Big is in when it comes to new restaurants. If 2014 was the year of the tiny restaurant — with the likes of To the Wind Bistro, Bistro Barbes, Cart-Driver and Work & Class wedging customers into every nook and cranny — then 2015 is the year to go big or go home. Massive dining rooms, grandiose concepts and millions of dollars in architecture, decor and high-tech equipment mark a dramatic shift in the economics of restaurant openings this year. Several new eateries with high expectations feature seating capacity for hundreds, multiple bars and rooftop decks, plus extra space for live music and entertainment.
But there will always be room in our hearts for the cozy neighborhood joints where passionate cooks in cramped kitchens turn out some of the city's tastiest plates. A few of our favorites this year couldn't feed more than a couple dozen customers at once, and even fun new concepts from our favorite top-tier chefs boast big flavors in small settings. Here's our list of the ten most promising restaurants — both big and small — to open in the first six months of 2015, presented in alphabetical order. We'll see how many of them rise above the rest in our year-end roundup.
10) Baur's Restaurant & Listening Lounge
1512 Curtis Street
Baur's opened in April in the cavernous space just off the 16th Street Mall that most recently held Le Grand Bistro but long before housed the O.P. Baur Confectionery, which ran a candy shop and restaurant in various forms as far back as 1891. The new Baur's captures some of that history in its dark wood decor, original tile floors and open, airy dining room, but the menu, from chef-proprietor Dory Ford and chef de cuisine Robert Grant, skews modern, albeit with classic touches. Much of the seafood — think fresh abalone, octopus and line-caught salmon — is sourced from Ford's contacts in Monterey, California (where he runs a catering operation and two restaurants), while worldly elements like handmade pastas and exceptional charcuterie come compliments of Grant. The menu is at turns elegant (stacked venison schnitzel), rustic (36-hour pork shoulder with green chile and cheddar grits) and just plain fun (housemade cheddarwurst corndogs). The whole concept, with live-music nights several times a month curated by the Music Appreciation Society, may seem ambitious, but even if dinner and a show aren't your thing, most nights at Baur's are all about the food.
9) Blue Pan Pizza
3930 West 32nd Avenue
Who outside of Michigan knew that Detroit-style pizza was a real thing until dough wiz Jeff Smokevitch made a name for it at Brown Dog Pizza in Telluride? And even then the news was isolated to the mountain town until he and partner-in-pie Giles Flanagin opened Blue Pan in West Highland earlier this summer. Rectangular, deep-dish Detroit pizzas aren't the only things Blue Pan does well, though. The kitchen also turns out craveable and creative classic Italian, Chicago cracker-thin and New York styles, each with topping combinations designed to bring out the best in the crust. Every batch of dough — even the gluten-free version — is slow-risen for three days, and each style of pizza has its own oven deck and temperature. With the Detroit-style, the result is a light, porous crust with crisp, caramelized edges from the three-cheese blend that bakes directly against the edge of the steel pan.
8) Bubu Lowry
7559 East Academy Boulevard
Restaurateur Troy Guard expanded his Bubu mix-and-match-bowl concept from its original fast-casual format on Larimer Square to a sexier, full-service menu of Asian and Hawaiian bites. While lunch still features light and healthy noodle and rice bowls for the yoga and Crossfit crowds, dinner sees the addition of bao buns stuffed with Guard's own corned beef or duck confit, several variations on ramen, and even chicken-fried duck tongue with Korean spices. And knowing the neighborhood, Guard also offers family packs of proteins by the pound, including pork shoulder, salmon, tiger shrimp and crispy tofu. Every bite is bursting with freshness and color, and those looking to follow almost any form of healthy diet will have no problem navigating the menu, which is low on dairy and gluten and big on seasonal veggies. Outside, there's an electric-car-charging station, and just inside the door, a yoga-mat rack. But even if you're just at Bubu's for food, the intimate yet lively dining room, spirited menu and bustling noodle bar with full view of the kitchen will draw you in.
42 South Broadway
ChoLon mastermind Lon Symensma opened Cho77 on South Broadway in March as a variation on ChoLon, with the same Southeast Asian flavors we've come to expect from one of Denver's top chefs, but in a more casual setting and with a smaller menu — this one inspired by the street-food explorations of Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia by Symensma and chef de cuisine Ryan Gorby. With dumplings, buns and samosas to share, noodle soups you'll want to keep to yourself, and stir-fries with intense and heady flavors, the roster is short but covers a broad swath of territory. Market-stall details touch every plate, from the delicate rice-flour cups that hold scallop ceviche, to the stackable metal lunch pails that open to reveal northern Thai chicken in coconut curry, to the liberal use of lemongrass, Thai basil and kaffir lime leaf.
6) Four Friends Kitchen
2893 Roslyn Street
The four friends — Genefer and Tim Thornton and Kurt and Sarah Pletcher — who founded Four Friends Kitchen knew their Stapleton neighborhood needed a good, family-friendly breakfast joint where kids could have fun and parents could relax, so they took matters into their own hands and unveiled a bright, modern new building in March with a menu of Southern specialties and comfort-food combinations. Buttery biscuits and creamy grits share space with a New Orleans-inspired Creole shrimp omelet and Southwestern stacked huevos rancheros. Rooftop seating and a full bar invite lingering over coffee or cocktails, but there are plenty of games and Etch-A-Sketch boards to keep the little ones busy. In fact, why not just stay for lunch? It's served until 2:30 p.m. daily, and you'll be captivated by the green-chile-chicken cobbler and fried green tomatoes with jalapeño-buttermilk aioli.
1330 27th Street
Nicole and Scott Mattson set out to bring back the jazz era of supper clubs in Five Points, and the result is Nocturne, a live-music venue just off Larimer Street featuring jazz six nights a week. But a supper club wouldn't be much without supper, so they also hired chef Dustin Beckner to provide nightly bites and regularly changing tasting menus inspired by classic jazz albums. Add a swanky art-deco bar and you've got a combo that swings with as much energy as the music itself. Beckner isn't content to rehash classics, but instead crafts beguiling dishes from disparate flavors, like African grain risotto with broccolini and herbed pesto and smoked short rib with Dr Pepper peanuts.
4) Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox
1215 20th Street
Justin Cucci has already experienced wild success with Linger and Root Down in LoHi, and now he has an even more ambitious project with Ophelia's in the Ballpark neighborhood. The restaurant and club is what Cucci calls a "gastro-brothel," since it occupies the ground floor and basement of the Airedale building, which has served as home to a bordello, flophouse and peep-show parlor in its hundred-year history. Now decked out in '70s swank and vintage soft-core art, Ophelia's is an adult-themed funhouse in which bold and garish colors highlight cool grottos and lounges with low-slung seating and muted lighting. Despite a stage, dance floor and enormous projection screen, the food is still the draw, overseen by Cucci, Edible Beats culinary director Daniel Asher and executive chef Jeremy Kittelson. As at Linger and Root Down, Ophelia's menu is eclectic and racy, with the likes of a Colorado yak burger, Belgian mussels in saison curry broth, and arepas with plantains and cilantro pesto. Between the bold menu, the even bolder decor and the swelling sounds from the open stage below as the night progresses, Ophelia's is a head-spinning experience.
3) Osaka Ramen
2611 Walnut Street
Compared to many grand openings this year, Osaka Ramen appears almost demure in its basement space on Walnut Street, with only a small sign above the door and a low-key ambience that borders on cafeteria austerity. All the better to focus on the deep, complex flavors of the ramen bowls made with long-simmered broths and perfectly springy noodles. The milky tonkotsu captures the essence of pork and then adds a jiggly egg and bright notes of pickled ginger, while the salty shio and shoyu versions do the same for chicken, with deft flourishes of mushroom, scallions and bitter greens. And although ramen is the star here, chef-owner Jeff Osaka's fine-dining experience shines through in his list of small plates, with a simple bowl of chilled green beans dashed with sesame, addictive bacon fried rice and some of the best fried chicken in town. But Osaka doesn't like to hog the spotlight: Stay for dessert to experience the mochi doughnuts — with full credit given to his wife.
2) Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que
2387 South Downing Street
Why on earth would a native Texan leave home and move north to make barbecue in Denver? For Coy and Rachael Webb, owners of Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que, which opened in January, Colorado's culinary history is more than just Rocky Mountain oysters and steakhouses. It also includes the barbecue tradition of smoked lamb that the Webbs are looking to resurrect under the designation of Colorado craft barbecue. So at Roaming Buffalo, you'll find lamb (shank or shoulder), brisket and pulled pork — and be sure to get your hands on the buffalo short ribs. Everything here is delicious, lightly smoked and perfectly juicy — and often sells out well before the dinner hour. This isn't a re-creation of Texas-style barbecue; this is something altogether unique to Colorado, and we're lucky to have it.
3927 West 32nd Avenue
Chef-restaurateur Mark Ferguson and Andrea Faulisi Ferguson purchased the two conjoined Victorian houses that had been home to Highland's Garden Cafe for nearly twenty years and overhauled the entire space — sprucing up the gardens, adding an enclosed wraparound porch and reconfiguring the compartmentalized dining spaces into brighter, airier rooms and a full bar. The name Solitaire comes from Denver's past, too: Ferguson's great-great-grandfather, Chester Stephen Morey, owned the Solitaire food company downtown in the early 1900s, and the decor includes vintage Solitaire labels and packages on the walls. The menu is made up almost entirely of small plates that shift with the seasons, but always offer delight and whimsy along with serious flavor. Charred octopus tendrils curl over saffron zabaglione and a smear of black garlic in one bowl, while a miniature lamb "T-bone" rests atop orzo spiked with watermelon, arugula and marinated cotija cheese. In a neighborhood known more for family-friendly pop-in eateries, Solitaire brings a whole new level of style and sophistication, but keeps the pretension at bay for a fun and lively experience.