Panzano
Linnea Covington

If happy hour has taught us well-lubricated lushes anything, it's that drinking on an empty stomach is a recipe for stupidity, especially if you drink like we do. So if you're smart, you'll spend your next happy hour (and those after it) at Panzano, where, from 2:30 to 6 p.m. daily in the convivial lounge, attentive tenders pour $3 draft beers, including Guinness and Moretti; $4 wines by the glass; and profoundly trippy but delicious cocktails. But as irresistible as we find the liquor, it's chef Elise Wiggins's $3 and $4 happy-hour, happy-food deals that really knock us out. Her culinary prowess shows up all over the dishes: in the Hazel Dell mushroom-stuffed crepes with fonduta sauce, in the duck-liver mousse with Parmesan doughnuts, in the speck-and-pear pizza capped with Gorgonzola and drizzled with rosemary honey and a light baptizing of truffle oil. May all your hours be as happy as those you spend here.

Best Vegetarian Dish in a Non-Vegetarian Restaurant

Izakaya Den

Izakaya Den
Izakaya Den

What do otherwise dedicated carnivores eat when they think no one's watching? Seaweed salad at Izakaya Den, a tide of flashy green algae, weeds and leaves, pink grapefruit wedges, pencil-thin rods of asparagus and sliced apples tossed in a stark white, square bowl, sprinkled with sesame seeds and dressed with a citrus-y spray. The salad is included on the vast menu among many other temptations — sushi, sashimi, udon and unagi bowls, tempura, Kobe beef sliders and miso black cod — and while the kitchen at Izakaya Den does all of those things very, very well, the bright, acidic flavors of this salad make it a standout.

Basta

Pizzaiolo Kelly Whitaker learned how to make pizza in Italy, then brought that knowledge to Boulder, where he recently opened Pizzeria Basta. Boulder already has some of the best restaurants in the state, Frasca and L'Atelier among them; can an artisan pizza joint share in their stardom? There's no question that Whitaker has every intention of trying. He makes his dough using a fifty-year-old starter kit from Naples; he sources as many ingredients as he can from local suppliers, farmers and vendors; he pickles his own vegetables, crafts his own mozzarella and ricotta, cures his own pancetta and makes his own sausage, all of which are noble endeavors. But Whitaker really displays his skills when he puts everything together: The slightly misshapen crusts, properly salted and scorched in all the right spots, are surfaced with a remarkably fresh tomato sauce and mouthfuls of inspired meats and vegetables.

Elway's Cherry Creek

Who would have thought, in a town flush with cantinas, taquerías, carnicerías and Mexican markets, that Denver's best red chile would come from the kitchen of a full-blooded steakhouse? While the Cherry Creek Elway's is best known for its slabs of steer, chef Tyler Wiard's New Mexican-style red chile, which he drapes over his steak enchiladas, is worthy of worship. We can't get enough of this smooth, slightly bitter purée, which is sharply punctuated with the savory, spicy and earthy nuances of ground chiles.

Chili Verde (MOVED)

When Chili Verde opened last summer with a skeleton staff, sporadic hours and no liquor license, owners and brothers Eder and Hanzel Yañez-Mota seduced the city with their crazy-good Pueblan food, a showcase of complexly spiced moles, remarkably good ceviche and pudgy rellenos uniquely packaged with peaches, plantains and nuts. And then they pulled out all the stops with a delicious plate of delicate crepes, rolled with shredded chicken and draped with a faintly spicy cream sauce sweetened with corn and laced with ropes of onions and charred poblanos scented with smoke.

Star Kitchen
Lauren Monitz

"You back! Long time to see!" shouts the woman. It's been a while since we last picked the pushcarts clean at Star Kitchen, and the tiny owner with the one-inch waist won't let us forget it. "It's been long time," she repeats, shoving metal-rimmed steamers full of siu mai dumplings under our noses. "You love these!" she enthuses. She's right, of course. We do love the siu mai dumplings. We love the thin-skinned scallop dumplings, too, as well as the shrimp dumplings and lobster dumplings. It's easy to spend the day in this boxy dining room, swelling our gullets with spongy turnip cakes, soy-soaked jiggly rice crepes stuffed with minced pork, steamed barbecue buns plump with sweet roasted pork, head-on shrimp crusted with salt and pepper. How much do we love the dim sum at Star Kitchen? So much that if today were our birthday, this is where we'd celebrate.

Africana Cafe

Denver is home to an estimated 10,000 people of Ethiopian descent — and nearly as many Ethiopian restaurants, or so it seems when you're driving east on Colfax through Aurora. Choosing one that reflects the diversity and nuances of Ethiopian cuisine can be a challenge for those unfamiliar with the smells and spices of East Africa. But the native, the initiated and the adventurous can all be found at Africana Cafe, where the city's Abasha community meets to eat. Africana offers the usual array of traditional Ethiopian food: spongy injera bread, platters of vegetables and meats accented with the earthy berbere chili spice, as well as really traditional dishes such as kitfo — raw or rare ground beef served with lots of fire. But Africana stands out for its perfect rendering of a few simple but beloved staples, including shiro wot, a stew of chickpeas puréed with garlic. This is comfort food for those yearning for Addis Ababa — and anyone who just loves simple, tasty and good.

Ask a dozen Denver food fans to name the best 'hood for grubbing, grazing and guzzling, and you'll get a dozen answers — plus a few extras from people who can't stop at just one — which just confirms what we already know: There are pockets of fiendishly great eating all over the city. But right now the lower edge of the Highland neighborhood — a neighborhood we will not stoop to calling LoHi — is a red-hot incubator of notable restaurants. You'll find a dazzling charcuterie plate and cassoulet at Z Cuisine and Z Cuisine À Côté, complemented by an esoteric wine list; flamboyant cocktails at Root Down; rustically citified dishes, always with a local bent, at Duo; some of the best cooking in the city at Squeaky Bean, where Max Mackissock does breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner from an impossibly tiny kitchen; schooners of craft beers and plates with good steaks and even better fries at LoHi SteakBar; and sensational views of the city (not to mention perfect margaritas and Bloody Marys) at Lola. Dining in Denver never looked so good.

Benny Armas got his start more than three decades ago, cooking in other people's kitchens. But from the moment he opened Benny's, his own place in central Denver, it's been a Denver institution, growing bigger (gaining a new patio last year) and better, catering to generations of families, friends — and drunks. Because Benny's regulars know that as welcoming as this spot can be for lunch and dinner, there's simply no better restorative than a breakfast burrito or a big plate of Benny's huevos rancheros, smothered in that distinctive, slightly sweet green chile. This will definitely cure what ails you — which very well could be that pitcher of Benny's margs you drank the night before.

The Walnut Room

You can slum it with a slice and a drink for $5 at just about every pizza joint in town, but when you want to slum it in style, either location of the Walnut Room feels your vibe. Throw down a fiver at the original, up on Walnut, or the new store, at the heart of Broadway, and a fresh-faced server, usually of the hipster sort, will trot out an eight-inch, thin-crusted pizza topped with whatever single ingredient tickles your fancy, a cup of soup or a house salad scattered with mozzarella, and a soft drink. If you're not a proponent of pizza, not a problem: You can order a half a sandwich instead, including the "Fat Bastard," heaped with provolone, five meats and a few scant vegetables to soften the guilt (or impending coronary). The $5 lunch deal runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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