Nine Denver Chefs Share Their Own Dining Out Favorites

Chef Bill Espiricueta behind the counter at Smok.EXPAND
Chef Bill Espiricueta behind the counter at Smok.
Mark Antonation
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You know what they say about opinions: Everyone has one. And as social-media platforms and crowdsourced review forums become more pervasive, it’s clear that just about everyone with a keyboard and a credit card believes that their eating skills are the benchmark of authority. We’re all for advocating different points of view, but if there’s one faction that knows the Denver restaurant scene better than anyone, it’s our chefs.

Yes, they cook for a living and don’t have a lot of free time to bounce from restaurant to restaurant, but it turns out that they venture away from their own kitchens more often than we might think. And where do they go? Everywhere. We interviewed nine local chefs who filled us in on where they eat and drink when they’re off the clock. We asked them, too, about their most memorable restaurant meals and what foods they wish would land in the Mile High City.

Ben ShapiroEXPAND
Ben Shapiro
Courtesy of Steuben’s

Executive chef, Steuben’s Arvada

Go-to lunch spot: Brider. The food always exceeds my expectations and the portions are big. The porchetta and kimchi sandwich puts me in my happy place; it’s amazing.

Favorite place for dinner: El Camino is one of those places with an awesome vibe, and the service is always solid. I’ve been going for the past six years, and the owner is usually working the host stand, and I’ve gotten to know the servers well. The menu is good and simple, and the margaritas are the best in town. They also showcase tons of cool local art.

Must-try international restaurant: Wokano Asian Bistro serves really good Chinese food and huge portions. I often get takeout, and everything is always hot and tasty. It’s just really good Americanized Chinese food and totally craveable. We usually order the kung pao delight with extra chiles and the hoisin exploding chicken.

Best Denver neighborhood for dining: Highland. I love the variety of local and independent restaurants; I’m all about supporting that movement. We live close by and can walk around and get snacks, dinner and ice cream — like taco Tuesday at El Camino and ice cream at Sweet Cow. I love the energy of the neighborhood, too.

Bar of choice: Falling Rock Tap House has the best beer selection in the city, by far. The bartenders are extremely knowledgeable and always ask what you’re in the mood for — and they’re always on point. I love it so much that I celebrated my 25th birthday there.

Last dish that brought you to your knees: The big mac pierogis at Bar Helix blew my mind. We ordered them on a whim for happy hour and they were unreal; they tasted just like an upscale Big Mac but in a pierogi form. We immediately ordered more.

Chef, Namkeen in Zeppelin Station and Spuntino

Guilty-pleasure restaurant: West 29th Bar & Grill in Wheat Ridge is a guilty pleasure that’s also just an awesome spot. Date night is usually simple: two burgers served medium and two bourbons on the rocks. They have great fries, solid whiskey pours and fantastic service.

Favorite place for dinner: Hands down, Pizzeria Lui, which has the best pizza in Denver — and eating pizza with friends at a picnic table is one of my favorite things to do.

Must-try international restaurant: Addis Ababa, in Aurora, serves incredible Ethiopian food cooked by a sweet family. The shiro and doro wat are my favorite dishes, and the injera is plentiful and perfect.

Best Denver neighborhood for dining: South Federal Boulevard, because it’s a little more casual dining, and it rarely disappoints in deliciousness.

Craveable dish that you can’t find in Denver: Dan dan noodles. There’s a great version at Han Dynasty in Philly, where we used to live, but I have yet to find one that compares out here. I’m lucky that my partner in life and business — Elliot Strathmann — makes a pretty fantastic version.

Most surprising Denver dining experience: The now-closed Rebel did an Asian night-market pop-up last fall that was just so good and nailed so many flavors that I’ve yet to find anywhere else in Denver. I can’t wait to see what those chefs cook up next.

Nick Kayser
Nick Kayser
Courtesy of Vesta

Chef, Vesta

Guilty-pleasure restaurant: Fire on the Mountain. Nothing says “amazing Sunday afternoon” like damn good chicken wings, a nice cold brew and patio seating in Highland.

Go-to destination restaurant: Frasca Food and Wine. My mother took me there for dinner when I graduated from culinary school, and it’s always had a special place in my heart. Never has it ever wavered with its magic, and it just hits on all cylinders.

Bar of choice: Canopy. I love the group behind it — the owners of Roosevelt, the Front Porch and Gaslamp. The people are great and the atmosphere during the week is just my speed. Plus, there’s free pool and shuffleboard.

Last dish that brought you to your knees: The roasted carrots at Safta. Israeli cuisine is tough to pull off, but the combination of the acid from the yogurt and the roasted carrots was unbelievable.

Type of restaurant that’s missing in Denver: Knock-your-socks-off barbecue.

Craveable dish that you can’t find in Denver: The Peking duck I had in Hong Kong. I crave street foods from the night market, like wok-tossed veggies with that amazing Peking duck.

Mary Nguyen
Mary Nguyen
Lori Midson

Executive chef/owner, Olive & Finch

Favorite place for dinner: Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizza. I’ve got three-year-old twins, and while Marco’s serves upscale food, the surroundings are super-kid-friendly. Our twins can kind of relax and have a good time, and we can all enjoy what I think is the best pizza in town.

Must-try international restaurant: Shish Kebab Grill, which is owned by a Syrian family. They have great food and a fantastic atmosphere, plus I love supporting a family-run small business. It’s a place that never disappoints. I also love Tofu House, a Korean restaurant in Aurora. They’ve got amazing traditional tofu dishes, and since I love meat — especially raw meat — it’s a big deal that I like a tofu place.

Off-shift drink: Lambic, but it’s hard to find. I just stopped into the Ramble Hotel and grabbed a drink at Death & Co, and I really liked it a lot. It’s a super-cool bar with a great vibe and just a great place to enjoy a good cocktail.

Bar of choice: Goed Zuur. It’s so interesting, with lots of cool beers and great small plates. My husband and I love it.

Day-off dining and drinking rituals: Now that I have twins, our rituals revolve around our kids. We go to Dunbar Kitchen & Tap House for a quick drink and then we spend time at Denver Central Market where everyone can get their own choices, and then we meet in the middle to pool what we’ve discovered and enjoy it all together.

Most surprising Denver dining experience: We went to Corinne at La Méridien for brunch with a big group of people — including kids — and the service, food and execution were amazing. They were organized, timely and handled the kids wonderfully, and as someone who works in the industry, it’s hard to refrain from nitpicking when I go out, but they did an outstanding job.

Executive chef/owner, Smok

Guilty-pleasure restaurant: The Crawling Crab. You can gorge on spicy seafood in a bag and then dip the fries in all the saucy goodness.

Favorite Denver destination restaurant: Annette. I always know that I’m going to get a great meal every single time. It’s definitely worth the drive.

Must-try international restaurant: New Saigon serves some of my favorite Vietnamese cuisine in Denver — and oh, those spring roll platters! If you’ve been, then you know how good they are.

Best Denver neighborhood for dining: Highland. There are so many great options over there: Bar Dough, Old Major, Linger and Williams & Graham. There must be something in the water.

Bar of choice: RiNo Yacht Club. They make a Last Word cocktail with mezcal that can’t be beat — and believe me, I’ve done my research.

Most surprising Denver dining experience: The Buckhorn Exchange. It was an all-around great experience, especially the service from the upstairs bartender.

Luke Bergman
Luke Bergman
Adam Larkey

Executive Chef, Concourse

Go-to spot with kids: If we’re not cooking at home, we’re usually at Chick-fil-A or Chipotle, and we really enjoy taking the kids to Avanti Food & Beverage. There’s something there for everyone as far as the variety of foods. The vibe is really cool for adults, but it’s fine for the kids to run around and play, as well. And you can’t beat the view from the rooftop patio.

Favorite place for dinner: My wife and I love Sushi Sasa. Their seafood is fresh, and they have a great happy hour. Working in New York for so long, I learned to enjoy really good, fresh sushi, and Sushi Sasa just does it right every time.

Bar of choice: I really like Chopper’s Sports Grill. There are TVs everywhere to watch a game with friends, great beer and drink specials, and the bar food is great quality.

Type of restaurant that’s missing in Denver: My wife and her family are all from Brazil, so I’ve learned to really enjoy that cuisine. If we want Brazilian food, it’s usually just easier — and tastes better — when we make it at home. It’d be nice to have a really great, authentic Brazilian restaurant we could take our girls to. Maybe I should open one.

Craveable dish that you can’t find in Denver: Wings and pizza. I was so spoiled living in New York. I could walk out of my apartment, or the restaurant, and within a few blocks, if that, find world-class wings and pizza. I just haven’t been able to do that in Denver.

Most surprising Denver dining experience: I tried a couple of veggie rolls from Misaki over at Stanley Marketplace, and their green monster and garden roll were both delicious. They’re known for their fresh seafood, but I have to say, the vegetarian rolls were just as tasty.

Caroline GloverEXPAND
Caroline Glover
Courtesy of Annette

Chef/owner, Annette

Guilty-pleasure restaurant: Peter’s Chinese Cafe. I can eat it in bed on a Sunday night while watching HBO Go.

Favorite place for dinner: Tavernetta. I love sitting in the lounge or the bar and getting a good glass of wine and eating whatever vegetable is in season. It’s definitely a treat.

Favorite Denver destination restaurant: Funny Plus has the best Korean fried chicken around, and it’s so worth the drive to Aurora.

Must-try international restaurant: I go to Nile for their incredible Ethiopian food, and it’s in close proximity to Snowl and Katsu Ramen, two other Aurora restaurants that I love.

Last dish that brought you to your knees: Anything from Cart-Driver. Every time I get the sardines and bread, my mind is blown. They do such high-quality food — and they do it consistently well.

Type of restaurant that’s missing in Denver: I’d really like to see a Scandinavian breakfast spot, like Broder Nord in Portland.

Executive chef/owner, Crafted Concepts

Favorite place for dinner: My husband, Max [MacKissock], and I love to go out for sushi on our days off, mostly because we both really enjoy food that we don’t have in our restaurants. That means that you’ll often find us visiting chef Corey Baker at Sushi Ronin.

Must-try international restaurant: Over the years, New Saigon has always been my go-to place. They serve consistently awesome food.

Off-shift drink: Everyone knows I’m powered by rosé and sunshine, and to be honest, my back yard is my favorite spot for both. But if I’m going out, then you’ll find me on the Stoic & Genuine patio with the fountains going off and a plate of raw fish and a glass of rosé. And if I’m not at Stoic, I’m at Señor Bear. I love a good patio.

Last dish that brought you to your knees: I went to a pop-up tasting for Morin, Max’s new French restaurant, and he made me a burnt-orange foie gras torchon. Holy shit, it was awesome.

Type of restaurant that’s missing in Denver: A really good al pastor place.

Craveable dish that you can’t find in Denver: Thai noodles of any kind. Sadly, I have not found great Thai noodles…yet.

Thach Tran
Thach Tran
Rachel Adams

Chef, Ace Eat Serve

Guilty-pleasure restaurant: Rodizio Grill. When I crave steak, all I want is a grilled steak with chimichurri sauce from Rodizio, and with a Groupon, $72 gets you a bottle of wine and dinner for two. No shame for this chef. I only eat steak once a month, but when I do, it’s carved in front of me until I tap out.

Favorite destination restaurant: Mr. Kim Korean BBQ in Aurora. Walking inside Mr. Kim is like walking into an eating arena where everyone is a grill master. The kitchen also serves amazing Korean favorites.

Must-try international restaurant: Denver Pho. The pho is great, but it’s their classic regional Vietnamese favorites from the North, South and everywhere in between that keep me coming back. The menu items — and the way each dish is served — are true to each classical Vietnamese dish; that’s hard to find in Denver. The bun cha Hanoi is just amazing, and you can’t find that anywhere else in Colorado. Every dish here makes a direct emotional connection to my childhood; it’s just like I’m back in Vietnam eating at the market food stalls with my mom.

Off-shift drink: Sake or whiskey, neat. I love Tokio and Izakaya Ronin, both of which are great joints that are open late.

Last dish that brought you to your knees: The dish that made me the happiest and is hard to find anywhere else in Denver is the crepe cake at New Saigon Bakery & Deli. It’s a pastry that’s so unique, different and good.

Most surprising Denver dining experience: Barcelona Wine Bar in RiNo is really amazing. The food is on point and so delicious, and the service is impeccable. The staff knows exactly what to recommend for a great date night. For a newer restaurant, they sure know how to make it right.

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