Best Old-School Italian Restaurant
Lechuga's

Denver's neighborhood restaurants have been responsible for the invention of several dishes distinct to this town: the Mexican hamburger, the toro pot — and the Italian canoli. We're not talking about the dessert cannoli spelled with two n's, we're talking about the single-n savory canoli, a bready roll stuffed with Italian sausage or meatballs. Lechuga's, a Northside original, may not have invented the canoli, but it has perfected several variations as a prominent part of its menu. The most Denver of them all is the Little Devil, kicked up with a strip of roasted chile inside its golden-brown wrapper. You can get minis for just a couple of bucks apiece, super-sized versions or the Spanoli plate: two canoli smothered in sauce and sided with spaghetti or fat housemade noodles. The square-cut pizzas, baked pasta dishes and hot meatball sandwiches are also worth a visit. Holy canoli, it's all so good!

Best Wood-Fired Restaurant
Mark Antonation

Fire is at the heart and soul of chef/owner Elise Wiggins's Italian restaurant in Central Park, so you'll get hints of smoke and char in everything from grilled oysters on the appetizer list to the cast-iron skillet pasticcio to mouthwatering steaks. Pizzas and flatbreads are baked in the wood-burning oven, too. From the right seat (which is nearly every seat in the house), you can watch the chefs ply their craft as the flames dance. And in the summer, you'll often see Wiggins and her team cooking up something good on the patio rotisserie.

Best French Restaurant
Scott Lentz

Tucked into a quiet, brick-lined grotto off Larimer Square, Bistro Vendôme checks all the boxes for what French restaurants have come to represent: It feels like a secret you discovered while traveling, it comes complete with gilt window signs and cozy cafe seating, and it offers a menu of instantly recognizable French classics. The fact that all of those classics are well executed is important, too; no French eatery worth its sel de mer could earn its fleurs de lis without being able to turn out pitch-perfect duck confit, steak frites and buttery mussels and escargot every time. And that's exactly what you'll get at Bistro Vendôme.

Best French Restaurant to Pizzeria and Back Again

Brasserie Brixton

Best French Restaurant to Pizzeria and Back Again
Justin Morse

When Brasserie Brixton opened in the Cole neighborhood last summer, it was one of the most exciting French restaurants to come along in quite some time. But as COVID-based restrictions made dining in the restaurant more difficult, founder Justin Morse realized the brasserie's menu wasn't suited for takeout or delivery. So he installed a wood-burning pizza oven and began turning out square pies under the name Le Brix Pizza, and the neighbors loved it. Once springtime arrived, Morse reopened the dining room and relaunched the eclectic French menu that comprises blood-sausage wontons as well as French onion soup, pork-belly gougères and mussels in broth. At Brasserie Brixton, it's great to be French again.

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.

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