Funny that it would take two Brits with French wine pretensions and a long history of globe-trotting culinary excess to come up with Denver's premier American restaurant. Owners Mel and Janie Master have helped define Denver's place in American food history for decades, the last twelve of them at Mel's in Cherry Creek. Nearly every great young chef now working in the city has taken a turn or two through this kitchen, and over the past year, with the hiring of chef Chad Clevenger, Mel's reached a new, humorous high, where tacos, steaks and peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich flavors of the American West were brought to the fore. Mel's will be shutting down come summer, but it's nice to go out at the top of your game.
Deluxe
It seems impossible, but Deluxe has managed to get better over the past few years. That's saying something, because it was pretty damn good to begin with and has always been one of our favorite spots for kicking back and treating ourselves. The menu -- a kind of Bizarro World take on the California Cuisine revolution, cooked as if the intervening twenty years never happened -- is short and tight, just right for grazing (oyster shooters, served in pho spoons) or for going all out. While the dining room is decidedly hip and funky, we prefer a seat at the copper-topped bar that surrounds the tiny kitchen, which is perfect for people-watching and even better for dining close to the action. And lest you forget what's really important here, a sign hung on the back wall reminds everyone: EAT.
Bastien's Restaurant
Mark Antonation
When your grandfather thought about a nice dinner out, Bastien's may have been the spot he had in mind. Big fat steaks, ageless cocktails and a tacky, shmaltzy, absolutely dead-on swinger's swank put this place high on our list of favorite restaurants. Forget fusion, forget classicism or over-intellectualized retro-ironic menus that take a half-page explanation just so that everyone will get the joke. At Bastien's, modern living (at least in terms of food, booze and interior decor) hit its high point in 1957, and it was at that point that the Bastien family -- who've owned the restaurant through three generations -- stopped all the clocks and threw away the calendars. The sugar steak alone is so classically American that it should have its own display at the Smithsonian.
Zengo
There was a moment there, right around 2004, when it seemed like Latino-Asian fusion would be the Next Big Thing. And Denver was on the cutting edge, because international restaurateur Richard Sandoval introduced it first at Zengo. But just as Zengo was hitting its stride, the rest of the restaurant world was turning back toward an embrace of purity, sustainability and locals-only utopianism. And still, as a monolith to the end of a culinary era, Zengo works. It looks like a nightclub, feels like an L.A. singles bar and tastes like genius. With its ambitious menus and yin/yang balance that mixes sushi, antojitos and back-and-forth, shared-plate ideals, Zengo remains a testament to stubbornness and stability in an industry that never learned not to eat its young.
One meal at Tula should be enough to make almost any Denver diner reconsider just what it means to eat Mexican food. The menu here is deep and simple, elegant and approachable all at the same time. Chef/owner Chris Douglas brings French training, a sushi chef's eye for detail and a no-bullshit sense of the inherent excellence of his ingredients to every plate at Tula. But most important, he's been able to use traditional sur de la frontera building blocks to construct a menu as present and momentous as any in the city.
Potager
Lindsey Bartlett
Every decade, every era, every movement in modern cuisine seems attended by a requisite affectation. A few years ago, every serious kitchen needed a sous-vide setup. Before that, it was a compressed CO2 gun for making foams. Before that, it was squeeze bottles and specialty tools like fish spatulas and jeweler's pliers in the knife kit. Today, every big-name chef worth his endorsement contract wants a potager -- a sustainable garden from which all his produce can be pulled. And bragged about. Thing is, for years Denver has had its own secret garden: Potager, where chef/owner Teri Rippeto works her uncompromising magic on an ever-changing menu. The lineup is seasonal, with every dish a heartfelt expression of its constituent parts, every ingredient sourced as close to home as possible. If American fine dining is to have any kind of future, its course will be charted at places like Potager.
Sushi Sasa
Linnea Covington
At Sushi Sasa, chef Wayne Conwell and his crew make great sushi. Since Conwell served a very old-style apprenticeship among some of the modern masters of the craft, that's a given. But it's with his omakase menus -- personalized, multi-course tastings -- that he truly shows the depth and breadth of his skill. With this sudden freedom from the constraints of tradition comes an honesty and a sense of potential that can be stunning. From the simplest riffs on hand rolls to the over-the-top opulence of prized ingredients being handled with a masterful touch, every one of Conwell's original, distinctive and highly personal menus is an improvisational opus never to be repeated exactly the same way again.
The small-plate fads may be dying, but the 9th Door deserves to stick around. Rather than compromise in the face of changing tastes, it remains dedicated to traditional Spanish flavors: anchovies, a handful of olives and almonds, some sour goat cheese laced with honey, pan-fried artichokes and potatoes sparked with romesco. The plates may be small, but that sounds like the makings of a big meal.
L'Atelier
Courtesy L'Atelier Facebook
Frozen oils, liquid potatoes, horseradish foam -- chef Radek Cerny's latest run of menus at L'Atelier haven't even been fusion so much as Venusian, heavily influenced by the work of Ferran Adria at El Bulli and running the ragged outer edge between border-jumping French/ Spanish/American/Asian cuisines and the flummery of ultra-modern gas-and-lasers molecular gastronomy. Sure, it's fusion -- but the menu is so much more, encompassing everything from international sashimi and grits to salmon cassoulet and duck confit. No matter what you call it, Cerny's cooking must be experienced to be truly understood. And you should experience it.
Opus
Over the years, Michael Long has played many roles. He's been an employee and an owner, a wild-eyed genius and a flake, a scientist whose kitchen was a laboratory where he experimented with molecular gastronomy, and a chef whose primary goal was feeding people what they wanted to eat -- not necessarily what the chef wanted to cook. And within this back-and-forth pull between art and commerce, instinct and economics, Opus came up with a new form of fusion -- one that smushed together the head and the gut and, in the process, created a menu both incredibly chef-driven and marketable. Long pulled off this rare trick through a combination of intelligent design, a classical menu, innovative specials and blow-out chef's dinners that allow him and his crew to get as weird as they want without running the risk of alienating all those cheeseburger eaters.

Best Of Denver®

Best Of