Bonnie Brae Tavern
Mark Antonation
Over the past seventy-odd years, few modern influences have slipped into Bonnie Brae Tavern to mess up the place. Since they opened the onetime roadhouse right across the street from the headquarters of the Denver Temperance League in 1934, members of the Dire family may have slapped on a few coats of paint and changed some menu items, but otherwise they've left well enough alone. And so today the restaurant is like a culinary time capsule under the submarine glow of lights that have been shining down on the same tables and turquoise vinyl booths, the same beer signs and aging regulars, for generations. The food is American Classic -- pot roasts and T-bones, mac-and-cheese and burgers and fries -- but with a twist: Bonnie Brae was one of the first spots in town to offer pizza, back when the dish was still an exotic novelty rather than a trite American mainstay. Don't mess with success.
"New American" has come to mean many things. The words are applied to cuisines as varied as the obsessive food geekery of Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, the chem-lab weirdness of molecular gastronomy, and the burgers-and-beer rosters of a thousand neighborhood taverns daring enough to use leaf lettuce rather than iceberg. But what New American really means is a menu written by a chef informed by all of this but not constrained by it; a chef who understands the influences of French and Asian and Mexican and Italian immigrant flavors on American cookery, but is not limited by canonical recitation. New American means America as it is today, not yesterday, not tomorrow. And in Denver, the best definition of New American is offered by Tyler Wiard at Mel's. His ever-changing menu is a season-by-season accounting of what America tastes like and America's tastes.
Founded by the same guys -- Angelo and Jim Karagas -- who gave us My Brother's Bar, and now part of the Wynkoop family of restaurants, the Wazee Supper Club has been a favorite destination for Denver's night owls since 1974. The space is classically art-deco, with black-and-white tile floors and a beautiful long bar that's served as a second home for many of Denver's booziest movers, shakers and downtown makers. And while the menu is mostly bar food and American standards (wings, artichoke dip, homemade chili, burgers, sandwiches, stromboli and no fewer than seven salads), it has two standout features. One, the kitchen serves that food until 1 a.m. six days a week, shutting down early (at 11 p.m.) on Sundays. And two, the Wazee makes some of Denver's best pizzas, and makes them late.
Sometimes you really want ricotta pancakes at three in the morning. Sometimes you need a panini-pressed breakfast burrito and a strong cup of coffee. And sometimes all that's required is a plate of cocktail wieners and a Rice Krispies treat. No matter what you're hungering for, there's a good chance that owners Monique Costello and Amy Rosewater will have exactly that -- or something even better -- at Monkey Bean. While the 4 a.m. breakfast is generally the province of the all-night diner or the dismal greasy spoon, Monkey Bean offers quality culinary options for putting a cap on a good night -- or for keeping a bad one from getting worse.
Zengo
Give and take, back and forth, yin and yang -- Zengo's menu, concept and even its design are structured around the idea of taking something good and pairing it, topping it or mashing it together with something even better. Technically, Zengo bills itself as a Latino-Asian fusion restaurant -- which is strange enough -- but what it really does is take the entire fusion gestalt and push it to its logical conclusion. There's sushi on this menu, but the sushi is a fusion of classical Japanese and nouvelle styles. There are chiles and mother sauces, sesame seeds and hoisin. And each category on the menu -- from the tiraditos, antojitos and dim sum to the noodles, mains and desserts -- is meant for sharing over drinks and good conversation. At its best, Zengo's notion of fusion infuses everything from food to service to seating arrangements. In a crowded field, Zengo is great because it never saw any reason to stop at being just good enough.
Carmine's on Penn
Mark Antonation
A "family-style" restaurant is almost always synonymous with a very, very bad restaurant. Not so with Carmine's on Penn, where gigantic plates and pastas served by the pound receive all the care and attention normally seen only at very fussy, regular-size-plate restaurants. Here, tables groan under deep bowls of linguine with white clam sauce and gigantic platters of pasta Montana with chicken and asparagus drenched in gallons of cream sauce. Carmine's is so popular that there's usually a line and service can suffer, but if you come with a big appetite and are willing to wait, dinner here can be a very fulfilling experience.
In adopting -- and adapting -- the theme of drunken, lazy, artistic Spanish dining, the 9th Door has deliberately painted itself into a very good culinary corner, forcing the kitchen to stay true to the influences of Spanish cuisine and the bar to the ideal of fully tanked Spanish drinking habits. The menu was designed by consulting chef Michel Wahaltere, but after he left last summer, the crew took his concept and ran with it, offering real tapas in a city already awash in small plates. The menu is broken in half -- cold plates on one side, hot ones on the other -- and includes such wonders as cold Spanish potato salad with asparagus and egg; roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, rosemary and Serrano ham; albondigas in tomato gravy; pork brochettes and grilled shrimp marinated in olive oil, garlic and chile piquin. For small plates, these are the tapas the town.
Sushi Sasa
Linnea Covington
Omakase. That's the magic word at Sushi Sasa: Cook for me. When you say this at the sushi bar, you free chef Wayne Conwell or a member of his talented crew to assemble a unique, adventurous, individual feast (priced at $60, $80 or $120, depending on the number of courses). And once the food arrives, there's no doubt that you're in the hands of a master displaying both classical chops and a wild flood of creativity. Dinner one night could be a pyramid of inside-out and right-side-in maki accented by delicate slips of chile, the best noodle soup you will ever taste, a fan of seared Kobe beef and dried mushroom, fried shrimp heads exploding like a flower from the center of the plate, or one perfect uni hand roll like a sea-urchin ice cream cone. And the next night, the offerings will be completely different -- but just as astounding.
Nine75 -- the original Nine75, soon to be joined by at least two sibling restaurants -- has had some ups and downs since it opened in the former home of Moda. There was a period when the house was struggling to find its niche, a longer period where it was trying to get found by the kind of customers who'd be charmed by chef Troy Guard's smart, freaky, arrogant, sideways Asian-American-European menu of jumped-up comfort foods and straight-genius small plates. And then the customers started coming. Lunches were added, and people grew accustomed to the tragically backward arrangement of the space. And now, finally, Nine75 is in an upswing, with Guard having suddenly crossed from struggling artist to certified success story. With a triumphant James Beard dinner behind him and a lineup of new openings on the horizon, he's taken his rightful place as one of the smartest and most innovative chefs in the city. The only question now is, what comes next?
Viva Burrito Company
Viva Burrito Company has zero decor, zero ambience (unless you're really turned on by cement) and is basically just a little red box with a kitchen, but the food coming out of that kitchen is fantastic. Not white-tablecloth fantastic; plastic-silverware-and-paper-napkin fantastic, with a serious "Gimme twenty bucks and I'll show you the real Mexico" vibe. The show starts with Viva's excellent breakfast burrito, which the joint starts serving very early on weekend mornings, when the line at the drive-thru starts winding out into the street and the crowds spill into the parking lot. It's breakfast-burrito pandemonium, a friggin' Benetton ad for Denver's booziest middle demographic. You want fast? There are plenty of Taco Bells open until the wee hours. You want the best? Get in line at Viva.

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