in 2008 to this larger location (the previous home of Goodfriends), it lost none of its charm. Stop by and enjoy the taste of authenticity — and don't miss the cafe's delicious green chile.
11. Brik on York
2223 East Colfax Avenue
In this era of craft beer, Brik on York stands out for its focus on wine. Chef/owner/sommelier Travis Gee offers an eight-page wine list, with old- and new-world wines by the half-glass, glass, half-bottle and bottle, along with informative tidbits about each region. Wine isn’t the only focus, though. The menu includes an array of Neapolitan-style pizzas prepared in a wood-fired oven imported from Italy, plus salads and build-your-own meat-and-cheese plates. On weekends, musical acts perform in the dining room, making for a lively, unpretentious way to enjoy drinks centered on grapes, not hops.
10. Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery
4990 East Colfax Avenue
Chop Shop, which opened in 2014 on a revitalizing stretch of East Colfax, isn't 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 the past few years, with exposed brick as well as 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.
9. The Denver Biscuit Company
3237 East Colfax Avenue
When Ashleigh and Drew Shader, owners of the Atomic Cowboy, decided that Denver deserved a true Southern breakfast, they outfitted a food truck to deliver it. But before the Biscuit Bus got on the road, they used the bar's kitchen to test out recipes, opening at 8 a.m. and serving a menu of biscuits and gravy to breakfast-goers and hangover-cure seekers who packed the sun-washed room. The impromptu breakfast bar was such a hit that even after the truck got rolling, the Shaders decided to keep their brick-and-mortar breakfast establishment, dubbing it the Denver Biscuit Company. Keep it simple with a giant biscuit the size of a cat's head slathered in butter and jam, or dive headlong into the pool of rich sausage gravy that smothers the Franklin, a chicken-fried gutbuster with all-day appeal.
8. The Good Son
2550 East Colfax Avenue
Udi Baron's restaurant group has mounted a string of restaurants in the former Lowenstein Theater complex since taking over the space in 2012. Its first run was Udi’s Pizza Cafe, which offered pizzas and globally inspired entrees. After the Udi’s name was sold to Smart Balance, the restaurant reopened as Silvi’s Kitchen. Then in spring 2015, the group debuted a new concept: The Good Son, a watering hole specializing in burgers, sandwiches and Detroit-style pizza. More urban in flair than the group’s other restaurants, the Good Son boasts strings of red and white lights, zebra-themed wallpaper, and funky art from local artist Zoë Rayor, not to mention a lengthy beer list, with eighteen beers on tap and another 26 in bottles. Stars of the show are thick, cheesy pizzas baked in a wood-fired oven in well-oiled steel pans. Don’t miss the Buddy’s, named for the Michigan pizzeria that started it all, with tomato sauce ladled over the cheese, as custom dictates. Though less traditional, the Spartan and Tom Selleck are just as good, with assertive toppings — spinach-artichoke dip and smoked mozzarella on the former, and jalapeños, fresh pineapple, bacon and smoked mozzarella on the latter — that hold their own against so much dough.
3230 East Colfax Avenue
Twelve years on Colfax Avenue, where restaurants measure age in decades, isn't a long time, but Mezcal was beginning to feel like an old favorite after a relatively short time. But certain parts of Mezcal, namely the kitchen, were starting to feel just plain old to owners Chris Swank and Loris Venegas, so they shut the place down at the end of last spring and did a complete kitchen rebuild. A spruced-up menu was also part of the program, with massive tamales topped with shredded duck, a beefed-up roster of street tacos and plenty of other hacienda fare. With all the changes, Mezcal is still a comfortable stop for pulling up a bar stool and sampling a wide range of the restaurant's namesake spirit.
6. Phoenician Kabob
5709 East Colfax Avenue
Phoenician Kabob is where you come for kabobs, tabbouleh and kibbeh, garlic dip and grape leaves, beef shawarma and lamb shanks, where you enjoy your Mideast feast in a dining room spackled the colors of sumac, cumin and turmeric. It's also where you station yourself on a Saturday night, when the restaurant becomes a sultry den in which to get your shimmy on while checking out the sexy belly dancer. Get into the spirit of excess and order the Sultan Combo, a mounded platter of the best of everything the Middle East has to offer: lemony hummus dusted with sumac, earthy baba ghanouj tasting of deep smoke, sour grape leaves, chewy falafel orbs brightened with the vivid green of herbs and gyro, and steamy housemade pita.
5 . Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant
7225 East Colfax Avenue
The Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant hides demurely amid innocuous markets, barbershops and thrift stores along a stretch of Colfax that's the metro area’s primary, though not only, Ethiopian zone. Meat or vegetable combination platters may be the way to go for novices, but the more adventurous should dig into an order of raw kitfo — lean beef minced nearly to a paste and mixed with clarified butter and spices, resulting in a back-of-the-throat heat and luscious texture. Stewy wotts and sauteed tibs dominate the menu, but variations on sauces that whisper with cardamom, cloves, garlic and other unfamiliar but evocative flavors sit alongside searingly hot bites to be tempered with cold lentils or a salad of tomatoes and shreds of injera — the ubiquitous bread that serves as an edible spoon in an otherwise cutlery-free restaurant. The atmosphere mirrors the personality of its proprietor Zewditu Aboye (who is often the sole server, hostess, cook and cashier): a little harried but never rushed, spread a little thin but not to the point of frustration, and always sharing a smile or a gleam in the eye.
4. Sassafras American Eatery
320 East Colfax Avenue
As anyone who's gone out for breakfast recently knows, Denverites love their morning meal: Hour-long waits at joints that serve up a mean pancake aren't uncommon. Sassafras opened in Capitol Hill in summer 2014, after the success of the original location, in west Denver, caused its long lines to just get longer. Not one to mess with a good thing, owner Julia Grother kept the same menu, emphasizing classic Southern comfort foods like grits (from sweet-potato grits with spiced pecans to scallion grits with fried oysters and smoked bacon) and a few varieties of mac and cheese (who can resist breakfast mac?). One welcome addition at the new space: A liquor license. Now you can enjoy a Bloody Mary garnished with an edible voodoo doll while you wait for your table — and if you experience sudden sharp pains while waiting for your table, perhaps you should reconsider your dining companions.
3. Solera Restaurant & Wine Bar
5410 East Colfax Avenue
Solera's kitchen has truly come into its own with a menu of solid, old-world dishes reinterpreted through chef Goose Sorensen's worldly neo-classicism. Look for excellent modern translations of traditional French, Italian and Mediterranean dishes served in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere by one of the most knowledgeable groups of servers in town. The lovely, lush patio is one of the best in town, and the Wednesday wine tasting at the bar is a great deal bolstered by delightful small plates.
2. Tacos Acapulco
8890 East Colfax Avenue
During busy hours at Tacos Acapulco, you practically need a shoehorn to get into the microscopic front room that barely has space for four counter seats and an order window; even during off-hours, it's unusual to find an empty seat here. Tacos Acapulco hawks dishes from Mexico and El Salvador: tacos and burritos as well as authentic Salvadoran pupusas, which are the real standouts. A flat pocket of masa surrounding meat, cheese, beans or loroco, a Central American flower bud, are griddled on the flat-top long enough that the outside gets crispy and golden and cheese oozes out the sides. For Mexican bites, the tiny taqueria slices some of the best tacos al pastor in town.
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1. To the Wind Bistro
3333 East Colfax Avenue
Bigger isn't always better, which is why Mizuna alum Royce Oliveira chose a 628-square-foot location on East Colfax 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.