Best Expense-Account Dinner 2014 | TAG | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Time and again, when we're in search of a restaurant that's simultaneously innovative, enlightening and maddeningly good, we find ourselves at TAG, Troy Guard's high-caliber flagship restaurant in Larimer Square, where the menu is an indulgent poem to all things pleasurable and often very expensive. You can order off the menu (if you do, the miso black cod is a head-turner, as is the kangaroo when it's available), but if you really, really want to prove that your pocketbook is as showy as Guard's cutting-edge cooking, entrust your appetite to his whimsical omakase menu, which is offered in three price ranges: $55, $75, $95 (and upwards if you've got your own bank vault). Advance notice of 24 hours is recommended — and you'll want to reserve seats at the chef's counter to witness all the action — but the gustatory odyssey you'll experience is nothing short of sublime.

Joni Schrantz

Macaroni and cheese, once a comfort-food staple of every Sunday supper (not to mention the elementary-school cafeteria), isn't what it used to be. And thanks to chef Frank Bonanno, who makes no apologies for food steeped in indulgence, the slightly chewy, sauce-soaked elbow macaroni and cheese at Mizuna is definitely not your grandmother's version — unless, that is, your nana favors poached 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. Every chef, every cook, every kid and every home-kitchen tongs-twirler has his or her own version of macaroni and cheese, but Bonanno's orchestration, finished with a lusty swirl of lobster oil, is so sensual — so wonderfully immoral — that it makes your heart race just thinking about it.

Courtesy Ace Eat Serve
The number-one requirement for a first-date restaurant is noise, because nothing turns a first date into a last date faster than awkward silences. That’s why Ace is such a no-brainer for couples in the making: As night falls, noise is a given, whether you’re at the bar, in the far-from-intimate dining room, or playing ping-pong on the patio. And if you don’t want to risk making a fool of yourself by picking up a paddle, you can bond with your date while laughing at the folks who do. (Those little white balls are always flying everywhere.) Even Ace’s menu is on your side, with plates that lend themselves to sharing. If things are going well, you can always brush fingers when you reach for your short-rib bao with kimchi and he reaches for his seared tuna with scallions. And if they’re not -- and the only action you’re likely to see is at the ping-pong table -- at least you’ll have had a good meal.
Danielle Lirette

The giant milk can that houses Little Man Ice Cream has become a landmark in LoHi, attracting long lines of ice cream fans on even the coldest days. But in the warmer months, Little Man now takes it to the streets with Little Man on Wheels, a custom bike cart that peddles a half-dozen of the creamery's most popular flavors — in scoop, cone or sandwich form — on the 16th Street Mall. The cart will even pedal its way to private events. And you never need to feel bad about indulging in this good stuff: Under the Scoop for Scoop program, for every scoop of ice cream purchased, Little Man donates a scoop of rice or beans to a needy community somewhere in the world.

The arepas from the Quiero Arepas food truck (fittingly, the name translates to "I want arepas") are Venezuela's perfect street-food solution: compact and portable, with just the right dose of sloppy fun. Traditional arepas fall somewhere between the pupusa and the gordita on the continuum of stuffed masa pockets: griddled and split disks of tender and fluffy dough with a lightly crisped — but never chewy — outer layer. Quiero turns out a slightly oversized version with a choice of traditional and modernized fillings. The Havana may stray too far from the classic Cuban sandwich for Miami purists, but if you can set aside preconceptions, it's a deeply satisfying combination of roasted pork, ham and Swiss cheese. For a pure Venezuelan fix, the Pabellon includes juicy stewed beef, black beans and fried plantain glued together with a thin layer of mozzarella. With over a dozen combos to choose from, including a few vegetarian and vegan options, you'll be thinking "Yo quiero arepas" long after the last bite is gone.

Emilio's, a small greasy spoon perched on a much-trafficked corner of Colfax, specializes in no-frills Mexican fare for cheap -- or, in the case of its housemade chips and salsa, free. Servers deliver a basket of the thick, crunchy, salty tortilla triangles to every table, plunking it down alongside tomato salsa tinged with spice. Only the first basket comes free, but that's okay: You're going to want to save room for a plate of potato tacos, huevos rancheros or other food specials. And with $1.75 margaritas Thursday through Saturday nights, you can count on a dinner that's not only wonderfully greasy, but a wonderful bargain, to boot.

Another round of applause for Jonesy's EatBar, please. The fresh-cut fries that have won so many fans at Jonesy's are thinner than your little finger, deep-fried to the perfect combo of soft-yet-crisp. They're addictive on their own, but sinfully good when swathed with one of the smart topping choices, including Thai ginger and Buffalo options, green chile, and bacon and cheese. The cozy neighborhood hangout bills its fries as "world-famous," and unlike most bar brags, this one's absolutely accurate. As the accolades keep coming in, give Jonesy's a hand — and order another round of fries. (They're thoughtfully available in double orders.)

From the shabby-chic decor to the peeling couture posters on the outer brick wall, Z Cuisine captures the ambience of another time and place. Despite its location in uber-hip LoHi, Z maintains a low-key charm and old-world pace, even when packed to the rafters. This could be because owner Patrick DuPays places as much emphasis on his bar program as on his seasonal menu of traditional French cuisine shot through with playful modern touches. An absinthe-based cocktail whets the appetite for buttery Hudson Valley foie gras, a can't-miss favorite to linger over while deciphering the curly handwriting on the specials board. Standards like the salade gourmande — layered with various pork and duck tidbits — may appeal more to the offal lover than to the dieting nibbler, while hearty peasant dishes like cassoulet with duck confit and housemade andouille satisfy the soul as well as the appetite. DuPays's neighborhood masterpiece perfectly accentuates the subtle commonalities between the Denver and Parisian lifestyles: quality without pretension, gracious service that never approaches stuffiness, and a gusto for life that embraces new experiences and familiar treasures.

There are some who insist that fried chicken is best when eaten out of a bucket while picnicking in the park. But our bucket list takes another approach: We park our butts at Lucky Pie, order a beer from the wicked-good tap selection, and thank the poultry gods for blessing us with such a soul-satisfying bird. True, Lucky Pie is best known for its pizzas — and they're excellent — but the fried chicken is clucking awesome. Chef Joe Troupe dry-rubs the birds with garlic, smoked paprika, cayenne, salt, pepper and a smidge of sugar, submerges their body parts in buttermilk and then drags the flesh through seasoned flour before plunging it into the fryer. The payoff is incredible fried chicken, the tender meat cloaked in a bronzed crust that adheres flawlessly to the flesh, leaving nothing on the plate — and everything in your mouth.

At this lovely restaurant, chef Brett Shaheen turns out Italian-inspired dishes that deserve standing ovations (his pappardelle with venison and chicken-liver mousse is remarkable), and he'll bring your clapping to a roar with his crimson-hued lamb chops plated with a mushroom turnover. But it's the effervescent presence of front-of-the-house veteran and general manager Gary Keller that resonates throughout the lively dining room. Keller — whose combined decades of running the floor at Panzano, Palace Arms, and the shuttered Cafe Giovanni, Cliff Young's and Highland's Garden Cafe have made him the city's most consummate professional and committed caretaker — graciously touches every table, educating guests about his new stunner of a wine list, cheeses from around the globe and the anatomy of Shaheen's plates. He makes every guest feel like royalty, but there's no pretense to his performance — just effortless smiles and big-hearted hugs or handshakes that make you feel like you're the star of the show. Well played, sir.

Best Of Denver®

Best Of