There's no doubt that 2020 was rough on the hospitality industry, but 2021 may have been even tougher. While most restaurants were able to reopen from the pandemic shutdowns, many have struggled with staffing shortages that left them unable to provide the level of service they wanted to offer. Brunch and lunch have been cut, and other hours reduced. Some restaurants shut down temporarily while staffers were shuffled, recruited and retrained. On top of that, food shortages of all kinds meant that kitchens were constantly having to adjust menus and re-evaluate pricing. Even crayons given out to kids and the rubber gloves worn by back-of-the-house employees spiked in price.
But despite all of that — as well as the fact that city permitting has been slow and construction delays stemming from supply-chain issues are the current standard — almost 300 new restaurants and bars have opened in metro Denver so far this year. (In 2020, we counted just under 200.) The addition of so many new places to dine and drink is a testament to the hospitality industry's passion, resilience and drive.
The standout newcomers serve everything from comfort food such as pizza and burgers to wagyu steak. Some come from longtime restaurateurs who've applied the lessons of the pandemic to their new ventures. One is a pandemic-born pop-up that's found a permanent home. Another comes from a restaurateur whose New York City eatery opened just months before the dining shutdown, ultimately closed and sent its owner back to the Mile High. Each has a story of perseverance that led to a place now enriching the city's dining scene in new — and delicious — ways.
Here are the ten best new restaurants to open in Denver in 2021:
Does Denver need another steakhouse? If that steakhouse is A5, it does. The restaurant from the Culinary Creative group, which also owns Bar Dough, Mister Oso, Tap & Burger and more, takes the classic steakhouse and infuses it with a modern sourcing ethos as well as fun, retro vibes. The result is a spot that feels anything but stuffy. The group is not new to this location, the longtime home of the Wazee Supper Club; it opened French eatery Morin here in 2018. But Morin struggled in the space, and the Culinary Creative team took time after the March 2020 dining shutdown to re-evaluate before finally opening A5 in November. It quickly proved popular, thanks in large part to a menu from chef Max MacKissock that features not only high-quality steaks — including the must-order Japanese wagyu striploin — but also updated takes on such classic steakhouse fare as a wedge salad with crispy guanciale and a crunchy seed mixture, and a beef tartare katsu sandwich with a perfectly soft-boiled quail egg tucked inside.
The dining scene took a big hit when Uptown's Beast + Bottle shuttered on June 5, but that very same day, something serendipitous happened. As they were printing menus for Beast's final service, brother-and-sister owners Paul and Aileen Reilly received the final paperwork for a deal to open a seasonal eatery at the Hyatt Centric Downtown Denver. In late October, Apple Blossom debuted, giving the Reillys (who also own Italian eatery Coperta) a chance to continue the legacy of their former farm-to-table hit in a new way. At Apple Blossom, ingredients are sourced not only locally, but from small producers nationwide. The menu ranges from comfort-food classics like the AB Burger meant to appeal to weary travelers to dishes that show off some of America's best ingredients, including a country ham plate and tonnarelli pasta studded with luxurious uni from Santa Barbara.
Do call it a comeback. While French 75 isn't new new — it originally opened in 2017 — its 2021 reboot feels like a completely different place. After shutting down in March 2020, the restaurant sat empty for nearly eighteen months before longtime Denver restaurateur Frank Bonanno (of Mizuna, Luca, Milk Market and more) made the call to reopen it, inspired by his own employees' passion for the place. The decor hasn't changed, but the energy and menu sure have. Some former staples remain, but they're offered in a new and improved way, like the French dip now served on a soft roll baked by Milk Market's LoDough Bakery. And instead of being strictly a classic French brasserie, French 75 now has a roster of unexpected additions, including the lobster ramen that gained a cult following at Bonanno's now-closed Bones and pork dumplings served in a gochujang butter so good, you'll want to sop up every last bit. With the eclectic playlist blasting and 75-cent pours of prosecco flowing during happy hour, the new French 75 is the kind of good time we could all use more of in the new year.
The food-hall trend hasn't slowed — in fact, it's growing and improving, as exhibited by the Golden Mill, which opened on the banks of Clear Creek in April. Over three years, the team behind the currently closed Broadway Market converted a historic mill into a two-level destination for eats and drinks, bolstered by a pour-your-own beer wall, a large outdoor patio on the ground level, an expansive rooftop bar (the only one in Golden) and five food vendors. Three of those are run by executive chef Jesus Silva, who has gained a reputation as one of the city's top chefs during his long career in Denver. His Sushi Sora, located on the upper level at Golden Mill, is reason enough to visit, with top-quality sashimi, sushi and lunch-only poke bowls served with unbeatable views of Golden on the side.
Originally from Greeley, Delores Tronco was one of the founders of Work & Class, which opened in 2014. Tronco sold her part of the business in 2017 and left Denver for New York City, where she focused on expanding her hospitality experience, working as the general manager of sustainable seafood eatery Seamore's, waiting tables at the Eddy, becoming assistant to David Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and studying to be a sommelier at the International Wine School. In December 2019, she debuted the Banty Rooster in New York's Greenwich Village. But despite its initial success, the March 2020 restaurant shutdown doomed the venture, and Tronco returned to Denver, bringing with her chef Justin Freeman. In September, the two opened the Greenwich, which Tronco calls her "ode to New York City." Here the pizzas are made on sourdough crust, the generous portions are meant for sharing, the wine list is tempting from start to finish, and the space is loaded with special NYC-inspired touches that feel totally right in RiNo.
This may be the first restaurant in Denver to focus on pozole, the traditional Mexican soup, but that's not the only reason to visit. Chef/owner Jose Avila was the chef/partner at Machete Tequila + Tacos, then cooked up Yucatecan specialties at his X'Tabai Yucateco food truck and served barbacoa made from whole sheep at his Sunday-only pop-up El Borrego Negro. He opened La Diabla in June in the former Butcher's Bistro space, inspired by the pozolerias of Mexico City, where he grew up. You can opt for verde, blanco, rojo, negro or vegan pozole served with chicken or cabeza de cerdo (meat from a pig's head). And if it's not soup weather, La Diabla is churning out some of the best tacos in town, served with an optional bone marrow add-on that you should always ask for. The mezcal- and tequila-heavy cocktail program is a draw, too, as is the mezcal list, with a lineup of one-ounce pours available so that you can sample your way through the Oaxacan spirit.
Yes, Juicy Lucys are a Minneapolis specialty — but the spirit behind Lucy's Burger Bar is Denver to its core. Founded by Minnesota natives and friends Michelle "Meesh" McGlone, an aerialist performer, and Nate Collis, longtime guitar player for hip-hop duo Atmosphere, this spot not only serves molten cheese-stuffed patties, but also inclusive community vibes. As McGlone told Westword before opening her place, "You know in an ’80s movie, where there are rich developers coming to town to tear down some special place and a group of kids come together to figure out how to get one over on the businessmen? I want Lucy's to be the place they'd come to meet up and make their plans." In August, that vision began to take shape when the small Tennyson spot opened its doors and welcomed friends old and new with an energy that matches what you'd expect from two seasoned performers. Alongside its small menu of burgers, fries and other sandwiches, McGlone has brought on boozy offerings from brands that are women-, LGBTQ- and BIPOC-owned, and advocate for mental health, sustainability and other social issues.
Denver's pizza scene is evolving, and this spot from the team behind RiNo fast-casual pasta destination Dio Mio is helping to lead the way to true pizza bliss in the Mile High. Initially, Dio Mio co-owners Spencer White and Alex Figura just wanted to expand their baking capacity because of their love of bread, but a pizza concept seemed more viable than a bakery. So Dio Mio opened its alley slice window in July, serving up New York and square-cut Sicilian-style options, and soon Redeemer Pizza added a full-service main front dining room, where you can get small plates and whole pies over a bottle of wine. But no matter where you're eating your pizza, White and Figura's sourdough crust is stellar, the toppings are top-notch, and the sides of dilly ranch and hot honey are musts.
Pickle lovers, rejoice: Split Lip's slugburgers are loaded with the "too many pickles" promised on its menu, and are just the kind of food that many people crave. The unusually named item gained popularity during the pandemic when founders Adam Branz, Jessica Richter and David Wright started a pop-up on the Ultreia patio. Initially, the three focused on Nashville hot fried chicken; then they added the slugburger, a Mississippi regional specialty. As restaurants began to reopen, the pop-ups became less frequent — and then on September 30, Split Lip made a big move, opening inside Number Thirty Eight in RiNo. The new space gave the team room to expand its menu of hyper-regional food, adding items like a Wisconsin butter burger, Hawaiian mac salad, honey butter-slathered corn ribs and, most recently, pizza. This food is just straight-up fun to eat, and since Split Lip's owners are longtime industry vets, it's also made with skill.
Walking into Three Saints Revival, which opened in November in the space where Hearth & Dram shuttered in March 2020, feels like stepping into a dream. And that's precisely what longtime Denver restaurateur Robert Thompson wants you to feel. In 2020, Thompson resigned from Punch Bowl Social, the "eatertainment" brand he built, moved to New Orleans and started a new hospitality group, Angevin & Co — though he plans to stay firmly anchored in Denver. Three Saints Revival is the group's first project, and it's a stunner. The vibrant decor is filled with details inspired by common dream themes like hands and flying. But more than an eye-catcher, it's also a Mediterranean escape, with a tapas-heavy menu from chef John Broening executed with restrained simplicity and a beverage program to match.