Word of Mouth

Part Two: Denver Chefs Share Their Dining Out Favorites

Duncan Holmes of Call and the soon-to-open Beckon.
Duncan Holmes of Call and the soon-to-open Beckon. Courtesy Call
This is part two of our interviews with local chefs who dish on where they eat and drink when they’re off the clock. To see where some of the city’s other top chefs spend their days and nights away from the kitchen, read part one of our Q&As.

Executive chef, Call

Go-to lunch spot: Mateo in Boulder. They have a shady patio that makes for a good afternoon summertime escape that usually involves ordering their burger with Gruyere, a side of fries and a glass of rosé. When I think of a perfect lunch, this is the one that always comes to mind first.

Guilty-pleasure restaurant: Los Chingones. The atmosphere always feels accommodating but just gritty enough, and indulging in a few chicken leg tacos and baskets of chips and salsa is an absolute guilty pleasure at the end of the day.

Favorite place for dinner: Arcana in Boulder. The menu is inspired, and the team—from front to back—are invested, professional and always pushing the bar a little further; I appreciate their humility and their vision. They do their thing very quietly and humbly but with intention, and it’s interesting to see how the decisions made by chef Kyle Mendenhall contribute to the greater culture of the restaurant. I’m always happy to talk to him and see what he's up to and eat his food. It's exciting.

Go-to destination restaurant: The Flagstaff House. A bottle of Champagne with a few oysters on the patio is an iconic experience that feels like something from another time. I think the moments slow down a little, which makes the drive to Boulder worth it, plus there's a classic and regal feel to dining there that’s quite exceptional. It’s not easy to find opulent elegance around the Denver area, but the Flagstaff House really makes a point of doing it right.

Must-try international restaurant: Jerusalem in the DU neighborhood. I've been told it's been there forever—and you can tell. There's history all over that place. The hummus and baklava are remarkable and there's always some super-traditional music just loud enough to be memorable but not uncomfortable. And they’re open late, like actually late—not just until 11 p.m. That's a rarity in Denver.

Best Denver neighborhood for dining: I might be biased because I'm here every day, but RiNo is my favorite. I think the energy is high, the people are always out and about and there's a little community developing here that’s beyond what everyone may have expected. Crema Coffee House, the Populist and Hop Alley are still in high demand and have made our little nook in RiNo a destination for years. With everything else that's opened recently—and all the restaurants that will open soon—I can say proudly that this part of the city is doing it right.

Off-shift drink: I’ll always go for a Negroni. I usually have one at Call while my crew and I are writing tomorrow's prep list. ?

Bar of choice: Bar Bar, aka Carioca Cafe. Its historical and cultural presence is really something to behold.

Last dish you ate in Denver that brought you to your knees: The roasted whole fish at Annette. The fish is cooked, cared for and seasoned perfectly; it’s just a great expression of summer. Chef Caroline [Glover] always crushes it.

Day-off dining and drinking rituals: We've been grilling all summer at home and obediently drinking plenty of Provençal rosé. Riding our bikes to Louisville and hitting up Moxie Eatery for an espresso and ham-and-cheese croissant has become a nice habit, and Basta in Boulder is a Sunday night dinner tradition. Señor Bear is also a ton of fun, not to mention delicious. On my days off, I prefer to eat and drink things that have heart and soul so I often find myself eating at home or at places that feel like home.

Type of restaurant that’s missing in Denver: Something like Buvette or Prune in New York, or Sqirl in LA. They’re tiny places that function in unbelievable ways given their size, which is indicative, I think, of the best places in bigger cities. They’re all food focused and driven by charisma and gumption and care, they can please almost any palate or preference, and they’re iconic in their own way while still creating cultures with the habits and nuances that make a restaurant instantly feel familiar and attractive.

Craveable dish that you can’t find in Denver: The Everything Croissant from Karen’s Bakery and Catering, my mom's place in Folsom, California. ?

Most surprising Denver dining experience: The concept and food at Señor Bear. They brought a beach-y, vacation-like vibe to the middle of a landlocked state without making it feel contrived. From start to finish, the entire dining experience is executed so well; they made it a likable and entertaining reality, and it’s a really great addition to the Denver dining scene.

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Thomas Wright of Racines.
Laura Shunk
Executive chef, Racines

Go-to lunch spot: The Blue Moon Brewing Company. They grill up a killer burger and have some amazing beers.

Guilty-pleasure restaurant: There’s a biker bar on the edge of Denver and Aurora called The Piper Inn that serves Chinese food…and it’s no joke. The eggrolls are the size of burritos. I also love the Chinese spiced wings and the monster egg foo young, and I get to eat it all while sitting at a bar packed full of bikers, beautiful women and some rock and roll.

Favorite place for dinner: I love The Buckhorn Exchange. The game meats are always cooked perfectly and you never know what you’ll find on the specials list: yak, ostrich or maybe pheasant. No matter what it is, the kitchen knows how to prepare it very well.

Go-to destination restaurant: Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs. I mean, seriously, tell me where else in this fantastic state of ours where you can enjoy an Alaskan reindeer hot dog.

Must-try international restaurant: Sushi Den. It’s one of the most iconic establishments in Denver, and the tuna firecracker roll is my go-to staple.

Best Denver neighborhood for dining: I don’t have a favorite neighborhood, mostly because Denver just has so much to offer. With all of the independent restaurants that we have, I find it kinda hard to not jump around from one neighborhood to the next.

Off-shift drink: Fireball or Crown Royal whiskey and an ice-cold beer. I try to be responsible and drink at home.

Bar of choice: The Cooper Lounge at Union Station serves up a wicked sidecar cocktail. It’s a fancy place with just enough edge and attitude to be cool.

Last dish you ate in Denver that brought you to your knees: The lamb and falafel pita sandwich at Vesper Lounge. It was a combination of several things that made it a great experience: the relaxed and friendly staff, the pint of milk stout and the most delicious and simple sandwich taken to a whole new level. The lamb is perfectly roasted and seasoned and the falafel is crisp and flavorful; they just nail it. It’s simple food at a little neighborhood bar that could easily go for twice the price in a swanky place.

Day-off dining and drinking rituals: White Castle cheeseburgers and Dr. Pepper fill the bill from time to time, but when I want to play, it’s game on. I’ll put anything and everything in my sous-vide circulator and match it up with a big, chewy red wine and some loud music. I love Italian food; it’s so flavorful and sexy, and it’s nice to just chill out and spend a snowy day cooking, baking, roasting and eating. I’ve recently been playing around with some molecular gastronomy, and the Fireball whiskey caviar I made was pretty cool.

Type of restaurant that’s missing in Denver: Do you remember the movie Pulp Fiction? I think a place like Jack Rabbit Slim's would be fun.

Craveable dish that you can’t find in Denver: Blue crabs from Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn in Annapolis, Maryland. They come piled high on the table with nothing but malt vinegar, Old Bay Seasoning, drawn butter and a bucket of iced Yuengling Black & Tan beers. It’s a four-hour investment in a serious food coma.

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Chef Chris Royster of Flagstaff House Restaurant in Boulder.
Linnea Covington
Executive chef/partner, Flagstaff House Restaurant, Boulder

Go-to lunch spot: I live in Boulder, and my hands-down favorite place for lunch is Blackbelly. The sandwiches are all great, and it’s super-cool to stop in and see the butchers in action behind the counter. If I get there early enough, I grab a breakfast burrito, which I’ll happily down for lunch. If not, I love the daily sandwiches. Right now, I’m obsessed with the Das Pretzel lamb meatball sandwich on the crunch roll. It’s so delicious.

Guilty-pleasure restaurant: I’m definitely not the only one who loves the Gyros Stand on the Pearl Street Mall, especially on a weekend when I want that late-night dose of greasy gyro goodness. I get in line with everyone else as the bars empty out and kinda hope that I don't see anyone I know.

Favorite place for dinner: Mercantile Dining & Provision. There are lots of really great places in Denver, so it’s hard to pick just one restaurant, but I’ve had some really great dishes at Mercantile, in particular the foie gras. I don’t see it served at many places, and they know how to prepare it perfectly.

Best destination restaurant: The Flagstaff House, my own restaurant. It’s an iconic fine-dining destination, open since 1929 and the site of thousands of celebrations from weddings and anniversaries to birthdays, promotions, and graduations. The number of engagements we’ve seen here is huge, and there’s a reason for that: The Flagstaff House offers a fine-dining experience that you can’t get in most places in the state: seasonal, meticulously prepared ingredients expertly prepared and served elegantly and warmly alongside options from a wine cellar with more than 16,000 bottles and our collection of rare and unusual spirits. You have a destination dining experience in mind? You have to go to Flagstaff.

Best Denver neighborhood for dining: RiNo. It’s got a great, artsy and creative vibe, and there are so many interesting new places popping up with lots of opportunities for chefs. I really love the Source and the idea of that cool, industrial open space with a cocktail bar, restaurants, a brewery in the back and Babettes Bakery. It’s just super-cool, kind of like our own version of a mini Eataly.

Off-shift drink: When service is over and it’s finally quiet in the restaurant, I go for a Scotch on the rocks. I’ll go back to my office with Ben Kramer, my sous-chef, and we’ll have a quick beer and talk about the night. Once I get home and wind down, I relax with a glass of Scotch.

Bar of choice: Bitter Bar in Boulder. The bartenders are super-creative, friendly and welcoming, and it’s just a great place to sit at the bar and talk to friends or the bartenders. If I want to hang with some friends and drink a beer, it’s always at the Dark Horse. I love everything going on with the walls; it’s like I always see something new. Plus, the bartenders are all super-chill and friendly.

Last dish you ate in Denver that brought you to your knees: At the original Way Back, chef Marcus Eng made me a really great lamb dish: seared lamb heart, soaked and seared rare, then sliced super-thin and finished with sea salt and a crunchy garnish. I couldn’t get over the simplicity, attention to detail and that one truly unique ingredient that was the star of the dish. My passion is using ingredients that no one ever uses, and in this dish, Marcus was using lamb heart, an ingredient that no one else will ever use. It was stunning.

Day-off dining and drinking rituals: If I’m going out to eat and drink, I like to go the Spanish tapas-style route: We’ll do some restaurant hopping and have a drink and plate at one place before going on to the next one. We love to eat out, but since we don’t have a whole lot of time off, hopping around is the best way to really get a sense of what’s out there and what everyone else is doing. And, a lot of times you’ll see something really unusual and creative on a small plate that you won’t see on the main menu.

Type of restaurant that’s missing in Denver: I’m from New York, so I have to say that I miss the sandwiches of a truly authentic East Coast/New York-style deli. Maybe there are some here that I don't know about, but if so, I haven’t found them yet…and I keep looking. In New York, delis are a way of life and something that’s missing here: the true attention to detail, high-quality meats along with fresh baked bread, everything sliced to order and made right in front of you. The bread is key; a good, hard deli roll is very, very different from what I’ve been able to find here.

Craveable dish that you can’t find in Denver: Aside from the aforementioned deli sandwiches, I’d say a really good New England clam chowder. There’s something about New England clam chowder that’s part of the DNA of the East Coast, and I haven’t found a version here in Denver that really satisfies that craving for a bowl of buttery, summery, salty chowder goodness.

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Kathleen Davia makes beautiful baked goods at Gateaux.
Veronica Penney
Baker/owner, Gateaux Bakery

Go-to lunch spot: Hillstone for its spot-on service and food, plus your iced tea or water is constantly being refilled. I order the vegetarian burger or French dip, both of which are great.

Guilty-pleasure restaurant: Izakaya Den. I can’t ever stop ordering sushi and sashimi for the table.

Favorite place for dinner: Guard and Grace. I always know that I’m going to get consistently good service and amazing steaks paired with a wonderful bottle of wine from their stellar wine list.

Best destination restaurant: Gozo on South Broadway. They serve good food, unique drinks and it’s easy to Uber to.

Must-try international restaurant: Locanda Del Borgo for its true and authentic Italian food.

Best Denver dining neighborhood: Cherry Creek. It’s close and walkable, and there are various restaurants and bars that are great for a couple’s date or a family night out, plus I love hanging out in Cherry Creek for its popular girlfriend happy hour deals.

Go-to spot with kids: My eight-year-old son loves Piatti in Cherry Creek. They let him make his own pizza and they don’t serve chicken tenders and French fries. Ha! They also have white butcher paper on top of their white linen tablecloths so that kids (and parents) can color.

Off-shift drink: Tecate, mojitos and sangria at Cuba Cuba Café & Bar.

Bar of choice: I love hanging out on the rooftop patio at Del Frisco’s Grille. They serve high-quality drinks and you can’t beat that beautiful view.

Last dish you ate in Denver that brought you to your knees: The three-pound pork chop at Old Major. It’s huge, delicious and serves two-to-four people. I’ve had it several times, and I love that the accompaniments always change.

Day-off dining and drinking rituals: At my age, I love entertaining at our home on my days off. My husband is an amazing cook and we have a nice wine collection that we enjoy sharing with friends and family. I love setting a pretty table with beautiful flowers and place settings, and at the end of the night, presenting a beautiful platter of Gateaux pastries and cookies.

Type of restaurant that’s missing in Denver: A Mexican restaurant that serves more than just tacos and makes its tortillas and beans from scratch.

Craveable dish that you can’t find in Denver: A Viennese hot dog. I lived in Vienna for a while, and it’s the only hot dog that I’ve ever loved.
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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson

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