JaJa Bistro

There's nothing pompous about this French bistro, where the informal, come-as-you-are ambience makes it all too easy to become a regular. And by the looks of it, especially on Sunday mornings, when Littleton residents sashay in for brunch, there are plenty of regulars who crave JaJa's dazzling crepes, filled with everything from smoked ham and Swiss to scrambled eggs and bacon, to sunny-side-up eggs and sausage, to Nutella and sugar-kissed bananas. The unfussy elegance, coupled with the camaraderie of the ardent habitués who linger over Bloody Marys and bottomless mimosas, makes JaJa's Bistro a must-stop for both wistful Francophiles and card-carrying foodophiles who want a little joie de vivre with their morning pick-me-up.

Tarbell's SouthGlenn
Mark Manger

Tarbell's is certainly not the first restaurant to elevate the burger to lofty, beasty, Herculean status, but while size is in the shoe of the beholder, Tarbell's double-decker burger — all six, maybe even seven inches of it — is, buns down, the best burger in the city. The freshly ground beef, loose and hand-formed into two impossibly thick patties, is judiciously salted and peppered, drooling with juices that blush scarlet, grilled to a perfect mid-rare and shoved between a soft, slightly sweet bun that's slathered with a secret sauce and platformed with lettuce, tomato slices and squares of American cheese that melt into the depths of your fluttering heart.

If you're certain to save more than a few bucks off your total check by ordering the bottle, then why would you ever choose to order wine by the glass? A few possible reasons: a) You're afflicted with a rare, intense case of Wine Attention Deficit Disorder; b) You're dining alone, and therefore only capable of consuming three glasses of wine in a single sitting (God forbid you waste the fourth); or c) You're at a restaurant with so many tempting by-the-glass selections that you simply can't resist snatching sips from all over the list. If you chose C, there's a good chance you've been drinking (and eating) at Lou's Food Bar, which is exactly where you should go when you're searching for that elusive perfect glass of vino. Wine director Lynn Whittum did more than just pick good juice that goes with the restaurant's eclectic fare; she made sure the pricing was right, too: The average glass runs just $9. Pinkies up!

The Cup Espresso Cafe

There's more to making cappuccino than pulling a shot, steaming a little milk and adding a great big dollop of foam — and the baristas at the Cup recognize that. They start by pulling a perfect shot of espresso topped with caramel-colored crema — and then the real work begins. They know the secret for creating perfect foam at a perfect temperature, they understand why you can't make a cappuccino from skim milk (without milk fat, the foam just falls away), and they're aware of the importance of latte art, which is not only part of the tradition but displays the integrity of the craft. They effortlessly pour perfect cappuccinos, each adorned with a heart, rosette or something more artistic, served on saucers with a spoon and a chocolate-covered espresso bean.

Making cassoulet, the bean-and-meat stew that's chock-full of sausage and duck confit, is a days-long undertaking, and that's why it only graces the menu at Masterpiece Delicatessen as a special. Still, the sandwich shop makes a near-perfect version of the stuff: toothsome white beans bathed in a thick, buttery broth, topped with a couple of crisp strips of bacon and overlaid with a crunchy, fat-roasted duck leg, tender meat falling off the bone. The kitchen finishes the dish with a handful of crisp greens to balance the heavy meat binge. It's all so good that we want to eat bowl after bowl of the stuff until we've cleaned out the stockpot. Please, sir, may we have some more?

Shead's BBQ & Fish Hut

Down south, they know how to tame this ugly-ass bottom-feeder. They fillet it, pan-fry it with light seasoning and serve it up with hush puppies, okra and other comfort foods. Shead's keeps the Southern tradition alive in its clean, well-lighted strip-mall location; save some room for a juicy peach cobbler as a chaser. The fried tilapia isn't half bad, either.

Best Central/South American Restaurant

Cafe Brazil

Cafe Brazil
Summer Powell

When the original owner lost Cafe Brazil in the early '90s, Tony and Marla Zarlenga took it over and saved the name because Brazil has a great culture, a great spirit and a great reputation — and they wanted to channel that. But instead of a strictly Brazilian restaurant, they created a novolatino place that offers a contemporary interpretation of the cuisine of South America with influences from the Mediterranean. It's a unique world of the couple's own creation that influences everything from the menu to the artwork (which Marla paints when she's not working in the kitchen). There are a few bona fide Brazilian dishes, like the xim xim and the feijoada, but many of the menu offerings are Colombian with a Brazilian touch. The Peixe de Angola, for example, with Malagueta chiles tossed into the creamy fish stew made with sweet and spicy coconut milk and lime; the crispy, sweet fried bananas gracing many plates; the cazuela Colombiana, a savory stew of tomato and chicken breast and prawns; the dulce de leche ice cream, creamy caramel gelato topped with espresso. Whatever the origin of these dishes, each provides a beautiful window into a rich Latin American world.

Argyll
Cassandra Kotnik

Denver chefs are going to have to do more — much more — than toss a few slices of prosciutto on a platter with a fistful of olives if they're going to go nose-to-tail with Sergio Romero, the executive chef of Argyll. Romero's charcuterie program is done 100 percent in-house and features an all-star lineup of all the things we hold sacred: chicken-liver pâté, rabbit rillettes, foie gras mousse, duck prosciutto, gin-cured salmon gravlox, even pickled cow's tongue. He serves it all on a weighty slab alongside housemade condiments and spreads, including a potent beer mustard specked with caraway seeds, a Colorado purple-onion jam and an impeccable Niçoise olive tapenade.

Osteria Marco
Scott Lentz

Many restaurants offer cheese courses, but none as tantalizing as the board at Osteria Marco, where every cheese on the plate is crafted in-house. There's milky, pure, hand-stretched mozzarella. Soft, slightly chunky ricotta, kissed with sweetness and a tinge of clover. Smooth, slightly sharp goat's-milk ricotta. And, of course, an orb of sinfully rich burrata, the firm, mozzarella-like edge encasing a luscious, creamy center. The kitchen builds plates of one or more selections, supplementing generous helpings with relishes, honeys and delicate housemade crackers. We can't start — or end — a meal at this Frank Bonanno restaurant without sampling at least one variety.

The Squeaky Bean Farm + Table

The Squeaky Bean may very well be Denver's most wickedly irreverent restaurant, which is just one of the reasons it's such an alluring escape when you need a mood-lifter that's legal. Owner and head bean-counter Johnny Ballen has a wonderfully warped mind that's resulted in the erection of a Farrah Fawcett shrine, a bingo billboard and the flight of helium-filled balloons through the room, ensuring that no one walks out in a cloud of bitterness. But while all of those things add to the Bean's magnetism, it's executive chef Max MacKissock's sensational cooking that really seals the deal. A healthy dose of playfulness — and provocation — prevails in everything he touches, from his modernized TV dinners and duo of grilled quail squatting on a Coors Light can to his Italian wedding soup, prepared so brilliantly that you want to weep. And then there's the profoundly innovative — and completely refashioned — "green chile" lofted with foie gras and downplayed with Fritos. MacKissock isn't afraid to drop culinary bombshells, and his risk-taking tendencies thus far have resulted in enthusiastic reviews from foodniks near and far. Few chefs understand exactly what it takes to make a palate soar like MacKissock does, and for everything he does, and everything he will do, we give thanks.

Best Of Denver®

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