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.
Sketch serves late, but more important, Sketch really comes alive late at night -- when restaurant crews, homeward-bound Creekers, the hammered, the shattered, those whose nights are coming to an end and those whose nights are just getting started all seem to converge on the subterranean wine bar. The by-the-glass list and super-call booze (the Del Maguey Pechuga mezcal at $14 a shot is worth every goddamn penny) might be the hook that gets us in the door, but Sketch's well-conceived menu -- and, in particular, the derivative, completely addictive beef carpaccio "Harry's Bar" -- is what keeps us coming back night after night after night.
Breakfast King
Mark Antonation
Breakfast King is great for breakfast, and it's a good spot to wolf down a burger for lunch or a chicken-fried steak on a lazy Sunday evening. But if, like us, you sometimes find yourself desperately in need of a gigantic burrito, a ham steak, some corned beef hash or maybe just thirty cups of coffee and a slice of cherry pie at three in the morning, then Breakfast King is absolutely the best place in town. While other all-night joints have come and gone, the King continues to rule, a dependable, loyal, unwavering friend to all of Denver's night creatures.
Toast
Mark Antonation
Toast serves everything you've dreamed about in your wildest, most gluttonous dreams. For starters, there are pancakes: beautiful, brilliant, wicked messes of chocolate and peanut butter, blueberry and lemon zest, bananas and ice cream. Then there are plates of greasy bacon, decadent Benedicts, spicy sausages, sweet chai-infused French toast, eggs of every description and bottomless cups of coffee. Though new this year and fairly small, Toast has already won over a rabidly loyal band of regulars ten times the size of the restaurant itself. While waits during prime breakfast time can be long, they're absolutely worth it. Or sleep late and come during lunch hour, when the full breakfast menu is still served.

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