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.

Sassafras American Eatery

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.

Black Eye Coffee Shop

Black Eye Coffee keeps its brews to a sophisticatedly high standard that appeals to a growing crowd of java aficionados, using the handcrafted method of pour-over to personally construct each cup of Sweet Yellow Brazil, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or whichever of the four varieties is on the bi-weekly rotation. While you sip, it's not uncommon to find yourself conversing with one of the three java-Jedi owners of Black Eye on topics ranging from fair-trade beans, to the necessity of roasting beans at elevation for an elevation brew, to why Starbucks just doesn't understand the subtle nuances of a properly executed cup of coffee.

Uncle
Mark Manger

Fifteen years ago, if someone had said the city's best new restaurant was a ramen shop, you might've asked, "What's a ramen shop?" But we're living in a post-Momofuku era, where the virtues of minimalist decor, cloudy broth and curly noodles are commonly extolled, so today most Denver diners would shake their heads knowingly and reply, "I know, isn't Uncle terrific?" Even before you've pushed back from the bustling counter, belly full of steamed buns with avocado and mint, crispy Brussels sprouts, spicy chicken ramen and pear cider, you're contemplating your return to Tommy Lee's breakout hit. Unfortunately, you'll have to wait longer than you'd like: Uncle isn't open for lunch, which might be the only thing we don't like about the place. Lee's idea may not be new, but his execution is superb at Uncle, with consistently excellent service and food.

See also: A look at the last decade of Best New Restaurant winners

The Populist
Courtesy The Populist Facebook page

After opening last November amid a flurry of industry- and hipster-driven buzz, this tiny jewel of a restaurant has settled into a pattern of turning out ridiculously good food to a packed dining room night after night. We were delighted to discover that the Populist's wine program was just as unassuming — and satisfying — as its menu: by-the-glass pours (five white, five red, two bubbly) somehow cost only $4 each, yet showcase marvels like La Spinetta's juicy Il Nero di Casanova sangiovese and the bracingly mineral-driven Laurenz V. grüner veltliner. Bottled selections should thrill both wine geek and novice alike; familiar zinfandel cozies up to esoteric godello without fanfare or frills. The best thing about this small but mighty list? It never seems to take itself too seriously — always remembering that at the end of the day (or meal, as it were), wine is all about having fun.

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