Epic Brewing Company

Yes, Epic Brewing got its start in Utah, but when the owners decided to open a new production facility outside of that state (in order to avoid the frustrating Utah liquor laws), they wisely chose Colorado, investing a couple million dollars into their soaring new brewery and tap room in River North. And they did it right, loading the huge space with a long bar, enormous windows, community tables, a view of the brewing process, stunning decor, a fireplace, and dozens of different beers on tap. The brewery, which has long hours and frequent food-truck visits, has quickly become an anchor in a brewery-filled neighborhood.

Steam Espresso Bar

Remember when people used to plunk down in tattered couches and armchairs, java in hand, to read the paper or chat the morning away? That's so yesterday. With its sleek community table, vases of lilies and black-and-white decor that could fill a page from a design catalogue, Steam Espresso Bar epitomizes the coffeehouse of today. Whether you want a macchiato with foam in the shape of a heart or a lab-like pour-over with ethically sourced beans, coffee here is meant to be savored, not mindlessly sipped. During the week, this is a quiet place to talk business or catch up on a project; unlike some coffee shops, Steam still offers wi-fi. On weekends, you'll find people chatting, sharing macarons and standing in line (coffee this good doesn't come fast). What they're not doing, however, is chasing kids: This environment is decidedly too chic for that.

The Plimoth
Danielle Lirette

Most chefs, at least the sensible ones, don't open restaurants on dozing neighborhood streets where there's minimal traffic — of both the car and foot variety. But Peter Ryan, chef-owner of the Plimoth, has never been a conformist. He filled the unassuming, dimly lit space with reclaimed wooden tables and unobtrusive green-and-black Parisian wallpaper, which provides a casually elegant backdrop for the remarkably talented kitchen crew. Many of them, Ryan included, did time in the galley of Z Cuisine, and they deliver honest European dishes with a thick French accent to smitten diners who swoon at every spoonful of winter green bisque, bite of braised lamb shank, smear of pâté and forkful of gloriously good chicken. The Plimoth has all the makings of a landmark, a place that treats diners from all over Denver to the warmth and charm of a true neighborhood restaurant.

Lower48 Kitchen

In a year that saw hundreds of openings, Denver's restaurant scene at times felt like short-track speed skating. But even with so many strong contenders, only one could take home the gold, and Lower48 Kitchen crossed the line first in the areas that matter most: service, creativity, plating, decor and, of course, food that you can't stop thinking about. Launched by a team of Frasca Food and Wine alums, with Mario Nocifera ensuring a gracious night on the town and Alex Figura acting as kitchen wizard-in-chief, Lower48 has turned a forgotten corner of the Ballpark neighborhood into a dining destination. Nowhere does Figura's creativity shine more than in the small bites, listed under the heading of "each": perhaps a melted Gruyère crisp slicked with sunflower-seed butter, feta and greens; a stack of dried celery root and house-smoked cheese; or a beignet filled with whipped tarragon. These tongue-ticklers are best combined en masse as an appetizer, then rounded out with one or two artistic small plates, such as charred octopus with lamb bacon or a stack of mushroom crepes. While the space is large enough to accommodate groups, with a private dining area behind a rolling door fashioned from a shipping container and a separate lounge called Service Bar, it's just as fun to come with a friend and sit at the chef's counter to watch the magic unfold.

Even before Coors Field opened in 1995, what would become the Ballpark neighborhood — and was then known as NoDough — had a lot of promise. Over the past year, that promise was finally realized, with all those turn-of-the-last-century warehouses now filled to bursting with residences and offices, and the Victorian storefronts housing excellent restaurants and innovative businesses. And the last few months have seen new buildings opening, too, housing cutting-edge enterprises and eateries — including Denver's Best New Restaurant. As a restaurant neighborhood, Ballpark hits it out of the park.

Acorn, the second restaurant opened by Bryan Dayton and Steve Redzikowski, had a lot to live up to, considering it sprang from the mighty Oak at Fourteenth, their nationally recognized flagship in Boulder. And it wasted no time in doing so, appealing not just to Oak regulars who made the drive down U.S. 36, but also crowds of stylish American-food seekers flocking to the Source, which opened last summer on Brighton Boulevard. With just enough overlap between menus that the family line is never in doubt — recognize that kale salad, those fried pickles and braised meatballs? — Acorn has developed its own identity, focusing more on cocktails and approachable yet thoughtful small plates. The beauty of this approach is that rather than committing to one starter and an entree, diners can nibble their way around the globe, trying everything from lamb shawarma to squid-ink tagliarini and oak-smoked duck breast.

Eating paleo means more than just scarfing down meat. A commitment to an ancestral lifestyle includes outdoor activity, a sense of play, and eating the whole, natural foods available to our hunter-gatherer forebears. There's no room in the diet for grains, especially wheat, which plays well at places that are sensitive to gluten intolerance. The kitchen at Shine Restaurant is entirely gluten-free, but that doesn't mean its dishes are free of flavor. The finest example of this is a brunch option of a moist, lightly smoked trout filet atop mashed and crisped sweet potatoes with a side of citrus-drenched chard, all drizzled with an avocado Hollandaise. Packed with bold flavors from the earthy greens, tangy sauce and succulent fish, this is not typical diet food; instead, it presents richness and variety with love and flair. For those who may want to stray from the strictest interpretations of paleo, Shine also features a nano-brewery that turns out a successful, hop-forward gluten-free ale.

For most people, it's the last bite that leaves the most memorable impression — and at Old Major, that's certain to mean a happy ending: a sugar rush from a small taste of Verona chocolate, a vanilla-poached pear, a spoonful of figgy pudding, a slice of a nectarine tart, a two-bite lemongrass macaron. Nadine Donovan, the pastry chef at Old Major, creates utterly preposterous strokes of genius that make those Food Network blowhards look like rank amateurs. Donovan's desserts — whether faultless French macarons, maple-bacon custard with candied bacon and bourbon-soaked caramel corn, or crazy-good fried apple pie with sour-cream ice cream and crumbles of salted toffee — are a sugar-stalker's delight. Precede any of her confection sensations with chef Justin Brunson's braised octopus or charcuterie plate — all of it cured in-house — and you have the makings of a completely unforgettable evening that ends on a real high.

Pho Le
When it comes to pho, the difference between the best and all the rest may seem like splitting noodles. But what makes Pho Le stand out is slightly sweet but intoxicatingly perfumed broth. What the broth lacks in restraint it makes up for in the pure and genuine flavors of savory beef and a spice blend that gives star anise top billing without becoming cloying. Add to that tender slices of rare steak that melt like Andes mints on the tongue, toothsome shreds of brisket, unctuous tendon that can convert even the most squeamish, and, on the side, two distinctive housemade chile sauces and piles of the freshest herbs, and this noodle soup will bowl you over. For those who want to go further than pho, there's a complementary menu of regional specialties.

In the realm of desserts, pie is about as humble as it gets. There are no towers made of pie, like bakers craft out of macarons, none of those shocking flavor combinations — wasabi, curry — that come scooped on a cone. So it's not surprising that the best pie in town comes not from a high-end bakery hawking elaborate delicacies, but from bang!, a homey restaurant that's been churning out plates of fried chicken, meatloaf and mashed potatoes for more than seventeen years. The coconut cream pie is filled with as much down-home goodness as the entrees, with a hand-crimped crust and a thick layer of custard amped up with shredded coconut for a more intense flavor. Topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with toasted coconut, the pie deserves the spotlight that's long been given to the gingerbread, another of co-owner Cissy Olderman's creations.

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