Denver has grown as quickly as the summer thunderstorms that burst over the Front Range, inspiring fear and awe as they billow higher and higher into the afternoon skies. Exploding growth has brought unsightly architecture, inconvenient traffic snarls and social upheaval. But the plus side has been an infusion of new blood, new creativity and great new restaurants. The variety and quality of the dining scene has never been better, thanks to both longtime industry veterans reinventing themselves and newcomers adding flavors from other regions. Here are the fifteen best new restaurants to open so far in 2017; we'll finalize the list at the start of the new year, giving December latecomers a chance to prove their worth, too.
2501 Dallas Street, Aurora
Located in Stanley Marketplace, Annette is a beautiful restaurant. Flooded with light, the contemporary space is dotted with natural touches – planters with live trees, live plants on every table — that make the room feel sophisticated, not stark. While the restaurant pushes boundaries with its small-plates menu — think beef tongue and marrow toast — it follows in the footsteps of many small-plates eateries that anchor our dining scene, not least of which is Acorn, where chef-owner Caroline Glover previously worked. Sodas are made in-house and come in flavors such as rosemary and lemongrass-herb. Seasonal ingredients are revered; pickled accents pop up everywhere. A wood-fired grill adds a cozy rusticity that you smell when you walk in the door. The restaurant is at its best when showcasing Glover’s take on comfort food: pillowy gnocchi, whole fish with seasonal sauces, grilled carrots and snap peas, and housemade ice cream sandwiches.
Atelier by Radex
2011 East 17th Avenue
Years have passed since chef/restaurateur Radek Cerny's Denver days, when eateries like Radex and Papillon wowed guests with gastronomic wonders well before the current restaurant boom. Since then, we've had to content ourselves with occasional drives to Boulder for creative French and fusion fare at L'Atelier. But then Cerny brought a new version of his flagship restaurant to the former home of Il Posto in Uptown in May. Francophiles and modernists alike will find something to love on the new menu, and Cerny's wine lists are always worth perusing. For something fun, try the Homard "TV Dinner," butter-poached lobster tail served with sides on a compartmentalized platter. But really, anything French, French-ish, French-fusion and French-American is what we love here; Cerny has been doing this for decades, ensuring nary a misstep on the menu.
1817 Central Street
Chef Linda Hampsten Fox's new market restaurant opened in October with breakfast, lunch, dinner and a pastry case filled with housemade breads and confections. Fox is a world traveler and caterer who apprenticed under chefs in Italy, France and Switzerland and operated her own farm in Tuscany; the Bindery is the culmination of a career flavored by all those gigs, as well as Fox's time living in Mexico, Boulder and New Jersey (where she grew up in a Czech-Polish family). While her cooking style defies easy definition, hints of all of the above influences can be found in nearly every dish. On the dinner menu, for example, there's a ravioli called cansuzei from Cortina, Italy (near the border with Austria), that's stuffed with braised radicchio and bathed in a buttery poppyseed broth. But there are also braised beef cheeks flavored with guajillo and ancho chiles, and octopus swimming in a zingy aguachile sauce enriched with charred tortillas, both influenced by her time in Baja California. And a rabbit rarebit combines a rustic Welsh dish of cheese and toast with a European sensibility for alternative proteins. Whether popping in for a morning coffee or indulging in a romantic evening out, you'll find creativity, variety and passion in every bite.
Candela Latin Kitchen
1691 Central Street
Central Bistro & Bar owner Isiah Salazar and chef Jesse Vega converted their breezy bistro into a pan-Latin lounge this past summer, compiling a roster of tacos from Salazar's upbringing and Puerto Rican specialties from Vega's family, along with a few other dishes from Central and South America. The result is a restaurant loaded with intensity and soul, with dishes that leap from the plate with joy while maintaining a heart of pure comfort. Mofongo, the national dish of Puerto Rico, is the star, but bright ceviches, meats drenched in cooked-down sauces and homey empanadas make up a lively accompanying cast. Central Bistro may have been hot, but Candela burns just as bright.
10195 East 29th Avenue
In 2016, Elise Wiggins left her longtime position as executive chef at Panzano to pursue her vision of opening the Italian restaurant she'd always wanted to own. And with Cattivella (which means "naughty girl"), she's created the kind of restaurant that reflects her many experiences from traveling, working and eating in Italy. There's the wood-fired pizza oven used for far more than just pizzas; even beans are slow-cooked in glass flasks nestled in hot embers. There's the adjustable wood grill that gives meats (much of it brought in whole and butchered on site) and vegetables a rustic, old-world depth of flavor. And there are the housemade breads and pastas that separate Cattivella from the standard bistro or trattoria. A small cooler under the counter contains primal cuts of beef dry-aging for weeks for customers who want a little something special in a steak; a gluten-free menu offers housemade pasta and pizza options without sacrificing quality. You're sure to feel spoiled — and even a little naughty — enjoying all types of delights at this unabashedly Italian eatery.
1899 16th Street
Hotel restaurants don't have much of a reputation for inventive, chef-driven fare. But those who have enjoyed meals at Panzano in the Hotel Monaco, less than a mile from Citizen Rail, know that its owner, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, isn't content to offer bland tourist fare to please the masses; rather, artisan food production — like the handmade bread and pasta — is more the norm. That's the case at Citizen Rail in the Hotel Born, too, led by executive chef Christian Graves, who moved to Denver from San Diego, where he was in charge of another Kimpton restaurant. The heart of the restaurant is an open kitchen with several wood-burning grills, where everything from dry-aged steaks to cocktail garnishes is kissed with flame and smoke. But behind the scenes, a larger kitchen holds a butchering room where whole animals are brought in and broken down, providing cuts typical of steakhouse slates but also leaving room for oxtail, lamb sausage, rabbit loin and a decadent burger made from fresh-ground short rib and brisket. Yes, it's a meat-lover's paradise, but it's also so much more.
Concourse Restaurant Moderne
10195 East 29th Drive
Concourse debuted in April as the third Denver restaurant from chef/restaurateur Lon Symensma, after ChoLon and Cho77. The Stapleton eatery represents a bridge between Symensma's past and future; the menu is dotted with international influences but defies easy categorization. "The one word I wanted it to be is 'sexy,'" the chef explains. And "sexy" is the right word to describe the style of Concourse, with its undulating dining-room ceiling made from seventy curvaceous wood slats, its sleek tile surfaces in blacks and whites, and its brass and gold finishes that add elegance to every nook and cranny of the space. The menu, overseen by chef Luke Bergman, feels equally thought out, with a concise roster — only seventeen dishes appear on the dinner menu — left as a single list, not broken down into appetizers, mains or sides. Although European technique is evident in emulsions, reductions and vinaigrettes, the chef says he avoided the overuse of butter and cream, instead relying on "aggressive but not heavy flavors."
2930 Umatilla Street
El Five isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an experience. Perched on the fifth floor of a new building in LoHi, the restaurant — run by the group behind Linger and Root Down — commands breathtaking views of downtown and the mountains. But the views inside the walls are just as mesmerizing. People are everywhere — down corridors that lead to view-drenched dining rooms, standing, sitting, ordering drinks, saving seats, sharing steel pans of paella, laughing and leaning in across velvety booths to be heard over the primal thump of a dance beat. Gleaming black surfaces reflect light from the wrap-around windows, and a mosaic of hundreds of hexagonal mirrors make a kaleidoscope of faces and beams of light. The menu skews toward tapas, so everything is meant to share, from lamb sausage with hummus to patatas bravas to matzoh-ball soup dumplings. Don’t be shocked by the paella prices: Those steel pans of crisped rice loaded with rabbit confit or seafood are also designed to feed the table.
1600 Pearl Street, Boulder
There are restaurant "concepts" — easy to define in a word or two, recognizable in format by potential customers — and then there are restaurants. For a new eatery aiming to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner from a team of creative and forward-looking chefs and bakers, a pat definition isn't easy, or even desirable. That's the case at Emmerson, which opened in August. Under executive chef/partner Michael Gibney and pastry chef/partner Jeb Breakell, the cuisine careens between the familiar and the astonishing. A straight-up bodega breakfast sandwich appeals to the New Yorker in all of us, and croissants crackle in a pitch-perfect French accent, but dinner challenges guests with unusual combinations of flavors and textures. On the opening menu, jiggly raw oysters robed in velvet sheets of raw beef shouldn't have worked, but they did, tied together with sharp mustard, radish and scallions. Fresh pastas are dressed in both simple peasant wear and stylish modern couture. Emmerson offers something edgy lacking in many other establishments: excitement and anticipation — for the next dish out of the kitchen and the next visit to see what's new.
Hearth & Dram
1801 Wewatta Street
The exterior of Hearth & Dram resembles a sleek, glass-clad cube, but inside it's a little more rustic, with leather chairs, country-kitchen wainscoting and plaid upholstery to soften the modern, angular space above polished concrete floors. The "hearth" in the restaurant's name is the big wood-fired grill in the kitchen that turns out roast meats and vegetables, including "whole beast feasts" that must be ordered five days in advance and will feed six to ten diners. The "dram" side of the equation is a big, big whiskey list, some 360 items strong — the largest selection downtown, according to the restaurant. There's even whiskey on tap and a whiskey cart with special selections for connoisseurs with deep pockets. House-cured meats appear on the lunch and dinner menus; one of our favorites is the Cubano sandwich stacked thick with salty ham and succulent roast pork. Rustic meets modern at Hearth & Dram with just the right doses of both.
Punch Bowl Social Stapleton
3120 Uinta Street
Denver is already familiar with the diner-style comfort food of restaurateur Robert Thompson's original Punch Bowl Social on Broadway, so a second location doesn't seem like much more than a convenient playground and dinner stop for east-side residents. But the new PBS has an attraction that extends far beyond the menu, bowling, booze and other adult distractions. Built from the bones of the original Stapleton International Airport control tower, Punch Bowl Stapleton is a mesmerizing mix of transportation museum, homage to mid-century design and nostalgic wonderland for Denverites who never forgot the city's first major airport. We have Thompson to thank for preserving this bit of Colorado history and turning it into a beacon for those looking for good grub and good fun in a truly unique environment.
1265 Alpine Avenue, Boulder
Taos native Hosea Rosenberg always wanted to do a New Mexican restaurant, but until the mid-century-modern space nestled next to Boulder's Ideal Market fell into his lap, he had no plans to move forward on that desire. In fact, he was plotting an expansion of Blackbelly Market, his butcher shop and meat-centric restaurant, into Denver, but he just couldn't find a location that spoke to him. Santo made its debut in mid-November, unleashing a menu of New Mexican fare that includes such classics as stacked blue-corn enchiladas, Navajo fry bread, posole and, of course, red and green chile. But Santo is also a refined homage to the flavors of the Southwest. A spectacular chandelier shaped like the zia, the red circle with rays pointing in four directions (as found on the New Mexico state flag) hovers above the central bar. And then, of course, there are the wooden santos — carved figurines of saints that are common in New Mexico and provide the inspiration behind the restaurant's name. While Santo isn't mind-blowing or avant-garde, it's heartfelt and true to Rosenberg's roots.
3301 Tejon Street
Chef/owner Max MacKissock and executive chef/owner Blake Edmunds have worked on numerous projects together, but Señor Bear is the purest distillation of their intelligence and adventurousness. Where the original Squeaky Bean (where MacKissock and Edmunds both worked) and Jezebel's once stood, the compact but window-lined space now houses Señor Bear — larger, lighter and more festive than its predecessors, thanks to sparkling Peruvian mirrors and the soft glow of the long, central bar. There’s a temptation to categorize the restaurant as Mexican, given its hefty margaritas and queso fundido, plus carnitas and “el pollo bronco” chicken strips to customize in tortillas with an enticing array of sides. But the menu is more broadly Latin American, and the standout dishes – such as Peruvian saltado made with broccoli, not beef, and Oaxacan mole negro with squash — reveal these subtle influences while showcasing the creativity of the kitchen.
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1889 16th Street
Standing in front of Tavernetta, the new Italian restaurant from Frasca Food and Wine owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, you almost wouldn't guess you were in Denver — despite being only a stone's throw from Union Station. New hotels and apartment buildings crowd in around the stone facade of the eatery (as if peering down to see what's on the menu), and a train platform stretches off into the distance. Surely this is the transportation hub of some major East Coast or European city, not our quaint Denver, where only a few years ago weeds and chain-link fences sprouted from a dirt lot where Tavernetta now stands. Visionary forces are at work in this sector of downtown, and Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson are now a part of that. The food of various Italian regions is the theme of the menu, from well-known ports of call like Venice to hidden gems such as Trapani, on Sicily's far shore. Chef Ian Wortham has taken time to travel through these regions in search of unique and interesting flavors, adapting them as needed for Denver tastes and available ingredients. The result is magnificent, bustling to the point just shy of chaos, and almost overwhelming with its brand of hospitality that makes you feel as if every one of the dozens of staffers on hand are there just for you.
1702 Humboldt Street
At White Pie, brothers Kris and Jason Wallenta dish up wood-fired pizzas inspired by their childhood in New Haven, Connecticut. But even though their pies were inspired by an East Coast classic, they aren’t chained to tradition — just as their tacos at Dos Santos, the Mexican restaurant they run just around the corner, aren’t bound by Mexican custom. Freed from expectations, White Pie’s crisp, charred, often garlicky, just-cheesy-enough pizzas open us to new possibilities for what else pizza can be, without straying too far into the land of crazy. Some are white, like the best-selling White Pie — with mozzarella sprinkled over crème fraîche, plus bacon, garlic, mushrooms and a poached egg — and the mind-boggling (in a good way) Paulie Walnuts, with cheese, mashed potatoes, candied walnuts and bacon. Others are red, like the Porky Porkorino, with sopressata that curls and crisps around the edges from the oven’s high heat, plus pickled jalapeños and chile-infused honey. Even if this style of pizza isn’t your thing, you’re sure to find something that is at White Pie, whether it’s creamy ten-layered lasagna, cacio e pepe or a frozen Negroni.
Watch for the Best New Bars of 2017...