Best Mediterranean Restaurant
Danielle Lirette

When chef Alon Shaya opened Safta in 2018, he made us rethink hummus and falafel. No longer the stuff of cheap and satisfying college takeout meals, as executed at Safta, these dishes rise to the level they deserve in the canon of world cuisine. Shaya made us not only appreciate the standards, but introduced us to Israeli dishes rarely seen before in Denver. We murmured words like muhammara, lutenitsa and chermoula while appreciating generous drizzles of olive oil and hearth-baked pita so inflated they threatened to float away. Safta continues to impress with an ever-changing and seasonal lineup of small plates and family-sized dishes that somehow all stay grounded in a grandmother's simple style.

Best Syrian Restaurant
Mark Antonation

A refugee from Syria, Mohamad Alnouri came to the U.S. via Egypt a few years back, not knowing a word of English. Today, Alnouri is fluent in English and owns and operates his own restaurant at Mango House that offers the best Syrian food in the metro area. Alnouri whips up delicious hummus, baba ghanouj, falafel and other Levantine cuisine staples, all at excellent prices. And if that doesn't make you smile, Alnouri's sincere grin will.

10180 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora
720-418-1776
jasminesyrian.com
Best Japanese Restaurant
Courtesy of Izakaya Den

Sushi Den's younger sibling and next-door neighbor rises above Old South Pearl Street with two stories of elegant and modern Japanese dining. In fact, the two eateries share a kitchen; accordingly, the sushi at Izakaya Den is on par with Sushi Den's, but you'll want to take a deeper dive into the menu to experience the true purpose of an izakaya — to tantalize with small plates while you also enjoy sake, Japanese whiskey, cocktails, wine and beer. Scallop risotto, grilled hamachi collar and Korean short ribs are good bets, as is the light sunomono salad plumped up with shrimp and snow crab. There are larger entrees, too, in case you prefer to settle into one plate rather than grazing. But no matter your choice, be sure to ask about the perfect sake to accompany it; the stories behind the bottles are nearly as enjoyable as what's inside.

Best Sushi
Courtesy of Sushi Den

Denver has very few restaurants that have hit 35 years and are still on the upswing, but Sushi Den's commitment to the freshest seafood and the most exacting standards have kept it at the top of its game for years. And the restaurant, owned by brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki, continues to innovate by looking to Japan's culinary history as well as its current trends. That's why it seems that there's always something new on the menu — though even those items adhere to a simple and clean aesthetic that lets the ingredients speak for themselves. The best fish from the icy waters surrounding Japan as well as from well-maintained fisheries around the world turn up here daily, making Sushi Den quite a catch for landlocked Colorado.

New bars were few and far between in 2020, given the strict COVID-based rules on serving food (always), closing early (frequently) and drinking at an actual bar (never). But in the Central Park neighborhood, a latecomer named Dirty Laundry made its debut just in time to go full-on takeout with booze, and then somehow managed to hang on through the winter until customers could sit inside. Dirty Laundry isn't fancy, but it has all the things you need for a successful bar: lots of drinks, a little grub and some Wisconsin stuff — because everyone knows Wisconsin bars are the best kind. Connoisseurs will find enough artisan spirits and craft beers to suit their needs, and the cocktails include some eyebrow-raising ingredients. But this is really a simple neighborhood watering hole at heart, so you can nosh on Buffalo chicken dip, cheese curds and soft pretzels while downing $5 pours of Bell's Two Hearted Ale, because, yeah, there's some Michigan stuff here, too.

Best Happy Hour
Danielle Lirette

Señor Bear's dinner menu spans several Latin American countries, and the happy-hour slate does, too — but with entirely different dishes created to inspire smiles and whimsy. Part of what makes the pre-dinner snack and drink specials here such a find is that nothing is just a tossed-off reject from dinner or a filler made from cheap ingredients. The Gordo Crunch is a little miracle inspired by Mexican-American fast food, a soft tortilla layered on a crunchy one and filled with mild chorizo, cheese, lettuce and special sauce. There are also plates of chicharrones, bowls of guacamole, mini servings of oozy queso with toasted chile oil, and even a seafood (for happy hour? Outrageous!) tostada. Drinks come priced for multiple rounds, too, so don't come by car unless someone else is driving.

Best House Margarita
Danielle Lirette

The Tommy's house margarita at Dos Santos gets people in the door, and it keeps those people coming back. One glance around the patio or through the glass doors at all the guests with margs in hand is enough to stop passersby in their tracks. True to an ideal house marg, this one is simple and addictive, made with nothing more than Arette blanco tequila, fresh lime juice and agave syrup. The price is right, and the balance of sweet and tangy is the perfect accompaniment for happy hour bites or tacos all night.

Best Dive Bar
Eric Gruneisen

If there were a love song to the Nob Hill Inn, it would be played on a steel guitar. The song would have some twang to it, and it would be sad and satisfying and honest. But last year, it was almost silenced. The Nob Hill Inn has been a drinker's paradise for more than seventy years — serving everyone from Bob Dylan to politicos who used to make deals over the phone in corner booths — but this classic, down-and-dirty watering hole on Colfax almost dried up entirely during the pandemic. Without a kitchen or passable alternative, the place closed for months while it sold pizza and to-go drinks out of the back door and regulars hosted fundraisers. "We've had hard times before," said John Plessinger, whose father bought the Nob in 1969 and put it in his name. "But nothing like this." Still, Denver's best dive bar survived, and today the Nob Hill Inn is again pouring drinks at its horseshoe-shaped bar.

Best Wine Bar
Mark Antonation

You know you're getting something good when Frasca Food & Wine co-owner Bobby Stuckey opens a wine bar. Not only has Stuckey earned the highest ranking from the Court of Master Sommeliers, but he's also part owner of a winery in Italy. The restaurateur is also an audiophile, and at Sunday Vinyl, his wine bar by Union Station, you can find his love of both wine and vintage records on display. The sound system is as high-end as many of the bottles in the cellar, and there's good food to accompany both, making this a destination on its own and not merely a parking spot for customers awaiting a table at Stuckey's other project, Tavernetta, right next door.

Best Italian Winery in Denver
Courtesy of Attimo

Colorado has its own vineyard and wineries, mostly on the Western Slope, but when Snooze co-founder Jon Schlegel decided to plunge into the world of wine, he looked abroad, and ended up living in Italy to learn the business. As a result, all the wines at his year-old winery in the Ballpark neighborhood start with grapes from the rolling hillsides of Italy. They're crushed there, too, before the liquid is shipped to Denver for resting, blending and aging. So when you enjoy a glass or a bottle at the winery, you're drinking Barolos, Nebbiolos, Barbarescos and other wines made according to Italian tradition and with 100 percent Italian ingredients.

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