Best Chinese Restaurant 2011 | Chef Liu's Authentic Chinese Cuisine | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

"Really? You want that?" The server's eyes grow wide and sparkle with mischief, and after patiently reciting the English translations from the "secret" Chinese menu, she cheerfully nods and scampers toward the kitchen, pausing just once to glance back for affirmation. Chef Liu's Authentic Chinese Cuisine is a shrine to familiarity and weirdness, where tofu skin and fried pork livers intersect with cumin-dusted lamb skewers, chicken blistered with chiles the color of the devil's burning ears, and Beijing-style pork bumped up with bean paste. The Americanized Chinese and Northeast Chinese dishes on both menus represent amazing breadth and depth, and even if you're one of those lucky people who pads your belly with Chinese food on a daily basis, it's safe to assume that when you stop by Chef Liu's, you'll discover an imperial lust for something entirely new.

Joe Jenkins

Nothing sates a cinnamon-roll craving quite like downing a fresh bun, still steaming from the oven, at Duffeyroll Cafe, a Wash Park breakfast shop with suburban offshoots. Hand-rolled with the ideal amount of cinnamon filling between each layer of fluffy, bready pastry, each bun is lightly crisped around the edges and just gooey enough with glaze — your choice of six different toppings. While we like the zesty orange, the rich Irish cream and crunchy, pecan-vanilla version, we're particularly partial to the original topping: a light and sugary coating that bolsters the taste of the pastry beneath.

Bittersweet is the blood, sweat and tears of chef/owner Olav Peterson, who opened his own restaurant after spending the past several years as the exec chef of Bistro One. His seasonal board is short but powerful, a direct, focused and ambitious stab at some of our favorite foods, including clam chowder. There are dozens of renditions around town, most of them a flat vat of cream and canned clams — but Peterson's is a stunning bowl of transcendence. He uses cream, to be sure, but the liquid, permeated with smoke, gets its unduplicated flavor from the liquor left by pounds and pounds of smoked mussels, as well as specks of bacon and other seasonings. Peterson then sinks a potato croquette into the chowder and crowns that with a razor clam and a full slice of crispy bacon that shatters into the superlative soup.

The eclectic array of rooms that make up Stella's Coffeehaus reflect the evolution of this spot since it first opened on South Pearl in the early 1990s, and every nook and cranny has its own rich personality that changes with the crowd. During the day, Stella's is ideal for work and study, when a pensive silence hangs over each table, most shared by strangers. At night, live music, board games and conversation dominate, as people catch up over a snack or stretch the night with one last, non-alcoholic drink. The sprawling porch in front is so lovely that the space is always packed in the summer and almost as frequently full in the winter, when heaters make it bearable to sit outside. For its always-warm ambience, Stella's is just our cup of tea.

Photo by Johnny Molfetta

Aviano is the only Colorado cafe to source beans from Intelligentsia, a Chicago-based roaster with a cultish following that has just six shops in the country — three in the Windy City and now three in L.A. The beans alone get Aviano a lot of the way to a great cup of coffee, but owner Doug Naiman also trained with the obsessive staff of Intelligentsia, who will throw out any latte or cappuccino that doesn't have art. Because art, it turns out, is a reflection of how well the foam is made. At his own coffee shop, which moved to Cherry Creek last year, Naiman's obsession is manifested in his brew-to-order pourover bar, his refusal to make blended drinks and his insistence that all shots of espresso be enjoyed immediately...and in porcelain. He's a stickler for the rules, but they result in a perfect cup of coffee, every time.

A regular gathering spot in a busy stretch of Highland, home to some of the town's most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes, Common Grounds is teeming with people from all over the neighborhood at just about every time of day. Young singletons walk their dogs over for a cappuccino, students and solitary workers hack away on laptops in the corners, and groups of friends gather over weekend pastries. And because socializing is so easy in this crowded shop, first conversations are often struck up when two strangers are forced to share a table and romantic excursions sometimes planned at the cream and sugar station. Get ready to spoon.

Lola has always embraced the power of the ocean, turning out coastal Mexican food in a city — as people will annoyingly remind you — framed by waves of mountains. But co-owner/executive chef Jamey Fader knows his way around a fish, and he's cast his net far and wide to hook seaworthy creatures that are the prize of his new cold bar, a few yards of counter space tucked into a tight corner on the edge of the dining room overlooking the patio. The four stools facing the cold bar could be the hottest seats in town, the perfect spot to order a flight of ceviches, tart with citrus; beautifully fresh ahi tuna carpaccio; briny oysters on the half-shell or snowy white ono festooned with pineapple kimchi, avocado and microgreens.

In the jovial, cafe-style dining room of Parisi, the tables are littered with irresistible airy pizzas and housemade pastas, frilly salads and hearty sandwiches. But downstairs, in the rustic, subterranean hearth that's Firenze a Tavola, the mood is flavored with the camaraderie of community. Every month, on sporadic Wednesday nights, owner and chef Simone Parisi turns this chamber into a full-blown family affair, handing out huge, shared platters of Italian-inspired dishes, usually paired with an abbondanza of wines. By the end of the night, the space has turned into a boisterous party of fat, full and deliriously giddy diners and drinkers already marking their calendars for the next go-around.

Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno's subterranean speakeasy in Larimer Square is a show-stopper. "Fronted" by a diminutive pie shop that gives no indication of what exists beyond the swinging doors, the low-ceilinged, moodily lit space reeks of sensuality, romance and swank elegance, and the clever, highbrow liquid assets, all masterfully concocted by some of the city's most renowned bartenders, who don't miss a drink, complement the polished crowds that sip the night away. Yes, there are rules — no cell phones, no rowdiness, no standing, and a plea for conversation that doesn't inflate the decibel level — but the thrilling cocktails more than compensate for them.

Mark Manger

Syrup's got plenty of sweet offerings on the menu, but the star of the list is savory: Chef Tom Willis makes his own corned beef hash, mixing succulent chunks of salty meat with sweet onions, cooked until soft and translucent, and crispy bits of golden-brown potato. The hearty blend is satisfying on its own, served with crisped hash browns and a side of toast. But it's even better as the base of the Cherry Creeker, a variation on eggs Benedict. Two toasted halves of an English muffin are heaped with piles of the meat and potatoes, then topped with two poached eggs and smothered with creamy, tart hollandaise. It's quite the way to start your day.

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