House of Kabob

Cheap lunches tend to be greasy, and while we love those smothered burritos and cheesy slices of pizza, we also live in the real world, where work, not a nap, follows the mid-day meal. So for a fraction of the grease — not to mention a better balance of protein and carbs to help you power through the day — try the chicken shawarma sandwich at House of Kabob. Full of chopped, marinated chicken — enough to fill two sandwiches — the pita hardly has room for the hummus, lettuce and tomato also folded inside. Priced at $4.95, you'll top out above five when you add the tax, but this lunch is worth a few extra cents.

Mizuna
Joni Schrantz

Macaroni and cheese, once a comfort-food staple of every Sunday supper, isn't what it used to be. The slightly chewy, sauce-soaked elbow macaroni and cheese at Mizuna is definitely not your grandmother's version — unless, that is, your nana favors sweet lobster meat in place of Oscar Meyer ham and silky mascarpone over Velveeta. The immodestly rich recipe, which originated with Thomas Keller, is completely hedonistic, its base of butter, cream and wine a luxurious invitation to submission.

Elway's Downtown

With so many contemporary-cocktail choices out there, you don't want a mixologist messing with your martini — throwing in fruit and chocolate or, God forbid, edging the glass with chile powder. You want your martini as classic as the atmosphere in which it's served. And for that, you want Elway's. Grab a seat at the bar, tell bar manager Ky Belk what you want — and then prepare to be shaken, if not stirred.

Phoenician Kabob

Denver has its fair share of places hawking kabobs and baklava. But no one does the little things as well as Phoenician Kabob. Here the dimple in a side of hummus is filled with chickpeas and olive oil that's fruity extra-virgin rather than plain. Falafel is shaped into discs, not spheres, ensuring no soggy middles. And the pita, which so many places treat like a starchy fork to scoop up the main course, is good enough to be the main course. Made in-house in a gas-fired brick oven, the bread puffs in seconds, until it's as chewy yet tender as the edges on a Neapolitan pizza. Speaking of which, if you like white pie, try the zaatar & feta, with a paste of thyme, olive oil and roasted sesame seeds slathered like pesto over a thin round of dough, then topped with tangy feta and baked until the crust browns and air bubbles bulge and pop — a process you can watch through a window into the kitchen.

Spoon? Straw? No matter how you suck them down — and no matter the season — the handmade milkshakes at Sassafras American Eatery, a breakfast/lunch spot that brought new life to Jefferson Park last year, are a connoisseur's crack. There are more than twenty versions, all served in old-timey glass jars with a spoon for support and a straw for those who like to slurp. They're all thick, hand-mixed with rich ice cream, but what really seals the deal are the add-ons: M&M's, gingersnap cookies, salted caramel pretzels and chocolate-dipped bacon, all of which give the shakes texture. For a dip into nostalgia, order the Cap'n Crunch shake and channel your inner cartoon character. The only thing missing is a bobble doll.

The Pioneer

There are rules when it comes to nachos: The chips (corn, of course) need to be sturdy; otherwise, they'll become soggy under the weight of the real reason you ordered nachos in the first place: all that stuff that comes heaped on top. These chips should be baked so that the outer edges emerge golden, and never piled on top of one another. And most important, nachos shouldn't be fancy or tampered with. Save your pork belly, your foraged wild mushrooms, your ahi tuna and whatever other foodstuffs you find tempting for something else — never nachos. There are few places that manage to follow all these rules, but the Pioneer, a watering hole and Mexican joint, does nachos right. The chips — salty, thick and stiff — are arranged in a single layer (this kitchen realizes that an order of nachos isn't meant to emulate Everest), each one smeared with black beans and topped with either grilled chicken or beef, melted asadero cheese (a welcome change from cheddar), scallions, fresh jalapeños, pico de gallo and zigzags of Mexican crema. Every single chip receives the royal treatment, and each bite is better than the last.

The Wooden Table

The Wooden Table opened in 2011 in Greenwood Village, where it was an immediate standout in a suburban mega-wasteland of fast-food joints and chains. But this restaurant would be a standout anywhere. Jane Knauf and chef Brett Shaheen, a former executive chef at Osteria Marco, are the forces behind the elegantly informal, high-decibel, sociable space that's always buzzing with sophisticated foodophiles, who order off a horizon-enhancing page-turner of a wine list and then dig into beautifully crafted Italian dishes emphasizing house-made pastas, charcuterie and magnificent main dishes, including grilled monkfish floating in a sea-urchin purée. This is the kind of neighborhood restaurant that every neighborhood wishes it had.

Fruition
Mark Manger

Irresistible dishes that make you swoon, unpretentious consistency and sincerity, a pedigreed but informal staff and laid-back dining rooms that encourage conversation with friends and strangers — that's the definition of a neighborhood restaurant. And Fruition, chef-owner Alex Seidel's homage to indulgently comforting cuisine, merges all of those attributes into nuanced suppers that keep you coming back for more. Reservations are still tough to come by — the books are nearly always filled with regulars — but when the mood strikes and there are seats available, dinner here can become one of those unplanned, wonderful nights out that don't happen nearly as often as they should.

Ace Eat Serve
Courtesy Ace Eat Serve

Ace is much more than a bar, of course. Owners Josh and Jen Wolkon took a cavernous, 9,000-square-foot garage next to Steuben's and turned it into a hangout extraordinaire, with an ambitious kitchen that reinterprets Asian food with smart, silly twists; a huge front patio with a couple of ping-pong tables; and a back room with many more. But even without the ping-pong, this space would feel like a party: lights low, music pumping, the decor full of fun touches and, most important, a big, curvy bar that barman Randy Layman has stocked with scorpion bowls, alcoholic shaved ices and clever cocktails. The menu has gone through a few tweaks since the place opened last August — but as a bar, Ace has scored from the start.

See also: A look at the last dozen years of Best New Bar winners

Prost Brewing
Prost Brewing

Eight new breweries opened in Denver in 2012, while at least that many opened in the surrounding counties, making the metro area one of the best tap-room destinations in the country. Prost Brewing combines the best parts of a German bier hall (beautifully made, easy-drinking craft lagers, a copper kettle, long wooden tables, buskery decorations and giant steins) with the comforting familiarity of an Old West saloon (rough floors, a long bar and a mirrored barback). In addition to its own beers, which are brewed by award-winning master Bill Eye, Prost serves beers made by Dad n Dudes and Tivoli Brewing, and hosts various German-style food trucks or catering companies on a regular basis.

Best Of Denver®

Best Of