BEST QUICK DINNER BEFORE
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

Sam's #3

Sam's No. 3
Danielle Lirette
Last year, Sam's #3 opened in pretty much the same spot where the original Sam's closed almost fifty years before, and ever since, culture vultures have had a surefire option for gulping a fast dinner before taking in a show at the Denver Performing Arts Complex a block away. Even though the menu is incredibly extensive, offering everything from fried chicken and cheeseburgers to catfish and Sam's original chili, the guys in the kitchen know how to turn and burn their way through a rush, how to get you in and out fast. So the next time you've got tickets for Norma and not much time before the lights go down, give Sam's a try. It's quick, it's close, it's cheap, and the portions are big enough that you'll have enough in your belly to keep you in your seat until the fat lady sings. How do you think she got fat in the first place?

BEST DECENT DINNER
WHEN DINING WITH KIDS

Coral Room

The biggest difference between the original Coral Room in the Highland neighborhood and this new, improved model at Stapleton is how it accommodates that one indispensable accessory of the 21st-century nuclear unit: children. Kids can be the fine-dining kiss of death, so it makes sense that a restaurant designed expressly for upwardly mobile thirty-something families would include space for pint-sized patrons. At the Coral Room, it's an entire room -- almost a third of the total real estate -- separated from the main dining floor and bar by a sliding Japanese-style screen and set with grownup tables all facing a padded, carpeted, vaguely piscine-themed play area called (annoyingly) "The Little Reef," filled with savaged books, broken toys, smudgy kid-sized furnishings and, most important, a TV. Everything about the place -- from the kids' room to the movie nights, the Asian-influenced, nouvelle-inspired cuisine to the everything-by-the-glass wine list, fashionable cocktails and Metropolitan Home decor -- guarantees that both junior and the folks will have a good time without driving the restaurant's other, childless patrons out into the night.

BEST DINNER DESTINATION
FOR MAKIN' BABIES

Z Cuisine

Z Cuisine and A Cote Bar a Absinthe
If French is the language of love, then French food is the cuisine of lust -- an entire canon of recipes and preparations that, when done well, can make a lady's panties leap from her body and a gentleman's thoughts turn to committing impure acts of passion in the street. And Z Cuisine does things so very, very well that the menu ought to come with some kind of warning sticker. Even the most socially inept can't help but feel like a man (or woman) of taste and sophistication here. From the chalkboard menu and seriously French wine list to the beautiful, intimate space and wonderfully comforting farmhouse French cuisine done by chef/owner Patrick Dupays, there's no more romantic restaurant in town. Voulez vous couchez avec moi ce soir?

BEST DINNER DESTINATION
FOR IMPRESSING THE FOLKS

The Fort

The Fort Restaurant
Mark Antonation
Dad wants steak. Mom wants chicken. Your little sister is on some kind of freaky, fish-only, zero-tolerance diet. And you just want enough whiskey to get you through a meal without strangling anyone or being forced to have another talk about your impending court date. So head to the hills -- specifically, The Fort. Housed in a replica of the original Bent's Fort and offering an unparalleled view of the mountains and the sky, Sam Arnold's cowboys-and-Indians paean to the culinary life of frontiersmen is guaranteed to satisfy everyone's needs. For Dad, there's more meat than at a butcher's counter, including flesh from a variety of unusual animals (or unusual parts of fairly common animals). For Mom, there's a Kit Carson-authentic bowl of chicken soup. For you, there's the house's home-brew whiskey (made with real gunpowder!), and plenty of conversational topics that have nothing to do with Mexico, the police, or exactly what number of prescription back pills constitutes possession with intent. As for your sister? Tell her that Rocky Mountain oysters are actually a kind of shellfish, then try not to laugh when she takes her first bite of balls.

BEST DINNER DESTINATION
FOR IMPRESSING A DATE

Deluxe

Deluxe
Sex and food are powerful motivators, and no restaurant combines these two things better than Deluxe. There are high-backed banquettes in front, cozy two-tops in the back, leopard-print carpets, dim lights and cool jazz drooling from hidden speakers, all of which combine to showcase chef Dylan Moore's beautiful and overwhelmingly sensuous take on the California Cuisine revolution of the mid-'80s. Presented with a modernist's flair, the menu is arranged by small plates and entrees, with everything meant for sharing, including masa-fried oysters set in individual pho spoons, dabbed with tomato-lime salsa and napped with jalapeno aioli, and spareribs coated in a Chinese five-spice hoisin sauce that will have you licking your fingers -- as well as your date's. And while Deluxe can get crowded, it does take reservations -- which means you and your date can skip the waiting-line chitchat and get down to the serious business of eating. And whatever else comes next.

BEST DINNER DESTINATION
FOR IMPRESSING A BLIND DATE

Buenos Aires Pizzeria

Buenos Aires Pizzeria
Argentine food is sexy. The tastes and smells, the combinations of flavors -- spicy and sweet, salty and savory -- and the esoteric mix of culinary styles that come from centuries of immigration and invasion all work together to weave a tapestry of pure sensualism. Buenos Aires Pizzeria does right by Argentine cuisine, offering dozens of unusual pizzas, empanadas, pastas and sandwiches that create a world of culinary experience. There's just one thing this storefront eatery doesn't have: a good-looking dining room. Even when the space is crowded, it seems somehow austere -- but one taste of the food and you'll know exactly why you made the trip to Buenos Aires.
Mizuna
Joni Schrantz
Mizuna is a restaurant you can love for a lifetime. Ever-changing, impeccably serviced by a thoroughly professional floor staff and as comforting as dinner in your favorite uncle's kitchen, it's a neighborhood place that draws in crowds (and these days, cooks) from across the country, all of them coming to taste the first, best expression of Frank Bonanno's hard work, ingredient obsessiveness and singular talent. Bonanno's crew are less cooks than disciples, banging out brilliant plates with mimeograph precision. From apple beignets like tiny Dolly Madison fruit pies after a semester at charm school, to foie gras, sweetbreads, perfect lamb chops and ungodly rich, buttery and beautiful lobster mac-and-cheese, a meal at Mizuna is always worth the price -- regardless of the final tab.
Sushi Den
Sushi Den
Maybe you've never tried sea-urchin roe -- a delicacy among the Japanese, a pricey indulgence for hard-core fish-heads here in Denver. Maybe you've never tried toro, the fatty belly of massive tuna that can fetch a higher price than its weight in cocaine on the blood-slick floors of Japanese fish markets. Needlefish? Raw shrimp? Tempura crab in blueberry ponzu sauce? All of that and more is available at Sushi Den -- some of it is available nowhere but Sushi Den -- so this is precisely the place to eat on someone else's platinum card. Why? Because you might not like sea-urchin roe or tuna belly or needlefish, and then you'll want to try something else. Lots of something elses. At Sushi Den, you can order big, order wild and satisfy your curiosity -- and, ultimately, your hunger.
Duo Restaurant
Scott Lentz
No matter where you find yourself sitting -- at the bar, in the brick-faced dining room, pressed up against the pass rail or lurking in one of the corners -- a solo dinner at Duo is a truly transporting experience. This neighborhood bistro boasts two of Denver's best chefs (John Broening in the kitchen and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom on pastries), but the vibe is informal and convivial, with community tables filled with people actually from the community (the newly hot edge-of-Highland neighborhood) and even a table for one never feeling the least bit lonely. The staff is committed to giving each and every guest an exemplary dining experience, and the delicate mingling of flavors on the artful plates -- from a simple duck leg or slice of venison to a slab of sticky toffee pudding set on a glossy slick of butter-rum sauce -- swells, expanding until it demands, and deserves, all of your concentration. With food this good, service this attentive and a glass of wine off of Duo's approachable list, you'll never feel lonely again.
When you want the best green chile, go to a green-chile expert. And when you're looking for a green-chile expert, Jack-n-Grill's Jack Martinez is your man. Before starting this solidly New Mexican restaurant, Martinez was a chile importer -- a guy who lived and breathed chiles and who has opinions on all of them. For example: "Colorado-style" green chile, with its pasty consistency and chunks of pork, is a poseur. At his restaurant, Martinez serves real New Mexican green chile, a pure distillation of the chile's heat and sweetness, and he serves the stuff with everything -- burritos, enchiladas, tacos, whatever. Hell, bring in a bowl of Wheaties, and Jack (or some member of his extended family) will happily pour some great green chile right over the top -- though you'd probably be better off going with a green-chile breakfast burrito and calling it a day.

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