By our count, nearly 300 restaurants have opened in the metro area since January 1 -- a big increase over 2010, when just over 200 concepts (many of them food trucks) joined the scene. This past year, we saw many of those food-truck entrepreneurs also pick up leases to brick-and-mortar spaces, putting down roots after successfully test-driving their food.
There were plenty of other new ventures, too, and many of those were second (or third) spots from seasoned restaurateurs, featuring creative menus in smart spaces. Big-name restaurateurs from other cities also came to Denver, and a few local chefs finally got their own places, as well. We talked to many of the restaurateurs who opened restaurants in 2011 for this week's Year in Review in Westword.
Their efforts paid off with a bumper crop of great places; our list of the best new restaurants in the metro area in 2011 could have included dozens of names. But instead, we whittled it down to ten. Here they are, in no particular order:
Coohills Tom Coohill was a celebrated chef in Atlanta, gaining accolades for the French fine-dining restaurants he established in that city in the '90s. When he decided to dive into the Denver scene, though, he scaled back, building a spot that's still French, but less focused on the white linen tablecloths and high check averages. The restaurant overlooks Cherry Creek and features a separate bar area that's decidedly more casual than the dining room. Linger From the moment it opened, crowds crammed through the doors of Linger, the kitschy morgue-themed restaurant that Justin Cucci put in the old Olinger mortuary. That's because with this restaurant, Cucci filled a niche that Denver didn't even know was empty. The sexy spot features a board of global street food, which is perfect for nibbling with offerings off the killer beverage list. And the bars -- indoor and rooftop -- feature sweeping views of the skyline.
Ryan Leinonen worked the burners in several restaurants in Boulder and Denver, and when he decided to strike out on his own, he drew knowledge from his experience and inspiration from a trip to Scandinavia. His new, sleek Ballpark spot serves dishes that feature cloudberry preserves, aquavit smoked salmon and plenty of seafood and dill. Trillium is also one of the few places in Denver that keeps caviar service on the nightly menu.TAG RAW|BAR
Troy Guard's TAG was already entrenched in Larimer Square, so when he picked up the basement spot that houses TAG RAW|BAR a few doors down, it was to provide an extension to his existing efforts. But this space stands on its own. Because it doesn't really have a kitchen, Guard uses it to turn out tartare, sashimi and ceviche variations, raw dishes that are some of the most inventive in town.Pizzeria Locale
Seven years ago, Bobby Stuckey and chef Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson opened Frasca Food & Wine, a game-changing restaurant that raised the bar for every fine-dining concept that's entered the market since. It took them half a decade to figure out what to do next, but they ultimately settled on a true Napolitano pizzeria. To pull it off, they exported a chef for a few months and imported an oven, zeroing in on making pies exactly as they're made in Italy. And today Pizzeria Locale is turning out some of the best pizza in the state, alongside charcuterie, stunning desserts and the partners' Scarpetta wine, which pours on tap.Row 14
Finally, a restaurant near the Colorado Convention Center that provides visitors with quality Colorado cuisine. Row 14, an upscale spot that opened in the Spire in March, marries continental and Asian cooking techniques on a playful and well-executed menu. The place also boasts a massive by-the-glass wine list and, occasionally, Fernet Branca on tap. It's become a destination for visitors from out of state and residents who live above it in the Spire -- and everyone in between.Cafe|Bar
After they'd landed their Alameda lease, Cafe|Bar owner Dane Huguley and chef Eric Rivera examined the neighborhood to determine what kind of restaurant would best fit the area. The result was a reimagined neighborhood joint, a spot that could lure nearby residents for any occasion, be it a dinner date, a nightcap or a working lunch. With a sexy design and sourcing that focuses on local, sustainably grown ingredients, the pair put together a menu of American fare that does just what it set out to do, drawing a community of regulars.Crimson Canary
Boss Italian: That's how owners Andre and Aaron Lobato and Joey Newman described Crimson Canary when news first broke that they were building a second restaurant, this one on a stretch of South Broadway that will see a lot of activity in 2012. But this wouldn't be just another red-sauce joint. As they'd done with road food at Interstate, their first venture, they tricked out old-school Italian their own way with some creative menu options, and paired the board to a bar that deserves just as much focus.Le Grand Bistro and Oyster Bar
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Veteran restaurateur Robert Thompson believes every city needs a grand brasserie, but years ago he closed Brasserie Rouge, his first attempt at that concept in Denver, because he couldn't draw the crowds. But 2011 was the year to try again, he decided. And so he took over the Baur's spot on Curtis. And, with Sergio Romero on the burners, today Le Grand turns out a menu of unpretentious bistro food -- including oysters, mussels, charcuterie and one hell of a burger -- in a charming space with a fabulous bar.Thai Street Food
Several street-food operators went stationary this year, including Utumporn Killoran, the woman who's manned a Thai cart on the 16th Street Mall for more than five years. Most days, Killoran uses her Aurora address as a commissary kitchen, prepping to feed the masses downtown. But on Saturday nights, she opens it up as a proper restaurant, serving specialties from the Issan region of Thailand -- and some of the best green curry in town.
Agree with our list? Disagree? Tell us about your favorite new restaurants in the metro area in the comments section below. A version of this story appeared in yesterday's Cafe Bites, our weekly e-mail newsletter covering the local food and drink scene. Find out how to subscribe here.