Whew, Denver — another year, another marathon of eating. The Mile High continues to edge its way up in national prominence, riding a tide of novel ideas, high-stakes restaurants and home-grown and imported talent. The scene continues to diversify, a positive for gastronauts who like to explore. Still, some dishes, cuisines, drinks and ideas prove so popular that they proliferate wildly. Here's a look back at ten trends that defined dining in Denver in 2017.
Yes, identifying "Italian food" as a trend feels like a cop-out, especially when we're talking about such a regionally diverse cuisine. And truly, you could break this into two trends: First, there were the high-profile debuts of Tavernetta, Cattivella and Il Posto 2.0, all of which dole out refined regional specialties and some of the most unique dishes in the category. And second, red sauce made a comeback at Quality Italian, Marcella's and the aptly named Red Sauce — a welcome development, considering that just six months ago, we were lamenting how few of Denver's Italian-American flagships were still standing.
Coming into 2017, industry prognosticators were pointing fervently at Denver's surprising dearth of French food, a gap that widened even further with the closure of legendary Z Cuisine and À Côté. It's less surprising, then, that several restaurateurs set out this year to right the market. Boulder chef Radek Cerny brought his high-end French cooking to East 17th Avenue with Atelier by Radex, and Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno opened French 75, tapping the brasserie tradition for inspiration. And coming in the spring from Max MacKissock and Juan Padro is Morin, which draws more from modern Paris than old-school French culinary tradition.
There was a time, not so long ago, when diners couldn't get enough meat. Perhaps predictably, the pendulum swung the other way in 2017, with chefs tapping lighter inspiration and vegetables assuming a starring role. The master of this category may very well be Caroline Glover, whose deeply personal cooking at Annette informs creative combinations of produce: charred endive paired beautifully with brown butter this fall; in early summer, the classic carrot-and-pea mashup got new life from wood-fired cooking and dollops of spiced cream. But vegetables starred everywhere, from places like vegetarian-friendly El Five, where you'd expect it (coming as it does from the team behind Root Down, Linger and Vital Root), to meaty enclaves like Citizen Rail, where you would not (as evidenced by a trio of spring-pea hummus, cauliflower tabbouleh and coal-roasted eggplant caviar).
Where once exposed beams, Edison bulbs and beetle-kill pine stood firmly in the restaurant-design spotlight, this year tile dominated as a prominent decor element. Eye-catching examples of various shapes, colors and varieties covers floors at places like Concourse Restaurant Moderne, Poka Lola Social Club and French 75, and bars at Señor Bear, Bar Helix and Santo. Tile patterns even featured in murals; see the walls at El Five for a glittering example.
Remember when Wewatta Street was just a desolate cut-through on the edge of LoDo? We don't, either. The opening of Whole Foods put a capstone on the development of this thoroughfare behind Union Station, but before that market swung open the doors on sustainable produce and its mac-and-cheese bar, Wewatta had already become a food-lovers' beacon: Tavernetta, Citizen Rail, Hearth & Dram, the aptly named Wewatta Point and an outpost of Tupelo Honey all blossomed on the street this year.
Korea's favorite pickle is having its moment in the spotlight, buoyed, no doubt, by its tantalizing tart-spicy flavor and its supposed healthy properties. And it's not just Korean restaurants capitalizing on the cabbage; find it in a porchetta sandwich at Brider, in an omelet and the loco moco at HashTAG (where you can also get it as a side), paired with uni and on steamed buns at Stoic & Genuine, on fries at Stout Street Social, and much more.
Does the porch-pounding appeal of a frozen drink really ever go out of style? Ask the Mexican restaurants that have long pumped frozen margaritas from spigots. In 2017, though, the frozen drink proliferated and diversified. Starring in this new era of alcoholic Slurpees was frozé (frozen rosé), the unofficial drink of the summer on offer at Infinite Monkey Theorem (Denver’s OG frozé), Tupelo Honey and Max’s Wine Dive. Pushing frozen drinks to fresh horizons, though, happened across the city: See the frozen Negroni at White Pie, the frozen screwdriver at HashTAG, the banana daiquiri at Wayward and the rotating frozen drink at Señor Bear for proof.
If you came into 2017 still harboring a prejudice against hotel restaurants, we hope you've now seen the error of your ways. This year brought a number of high-profile hotels to the Mile High, and even more high-profile hotel restaurants. Cherry Creek's Halcyon is home to Departure (which debuted last fall) and Quality Italian, the Maven holds Kachina and Poka Lola, the Oxford picked up Urban Farmer, and Kimpton's Born Hotel houses Tavernetta and Citizen Rail. In 2018, look for further development in this realm, when the Source Hotel opens with barbecue, an experimental brewery from New Belgium and a yet-to-be-named anchor restaurant.
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"Never drink alone" seemed to be the message from Denver's bars this year, as creative takes on large-format drinks, suited for quenching the thirst of large parties, spread like a viral meme across town. And with this trend came a twist on the serving vessel, with the porrón — a Spanish pitcher — replacing the punch bowl at several bars. Check out examples at El Five, Hop Alley and Arcana, where you can get your porrón filled with the traditional cider or the less traditional cocktail. Either way, your group should consume the contents straight from the spout of the porrón (poured at arm's length as a show of skill and a nod to hygiene).
Were we to narrow this list down to just one 2017-defining item, poke would be it. In fact, Denver is now so awash in these Hawaiian specialties that it's hard to believe that just a year and a half ago, there was really only one poke game in town — Ohana Island Kitchen, the Mile High's OG purveyor of fish-and-rice bowls. Ohana still floats to the top of the ocean of options here, but worthy additions include the Tech Center's PokeCity, Avanti's QuickFish, and Sushi Cup — and don't overlook the poke on offer at older sushi restaurants, like the luscious version at Sushi Sasa.