Eat Here: 100 Denver Restaurants We Can't Live Without
These unique, top-caliber and classic restaurants define Denver's dining scene.
Last year we served up Eat Here, a list of the 100 Denver restaurants we couldn't live without, a roster of eateries including the very best in town as well as other unique spots that help define the dining scene. (We're talking about you, Casa Bonita.) These restaurants are so essential to the Denver dining scene, in fact, that over the past year, we lost only one: Rebel Restaurant, which burned fast and bright in RiNo during its three-year journey.
Over the past twelve months, though, dozens of new restaurants have joined the fray, many instantly attracting attention from around the country as well as from local diners. So now we've updated our original Eat Here, adding thirty names while removing others from the initial lineup. That's not to say that all of those have declined or become less relevant, but in a city that's seen more than 200 new restaurants open every year for the past five years, Denver just has a lot on its plate...much of it very, very good. While some of the newcomers to our list are also newcomers to the scene, others are older but have withstood the test of time, rising to meet the challenge of a restaurant community growing at a furious and unrelenting pace.
For the 2018 additions to Eat Here, we followed our rule of evaluating new restaurants only after they've had three months to find their footing; any spots that opened after June were not considered. We also decided not to include food halls and markets, since the individual stops at each one stand on their own merits as restaurants. But without doubt, there's great food to be found at Avanti Food & Beverage (a pioneer even after just three years), Denver Central Market, Zeppelin Station and newcomer Denver Milk Market. And in order to capture the spirit of Colorado, we only included independent eateries and small restaurant groups founded in our state.
Here are the 100 Denver restaurants we can't live without in fall 2018, starting with our thirty additions to the list, in alphabetical order, followed by the seventy that have earned another round. - Mark Antonation
Restaurateur Jeff Osaka’s 12@Madison quickly won our hearts when it opened in December 2016 with its thoughtful, intelligent menu filled with dishes as spare and striking as the dining room itself. Grains and vegetables are given the utmost respect, with starring roles in such small plates as carrot gnocchi and beet risotto with fresh chèvre. Meats match the seasons, with unctuous braised pork, lamb and beef in the fall and brighter, livelier preparations in the spring.
When Bryan Dayton and Steve Redzikowski planned a Denver followup to Oak at Fourteenth, their Boulder hit, they signed on to anchor the Source, the redeveloped brick foundry on Brighton Boulevard. Amid soaring ceilings and exposed, graffiti-covered brick walls, they again installed a wood-fired oven as the centerpiece of the open kitchen. Acorn has a bit more casual vibe than Oak, definitely louder, but the cooking here is just as serious, with seasonal improvisations interspersed with such greatest hits as the meatballs on polenta, shrimp and grits and beef tartare. Don't overlook the large plates; Redzikowski and his crew work wonders with steak and poultry. And the drinks list is so well-rounded that you'll want to start with a cocktail, move into wine, and finish with amaro or sherry. Acorn is a favorite not just with locals, but with out-of-towners, too; there’s something for everyone here, and all of it is done well.
Stem Ciders has played a pivotal role in the resurgence of cider, once one of America's favorite beverages. After five years of small-batch production in a tiny cider house downtown, the company thought big — really big — with its Boulder County farmhouse restaurant that opened in 2018. Located on more than ten acres of hilltop property (where orchards and vegetable gardens are even now being planted), Acreage combines a cider taproom and wood-fired kitchen to draw guests from the entire Front Range. Subtle Spanish influences on the menu nod to cider's European origins, while rustic American cooking keeps the food grounded. And without making a fuss of it, Acreage is almost entirely gluten-free. A seat in the bright and airy dining room, with views of Boulder Valley and the Rocky Mountains, makes for a relaxing evening of sipping and dining in the country.
Adelitas won the hearts of Platt Park neighbors and South Broadway commuters with its raucous Taco Tuesdays and potent house margaritas that far surpassed the typical premixed standard. But owner Brian Rossi wasn't content to rest on his tortillas; instead, he continued to present alluring dishes representing regional Mexican cuisine while building a jaw-dropping selection of tequila and mezcal bottles behind the bar. With a second cantina debuting in downtown Littleton, Adelitas stands as proof that Denver diners are hungry for far more than just smothered burritos and ground-beef tacos.
Located in Stanley Marketplace, Annette is a beautiful restaurant flooded with light and dotted with natural touches — planters with live trees, live plants on every table — that make the room feel sophisticated, not stark. The restaurant pushes boundaries with a small-plates menu (think beef tongue and marrow toast), building on a foundation of small-plates eateries that helped modernize Denver's dining scene, not the least of them Acorn, where Annette chef-owner Caroline Glover worked. Seasonal ingredients are revered; pickled accents pop up everywhere. A wood-fired grill adds a cozy rusticity that you smell when you walk in the door. The restaurant is at its best when showcasing Glover’s take on comfort food: pillowy gnocchi, whole fish with Calabrian chile jam, grilled carrots and snap peas, and housemade ice cream sandwiches.
For a chef who's been in the restaurant business as long as he has, Radek Cerny still manages to bring a sense of fun and whimsy to some seriously French cuisine. His Papillon was a smash hit in Cherry Creek before many of today's hot young culinary stars had tasted their first frites; the chef returned to Denver in 2017 after years of serving dinner in Boulder, putting Atelier in the original Il Posto location in the Uptown neighborhood. Here you can luxuriate in rotating classics like duck rillettes, escargot, foie gras and lobster, but Cerny also has a way with Western favorites such as elk (look for wapiti on the menu), Alaskan salmon and bison short ribs. Be sure to bring a few extra bucks for a bottle of wine; the list here is dazzling, and the food is built to match the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
With just Highland Tap & Burger, Juan Padro and Katie O’Shea were on their way to becoming some of the most successful restaurateurs in town — and when they partnered up with Max MacKissock, one of Denver’s most accomplished chefs, they became virtually unstoppable. For Bar Dough, the team’s first project together, they decided to do an Italian restaurant — but rather than be limited by authenticity, Bar Dough uses Italian constructs as a loose base, whimsically improvising on pastas and small plates and making good use of its wood-fired oven for pizzas and other flourishes. While the menu, in the hands of Top Chef standout Carrie Baird, changes seasonally, some staples remain — like the pan-seared pollo al limone, a succulent half-chicken. The restaurant also has one hell of a happy hour, which is a good way to experience a little bit of everything. And for something really special, book Segretto, the secret upstairs dining room, for a custom feast.
Restaurateur Blair Taylor opened Barolo Grill in 1992 as a tony tribute to Italian cuisine and fine wine; the Cherry Creek neighborhood and Denver’s jet set took to it like fish to water. Over the years, the restaurant experienced ups and downs in both popularity and culinary excellence, and in 2015, Taylor sold the business to his general manager, Ryan Fletter, who’d landed a job there 22 years earlier. Since taking over, Fletter has modernized the service and menu while still maintaining a touch of the classic — and today Barolo Grill is informed by its past without being weighed down by it.
When Basta opened in 2010, it was a wood-fired pizzeria flavored with the Italian passion for using nearby ingredients. So the restaurant went to local purveyors for flour and tomatoes instead of importing ingredients from overseas, and gave anglicized names to its Napolitano pies. Those pies quickly garnered a following, even if Basta was exasperatingly difficult to find (it’s nestled in the inner courtyard of a Boulder apartment complex). Today people still come for those pizzas — now built on crusts made from local heritage grains — as well as whole fishes and half chickens, wood-fired vegetables, exemplary small bites and lasagna that must be ordered two days in advance. Pair your meal with something from the Italian-heavy wine list, end it with an amaro or grappa, and don’t ignore the coffee, which Whitaker takes very seriously, or the ice cream, the base of which is toasted in the oven before it’s frozen into dessert.
There may not be another restaurant in Denver that’s used its history to such great advantage, keeping everything noteworthy from the past — from the chi-chi mid-century aesthetic to the quality steaks that meet the expectations of modern diners. The family-run business dates back to the 1930s, but the current incarnation was constructed in 1958, giving distinct Googie style to the roofline and neon sign outside. Inside, dinner in the bird’s-nest loft feels intimate and old-school, and a sugar steak — served no more than medium-rare — gives a taste of Colfax Avenue’s swingin’, stylish earlier days.
The sister/brother duo of Aileen and Paul Reilly have built a beautiful operation in Uptown since opening Beast + Bottle in 2013, with an emphasis on warm, gracious and genuine service to bolster a brief but ever-changing slate of beast-based bites. The plates that fly from the tiny kitchen have an artistry that matches their creative flavors, from verdant vegetable dishes to local lamb and heritage pork presentations. And, of course, a meal wouldn’t be complete without the fig + pig flatbread (a staple since Reilly’s days at Encore, which he helmed until 2012). A cocktail list filled with pop-culture puns reveals a sense of humor that’s a counterpoint to what is otherwise some seriously sophisticated dining.
Frustrated with the Indian food he was seeing in the Mile High City, Biju Thomas, whose roots are in the southern Indian region of Kerala, decided to take matters into his own hands. He opened the first fast-casual Biju’s Little Curry in RiNo, giving Denver an Indian cuisine it had never seen: lighter curries, brighter flavors, plenty of spice, and all healthy. (Thomas is also an athlete, so his food is balanced for nutritional needs.) Biju’s serves all this goodness in bowls that combine masala beef, coconut curry chicken, lentils or potatoes with chutneys and yogurt over basmati rice; wash them down with tap kombucha or housemade chai. When his concept attracted appreciative crowds, Thomas opened a second spot on Tennyson; to further this city’s appreciation of Indian food, he’s also created a line of retail products including spice blends that are available at Whole Foods Markets.
How does a humble hot-dog cart rise to the status of one of Denver’s top dogs in the restaurant business? Chalk it up to the creative and obsessive mind of Jim Pittenger, who started out with Coca-Cola onions and cream cheese as a topping combo that elevated his wieners above the competition; today Biker Jim’s continues to innovate with an array of wild-game and specialty sausages, including jalapeño-cheddar elk, wild boar and reindeer. The wild combos and consistent quality have drawn national attention, with celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain, Ludo Lefebvre and Andrew Zimmern adding their praise to compliments from a long line of tube-steak tourists and frankfurter fanatics.
The Bindery is a sprawling, sunny restaurant in LoHi that bills itself as an all-day eatery and marketplace, selling coffee and pastries from a counter and serving a menu that’s heavily influenced by Italy from morning to night. Why Italian? Chef/owner Linda Hampsten Fox lived and worked in Italy for decades, and her elegant dinner menu reflects her intimate knowledge of the country. Don’t miss happy hour’s prosciutto-wrapped grissini and the hand-cut pappardelle with meats that change with the seasons — sometimes braised boar, sometimes lamb. But the menu ranges farther afield than Italia, with Mexican and New American influences that reflect experiences throughout Hampsten-Fox’s nearly thirty-year career, as well as her penchant for unusual proteins — tuna ribs and rabbit, for example — and brash flavor combinations.
Bistro Vendôme rises above kitschy French shtick with an alluring menu and warm hospitality typical of the restaurants run by chef Jennifer Jasinski and business partner Beth Gruitch. Timeless classics like onion soup, steak frites and escargot vie for attention alongside more modern, seasonally driven creations, giving guests plenty of options. Despite its Larimer Square location, the bistro maintains its charm as a hidden secret surrounded by brick walls, ivy and shady trees; the garden seating is lovely in the summer. Whether you’re stopping for some happy-hour bubbly or a brunchtime croque madame, Bistro Vendôme is as close as you’ll get to Paris in the heart of Denver.
In a neighborhood better known for convenience stores and takeout Chinese, Greek and Thai, chef Olav Peterson and his wife, Melissa Severson, have carved out a reputation for avant-garde cuisine with an eye toward seasonality. Never pretentious or unapproachable, Bittersweet’s offerings instead delight with discovery while remaining grounded in familiar flavors. Thai, Mexican, Italian and French influences broaden the palate of garden-fresh dishes, enhanced by a stellar wine list and more than a few food-friendly beers hailing from Colorado, Belgium and beyond. A summer seat on the patio surrounded by tomatoes and chiles ripening on the vine is as treasured as a fireside table in the winter; both come with an incredible basket of house-baked bread.
Black Cat offers the ultimate farm-to-table experience, because chef/owner Eric Skokan runs his own farm, which provisions his restaurant nearly year-round. On the menu you’ll find not only such Colorado standards as heirloom tomatoes, bold peppers and a plenitude of greens, but hard-to-grow crops including sweet potatoes, artichokes and peanuts. Pasture rotation, organic farming and biodynamic practices result in the highest-quality produce and meats, all expertly utilized by Skokan and his team. The pillows in the dining room are stuffed with wool from Black Cat Farm sheep, and even in the dead of winter, storage cellars and cold frames ensure that there’s something fresh on your plate.
Those who have followed chef Hosea Rosenberg’s career from his days at Jax Fish House in Boulder to his surprise victory on Bravo’s Top Chef in 2009 knew that it was just a matter of time before he would move on from a food truck and catering company to a full-fledged restaurant. That happened in 2014, when Rosenberg opened Blackbelly, a butcher-driven eatery that now encompasses all of the chef’s passions: charcuterie, top cuts from locally raised animals, Southwestern flavors from his childhood in New Mexico — and even killer breakfast burritos (at Blackbelly Butcher next door). A sense of humor and easygoing demeanor have kept Blackbelly grounded, even while the kitchen delivers steakhouse-caliber dry-aged beef, delicate pastas and seasonal vegetables with a locavore mentality.
Who knew that Denver would embrace Detroit-style pizza when Blue Pan Pizza debuted in 2015 in West Highland? Under the focused eye of chef and co-founder Jeff “Smoke” Smokevitch (who now runs two Blue Pan locations with partner Giles Flanagin), the cozy pizzeria starts with a traditional base — an airy, crackly crust, Wisconsin brick cheese and a thick, tangy sauce — and adds toppings that modern customers crave, from paper-thin folds of prosciutto and fresh piles of arugula to burrata, green chiles and Tender Belly bacon. Beyond the Detroit-style pies, Blue Pan also offers award-winning Italian thin-crust, an even thinner Chicago cracker crust, and big slices of New York-style pizza. The joint's excellent gluten-free versions of Detroit and Italian crusts are the best in town.
Family-run since 1934, Bonnie Brae Tavern is far more than just a restaurant. Regulars and neighbors from every walk of life come in to enjoy a solid meal, a familiar face and the comforting fact that slow change is a better path to success than a fast grab at elusive trends. Not that the Tavern is incapable of change: The Dire family was an innovator in Denver when they added pizza to the menu, shortly after World War II. Green chile, wonton-skin rellenos, hefty burgers and stuffed shells show the range of Italian, Mexican and American influences that have shaped Denver’s eating habits for decades. The Bonnie Brae isn’t a relic stuck in the past; it’s a living tribute to this city’s history and an ongoing reminder of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
At 3 a.m. on a chilly Denver morning, the dining room of the Breakfast King feels like a movie set. The wood paneling, orange vinyl booths and swiveling bar stools evoke the diners and roadhouses of a different era. Waitresses in crisp white shirts and pumpkin-hued aprons hustle platters of pancakes and oozing tuna melts to bar-hoppers out after last call, long-haul truckers and other inhabitants of the night. The smells of grease, coffee and diesel waft through the air, and the near-constant ring of spatulas and clatter of plates mark the cadence of middle America. Every town has its Breakfast King, but this one belongs to Denver; only in this town can you find green chile thick as country gravy and the oddly named toro pot (which is actually more of a burrito) — a Denver diner staple made well at the Breakfast King.
Many restaurants along the Front Range re-create the Wild West experience, but most of them deliver the mild West. The Buckhorn Exchange is the exception, a true old-timey spot that still has meaning for today’s diners. Before Henry “Shorty Scout” Zietz opened the Buckhorn in 1893, he rode with Buffalo Bill; in 1905, he fed President Teddy Roosevelt, then headed off with him to hunt big game. And you’ll find plenty of big game on the menu of the restaurant today, meat that demands a pretty big price tag. Those on a nineteenth-century budget should head to the historic bar on the second floor, where you can order from the appetizer menu, enjoy entertainment, and gaze upon all the taxidermied specimens distantly related to what might arrive on your plate.
Call is a sleek, next-gen cafe with plenty of flair and attitude, enough to earn it a place on Bon Appétit's list of the ten best new restaurants of 2018. Anachronous telephone references fill the tiny space: Replicas of the tin-can phones kids once used to talk with their friends serve as light fixtures, and a neon sign in the bathroom, hung over wallpaper that looks like pages from a phone book, glows suggestively: “For a good time.” The food, though, is no laughing matter, even if it’s deceptively simple. Early risers will love the fried-egg sandwich with such thoughtful accents as finely chopped, housemade giardiniera and house-cured meats on brioche, and aebleskiver, barely sweet pancake balls — akin to Scandinavian doughnut holes — with ricotta and jam. At lunch, check the daily specials that expand the concise regular menu. Call has a liquor license too, so look for happy hour specials from noon to 2 p.m. daily.
In 2016, Elise Wiggins left her longtime position as executive chef at Panzano to pursue her vision of opening the Italian restaurant she'd always wanted. And with Cattivella (which means "naughty girl" in Italian), she's created a place that reflects her many experiences traveling, working and eating in Italy. The wood-fired pizza oven is used for far more than pizzas; even beans are slow-cooked there, in glass flasks nestled in hot embers. An adjustable wood grill gives meats (many of them brought in whole and butchered on site) and vegetables a rustic, old-world depth of flavor (during the warm months, large-format grilling takes place on the patio). And then there are the housemade breads and pastas, which separate Cattivella from the standard bistro or trattoria; a gluten-free menu makes sure that housemade pasta and pizza options are available without sacrificing quality. You're sure to feel spoiled — and even a little naughty — delving into this unabashedly Italian eatery.
Over its almost eight decades, the Cherry Cricket has morphed from smoky bar to burger institution, consuming adjacent storefronts along the way to grow into the warren-like beer-drinkers’, game-watchers’, everyone-is-welcome-here watering hole that it is today, even as Cherry Creek gentrifies around it. But this isn’t just a place for a game of darts and a brew. As anyone who’s been in Denver for a month or more knows, the Cricket is a classic burger joint, beloved by chefs, musicians, Creekers, night creatures and neighbors for its smoky, char-grilled patties and the lengthy list of toppings with which you can personalize them, from sauerkraut to salsa to raspberry jam. (We prefer standards such as green chiles and cheese.) True, the beef isn’t dry-aged or grass-fed, and the lettuce and tomato slices aren’t organic, but that doesn’t matter at the Cricket, where burgers taste the way they did when you were growing up.
Chef Lon Symensma, who’d already done time in top New York temples of pan-Asian cuisine and taken culinary tours of Southeast Asia, came to Denver to unveil ChoLon in 2010. And then he waited: Six months in, diners weren’t exactly busting down the doors. But then the rave reviews began to come in, and suddenly there wasn’t a soul in town who hadn’t tried — or swooned over — Symensma’s French onion soup dumplings or kaya toast with coconut jam and egg cloud, even if most of us had never had real xiaolong bao or Malaysian street food. ChoLon gave Denver something new: a menu that balanced the exotic with the familiar in dishes built for sharing. Now, the restaurant feels like a mainstay of the Denver dining scene, but many newer eateries owe a debt of gratitude for the ground that Symensma broke on his way to success.
Denver transplants, heed our advice: Acquire an opinion on green chile, and quickly, for no food in the Mile High City is as fervently debated among friends. While many greens are contenders, the Chubby’s chile is legendary. Stella Cordova took over the Chubby Burger Drive-Inn in the 1960s, keeping the burgers and fries and adding her own gravy-like green chile, spicy enough to impart a mouthful of flames. Over the years, several members of Stella’s sizable extended family have worked the line at Chubby’s; many opened their own spinoffs, each claiming to be the only one to whom Stella gave the real green chile recipe. Stella herself presided over the original Chubby’s until 2009, when she passed away at age 100, and the restaurant, which recently moved into a new structure on the same lot in northwest Denver, continues to pay homage to her legacy. Our favorite time to go is after 2 a.m., when a cross-section of Denver bar-hoppers and nightshift-workers line up for burritos, cheese fries and chile-injected grilled cheese.
Hotel restaurants don't have much of a reputation for inventive, chef-driven fare, but Citizen Rail, beneath the Kimpton Hotel Born, is among a growing number of exceptions to the rule. Not content to offer bland tourist fare to please the masses, chef Christian Graves turns his attention toward artisan food production, with dry-aged steaks (some for up to a year) and handmade bread and pasta. The heart of the restaurant is an open kitchen with several wood-burning grills, where everything — from those flavor-packed steaks to cocktail garnishes — is kissed with flame and smoke. Behind the scenes, a larger kitchen holds a butchering room where whole animals are brought in and broken down, providing cuts typical of steakhouse slates but also leaving room for oxtail, lamb sausage, rabbit loin and a decadent burger made from fresh-ground short rib and brisket. Yes, it's a meat-lover's paradise, but it's also so much more.
This Cap Hill mainstay is one of Denver's few spots reliably serving up tasty food after midnight. Since Dan Landes opened City, O’ City more than a decade ago (he sold it in 2018 to the group that now owns Watercourse, too), it’s catered to an eclectic group of diners: vegans, vegetarians, late-night club goers and bar hoppers, the gluten-free, and open-minded omnivores. The menu includes poutine topped with gravy made from caramelized onions and garlic and loaded with sage, as well as a savory waffle doused in a creamy Asiago sauce. Even the legendary surly service has mellowed over the years, becoming friendly, if not particularly fast. But why rush when you can settle in at the bar with a refreshingly affordable cocktail (there are plenty on the list that still ring in at under $10) and enjoy some of the best people-watching in town?
Colt & Gray is an exercise in how far someone — chef/owner Nelson Perkins, in this case — can push a neighborhood restaurant without going completely over the edge. Since it opened at the foot of the 16th Street pedestrian bridge connecting Commons Park to LoHi in August 2009, this compact eatery has been an equally good spot for savoring a perfectly executed cocktail while you eat your way through one of the best and most interesting happy-hour menus in town, or sipping a specially selected glass of wine while enjoying a special night out in the small but elegant, well-staffed dining room. The dinner menu is well thought out, too, with a number of dishes built around parts of the animal that some people would consider scraps, including a roasted marrow bone that concentrates the essence of grilled meat into a buttery spread.
Comal is a restaurant on a quest: The RiNo lunch spot opened in late 2016 with the goal of training low-income women (many of whom are immigrants and refugees from Mexico, El Salvador, Syria, Ethiopia and Iraq) in restaurant and business skills. But such noble ambition doesn't mean much if a restaurant doesn't serve great food — and here Comal succeeds admirably. Mexican dishes are on the menu early in the week, with offerings changing regularly based on recipes handed down from generation to generation. On Friday, though, Syrian cooks take over the kitchen and serve creamy hummus and pillowy housemade pita, along with other hard-to-find dishes such as stuffed artichoke hearts, bulgur salad and the transcendent dessert called kanafeh, made of mild white cheese surrounded by shredded pastry and soaked in syrup. You'll want to sample everything the kitchen turns out — which is why you'll keep returning to Comal, time and time again.
The first project from ChoLon Concepts to venture outside of Southeast Asia, Concourse Restaurant Moderne is a Stapleton stunner. With its low, wood-slat ceiling that undulates like waves and a light-filled wraparound bar, the restaurant feels elegant but playful, and the kitchen, headed by chef/partner Luke Bergman, turns out cuisine to match. The Modern American menu offers an embarrassment of riches, some of which change with the season; others, like a whole-roasted head of cauliflower with lemon, capers and brown butter, please year-round. Any number of dishes — perhaps the wagyu tataki served like high-end nachos, or the showstopping beet salad with arugula sorbet — have the potential to join sister restaurant ChoLon’s soup dumplings and kaya toast as icons of the city’s best fare.
Bryan Dayton and Amos Watts have already impressed Denver and Boulder with their work at Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn; with Corrida, they've turned their attention to beef, in the form of a Spanish-style steak served in a fourth-floor aerie overlooking the Pearl Street Mall. But beyond the wagyu tri-tip, dry-aged rib eye and Angus filet, there's a vast array of tapas and pintxos to keep nibblers happy. And with Dayton's background in the bar world, expect outstanding gin tonics, an impressive wine list and a surprising selection of vermouth by the glass. Corrida is the place to blow your children's inheritance or just relax over sips and snacks.
Alex Figura and Spencer White are trying to elevate pasta’s status as an oft-abused filler to the star of the plate, one handmade noodle at a time. But rather than taking an overtly refined approach, as you’d expect given their backgrounds in kitchens where success was measured in awards and Michelin stars, they’ve set up shop in a minimalist fast-casual spot, with unadorned white walls, black chairs and a stark-white art installation that dangles from the ceiling like a squadron of half-folded paper airplanes. Freed from the burdens of high-end, high-overhead operations, they seem thrilled to let loose and use food as a springboard for play. Seasonal vegetables and herbs serve as the color palette on an ever-changing canvas of ravioli and spaghetti.
Few Denver restaurants are as transportive as Domo, a fantasy land that’s delighted diners for two decades. Decorated as a traditional farmhouse, the sizable but dimly lit dining room features wall-ensconced Japanese porcelain and other artifacts, flagstone tables and an actual tree trunk, around which the walls and ceiling were built. The menu here is a compendium of Japanese country foods, which push way beyond sushi and ramen (though the ramen is delicious). This is the place to dabble in buckwheat soba noodles dipped in dashi broth, donburi rice bowls, thickly gravied Japanese curry and deep-fried mackerel. In the winter, try the nabeyaki udon, a specialty of chef Gaku Homma’s northern Japanese home, presented here as a broth redolent of caramelized onions swimming with fat udon noodles, pink-edged fish cakes, kelp, scallions, thin slices of pork and a fried egg. In summer, try a cold tsukemen noodle dish on the lovely, secluded patio.
Naming the best Mexican restaurant in Denver would be a nearly impossible task, given the variety of styles, price points and traditions represented here. But El Chingon is certainly among the elite, possibly because it combines so many traditions so seamlessly. There’s the Mexico City cooking of Gloria Nuñez, the classical French training of her grandson, David Lopez, and the north Denver sensibilities of owner (and Lopez’s uncle) Lorenzo Nuñez Jr. That El Chingon is a family affair gives every dish just a little more soul and a little more flavor, whether it’s a favorite like carnitas or soft chile rellenos or a more upscale offering such as rabbit roulade or vegetarian mole verde over roasted cauliflower. This little Berkeley cottage is up to big things.
El Five isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an experience. Perched atop a five-story building in LoHi, the restaurant commands breathtaking views of downtown and the mountains. But the views inside the walls are just as mesmerizing. People are everywhere — down corridors that lead to dining rooms surrounded by mirrors and glass; standing, sitting, ordering drinks, saving seats, sharing steel pans of paella, laughing and leaning in across velvety booths to be heard over the primal thump of a dance beat. A shiny black ceiling and ebony walls envelop you in the inner sanctum that is home to the open kitchen. Everything else glows in stark contrast, backlit with light pouring in through the open-air bar and wraparound windows. The bold reds and yellows of vintage Arabic movie posters capture the Mediterranean themes and audacious platings of the menu, which skews toward tapas, so everything is meant to share — from lamb sausage with hummus to patatas bravas to matzoh-ball soup dumplings.
Perhaps no Mexican spot in the Mile High is as beloved as El Taco de Mexico, a no-frills joint that offers little in the way of ambience, and even less in the way of service. But that hasn’t deterred the crowds that have been coming here since 1985 for anything smothered in the lip-tingling green chile, be that a burrito or tamales, enchiladas or chile rellenos. Don’t get so overwhelmed by the chile that you skip the excellent tacos, though: Soft corn tortillas wrap tender beef cheek, tongue or crispy fried pork, augmented by a pungent smattering of diced onions and cilantro. On the weekends, there’s a terrific menudo, the offal-saturated stew that’s a traditional hangover cure. Belly up to the counter to place an order and then find a stool — or, better yet, a table on the patio, a good perch for people-watching in the heart of the Art District on Santa Fe.
Old-world elegance, attention to detail, an award-winning wine cellar and a great view from its perch above Boulder have all contributed to the staying power of the Flagstaff House, opened in 1971 by the Monette family, which still runs the place. Not content to rest on its laurels, the Flagstaff House keeps its menu updated and seasonal while still making use of such high-end products as foie gras, morel mushrooms, Japanese wagyu beef, Maine lobster and fresh truffles. Dinner’s a splurge, but you’ll be treated like nobility from the front door to the last glass of dessert wine. Even a seat at the bar is an experience in hospitality the way it’s rarely practiced anymore.
FNG, a rock-and-roll-themed hit from prolific chef/restaurateur Troy Guard, more than lives up to its name: It’s fuckin’ good. It also manages to be a neighborly place with nothing to prove — except maybe that comfort food from a restaurant can be just as good as homemade. The vibe is youthful and raucous, slightly diner-like on the perimeter, where garage-door windows flood a family-friendly section of booths with fresh air and sunlight. Vintage album covers decorate the walls, many from Guard’s teenage collection. Servers sport band T-shirts, and ’70s and ’80s rock and heavy metal is cranked at all times, sometimes so loudly that you’ll shout or give up trying. The menu straddles the line between nostalgic and contemporary, with a mix of small plates, sandwiches, housemade pasta and down-home favorites like meatloaf and chicken-fried steak. Just have fun trying to explain to the kiddos what the initials FNG mean!
When French Laundry alumni Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson opened Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder in 2004, their paean to the northern Italian region of Friuli was quickly elevated to best-restaurant-in-Colorado status. Since then, it’s only gotten better. The exactingly executed food channels the Alpine-influenced flavors from across the Atlantic while taking cues from local produce and Colorado seasons. Classics like the gooey frico caldo — a crispy cheese-and-potato pancake — and a stellar salumi platter front an ever-changing lineup of pastas, meats and a traditional multi-course Friulian feast. Stuckey is a master sommelier, and the wine knowledge of his team runs deep — so don’t pass up an opportunity to explore the sharply curated cellar. Tellingly, Frasca is named for the tree branch that Friulian tavern owners hang above their doors to welcome in passersby: Frasca is a national leader in hospitality, and it continues to elevate dining expectations across the metro area, making our scene better and better.
Alex Seidel is one of many Mizuna graduates to open Denver restaurants, having served time under chef Frank Bonanno before leaping into the restaurant game himself in 2007. The close quarters of Fruition, his jewel box on East Sixth Avenue, have forced Seidel to look outward for inspiration and expansion, so he started his own farm and sheep dairy to provide seasonal produce and artisan cheese for Fruition (and for his second restaurant, Mercantile Dining & Provision). An artist’s focus (combined with a tiny kitchen) results in a menu of only a handful each of starters and main courses, but each plate is an unforgettable work of art. Fruition isn’t flashy or trendy; a more meditative approach puts the emphasis on what really matters: the food itself.
The original Garibaldi Mexican Bistro shares a building with a Conoco service station; the little eatery is wedged between the gas station's convenience store and automated car wash. The second location, in the Golden Triangle, opened in July and includes a full bar. Of course, we wouldn't send you to a taqueria if it wasn't top-notch, and the food is the main attraction at both. Daily specials — lamb barbacoa, quesadillas with huitlacoche and squash blossoms — are worth investigating, or sample the unique queka, which comes in somewhere between an oversized taco and a corn-tortilla quesadilla. Other hard-to-find regional dishes include pambazos (smothered tortas), nopales rellenos (stuffed cactus leaves), Oaxacan-style tlayudas, and mixiote (slow-cooked pork or chicken). Fill ’er up!
Building on the success of his ramen joint, Uncle, Tommy Lee set up shop in RiNo to give Denver Hop Alley, an exhilarating take on Chinese food. Named for Denver’s historic Chinatown, which dried up when Chinese laborers were run out of town at the turn of the twentieth century, the restaurant’s gritty-chic aesthetic is infused with a hip-hop vibe. Lee looked to his Cantonese roots for inspiration, but the menu at Hop Alley pulls from across the Chinese diaspora, from Beijing duck (packed here into an egg roll) to a take on Sichuan’s famous la zi ji (a mouth-numbing spicy fried chicken) to Singaporean char kway teow, a dish of fried rice cakes, clams and sausage. As for us, we never miss the Shanghai-style garlic shrimp noodles, the salt-and-pepper soft-shell crab, or the suan ni pork chop. Or the cider list, which is under-sung and excellent. The menu changes frequently, so if you don't see one of our favorites, take your pick of anything bold, vibrant and new.
Hops & Pie raised the bar on the classic pairing of beer and pizza. In fact, it raised the bar on both individually. In a beer-filled city, this restaurant’s tap lineup floats to the top of the barrel, with a rotating roster of local favorites and little-seen rarities. As for the pizzas, the team builds its pies on cracker-crisp crusts, with an elevated run of toppings like beer-braised brisket, housemade mozzarella and blackberry barbecue sauce. Kids and pizza purists should know that the classics are also available, and vegans and gluten-free eaters will be pleased to find appropriate substitutions available. Remarkably, though, our very favorite thing about this bare-bones joint is neither the pizza nor the beer: It’s the IPA mac and cheese. Elbow noodles glazed with sharp cheddar are studded with ham and peas beneath a crispy breadcrumb crust. The IPA’s contribution? It cuts the richness of the dish so you can eat the whole pot.
At Il Porcellino Salumi, owner Bill Miner and his staff of butchers and cooks make every meat product themselves: pink hams, fat-streaked bacon, dry-cured salami and other sausages, as well as less common Italian-style meats that hang for months — sometimes upwards of a year — before they’re ready to slice and sell. Il Porcellino sources pork and beef from Colorado farms and ranches and turns it into salty, delicious salumi through exacting effort and lots of time. You can take it home by the pound or you can sit down and enjoy sandwiches that will haunt your dreams: ribbons of soft-cooked bacon drowned in cheese sauce between slices of toast; pastrami shaved into piles atop rye with whole grain mustard and cucumber-dill salad; an Italian hoagie more appropriately called the Hoggie because it’s mounted with so much pig-based product. There’s nothing else like it in Denver — and every bite makes us wonder why.
When Andrea Frizzi moved Il Posto from its cubby on East 17th Avenue to a sleek bi-level cube in RiNo, we held our breath: Would the new address be a good home for this restaurant's semi-chaotic charm? We needn't have worried. Il Posto 2.0 presents some of the team's best cooking yet, from new meditations on its always-stellar risotti to a masterful pappardelle with pork ragu to a showy and delicious beef tallow candle (impossible at the old address, says Frizzi, because there just wasn't enough space to make candles). And despite its more grown-up vibe, this space is infused with the old Il Posto magic: Frizzi bobs around frenetically kissing the cheeks of friends and strangers alike, wine from an expertly curated list pours freely and easily, and the energy of the kitchen spills out from an open window beneath a sign that suggests sending the cooks a six-pack...of Jack Daniel's. As a bonus, Il Posto now has one of the best tables in Denver, a second-level corner seat that looks out on the Denver skyline. Trying to impress someone? Request it.
More than two decades passed before Sushi Den owners Yasu and Toshi Kizaki decided to expand upon their successful sushi business, but when they did, they went big. While the word “izakaya” means little more than “bar and grill” in Japan, in Denver it has become synonymous with the same style, service and dedication to fresh seafood that Sushi Den customers have come to expect. Izakaya Den originally took Old South Pearl by storm in 2007 in a lavish location kitty-corner to its older sibling, but a real estate deal saw the Kizakis swap out the original digs and build a spectacular new spot across the street in 2013, where today traditional Japanese bar food collides with Mediterranean cuisine in wondrous ways and the sushi and ramen live up to the family’s stellar reputation.
Sip, slurp and shuck your way to shellfish bliss at Jax, the fish house and oyster bar that Dave Query launched in Boulder in the ’90s; he soon launched the concept in Denver, and it’s since gone beyond Colorado. Built around seafood and specializing in shellfish, each Jax offers grilled and fried oysters in addition to an excellent oyster happy-hour deal, which turned the LoDo location, in particular, into a boisterous post-work beacon. Once you’ve had your fill of the mollusks, though, don’t miss the rest of the menu, which is geared toward sustainably caught fish and changes seasonally.
Yes, you can order biscuits, macaroni and cheese and chicken-fried steak at Julep, an industrial-chic Southern restaurant in RiNo. And by all means do, because chef/owner Kyle Foster’s versions are terrific. But don’t limit yourself to the classics. Julep serves sophisticated Southern cuisine that you’d never expect in such a laid-back spot. Vegetable-forward starters such as radishes over a cloud of lemon curd, or chicory-coffee tuile with beets and watercress display the creative pairings for which this chef is known. Some have a woodsy char, like asparagus with pretzel crumble; others are elegant, like an onion tarte tatin. Paired with elevated bar snacks, the inventive starters can easily make a meal, but entrees shouldn’t be overlooked, nor should the family-style supper that varies nightly. Julep is helping us rediscover a part of the South that we never knew we'd lost.
When it opened its doors on the west end of Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall in 2004, the Kitchen had ambitions. Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson envisioned creating a gathering place that would draw from local farms to give diners well-executed but simple dishes — comfort food, but lighter, healthier and better sourced. Musk and Matheson took their mission to the Boulder community, too, engaging with school gardens to teach kids where food comes from. That first Kitchen has since spawned an empire that includes additional outlets of the original concept, plus the faster, more casual Next Door chain and the wood-fired Hedge Row. As the company grows, it plants the seeds of change in the communities it enters, setting up partnerships with local schools and farms before it breaks ground. The ambition of that first place still burns, though: Musk and Matheson are intent on upending the American food system, using the power of their eateries to do it.
When word got out that the Brinkerhoff family, which had owned La Loma since the ’80s, had sold the restaurant’s sprawling digs in Jefferson Park, we despaired; although the family promised to reopen quickly elsewhere, how could it possibly be the same? We didn’t just go to La Loma for the great Den-Mex food; we went because La Loma was a north Denver institution, with an old-school vibe that gave you the sense that you were part of this city’s history — not to mention big margaritas that almost made you history. Fortunately, La Loma’s new location is also an iconic spot — the moody former home of the Trinity Grille downtown — and the owners have worked hard to make sure that the food is as good as ever. We like to start with an order of the mini chile rellenos, basically cheddar-cheese egg rolls that you dunk in this restaurant’s iconic green, and those same margaritas served in glasses the size of fish bowls.
First came Root Down, chef Justin Cucci’s uber-hip eatery built in a former service station in LoHi. While the reclaimed and upcycled decor and worldly small plates, many of them vegetarian, blew minds back in 2008, they did little to prepare us for Linger, which opened three years later in the Olinger Mortuary building. An international menu mapped out by continent (complete with crackly Indian dosas, tom yum soup and German currywurst) and a theme to match the surroundings (cocktails listed on toe tags, tables built from gurneys, water served in apothecary bottles) made Linger stand out immediately. Although development has blocked much of the splendid view from the rooftop bar/deck, Linger’s continued dedication to sustainable practices and carefully sourced ingredients have kept the restaurant at the top of the list of dining destinations in this city.
This Denver Tech Center strip-mall spot, which still bears the "Blue Ocean" sign of its predecessor, offers an array of traditional Chinese dishes, from noodles hand-pulled to order at an exhibition counter, to dapanji, or big tray chicken, to hand-formed Sichuan wontons stewed in chili oil. But the showpiece at Little Chengdu is the stove atop your table, where you can cook up your own hot pot. Choose a broth, designate a spice level (be aggressive with your preference if you really like heat), and then order your produce and protein. We recommend starting with tofu skin, lamb slices, lotus root and enoki mushrooms, then finishing with noodles and greens, but Little Chengdu serves all of its hot pot all-you-can-eat style, so don't be shy. While you wait for your pot to boil, wander back to the condiment bar and mix up the sauce in which you'll dip the cooked morsels that you fish from the pot. Sesame oil is a fairly traditional base, but you can go wild from there. Hot damn!
Yes, we know it’s odd that the city’s best chicken-fried steak is served by Lola, which added the words “coastal Mexican” to its name a few years back. But that’s just one of the reasons we love this restaurant, whose move to the renovated Olinger Mortuary in LoHi a decade ago helped turn the area into a hot dining destination. Other reasons to love Lola: the expansive tequila bar and delicious house margs, the tableside guacamole service, the taco-filled happy hour, the fresh oysters, the inventive specials, and the basement space that could be the best party space in town. Our favorite spot here, though, is the enclosed deck, a lovely place for a solitary drinker to soak up the last days of summer or a group of pals to fortify themselves against the wintry night ahead.
Every restaurant is cooking with wood these days, it seems, but in the Ballpark neighborhood back in 2008, true Neapolitan pizza was unheard of. Owner/pizzaiola Mark Dym’s obsession with every step of pizza production led him to becoming the only restaurant in Colorado certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the organization that makes sure the right ingredients, equipment and techniques are used to produce the perfect pie. Those exacting standards result in a light crust with just the right amount of bubbling and char, a delicate sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, and toppings that capture the spirit of the old country. Dym’s pizzeria has remained the first word in Denver pizza for nearly a decade.
What started out as little more than a cottage-industry bakery working out of a tiny Lakewood storefront in 2011 has evolved into an empanada mini-empire, thanks to the recipes and dedication of founder Lorena Cantarovici. In 2014, the chef moved her Argentinean cafe to a sunny corner on South Broadway, expanding her offerings and adding a liquor license to serve malbec from adorable penguin-shaped carafes called pinguinos. Since then, Maria Empanada has expanded to the Denver Tech Center and Stanley Marketplace, and even appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. But Denver diners didn’t need that national nod to fall in love with these half-moon pastries filled with savory meats and cheeses and baked to a golden brown.
A decade in and the master still reigns supreme as the king of Denver sandwich shops. At Masterpiece Deli, you can't go wrong with properly made classics like the Reuben, Cubano or Italian, but you can also step it up with originals like the braised beef brisket with Taleggio fondue (a better Philly cheesesteak), or the seared ahi tuna wedged into, of all things, an English muffin (which somehow works). Founder Justin Brunson does fancier things at Old Major just a few blocks away, but Masterpiece still lives up to its tagline: "Fine dining between bread." And not just for lunch; breakfast sandwiches here are equally stellar, especially if you include house-cured bacon in your stack.
The concept for Alex Seidel’s second restaurant was as grand and ambitious as that of Union Station itself, where Mercantile launched in the summer of 2014. The refurbished train station showed off vaulted ceilings, gleaming marble, dark woods and a variety of new bars and restaurants that fit nearly every traveler’s needs. Likewise, Mercantile offered something from morning to night, whether they had a pocketful of change or a lavish expense account: a cup of coffee and a croissant for breakfast, some deli meats and cheeses (oh, and throw in a jar of housemade pickles!) for a picnic lunch, or an elegant dinner from chef/partner Matthew Vawter for an evening of refinement and exquisite service. Even as the restaurant offerings in and around the station continue to grow, Mercantile hasn’t lost its luster.
Troy Guard has channeled his hybrid Pacific Rim/Mediterranean/Latin style through many venues since landing in Denver in the early 2000s. But at Mister Tuna, which opened in RiNo in 2016, it all comes together: his childhood in Hawaii, time under fusion powerhouse Roy Yamaguchi, and a career absorbing Rocky Mountain influences. The result is a smashing combo of wood-fired cooking where meats and whole fish absorb notes of smoke; raw and cooked seafood capture the spirit of Hawaii and Japan; and a smattering of fresh-made pastas convey the Southwest and Italy with equal aplomb. Add homages to Guard’s pop and mom (in the name and dining-room mural, respectively), and Mister Tuna feels like an eatery with a genuine heart.
Mizuna was the first restaurant from chef Frank Bonanno, whose empire now numbers ten concepts and counting. Mizuna is still the flagship, though, a small, charming spot that encapsulates all that the chef has come to stand for in Denver’s restaurant scene: upscale tradition (in this case, French) without an over-reliance on the past, enough experimentation to keep diners entertained without becoming perplexed, and development of talent to help spread excellence through Bonanno’s various enterprises and beyond. Bonanno counts fourteen Mizuna chefs who have gone on to open their own restaurants, several of which are also restaurants we can’t live without. Without Mizuna or Bonanno himself, Denver’s culinary landscape would be far less rich and varied than it is today.
Yes, My Brother’s Bar has a fascinating history: The building has held a bar since the 1870s, Neal Cassady hung out here when it was Paul’s Place, and as My Brother’s Bar, it’s survived with no TVs while playing classical music and serving burgers in wax paper until 1 a.m. Across the decades, the place has evolved from dusty cowtown cantina to Beat Generation hangout to neighborhood bar for the entire city. But the most interesting chapter is the current one: After four decades, the Karagas family sold the spot to a longtime employee and her family, who’ve vowed to keep My Brother’s Bar going in its current incarnation, even as developers knock on the door. We’ll drink to that.
Some Vietnamese restaurants offer phonebook-sized menus with every possible combo of protein, noodle, rice and sauce, while others are specialists. New Saigon Bakery, an offshoot of longtime favorite New Saigon, draws in the crowds with super-sized banh mi on house-baked French baguettes. Salty-sweet barbecued pork, luscious pâté and generous stacks of deli meats make for stellar sandwiches, but once you've eaten your way through the banh mi roster, there's plenty more to explore. Try the tightly wrapped spring rolls, fresh salads topped with grilled meats, refreshing beverages (our favorite is the pressed sugar-cane juice) and pandan waffles. And if you haven't had dessert here, you haven't experienced the bakery at its best. Multi-layered crepe cakes come in flavors like mocha and matcha green tea, both just the right sweetness. At this bakery, there's always a line and seldom an empty seat...with good reason.
In 2015, Nicole and Scott Mattson brought jazz back to the RiNo neighborhood with the opening of Nocturne. While there's plenty of action at the art deco-style bar, where classic cocktails are served with old-school flair, dinner in front of the stage is a memorable experience. Away from the stage and dining room, cocktail shakers flash in the dim light, and buckets of ice keep sparkling wine chilled at the end of the bar. But if you’re feeling sophisticated, you'll book a night to indulge in a "Renditions" tasting menu, which gives the kitchen a chance to show off by pairing thoughtfully prepared small plates with songs from classic jazz albums chosen every two months to bring together music and food.
Shortly after Bryan Dayton and Steve Redzikowski opened Oak at Fourteenth in 2011, their plans very nearly went up in smoke. A fire forced a three-month closure that dampened some of the considerable momentum Oak had already begun to build. But from the ashes rose a restaurant that swiftly landed at the top of the dining scene, thanks to Redzikowski’s inventive wood-fired cooking and Dayton’s eye for top-notch service. Years later, Oak has settled into an easy groove, turning out seasonal fare culled from local farms and combined in novel combinations like roasted halibut with sweet and sour eggplant, tuna tartare with ramp aioli, tobiko and lemon confit, and crispy squash blossoms served beside a savory feta panna cotta. From disparate-sounding flavors come superb compositions, simultaneously fortifying and awe-inspiring. The cocktail program can be similarly mind-expanding, and the deep wine list and well-edited roundup of heavy-hitting beers offer myriad ways to drink with dinner.
Pork was trendy and bacon sizzled everywhere when chef Justin Brunson opened Old Major in the up-and-coming LoHi neighborhood in 2013. But Brunson went beyond bacon, instituting a cured-meats program that followed difficult and time-consuming old-world methods. And while meat still stars on the plates served in the rough-hewn dining room that reflects the chef’s personality, respect is also given to seasonal produce and foraged ingredients. Old Major is named for a famous swine from the American literary canon, but the menu transcends pork with enough variety to make the restaurant a Denver classic.
Located in a sea of noodle shops along South Federal, Pho Duy serves up pho that's among the best in town. And pho fans know it, too. After two decades of serving Vietnamese specialties in a tiny space that saw a constant frenzy of activity, with eaters rotating through the tables jam-packed into the space, the restaurant moved next door into a renovated KFC in June 2015. And still, this place can get crowded. Aromatic broth, fresh and flavorful meats, and options far beyond the standards — there's even a vegetarian broth — keep this pho joint on the top of everyone's list of standby lunches, late-night drop-ins and cold-weather haunts.
After Frasca, Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson looked to another part of Italy for inspiration: the city of Naples. The first Pizzeria Locale, which opened in Boulder in 2011, attempted to re-create exactly the Napolitano pizzeria experience, from the custom-built imported oven to pies served uncut, meant to be eaten with a knife and fork. As Locale expanded, though, it’s revised its offerings, adjusting the menus and service to a fast-casual model; it also picked up Chipotle as a partner. The team rethought the oven to accommodate counter ordering and jettisoned more exotic toppings in favor of customary pepperoni and supreme pies. While this model is now rolling out around the country, the Boulder location remains true to the original vision, with table service and wood-fired pizzas paired to the kind of wine list you’d expect from a master-sommelier owner. No matter which Locale you choose, don't skip the butterscotch budino, a sweet caramel pudding that makes for an excellent end.
Denver clearly has a love for tiny neighborhood eateries that turn out meals on par with the big boys downtown. The Plimoth, under owner/chef Peter Ryan, has captured the hearts of both City Park residents and those willing to take a drive into unfamiliar territory, despite its location in a somewhat ramshackle row of shops in an otherwise residential zone. Classic European technique, local ingredients and regional inspiration (wort from a local brewery makes an appearance as a brine for pork tenderloin) give guests something new to look forward to with each visit to this charming spot.
The Populist was a precursor of the RiNo restaurant boom, and with its subtle signage, it’s still easy to miss. The Populist is not a spotlight-seeker (hell, it’s named for the common man), but every time we eat here, we fall in love anew. Under chef Jonathan Power and owners Noah Price and Cliff White, the Populist continues to turn out some of the best food in the city, paired with one of the best wine lists. Power deftly integrates European, Asian and classic American flavors: In one small-plate session, you may encounter Old Bay seasoning, Tandoori chicken and Swiss raclette. Our favorite way to dine here is to spring for the tasting menu, a playful traipse through seven or eight dishes that really shows the kitchen's range. Also worth knowing: In the warmer months, the Populist has one of the most charming patios in town, secluded under twinkling lights.
Until the Post Brewing Company came along, it was almost as if Denver had no fried chicken at all, so quickly did fans flock here. Quaffable beers and a supporting cast of other countrified fare bolstered the Post’s reputation, and devotees had no trouble trekking to the bedroom community of Lafayette for a fix. Thankfully, founder Dave Query, who also runs Jax Fish House and other Denver and Boulder eateries, has expanded the scope of the Post, adding chicken-and-beer outposts in south Denver, Longmont, and on the Pearl Street Mall, making him the undisputed fried-chicken champion of Boulder County.
When Teri Rippeto opened Potager in 1997, naming the restaurant after the French word for “kitchen garden,” her mission put Potager on the cutting edge of dining: She planned to serve a locally sourced, seasonally driven menu, using comfort and satisfaction as her guiding light rather than any particular style of cuisine. Restaurants of that ilk now abound in Denver, but to this day, few are as good or as devoted as Potager, which remains a homey, underrated oasis. The menu evolves throughout the year as local farms, which feature prominently on the menu, move from spring greens to early summer strawberries, from August tomatoes to winter squash. No matter the season, diners can always be sure of a meal as delicious as it is simple, served in a cozy room that, yes, is as comfortable as your kitchen.
Denver’s thriving Ethiopian population supports a surprising number of restaurants devoted to the complex, spicy and warming cuisine of the east African nation. But none stand out quite as much as Zewditu Aboye’s Queen of Sheba, a one-woman show. Meals here start with tart, springy injera and progress through stewed legumes and vegetables into an array of tender meats in rich sauces. A shared platter loaded with miser wot, kitfo, doro wot and gomen (spicy lentils, seasoned raw beef, stewed chicken and collards, respectively) at Queen of Sheba is as integral a part of Denver’s diverse dining tableau as pho, ramen, enchiladas and red sauce.
For more than three decades, Racines has been the meeting spot of first and last resort in Denver. Neighbors and power brokers, college kids and yuppies: It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re coming from, there’s room for you at Racines — and for your car, since the owners added a parking structure when they built a new home for the restaurant in 2004. The eatery is still run by two of the original partners, Lee Goodfriend and David Racine, who met at a fern bar where Goodfriend was a server (“It was called a ‘waitress’ back then,” she notes) and Racine was a bartender; together they went on to build a mini-restaurant empire, of which Racines is the last vestige. But it’s quite the survivor — busy day in, day out, with an expansive menu that makes this the go-to place when you can’t decide where to go.
In late 2004, chef Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch used their considerable restaurant experience to open Rioja, a game-changer in Larimer Square. From the start, the place was packed almost every night of the week, and since then Rioja has only gained in popularity and national praise, even as the partners have added other, nearby eateries to their empire. The fare coming out of the open kitchen remains a jumble of Mediterranean, Spanish and loose, fusion-y concepts with handmade pastas and excellent sauces; a seat at the chef’s table is one of the hottest tickets in town. But a spot at the cozy bar is equally prized, the ideal place to grab a drink and a snack before heading out for a night in this increasingly vibrant town.
Denver’s barbecue scene has evolved considerably in recent years, giving rise to regional specialists who know their Carolina hog barbecue from their Texas oak-smoked brisket. But the city still lacked its own identity when it comes to smokehouse meats, a gap finally filled when Coy and Rachael Webb opened Roaming Buffalo in 2015. Coy, a trained chef with roots in Texas and a career in professional kitchens, decided early on to capture the spirit of Colorado in smoked lamb shanks and shoulder, bison ribs and game sausage; he also turns out more typical pork ribs and pork, sliced beef brisket and smoky chicken. His efforts have gone over well with barbecue tourists and neighbors alike; the "open" sign is often turned off well before the dinner hour because everything on the menu has sold out. But if you're desperate for succulent smoked meat at supper, fear not: The joint serves evening meals Thursday, Friday and Saturday, starting at 5:30 p.m. until sold out.
When Root Down opened in an old garage in 2009, it immediately took off, establishing chef/owner Justin Cucci as one of the top restaurant-design talents in the city. The conversion drew on automotive and blue-collar concepts without being cheesy: rolled-up garage doors, a bar top made from a bowling alley lane, mid-century-modern flourishes, artwork that channels a car-focused past. In fact, Root Down looks so good that it would still attract people even if the food were an afterthought — but Cucci’s vision for his menu was just as assertive: The kitchen puts out such big-flavored mashups as carbonara risotto, a vegetarian poke bowl and Devils on Horseback with cheese fondue. Drinks are similarly sexed up, and brunch here is one of the most popular in town, with dishes like Vietnamese almond pancakes and fried chicken with goat-cheese biscuits. The menu is particularly vegetarian-friendly; nearly half of Root Down’s dishes are either vegetarian already or can easily be modified.
When Josh Pollack moved to Colorado from the East Coast, he lamented the lack of good bagels. Years later, after a short-lived career in the mortgage business and other entrepreneurial ventures, he decided to change that, and opened Rosenberg’s. Pollack is so obsessed with correct bagel-making technique that he reconfigures his water, adjusting the mineral content so that it more closely mimics New York City tap. And the rest of the bagel-making process at Rosenberg’s, from proofing to boiling to baking, is just as exacting. We’d poke a little fun, except that it does turn out a truly exceptional bagel, mildly crisp-skinned on the outside with supple chew within. Stack those bagels with housemade lox and gravlax — or house-cured pastrami, which Pollack rolled out when the Five Points location reopened after a fire. A word of warning: Prepare for a line, whether you're patronizing that original restaurant or the outlet in Stanley Marketplace.
Denver and Boulder are chock-full of great Mexican food; whether you're a fan of Den-Mex, Tex-Mex or plain old Mex-Mex, there are plenty of places to get your taco-and-smothered-burritos fix. But New Mex? There aren't many places in town specializing in the fusion of Native American, Spanish and Mexican cuisine that's found in New Mexico. That's why chef/owner Hosea Rosenberg's Santo made such a splash when it landed in November 2017. Southwestern classics like Navajo fry bread, pork-and-potato green chile stew and blue-corn rellenos and enchiladas pack the menu. Of particular note is the restaurant's vegetarian green chile; rather than rely on pork in the dish, Rosenberg builds layers of flavor by oven-roasting all of his vegetables before they go in the pot, including the Hatch green chiles — which the chef brings up from New Mexico every fall. You'll find a land of enchantment in suburban Boulder.
Chefs Blake Edmunds and Max MacKissock have worked on numerous projects together, but Señor Bear is the purest distillation of their intelligence and adventurousness. The bright and festive Latin American cantina, with its Peruvian mirrors and the soft glow of its long central bar, might initially come across as Mexican, given its hefty margaritas and queso fundido, plus carnitas and “el pollo bronco” chicken strips. But the menu is much broader, and the standout dishes — such as Puerto Rican mofongo re-envisioned for the Rocky Mountains, Peruvian saltado made with broccoli, not beef, and Oaxacan mole negro with squash — reveal these subtle influences while showcasing the creativity of the kitchen.
Chef Cindhura Reddy and her husband, Elliot Strathmann, took over Spuntino from John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom in 2014, adding their own personal touches to the intimate Italian eatery. Today hand-rolled pastas and braised meats are the stars, while goat from El Regalo Ranch and creamy arancini (sometimes with Hatch chiles) have become signature items. At the bar, Strathmann has amassed a collection of Italian amari, the bitter after-dinner spirits (including several versions he makes himself) that give diners one more reason to linger. Spuntino is the neighborhood hangout that every neighborhood wishes it had.
When Steuben’s shimmied into Uptown in 2006, it filled a void in Denver dining that the city hadn’t realized existed. Owners Josh and Jen Wolkon channeled the neighborhood diners so essential to communities of yesteryear, updating the concept for the modern world. So while Steuben’s offers classic American fare — cheeseburgers and fries, pot roasts and macaroni and cheese, milkshakes and egg creams — it’s honed the execution so that the dishes are nostalgic yet well made, with elevated ingredients. Even more elevated are such items as the skirt steak with chimichurri, excellent Nashville hot chicken, an award-winning green-chile cheeseburger, and a Boston-worthy lobster roll. A kid-friendly place that’s also friendly for adults, Steuben’s offered one of the first high-end cocktail programs in Colorado, and it continues to turn out perfect classics and fun inventions that match its vibe — loud, energetic and a little rock-and-roll. The second location, in Arvada, has more diner flavor, along with such breakfast fare as biscuits and gravy.
With Rioja, Euclid Hall and Bistro Vendôme under their belts, Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch made it a foursome in 2014 with Stoic & Genuine, the oddly named but well-appointed seafood bar inside the refurbished Union Station. Gleaming oysters from both coasts, including special Stoic & Genuine varieties grown just for the restaurant, and crudos, ceviches and fillets draw seafood lovers with their unparalleled freshness, while playful interpretations of tuna melts, chowda' and other delights (like the miniature sand pails — complete with tiny spades — used as salt cellars) make for a lively lunch or a serious supper. Every detail is planned out, whether it’s the housemade sodas in happy-hour mixed drinks or the granitas in exotic flavors that top mollusks on the half shell. And for those looking for something a little more cowtown, the burger rates as one of the best in Denver.
Anyone who's been to Work & Class (which is likely all of Denver, judging by a dining room that hasn't emptied since the place opened in 2014) knows the magic that chef Dana Rodriguez brings to even the humblest of ingredients. That magic carries over to her new kitchen, across the street at the Ramble Hotel, where dim sum carts trundle between tables, bringing diners tastes of Oaxaca, Yucatán, Puerto Rico and other Latin American culinary hotbeds. While the small plates are pleasing, big dishes like seafood soup that simmers on an oven-hot stone, braised lamb wrapped in banana leaf and chipotle-glazed Peking duck that borrows the best of Mexico and China are built to thrill. Super Mega Bien is as clamorous, irreverent and spectacular as its older sibling across the street.
A cluster of dim sum parlors surrounds the intersection of Federal Boulevard and Alameda Avenue, and all of them have their strengths — but the most consistently excellent is Super Star Asian, a bare-bones cavern whose back wall is lined with seafood tanks. Cart-pushers throng the perpetually full dining room, offering such standards as barbecue pork buns and shu mai, shrimp har gow and chicken feet. Selections are most plentiful on the weekend, but if you don’t see what you want from the extensive list of dumplings and snacks, you can always ask for it. We always make sure to get the turnip cakes, crisp-edged and sided with plummy hoisin, and custard tarts, our favorite dessert. Dim sum is really a daytime food, so nighttime at Super Star gives way to feasts: XO crab or lobster, cod in black bean sauce, pork belly with preserved cabbage, and roasted duck, which should be ordered in advance.
Gone are the days when people were suspicious of the sushi served in this landlocked state, and that’s thanks in large part to Sushi Den, the pristine house of raw fish that brothers Yasu and Toshi Kizaki opened on South Pearl Street in 1984. As testament to Sushi Den’s status, most owners of Denver’s other revered sushi restaurants spent some time within these hallowed halls. The Kizaki brothers import top-quality fish daily from Japan; it gets worked in the kitchen into an eye-popping and ever-changing run of nigiri and sashimi, twists on classic sushi, rolls and inventive Japanese dishes. Supplement your meal with classics like kobe beef kushiyaki, udon, miso cod and gyoza; better yet, book yourself into the chef’s table for this restaurant’s omakase feast, a private romp through six courses based on whatever Toshi Kizaki hauled in from the fish market that day.
Sushi chef Corey Baker garnered such a reputation for his omakase feasts, customers sought him out at Sushi Den and Sushi Sasa — Denver's sushi pioneers — when they wanted a customized slate of fish. Omakase, then, is what you should order at Baker's own restaurant, Sushi Ronin; the chef's-choice menu gives you a little taste of everything this restaurant does. And you should order it at the sushi bar, where Baker will tailor his picks specifically to your tastes. He'll pass you such exotic specimens as Spanish mackerel and monkfish liver (basically the foie gras of the sea) if he thinks you'll like them, and add flourishes to his nigiri based on what you tell him about your own palate. If omakase is not quite your speed, Ronin is still worth a stop: The restaurant offers cuts of fish not available at many other places, and deals with them respectfully, making each bite a true pleasure.
Wayne Conwell has been slicing fish and finding new ways to turn Japanese tradition on end at Sushi Sasa since 2005. By synthesizing Western technique and current Denver tastes with the traditions of sushi that evolved in isolation long before it hit American shores, the chef has continued to stay relevant in a scene that shifts and changes like an undulating school of tuna. Whether you order minimalist nigiri that accentuates the meat of the fish itself or delicate constructions that build layers of flavor, the menu always holds surprise and satisfaction in equal measure.
There have been many changes at Table 6 since the cozy eatery opened in 2004, but after Aaron Forman took over in 2008, you knew you could count on finding not just an excellent meal, but hospitality that imparts a true sense of belonging. While chefs have come and gone, the menu has remained eclectic and often whimsical, without ever seeming too clever for its own good. A surprising wine list, an amazing brunch and Forman’s stellar collection of ties and sport coats have endeared the eatery not just to the neighborhood, but to all Denver diners in the know, with barely a slip over the years.
Tarasco's peeks out from its corner spot like the shy girl in a homemade dress at her first dance. The interior walls are covered in Spanish aphorisms and descriptions of fruit and vegetable drinks (jugos and licuados), part of chef/owner Noe Bermudez's dedication to healthy food. Tarasco's has a way of creating beauty and perfection in even the humblest of dishes, like rich and spicy posole or simple corn tamales that balance sweet and earthy with the gentlest kiss of chile verde. The posole is award-winning; doctored up, it’s like eating Christmas in a bowl. We can't get enough of the seven-chile mole — a specialty of Michoacán — but the mole verde is also a great option. And keep your eyes on the specials board for the rare mole amarillo. Tarasco's may look a little plain and unassuming, but the food is far from it.
Taste of Thailand was one of metro Denver’s first Thai restaurants when it opened in Englewood in 1994, and though it moved to South Broadway in 2015, it remains one of the best. Rather than being stuck in time with a set menu of unchanging dishes, chef/owner Noy Farrell visits her home country regularly, touring Thailand for new flavors and trends. So light and vibrant salads share space with blazing hot preparations and complex soups — all with the fresh flavors of Farrell’s kitchen garden. For the winter months, Taste of Thailand prepares its famous “flu shot” soup, an elixir heady with ginger, garlic, lemongrass and other herbs and spices.
Standing in front of Tavernetta, the latest from Frasca Food and Wine owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, you almost wouldn't guess you were in Denver — despite being only a stone's throw from Union Station. New hotels and apartment buildings crowd in around the stone facade of the eatery (as if peering down to see what's on the menu), and a train platform stretches off into the distance. Surely this is the transportation hub of some major East Coast or European city, not our quaint Denver, where only a few years ago weeds and chain-link fences sprouted from a dirt lot where Tavernetta now stands. Visionary forces are at work in this sector of downtown, though, and Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson are now a part of that. The food of various Italian regions is the theme of the menu, from well-known ports of call like Venice to hidden gems such as Trapani, on Sicily's far shore. The staff has taken time to travel through these regions in search of unique and interesting flavors, adapting them as needed for Denver tastes and available ingredients. The result is magnificent, bustling to the point just shy of chaos, and almost overwhelming with a brand of hospitality that makes you feel as if every one of the dozens of staffers on hand are there just for you.
Well-edited: That’s how we’d describe To the Wind Bistro, the restaurant from husband-and-wife Royce Oliveira and Leanne Adamson. The space is snug but smartly appointed, the wine list short but clever, and the menu brief but long on winners — no easy feat, given that it changes often. Oliveira taps simple concepts for inspiration — a bao bun, a waffle, a Reuben sandwich, a little bone marrow — and what turns up on the table exploits nostalgic longings at the same time that it’s deliciously new. Although we still dream about the bison-tongue pastrami, paired as it was with rye-and-caraway gnocchi, Grafton cheddar and tart sauerkraut, we’re never sad when the kitchen casts a menu to the wind and starts over: That just means you’re about to make a discovery. While To the Wind is an ideal setting for a romantic date, we like the chef's counter, where you can watch the open kitchen as you eat.
This 2017 addition to the restaurant group that includes Rioja and Stoic & Genuine exudes an elegance befitting Ultreia's location in historic Union Station. Beyond the gin-stacked bar is a Spanish-style plaza, with tables tucked around a fountain and flowers. Ornate wrought-iron stairs lead to the mezzanine, where tables perch like box seats at the opera. Walls come alive with a mural of cows and peasants adapted from a seventh-century work in London’s National Gallery. But this isn’t a fine-dining spot: Ultreia is a fun-loving gastroteka, specializing in Spanish and Portuguese tapas, pintxos and gin tonics. Settle in for wood cones of chorizo and Manchego, crispy ham croquettes, and pork ribs that fall apart on contact for delightful bites of juicy meat and cumin-seasoned bark. And don’t miss the pan con tomate, with puréed tomato that you slather on garlic-rubbed ciabatta until the juices seep ever-so-slightly into the crumb. Entrees and desserts are on offer, too, but a glass of sherry might be all the ending you need.
Uncle was Denver’s first modern entrant in the ramen-shop category, and what an entry it was: Owner Tommy Lee took a less traditional approach than the legendary Momofuku, creating intensely complex and tasty broths as a base for a nest of noodles and other delicious accoutrements. Purists should look to the chashu, the bowl most rooted in Japanese history: Fat and rich with collagen, the soup has nearly the consistency of over-easy egg yolk and leaves a sticky sheen on your lips. The spicy chicken broth pushes at the edges of the cuisine; the soup is refined and delicate, yet redolent with generous quantities of garlic and salt, giving it the rib-sticking richness characteristic of Japanese junk food. Supplement the ramen with at least one bun — we’re partial to the soft-shell crab — and don’t overlook the small bites, which are inventive and delicious. And be prepared to wait: Years into this restaurant’s run, the crowds show no sign of abating.
Vesta is a Denver icon, a pioneering LoDo restaurant that’s become a neighborhood staple. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t evolved: In 2017, two decades after Josh and Jen Wolkon first opened the restaurant, they gave it a significant refresh, dispensing with the "dipping grill" theme that had anchored the concept and been part of its name. They kept the sleek interior, the dramatic bar and the focus on bold flavors, built from marrying global inspiration into one seasonal menu. Vesta’s well-honed food (which still includes a multitude of optional dipping sauces) means the restaurant remains special-occasion-worthy, but it’s also mellowed into a good place to find yourself on a weeknight with a bowl of cioppino and a glass of wine.
The flavorful Vietnamese sandwiches called banh mi are big these days, but the Huynh family that founded Vinh Xuong Bakery pioneered the sandwiches in Denver years before son Duc Huynh opened his stylish and sunny cafe on West Alameda in 2011. Since then, he’s served up banh mi built on fresh-baked baguettes made in the shop every morning and loaded with barbecue pork and chicken, pâté, meatballs and other housemade meats. Espresso drinks, Vietnamese coffee and traditional baked goods like moon cakes and sesame balls are also available here, providing Denver with a wonderful taste of Vietnam’s cafe culture.
Call it a reboot, a relaunch or a rebirth, but definitely welcome back the Way Back. In February it reopened in new digs on Tennyson Street, not far from its original Highland home on West 38th Avenue. But with a new chef, menu and ambience, the updated Way Back deserves recognition on its own. Some dishes, like kung pao bison heart or odes to single vegetables, will remind diners of the original, but this kitchen adds a touch of approachability to what was once an esoteric slate built more for culinary adventurers. And as always, the Way Back team nails the cocktail program while incorporating the theme of local, sustainable and responsible that pervades the entire operation.
Former Rioja and Bistro Vendôme employees Dana Rodriguez (the chef) and Tony Maciag (the front-of-house specialist) envisioned something egalitarian when they opened Work & Class in 2014 in a space built from shipping containers. Loud and lively, the eatery leans heavily on the chef’s Mexican upbringing — cochinita pibil and slow-cooked goat are customer favorites — while also embracing regional American cooking, from fried trout and Cajun-spiced chicken to cornbread and biscuits. The drinks flow freely and the eats come to the table in tin pans, without much fuss or adornment. But every bite is as vibrant and alive as the space itself.
Most Denver diners now realize that the orange chicken of their youth was about as Chinese as Barack Obama. But when Edward Zoe rolled out Zoe Ma Ma in Boulder, he showed that the dishes of his own youth were the real thing. So was the cook: His mother created noodles, dumplings and rice bowls rooted in the family’s native Taiwan, which also showed the influences of northern Shandong Province, where Zoe’s father was from. The place became so popular that Zoe eventually opened a second location, near Denver’s Union Station. While everything on this small but mighty menu is a hit, Zoe Ma Ma also makes the best beef noodle soup in the city. The Taiwanese staple comes laden with tender morsels of a steak’s worth of beef, a handful of baby bok choy and pickled vegetables, and fat chewy noodles, all swimming in a five-spice-inundated broth.