The Bar Car

By last summer, the Recovery Room was a neighborhood joint in need of a nip and tuck — which is exactly what it got after Leigh Jones, the proprietress of Horseshoe Lounge, Jonesy's EatBar and the new Stingray, took control of the space. Today the boxy little bar is one of the city's most glorious watering holes. Antique brass chandeliers illuminate the rustically romantic space, which is filled with cherry-red stools, Victorian-era upholstered banquettes, an ornate tin ceiling, a pinball machine and one of Denver's best jukeboxes. And that's just setting the stage: Add convivial tenders, good bar grub and a swell beer, wine and spirits list, plus a nekkid pic of Burt Reynolds in his younger years, and you've got everything you could want from a bar...plus a whole lot more.

Paris on the Platte Cafe & Bar
Cassandra Kotnik

Paris on the Platte has been caffeinating crowds since 1986, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Over the past 25 years, the neighborhood has certainly picked up: This area in the Central Platte Valley used to be a no-man's-land; today, families, friends and telecommuters flock to Paris, where they suck back bottomless cups of joe, lattes and crowbars — a quad shot of espresso with chocolate — while ordering from a menu of sandwiches, snacks and desserts. Some people come early, but most stay late, since the place is open until 1 a.m. most nights and 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Besides the rising property values, the main difference between now and 1986? The lack of tobacco. Paris was one of the last bastions of indoor smoking in Denver, and though it still sells packs of cigarettes, those wanting to light up are now relegated to the patios.

ChoLon Modern Asian

Nothing's worse than getting all fired up for a decadent, wine-soaked meal, only to discover that the restaurant's wine list is a total snooze. That's why we woke up and took notice last fall when ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro opened. The array of sixty-plus modern selections (including eight sake offerings) might make you scratch your head initially (Côtes-du-Rhône? Chilean sauvignon gris?). But chef Lon Symensma and his wine director, Chris Todd, make sure that each wine on the list is a perfect foil for one of ChoLon's tongue-tingling flavor combinations. The only thing that makes fans of both food and the grape happier than a stellar wine-and-dine experience is a stellar wine-and-dine experience at decent prices, and at ChoLon, you can score a kickass bottle for an average price of $48. We'll drink to that.

Ototo

Ototo Food and Wine Bar sources its oysters seasonally, ordering in the freshest specimens from whatever location has them. But no matter the source or the variety, these oysters come to the table as cold and fresh as if they've just been plucked from a tide pool. After they're drizzled with astringent sherry vinaigrette or biting jalapeño ponzu, the slick, fleshy bodies tip out of glittering shells, leaving the delicate essence of the sea — like the taste of the air on a rainy coast — on the teeth and tongue. Oysters like this should be eaten by the dozen, ideally with just a bottle of white wine to wash them down. And sitting at Ototo's bar, watching Pearl Street through its storefront windows, that's an entirely satisfying way to eat dinner.

Snooze
Lauren Monitz

Snooze has tricked out just about every breakfast item in existence — and wooed and won hordes willing to wait an hour for a table as a result. The restaurant's pancake isn't just a griddled buttermilk breakfast; it's a vehicle for a variety of changing flavor combinations that play up the idea of having dessert for the morning meal. A fat, fluffy cake might be stuffed with brûléed bananas, chocolate and peanut butter and dotted with bacon. Or it might mimic red velvet cake, complete with cream-cheese icing. Or incorporate carrot-cake spices under a dollop of cinnamon butter. The kitchen takes care to keep toppings light and balanced, though, so even ordering a flight of three different kinds of 'cakes won't send you reeling into a diabetic coma on the spot.

Maci Cafe

For several years, Massimo Ruffinazzi, who was born and raised in Casteggio, Lombardia, Italy, was chef/partner at Il Fornaio, an Italian restaurant that once occupied prime real estate in LoDo and was always lauded for its breads. Ruffinazzi remains a bona fide bread-head, turning out loaves of love at Shangri-La, his groovy cafe in Highland. The menu — salads, a salumi plate and a pantheon of panini — is simple and small, but the panini, pressed in a tiny kitchen, ooze with big flavors. Ruffinazzi uses a custom-baked bread, filling the halves — properly baked so they yield the ideal amount of chew and crackle — with everything from arugula leaves and weightless shavings of Parma prosciutto to bresaola, imported Sicilian tuna and an exquisite wild-mushroom spread lightly whiffed with truffle. The panini are only available till 3 p.m., when Shangri-La closes its doors for the day — but at any hour, you are simply not going to find better panini in Denver.

Pete's Kitchen
Danielle Lirette

Morning, noon and night — and way past midnight — this iconic East Colfax institution, illuminated with fluorescents, hums with the melodic chatter of bankers, beatniks, bikers and buggy-eyed drunks, all of whom co-exist in hungry harmony, tucking into gigantic plates tricked out with slabs of bacon, well-seasoned sausages, flapjacks, omelets and mounds of hash browns glistening with gobs of butter. Pete's Kitchen is a joint that's great for a late-night group romp when you're tipsy, a morning-after hangover fix, or a midday gut-buster just before a late-afternoon nap. Given the irresistible vibe, the diverse cross-section of diners, short-order cooks who keep it real, and an affable owner in Pete Contos, who has his own Denver restaurant empire but often hangs out at the counter here, it's no wonder there's never a lull in the action.

Large Marge's Philly Cheesesteaks

If we lived in a perfect cheesesteak culture, every Philly cheesesteak would be constructed with a fresh roll that's neither too hard nor too soft, but still has plenty of chew; enough cheese, preferably Cheez Whiz, to require more than a single napkin; and finely chopped ribeye that's never too tough to chew. Not every cheesesteak subscribes to those rules — in fact, most fail epically — but at Large Marge's, the Philly cheesesteaks follow the textbook rules to a T. They're gleefully messy, served on Amoroso's rolls and enlivened, if you want, with Flaming Poo, a tongue-searing hot sauce that captures the moxie of Marge, the affable owner who kindly brought brotherly love from Philly to Denver.

Pho Duy
Mark Antonation

Pho Duy has been slinging pho — and not much else — for nearly two decades, and the kitchen makes the noodle soup in a way that'll please even the most resolute purist. The dish starts with dark and pungent beef broth, with depth added by slices of onions, cooked soft, their flavor infused into the liquid. That base plays host to different kinds of meat: thin strips of peppery, tender flank steak; slices of fatty brisket; chewy chunks of tendon and textured strips of tripe, kissed with sweetness; hunks of chicken. The meats play against the nest of bouncy noodles, supplemented by chile, vinegar and a plate of produce that includes bean sprouts, basil and cilantro. It's piquant, savory and deeply warming.

Basta

So often, things get lost in translation when you're transporting one country's cuisine to another part of the world. So instead of trying to create an exact replica of an Italian pizzeria when he opened Pizzeria Basta, chef/owner Kelly Whitaker drew inspiration from Naples, where he'd spent a year making pizzas. But Whitaker definitely grounded Pizzeria Basta in Boulder, focusing on local ingredients for his pies: He uses domestic flour to make his crust, topping it with a thin sauce created from local tomatoes, house-stretched mozzarella and other Colorado ingredients, some grown in his own patio garden, then bakes it all in a scorching, wood-fired oven for a base that's crisp along the edges, chewy in the center, and bubbling with local flavor. Just about every rendition, whether a classic Daisy (the English translation of "Margherita") or a seasonal special, gets drizzled with olive oil and topped with a pinch of salt for the perfect finish. Deceptively light and intensely satisfying, Whitaker's pies successfully capture the essence of Italy while also smacking of Colorado.

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