Best Of :: Food & Drink
A few months ago, Brian Laird, the former executive chef of Barolo Grill, was flipping burgers at Rockbar. But he soon moved on to Sketch, where he's returned to his Italian cooking roots, turning out bowls of majestic housemade pastas, including pasta puttanesca — which, if you didn't already know, was allegedly invented by prostitutes, who relied on the sauce's come-hither perfume to lure customers. But when you order Laird's puttanesca, you're getting a lot more than that: His textured, chunky sauce, flecked with red-chile flakes, tangled with capers and olives and scented with garlic and a whisper of anchovies, is better than most sex. And so is the rest of the fare he turns out at Sketch. This isn't your standard neighborhood Italian joint; it's much, much better.
Readers' Choice: Carmine's on Penn
Joints that operate 24/7 are as American as apple pie and chocolate pudding, but they're also a dying breed, especially in this city, where 10 p.m. — sometimes 9 — is the time du jour for turning off the lights. But not at this fluorescent-lit diner, whose parade of characters is most abundant when the bars go dim. Here you can banter with sassy (but tolerant) gum-smacking waitresses wearing Day-Glo-orange aprons, presumably to keep you awake — or to stop you from doing a face plant in one of the bright-orange vinyl booths. Endearing idiosyncrasies aside, the food, which includes everything from chicken-fried steak and burgers to breakfast burritos to elk sausage (at a diner!), is exactly what your stomach yearns for when you want to feast like a king.
Readers' Choice: Pete's Kitchen
Never had West African food before? No matter. Plop down in a wicker chair at African Grill and Bar, and owners Osei and Adwoa Ford-Wuo will walk your table through dozens of dishes, adding personal anecdotes about Africa, advising you on what kind of meat to order (goat, mostly) and sharing their favorite dishes: jollof rice, their number one; jollof rice with plantain, their number-one number one; and fufu, the only thing they need to be happy. Then they'll step back into the kitchen and cook your meal, turning out dishes that feature such West African staples as plantains, tomatoes, goat meat, cassava and peanut butter. The joint also makes excellent pan-fried chicken, and the brave should try the spot's special infused alcohol, which Osei says is meant to rile up your sexuality.
We may not be totally sober if we're seeking out a meal after midnight, but we're often coherent enough to know that we don't want any old slice of pizza or a foil-wrapped burrito. That's why we often find ourselves at My Brother's Bar in the wee hours. This iconic Denver bar, which for the last forty years has occupied an address that has held a saloon since the 1880s, serves a massive menu of burgers, sandwiches, salads and all manner of fried accoutrements until just before 2 a.m. last call every day but Sunday. That makes it a good bet for a detour on your way home, and an excellent place to end the night, taking down one last pint and loading up on something griddled and greasy before you turn in to sleep off the tipsy.
Readers' Choice: Pete's Kitchen
Since Aaron Forman opened Table 6, his cheeky, upscale homage to American comfort food, the restaurant has been the subject of a lot of hype, and early raves in national magazines led to the predictable onslaught of food tourists. But if anything, the restaurant has only gotten better over the past decade. Exec chef Scott Parker's kitchen cooks up a joke-littered lineup of haute comfort cuisine, drawing influence from all over the country. Taste the South in the buttermilk fried chicken, fast food in a burger inspired by In-N-Out Burger, and California in a hand-rolled pasta studded with succulent chunks of lobster. The menu, which changes frequently, pairs to one of the most unique wine lists in town, culled by wine whiz Forman. And whether you're a first-time diner or a regular, a VIP out-of-towner or a neighbor, Table 6 treats each guest like a good friend.
Readers' Choice: Steuben's
Let's get one thing straight: If you snooze, you lose — literally. Forget what hours are actually listed on the website or the door: Pierre Michel Organic French Bakery Cafe, which is shoehorned into a tight space in a sprawling strip mall, often shuts an hour — sometimes two — before the posted closing times, thanks to the breadheads who hurry to snatch up the French bakery's magnificent fruit pastries, butter croissants, quiches and French baguettes long before you've hit the snooze button. The bakery is a community center in Highlands Ranch, drawing regulars who crave everything that comes from the kitchen — particularly the Croque Madame, thick-sliced ham and melty Swiss stacked between butter-slicked slices of house-baked brioche and crowned with two eggs. Just make sure you arrive early to partake in the bakery's bliss; otherwise, you risk being apologetically turned away at the door.
Readers' Choice: Lovely Confections
We've noticed barrel-aged cocktails popping up on a handful of lists, making this a true trend in drink-obsessed Denver. Our favorite comes courtesy of Randy and Ryan Layman, who whip up barrel-aged martinis at Steuben's. The brother bartenders make a fifteen-liter batch of Martinez cocktail and then put it in a Peach Street Distillers barrel for five to seven weeks, tasting it on a weekly or bi-weekly basis; when it hits the optimal point, they strain and rebottle the cocktail. The result is a silky drink that incorporates all of our favorite characteristics of a martini but has a rounder, sweeter and more caramelly note from its time on oak.
Colt & Gray has a clever drink list, a catalogue of classics, twists on classics, private jokes and new inventions, every one of which is testament to the talent of the bar staff, who have some of the deepest spirits knowledge in town. But the way to really experience what this bar can do is to plop down and order a bartender's choice. After sussing out what you like about a drink — whether that's a flavor profile or a particular liquor — a bartender will present you with a drink that will likely be exactly what you wanted, yet expand your horizons at the same time.
Jennifer and Lawrence Barkers, the owners of Country Time BBQ, aren't proponents of any one of the country's particular barbecue regions. Instead, they're true to just one style: their own. After Lawrence perfected his smoking technique — using two secret kinds of wood — he started a mobile business that grew into a restaurant. Or sort of a restaurant. The shack off Hampden Avenue that houses their operation doesn't have a seating area, so you'll have to take your meal to go. But the hot links, brisket, ribs and half chickens that come off the pit are so infused with throat-stinging smoke and so velvety on the tongue, it's hard to resist tearing into the meat as soon as you get to your car. The peach cobbler, too, is not to be missed.
Readers' Choice: Moe's Original BBQ
Buffets appeal to all-you-can-eat gluttons, but while most brunch buffets excel at quantity, rarely do they achieve the same quality as a sit-down brunch. But the extravagant Sunday champagne and mimosa brunch at the Garden Terrace, located in the Inverness Hotel, masters both quality and quantity with seemingly endless indulgences of made-to-order omelets, eggs Benedict, carved meats (including prime rib), cheeses that span the globe, salads and pastas, terrines and pâtés, enough desserts to send Willy Wonka into sugar shock, and the crown jewel: a lovely seafood display that's anchored with oysters on the half-shell, shrimp and crab legs. The elegant dining room is fancy enough for adults but informal enough for rugrats, and the live piano melodies are the perfect backdrop for a leisurely morning.
Readers' Choice: Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge
Just because you can't pronounce it doesn't mean you can't drink it, and the Cheeky Monk Belgian Beer Cafe gives you 150 reasons why. The restaurant, which carved out a new niche when it opened on Colfax Avenue in 2007, has always had a stellar lineup of Belgian and American craft beers, both on tap and in bottles. But earlier this year, the original Monk (there are now two more in the metro area) answered a lot of people's prayers by adding a dozen new handles and doubling its bottle list from around 75 selections to 150. Whether you want a Koningshoeven Quadrupel, a strong blonde from La Chouffe or a Monk's Cafe Flanders Red Ale, you'll find it at the Cheeky Monk.
Readers' Choice: Falling Rock/Old Chicago (tie)
The biggest difference between these breakfast burritos and all the others has everything to do with ratio: Priced at a bargain-basement $1.95 each, the pudgy, foil-wrapped marvels are stuffed with equal amounts of soft-scrambled eggs, melty cheese, crisp-edged potatoes, salty meat — bacon, sausage or chorizo — and searing green chile, which means that whether you're on your first bite or your last, you'll get a combustion of flavors with every chew. It's a terrific breakfast burrito, superseded only by the irresistible salsas, which pack a rigorous amount of heat.
Readers' Choice: Santiago's