Mezcal
Danielle Lirette
Denver drinkers used to be content ordering snifters full of ice, cheap tequila, sweet-and-sour mix that made your teeth squeak, maybe a lime wedge, and all sorts of top-secret (and cheap) ingredients guaranteed to give them a big headache in the morning. If they wanted to get really fancy, they might even order their margaritas frozen so they didn't have to taste what was going to give them a big headache in the morning. But then Denver drinkers started studying tequila, differentiating the regional nuances, demanding fresh lime juice and margs served coin-style. While local bars increasingly focus on specialty drinks that quench the ever-growing thirst for better margaritas, they often give scant attention to the house marg. But that's not the case at Mezcal and its sibling, Tambien, which continue to turn out spritely, fresh-tasting, potent house margs that feature plenty of quality tequila, plenty of fresh juice, and just a spritz of carbonation to keep your evening bubbling along.
Royal Peacock
The Royal Peacock would win this award on smell alone. As you walk up to the restaurant, it feels like you could be lifted off the ground by the mingled aromas coming from the kitchen, like a cartoon hobo smelling pie. But once you get past the smell of tandoori and cumin, curry, saffron and a hundred other barely identifiable odors — once you get through the door, make your way to a table, thumb through the well-worn menu and order a royal feast — it's the flavors those smells ride on that make such a lasting impression. The Royal Peacock's setting is a nondescript strip mall. But its food is so good as to be almost beyond words.
A cement bunker filled with soup: That's Pho 79. It doesn't serve anything more than pho and rocket-fuel Vietnamese coffee and a few boba tea drinks — but then, it doesn't need to. Long a popular breakfast spot for the local Vietnamese community and usually far more populated (at least during the morning hours) by members of that group than by wild-eyed hipsters, East Coast transplants and others of their foul ilk, Pho 79 is nonetheless a miracle for those who feel that nothing starts the day better than a gigantic bowl of noodles, basil, broth, lime juice and various cow parts.
Maybe it's the rock-bottom prices. Maybe it's the authentic fare. Maybe it's that we've got noodle bars on the brain. Maybe it's the freaky little alien-moose thing that stands as the house mascot, because we've always had a weakness for creepy mascots and patron cartoon characters. Maybe (probably) it's all of those things. This year, we kept finding ourselves returning to Oshima Ramen, the only link in this country to a Japanese chain. Everything about this place is awesome and bizarre at the same time — from the giant bowls of fresh-made ramen to the tasty chicken bits and gyoza to the unusual Japanese sodas behind the bar. The walls are sketched with years' worth of graffiti, the history of a thousand love affairs with Oshima Ramen, of which ours is only one.
Sae Jong Kwan
Cassandra Kotnik
Korean barbecue isn't barbecue at all by the traditional definition — but when it's as good as what's called barbecue at Sae Jong Kwan, who stands on ceremony? Sae Jong Kwan (aka: House of Korean BBQ) is almost a gastronaut hideout, a spot where adventurous eaters gather to stuff themselves with meats and vegetables and other odds and ends all cooked on the little barbecue grills built right into the tables. Join the fun: Bring a bunch of friends, order a bunch of drinks (because there's nothing more adventurous than mixing alcohol and an open grill) and let one of the helpful servers be your guide through the long, detailed and very traditional menu.
Izakaya Den
Izakaya Den
Denver has always had a shortage of good late-night restaurants. Most places in town lock the doors around nine or ten and leave the late-night service to the drive-thrus, bars, diners and street-corner burrito vendors. So before the clock strikes eleven, head to Izakaya Den, which has a great menu for late-night snackers: a combination Italian/Mexican/French/American/Japanese board that offers both the lowbrow and the high-tone side by side.
Bastien's Restaurant
Mark Antonation
Bastien's isn't retro. The rest of the world might be leaning in that direction, looking for cool, but Bastien's is something else entirely: It's classic. Looking for the cocktail culture of the '50s? Bastien's has it. Early-'70s swinger swank? It has that, too. Bastien's doesn't change with the times; the times change around it. Like they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and while the batteries on Bastien's Timex ran down a long time ago, this is still a great place to go for sugar steaks, sidecars, fried cheesecakes, steely martinis and a taste of Denver's culinary past.
The photos on the wall of the Avenue Grill date back to the '80s, but the feel of this bar dates back much further, to those classic cocktail lounges of the '30s and '40s. And you can taste that golden era in the martinis, which the amiable bartenders mix up big, bold and icy-cold. The martinis here are such a hit that the Avenue Grill even has a martini club, but you don't need to join in order to feel welcome at this bar. Although $5 martinis are a specialty during happy hour, which runs from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. weekdays, the bartenders keep mixing them all night. An evening at the Avenue will leave you shaken, if not stirred.
Marczyk Fine Foods
Courtesy Marczyk Fine Foods
Yes, you're probably going to pay top dollar for your meat at Marczyk Fine Foods. But trust us, it's worth it. If you really care about the quality of your food, you should shop at a place where owner Pete Marczyk and his staff take pride in offering nothing but the best of the best. Just peeking through the glass at the cuts of meat displayed by the butchers is addicting — better than leafing through any high-gloss food mag out there. Marczyk's stocks free-range chickens, makes its own sausage, and even puts some of that meat into sandwiches that you can grab for lunch.
Elway's Cherry Creek
On Wednesdays all through the summer, the scene at Elway's is hot! Aged, but hot. While bands play in the courtyard, cougars prowl through the bar and the patio, looking for fresh prey. And sugar daddies are doing the same, looking for the next sweet young thing. Should they strike out, there's always a consolation prize: real red meat in the dining room.

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