Common Grounds

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 Coastal Mexican
Courtesy of Lola Coastal Mexican

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.

Firenze a Tavola

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.

Green Russell
Joni Schrantz

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.

Syrup
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.

The Kitchen
Courtesy the Kitchen

No other kitchen in the area makes makes croissants like those at the Kitchen, which has perfected the luxurious treats that pair so well with strong black coffee. Rich but feather-light, and so flaky that crumbs blow across the table at the lightest touch, these croissants are especially spectacular because they're buttery, not butter-flavored. And while the plain croissants are stunning on their own, the version stuffed with a thick layer of dark chocolate is basically happiness incarnate. The only problem? The Kitchen only bakes croissants for weekend brunch. Which, of course, is why the restaurant almost always sells out of the pastries long before it stops serving that lazy, mid-morning meal.

Buenos Aires Pizzeria

While Buenos Aires Pizzeria is an Argentine restaurant, members of the family that owns it are from Cuba, and they recognize that the key to a really good Cuban sandwich is the bread. Cuban bread: a long baguette of white bread that's similar to French bread, but richer, denser and chewier, thanks to the lard that goes into the dough. For its Cuban sandwich, Buenos Aires Pizzeria slices real Cuban bread, then stacks it with ham, fat-laced roasted pork and Swiss cheese, and presses it flat to the griddle. Once the cheese is melted, tangy flat slices of pickle and plenty of mustard provide the finishing touches.

Kim and Jake's Cakes
Samantha Baker

Jake Rosenbarger has been meditating on cake since he was a kid, baking the stuff in secret in a health-conscious household and stashing it in his room. As a result, he formed a philosophy that cake should be more than a hunk of sugary substance that ends the meal — rather, the pastry should be a balance of unique flavors, just like any savory course. That's the theory that he and his wife, Kim, apply to every cupcake they come up with in their Boulder shop, Kim & Jake's Cakes. The Rosenbargers have dreamt up some interesting ones, too, combining cilantro and lime and topping it with an avocado frosting, or pouring red wine into the batter and then icing the cake with ubriaco del piave cheese. In fact, a hefty portion of their list is inspired by alcohol: stout cupcakes made with local brews, a full line of cocktail-copying treats. But even the classics, such as vanilla and red velvet, are made with a rare eye for balance, and they're fluffy and light enough that you could eat one — or more — every single day.

ChoLon Modern Asian

Chef Lon Symensma may tout it as a charcuterie board on ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro's menu, but this platter of meat and bread is really an ingeniously deconstructed banh mi, an artfully arranged spread of the traditional elements of the Vietnamese street-food sandwich — bread, pâté, shaved meat, mayonnaise, pickles and microgreens — that very much belongs on a special-occasion table. The crisp, delicate toast points, peppery, bacon-wrapped duck terrine and whipped, decadently creamy foie gras and chicken-liver pâté, all sprinkled with salt, are balanced by the crunch of lightly pickled carrots and daikon radishes, as well as the sharp nip of a Chinese mustard-mayonnaise specked with micro cilantro. ChoLon opened in LoDo last fall, and it's a welcome addition not just to the neighborhood, but to the entire Denver dining scene.

Spuntino
Danielle Lirette

We're hot, like California boys on California "Gurls," for popsicles. But not — definitely not — the shirt-staining, artificially flavored ice pops in supermarket freezers: Those suck. So do the ice crystals that pass for popsicles handed out by your creepy neighborhood ice-cream truck driver, all in an effort to force kids to spend their entire allowance just to be able to yell "Bomb Pop" without getting sent to juvie. No, for popsicles that really make your tongue go wild, you've got to head to Spuntino. The popsicles here are made in-house, from natural juices and fruits (and sometimes spices), in some sort of awesome contraption that swirls and whirls and freezes. The flavors change on a whim, but if the incredible celery and lime ice pop is available, buy a case and hoard it like gold. The juice, combined with the intense citrus of the lime, is an unlikely combination that's about as much fun as you can have sucking a stick.

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