More than 220 restaurants, bars, breweries, cafes and food halls opened in 2016, adding even more fizz to an already effervescent food scene that has become one of the best in the country over the past several years. But how does that big number break down into something a little more digestible? There were definitely trends around Denver — some of them surprising and some fairly predictable. Here are five of the top trends of 2016:
One of the biggest trends in 2016 turned out to be nearly undefinable. Chefs eschewed classic, tried-and-true restaurant recipes and instead reached into the grab bag of American and International cooking to devise menus with influences from their upbringing, their travels and their professional experience. American food no longer means steak, burgers and chicken breasts gussied up in standard sauces; kitchens are delving deeper into regions — and micro-regions — of the United States as well as the long culinary histories of other countries: Mexico, Korea, Japan, Italy, Morocco, Peru, France and Thailand, to name just a very few. While this sort of melting-pot approach can easily result in nothing more than a hot mess, in concept as well as execution, the best of the bunch proved hard to pin down but easy to love for their tantalizing blends of the familiar and exotic. The best of the more than twenty that we counted in this category include Avelina, Mister Tuna, the Preservery, Arcana in Boulder, 12@Madison, Farmer Girl Community Bistro in Lyons, and the Way Back.
Mexican and Mexican-Influenced Restaurants
We tallied more than twenty new Mexican and Mexican-influenced eateries that opened their doors in 2016. Considering the growing Latino population in Denver, that doesn't seem surprising, but the added variety has been a breath of fresh air in what was threatening to become a stale scene of sloppy combo plates and tired recipes. Palenque Mezcaleria introduced a taste of Oaxacan street food and spirits; Que Bueno Suerte and Latigo soared to new heights with alta cocina; Mariscos El Picudo served up Pacific-coast seafood and loco micheladas; and Garibaldi Mexican Bistro quietly dished out incredible Mexico City-style entrees and antojitos from a gas-station eatery on South Broadway. And a beautiful story unfolded at Comal in RiNo, where talented cooks from Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are given the chance to showcase their traditional recipes while learning valuable restaurant-management skills. Of course, there were the chains, too. Torchy's Tacos built four new outposts throughout the metro area and others like Rubio's and R Taco joined the fray.
Variety in Japanese Restaurants
Sushi has been big in Denver for years, and new sushi restaurants continue to sprout. But other styles of Japanese eateries — from the izakaya to the ramen-ya — also made appearances this year. We counted eight new Japanese establishments, plus a handful of pan-Asian kitchens that incorporate Japanese elements. Among the best are Sushi Ronin and nearby competitor Mizu Izakaya, Menya Noodle Bar downtown, Matsuhisa in Cherry Creek, and Cherry Hills Sushi Co., which specializes in minimalist hand rolls. Also coming to Denver after more than a year in Boulder is Motomaki on West Colfax Avenue, which serves goofy but delicious oversized rolls that combine the heft of a burrito with the clean flavors of sushi.
Denver is known for Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Mexican restaurants, but newcomers often bemoan the lack of other cuisines from around the world. While you might have to clock a few miles behind the wheel to hit all of these, several new spots opened that boast hard-to-find global dishes. Among them: the South African Jozi's Kitchen & Shebeen in Parker; the second outpost of the Argentinian Maria Empanada in the Denver Tech Center; the Great Australian Bite in Aurora; El Bohio Criollo, which brought Cuban cooking to Golden; the tasty Hawaiian lunch counter, Ohana Island Kitchen; and Korean seafood specialist Soban. Denver also got its first Puerto Rican restaurant in El Coqui de Aqui and several new Indian eateries, including two branches of the locally owned fast-casual Biju's Little Curry Shop — one on Tennyson Street and another inside Boulder's Whole Foods.
Open and Shut Cases
Every year a few restaurants open and close in under a year, and in 2106 it felt like a mini-trend. We were surprised and saddened by some, including the closing of Pop's Place in the Ballpark neighborhood, while others like breastaurant concept Grillerz Pub on South Broadway seemed doomed from the start. And we're still trying to figure out how World of Beer managed to open and close two of its tap rooms in two desirable locations within the same year. How hard can it be to sell beer to tourists and Coloradans on the 16th Street Mall in Denver and the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder?
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.