Technically, Patsy's isn't in a strip mall -- but it's tucked into a strip of co-op galleries in northwest Denver and embodies all that's great about the strip-mall-Italian experience. First and foremost, it's a neighborhood joint and knows how to take care of its regulars. And some of those regulars have been coming a long time. Patsy's has been making history -- and wonderful homemade pasta -- since 1921, when Chubby Aiello opened the place, named it after one of his daughters and ran it like a clubhouse for his friends and neighbors from across the city. The family dining tradition is so strong here that it survived a change of ownership ten years ago, when Patsy's was sold to Bill Taylor and Cindy Knippel. The new owners wisely kept their meddling to a minimum, making a few changes to the menu and giving the joint a little polish. But today Patsy's looks and feels much as it did in the '20s: The service is friendly, the vibe comfortable, and the meatballs gigantic.
Luca
Molly Martin
Since the moment it opened two years ago, Luca d'Italia has turned out Denver's best high-end Italian food, no contest. Since its very first day of service, since the first plate hit the rail, Luca has been doing the most overdone cuisine in the food world better, smoother, sharper and with more obsessive precision than anywhere else in town. Even the least of the plates on chef/owner Frank Bonanno's discursive menu -- the pappardelle or the bricked chicken, say -- beats out the competition. And Bonanno's best? Well, Luca's "Rabbit, Three Ways" is a wonder of excess, its mozzarella tasting plate the definition of three-note simplicity, and we're just waiting for him to get his call to appear on Iron Chef so we can watch him school Mario Batali and then do a victory dance around Kitchen Stadium, waving Batali's clogs over his head like a trophy.
Want to take your date out for an Italian meal? That's amore. Really. Ristorante Amore, Greg Goldfogel's intimate outpost in Cherry Creek, is a wonderful little spot that turns out carefully prepared and beautifully executed Italian fare. From the pumpkin-and-butternut-squash ravioli and gnocchi with prosciutto to a simple fondue of roasted garlic, fontina and sundried tomatoes, chef John Smilanic-Beneventi understands that Italian cuisine should never underwhelm. And Goldfogel instinctively appreciates how service should never smother. At Amore, both the food and the floor are in such intimate balance that by the time the plates hit the table, half the work of charming your significant other is already done. All you have to worry about is the conversation and the bill.
Is it possible that a steakhouse could be better than Capital Grille? Cheaper, maybe. Less crowded and clubby, absolutely. But every night, Capital Grille justifies big tabs with little details: the padded tabletops, the great knives, the newspapers on the bar, the sherry in the lobster bisque, the egg in the bearnaise. It does the big things right, too. The steaks are wonderful, always cooked to temp, always presented nakedly and arrogantly in the middle of the plate. The servers are the Delta Force of the food-service world -- better trained and better prepared than anyone else out there, always on the spot wherever there's trouble. The seamless ballet of food and service leaves all the other steakhouses in this steakhouse-heavy city in the dust.
"Cheap" is a relative term when it comes to steakhouses. A one-man meal at Steakhouse 10 could easily run forty bucks, but the Kallas family piles on the value. Here there's no worrying about customizing plates, or adding pricey sides, because the steaks all come with potato and vegetables included. The Greek influence is an added bonus that shows through in some dishes, like the ubiquitous flaming saganaki, but it never overwhelms the core steakhouse vibe. The service is friendly, the dining room comfortable without being intimidating, and the prices are right on, with entrees topping out at around thirty bucks -- the point at which many other steakhouses start.
Bastien's Restaurant
Mark Antonation
Bastien's sugar steak takes the prize -- it's an American classic. But so is Bastien's itself, a steakhouse that's been in constant operation since 1937 and left pretty much untouched since its heyday in the late '60s, making it the ultimate in anti-retro swank and earned cool. If Dino and the boys were ever to roll through town, Bastien's is where they'd hang their hats, knocking back martinis and sidecars in the bar, whooping it up under the cupola and digging into a round of sugar steaks. This steak is exactly what it sounds like -- tender beef glazed in sugar, caramelized against any possible exsanguination when on the grill -- and comes with salad and potato for just $18. Throw in a couple of cold ones, and make a night of it for less than thirty bucks.
Tony's Market
People are getting a lot smarter about their meat. Not too long ago, most folks couldn't have told you the difference between choice and prime, between loin and strip. Now customers are asking about marbling and breed, looking for butcher's cuts like hanger and wanting to know exactly where their lambs or pigs are coming from. Lucky for us, we've got Tony's Meats -- now with four area locations, although the original on Dry Creek is still our favorite -- and all the knowledgeable guys behind the counter. They can discuss the cost/benefit of prime versus select, the merits of San Danielle prosciutto over Parma or Serrano or just plain ham, and will go to great lengths to match you up with exactly the right kind of meat, not letting you leave until you're hungry for more enlightenment.
Jax Fish House
Jax Fish House
If restaurateur, chef and culinary man-about-town Dave Query has a signature spot that captures the evolution of his empire, it's Jax in LoDo. Here, in a retooling of the original Boulder fish house, Query's vision and his attempts to meld the upscale with the down-home come together most smoothly. From the brick walls sketched with graffiti to the big horseshoe bar, from the seating crammed in every which way on the floor to the butcher's paper on the tables, Jax exudes a feeling of casual fun. The moment you walk through the door, you want to loosen your tie, then eat too much, drink too much and definitely stay too long. The day's specials are listed on the chalkboard, but everything on Jax's menu is a keeper. The oysters are particularly good, and a Bloody Mary or three at Sunday brunch is an excellent way to emerge from your own briny deep.
There are moments when you just know you've eaten one of the best somethings of your life -- the best chili dog, the best foie gras, the best what-have-you. From the first bite of a soft-shell crab at Chez Thuy, we knew it was the best we'd eat in our lives -- until we came back and had an even better one. The soft-shell crabs are deep-fried whole, and the beautiful golden batter, just a little spicy, comes crisp out of the oil. Inside that jacket, the shells are chewy, yielding and full of white meat that tastes like what clouds might taste like if they lived at the bottom of the sea. The accompanying nuoc cham is sharp as crystal, bright with flavors, and so astringent that a sniff of it is dizzying, like a toot of model-airplane glue. The only way to eat these crabs is to tear right into them with your hands and strip the meat right out of their fat little bodies with your teeth. Dignified? No. Delicious? You bet.
Sushi Sasa
Linnea Covington
Wayne Conwell, the chef/owner of Sushi Sasa, is a man obsessed with details. From the precise alignment of a piece of fish on a plate to the shape of a hundred different hand rolls, nothing is too small to warrant his attention. And from his post behind the sushi bar at Sushi Sasa -- his white-on-white-on-white dream of what a great restaurant can be -- no detail escapes him. Conwell sees everyone who comes through the door, sees every plate that passes out of the kitchen, sees the surprised looks on the faces of the happy diners (except those hanging out in the downstairs lounge, of course, which is used as overflow seating when the dining room is full) as they take their first bites of his sushi or his tempura -- the raw and the cooked. This obsession with all the little things makes for a freakish kind of excellence, and also makes Sushi Sasa the new benchmark for sushi restaurants in Denver.

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