Rioja
Scott Lentz

We try our very best not to fill up on bread before dinner comes, but that's no easy task at Rioja. The restaurant's given serious thought to its complimentary carbohydrate accompaniment, so it doesn't serve you stale chunks of ciabatta. Our mouths start watering as soon as we spot the employee charged with bread service, lugging a beautiful basket of crumbly goat-cheese biscuits and thick slices of baguette, full of fat olives that imbue the slices with just a hint of brine, all exquisite breads made by City Bakery. And since that bread basket keeps coming around, it's tough not to eat three or four rounds before the appetizers even hit the table.

Casa Blanca

The first basket of chips and salsa comes free at Casa Blanca, a Mexican restaurant tucked into an Arvada strip mall — and that first basket is so addictive, you'll find it hard to resist ordering more. The kitchen makes batches of firm, crisp corn chips, hot and thick and grease-free. They're served with a small bowl of tangy, piquant salsa, which has the bite of green and white onions, fresh cilantro and pungent oregano, all blended with tomatoes until smooth. The sauce incites a back-palate burn and leaves a sting of heat on the lips — the exact level of heat that entices you to keep taking bites in order to stave off the fire.

The Centennial Tavern at Jonesy's

"There's coolness in doing that great dish that's made everyone feel warm and comfortable," says Leigh Jones, the restaurateur behind Jonesy's EatBar (as well as the Horseshoe Lounge, Bar Car and the Stingray). And at Jonesy's, that dish is the fries. Specifically, the mac & cheese fries, a pile of crispy, golden-brown strips of potato doused in enough creamy, savory roux to maximize satisfaction without saturating the dish. Cheddar is grated over that, and the entire concoction is studded with bits of smoky bacon for depth and crunch, then topped with chives for a fresh bite — as well as the illusion of balance against the richness. Jonesy's has been famous for these fries since it opened, and they're almost impossible to resist — even if you just stopped in for a post-dinner drink at the kitschy, well-worn bar. And yes, the fries are also fine on their own — but why wouldn't you want to go all the way?

Z Cuisine and A Cote Bar a Absinthe

Francophiles have flocked to Z Cuisine from the moment it opened in 2005, comforted by its warm service, seduced by its small, neighborhood feel, and bewitched by the restorative cooking of chef/owner Patrick DuPays, whose French bistro eats continue to make us swoon. Mirroring the boards in Paris, Z's menu is filled with charcuterie, foie gras, hearty beef bourguignon and whatever else DuPays, a resolute advocate of local foods and a farmers' market regular, discovers during the day's foraging. Reservations aren't taken and there's no wait list, but c'est la vie: If the tables are being held hostage at Z Cuisine (DuPays encourages lingering), À Côté, his highly sociable bar next door, has a similar menu.

The Pinyon

From the moment the doors flew open at the Pinyon, there was an audible cluck about a bird that flies right. Executive chef/owner Theo Adley, who commands an exhibition kitchen surrounded by voyeurs, many of them local chefs, rubs his chickens with a housemade chile-and-garlic paste sweetened with sugar and tarted up with vinegar. He then floods the fowl in buttermilk for 24 hours and dredges it in potato flour before it hits the sizzle of the frying pan. It's finished in the oven, emerging with a vividly golden crust that adheres to the flesh, so juicy it slobbers. This is the kind of fried chicken that should be boxed and sold on the black market, right alongside the griddled cakes studded with corn and Adley's breakfast syrup, colored ebony with maple and molasses.

Marco's Coal Fired
Mark Antonation

Not content with his command over Neapolitan-style pizza, Mark Dym, the piehole behind Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria, has expanded his repertoire to include deep-fried pizza, filling a deep-fried niche that's been previously saturated with Twinkies, pickles and pig ears. The stretchy doughs, submerged in palm oil for less than thirty seconds, are then surfaced with a sauce made of San Marzano tomatoes smooched with garlic and extra-virgin olive oil and topped with nubs of provola (smoked bufala mozzarella) and blots of fresh mozzarella before they're nudged into the wood-fired oven, from which they emerge puffed, charred and greaseless. The deep-fried pizzas are incredibly light, slightly chewy and crispy, and intensely gratifying. That's the upside. The downside? They're only available at the new Marco's at the Vallagio, since Dym's original, downtown location doesn't have a fryer.

Frasca Food and Wine
Kelly Kaoudis

The front of the house at Frasca is like a ballet: a graceful collection of choreographed movements conceived of and directed by co-owner Bobby Stuckey so that every need of every guest is always met. Each employee, from the expediter to the wine director, carries an immense amount of knowledge about the Friulian eatery, articulating answers to questions with authority. And each person knows his or her role, arriving at the exact moment he or she is needed to clear a plate, fill a bread plate or drop off a check — without intruding on a special evening or interrupting the flow of the show. That delicate dance does more than imbue an evening with an air of luxury; it also makes the food taste better.

Z Cuisine and A Cote Bar a Absinthe

The sliver of a spot that holds Z Cuisine's A Côté Bar à Absinthe is filled with lovely things: French art, a handmade chandelier, wooden tables topped with candles, and old French movies projected on one wall. The place is intimate without the blatant romantic air (or pricing) of its sibling next door, making it an ideal spot for a girls' night out. Though absinthe is the noted spirit, the wine also pours freely, supplementing a board of bistro food — cheese, foie gras and crepes — that's perfect for sharing between a group of girlfriends, gathered in good light to gossip without the distraction of bar TVs, a rowdy crowd or, worst of all, ogling men.

Steuben's Uptown
Cassandra Kotnik

The beauty of Steuben's lies in its steadfast refusal to bow to those whose lives are dictated by calorie counters, hour-long infomercials pimping the latest and greatest way to turn no abs into abs of steel, and self-medicating cookbooks penned by the latest diet guru. Those people, sadly, will never experience the exhilaration of inhaling the gravy fries at Steuben's. The retro diner already hustles some of the best hand-cut shoestring fries on the planet, but when they're blanketed with cheese and smothered with a husky, pepper-specked gravy, it's a quick trip to heaven punctuated by exclamation points. The plate is hilariously large, which means you'll have late-night leftovers — and a car that smells like Main Street Americana.

Los Farolitos

This is a city that loves its green chile in all forms, but the verde at Los Farolitos, a sincere Mexican joint shoehorned into a featureless Aurora mini-mall, is the most lovable of all. Tart with tomatillos, specked with oregano and unleashing an unrepentant hot flash of blistering heat, it's the perfect cloak for everything it drapes, including the equally unassailable barbacoa burrito, filled with robust, long-stewed lamb. Everything here, including the Mexican buffet, is worthy of praise, but the green chile consistently delivers. The only bummer is the absence of alcohol to subdue the five-alarm fire, but you can waste away in Margaritaville elsewhere.

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