There was a time when restaurants were simply places where people went to eat. There was no fanfare, no celebration of celebrity chefs, and no hot new dishes. But these days, food is news, whether it's the next big restaurant opening, a TV appearance from one of our favorite cooks, or a search for the best ramen, pizza or tacos.
The people behind the restaurants are as interesting as the food itself; their personalities flow through established Denver institutions and pop up in new places, too. Which bright new chef will change the scene with bold new dishes? Who will take over our favorite dive bar when the owner retires? We've looked for the answers to these questions and more throughout the year. Here are the ten biggest food stories in Denver listed in chronological order, from the sale of a downtown bar that's part of the city's history to the evolution of the still-young craft-brewing scene.
1. My Brother's Bar has new owners.
My Brother's had operated continuously (other than during Prohibition) under different names since 1873 before it was taken over by Jim and Angelo Karagas in 1970. Danny Newman and his mother, Paula, who has worked at My Brother's Bar for more than thirty years, bought the place in January and have changed very little since. You can still enjoy your JCB or Johnny Burger along with classical music in a cozy bar with no TVs and plenty of familiar faces.
2. Top Chef films season fifteen in Colorado.
In March, Bravo announced that it would be filming the fifteenth season of Top Chef in Colorado, highlighting the restaurants, chefs and cuisine of Denver, Boulder and Telluride, among other locales. Filming began in June, and the first episode aired on December 7. And Colorado can claim two of the chef-testants as our own: Carrie Baird of Bar Dough, and Brother Luck of Four by Brother Luck in Colorado Springs. The nationwide popularity of the reality show is sure to draw more attention and visitors to our beautiful state.
3. Stapleton and Aurora experience a restaurant surge.
In April, Cattivella became the first restaurant to open in the new Eastbridge shopping center on the eastern frontier of the Stapleton neighborhood. The Italian eatery from chef Elise Wiggins was soon followed by Concourse Restaurant Moderne, Next Door American Eatery, Los Chingones and HashTAG. Meanwhile, Stanley Marketplace, a mall-ish development less than a mile from Eastbridge (on the Aurora side of the line), began filling up. Stanley Beer Hall, Comida, Denver Biscuit Co., Annette, Rosenberg's Bagels & Deli, Sazza and Yellowbelly Chicken are among a multitude of full-service restaurants, fast-casual counters, bars and retail outlets that have added an unprecedented number of options for the neighborhood. Three of these east-side additions — Annette, Concourse and Cattivella — made it onto our list of the best new restaurants of 2017.
4. Stella's on 16th closes after only seven months.
Stella's on 16th showed so much promise when it opened in a brand-new building downtown at the beginning of 2017, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner in a sleek market-cafe setting with its own bakery and a range of dishes from homestyle pancakes to elegantly presented entrees. Our restaurant critic, Gretchen Kurtz, said Stella's was on its way to "creating a spot that’s as integral to the fabric of the growing neighborhood as a grocery store, bank or gym" in July. But just a month later the place was closed, with nothing but a note on the door to explain the closing to customers and employees. Big money has been sunk into a number of restaurants in the blocks behind Union Station — Tavernetta, Citizen Rail, Hearth & Dram and Tupelo Honey, to name a few — and Stella's certainly seemed as ambitious as those. With so much at stake, it was a real surprise to see the place open and close in the same year.
5. High-end hotel restaurants invade Denver.
The rising value of Denver real estate has resulted in much of the prime square footage going to businesses with deep pockets. A number of new hotels sprang up last year, and with them came lavish restaurants from Denver and from out of state. The Kimpton Hotel Born opened in August with Citizen Rail as its main bar and restaurant, with Tavernetta (from the founders of Frasca Food and Wine) joining the fun shortly thereafter. Across the street, Hearth & Dram began serving at the Hotel Indigo, while Urban Farmer moved into the venerable Oxford Hotel on the other side of Union Station. Nearby, Sage Hospitality unveiled the Maven, a hotel above Sage Restaurant Group's Kachina Southwestern Grill and Poka Lola Social Club. Le Méridian, a new hotel in the heart of the downtown business district, houses Corinne and a stunning rooftop bar called 54Thirty.
6. Tavernetta is on fire.
Frasca Food and Wine founders Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson unveiled their new Italian eatery behind Union Station on September 13 to a Denver crowd that had all but clawed down the doors in anticipation. But just a week later, a fire broke out during dinner service that cleared out the dining room (fortunately, nobody was injured) and required intervention from the Denver Fire Department. The damage from smoke and water was extensive enough that portions of the flooring and walls, along with upholstery and other interior decorations, needed to be replaced. It took until November 9 for Tavernetta to reopen — with a new drink on the cocktail menu called "Fire in the Wall" to commemorate the blaze.
7. Frank Bonanno plans to open Milk Market downtown.
Restaurateur Frank Bonanno maintains a diverse collection of eateries scattered around central Denver, from Mizuna (the flagship), Luca and Bones in Governor's Park to Green Russell, Russell's Smokehouse and Osteria Marco in Larimer Square. He currently runs ten establishments under the Bonanno Concepts umbrella, but the chef plans to blow that number out of the water in 2018 with his upcoming Milk Market food hall. Announced in October, the project will encompass fifteen different food and beverage stations, including those offering fried chicken, crepes, Hawaiian-style poke, sandwiches, pizza and salads, along with a wine bar and a Colorado-themed taproom. Denver has seen several consolidated food-and-drink halls and courts open recently (see Denver Central Market, Avanti Food & Beverage, Stanley Marketplace and the upcoming Zeppelin Station as examples), but this is the first where everything will be managed by one operator. Start saving your milk money!
8. Steve Ells plans to step down as CEO of Chipotle.
Without Steve Ells, there would be no Chipotle. As a young chef, Ells launched the fast-casual burrito company as a single outlet on East Evans Avenue in 1993. At first he rolled every burrito himself, but he quickly grew the chain beyond Colorado borders and guided the company's growth, attempting to adhere to the motto "food with integrity" along the way. But with several health scares and shrinking stock prices, Ells announced in November that he'd be stepping down as CEO to make way for new leadership; he'll stay on as executive chairman of the board after a new CEO is named. One of the biggest restaurant groups ever to emerge from Denver, Chipotle will soon be under new guidance for the first time ever.
9. Highland Tap & Burger founder takes over the Wazee Supper Club.
The Wazee Supper Club has changed hands several times over the decades but has always maintained its identity as a pizza joint and watering hole, even as the menu has become less and less of a draw. But November marked the end of the road for the Wazee as we've known it for more than forty years. Roadhouse Hospitality Group, which purchased a majority stake in the eatery three years ago, sold to Culinary Creative, a team that includes Highland Tap & Burger founders Juan Padro and Katie O'Shea and chef Max MacKissock, who helped launch Bar Dough and Señor Bear. The new owners will reopen the space in 2018 as a French "bistronomy" (a phrase that's been used to describe a Parisian food movement since the late 1990s) restaurant called Morin. The Wazee Supper Club will remain open until late January.
10. Craft breweries consolidate.
The brewery bubble keeps expanding, with many new craft-beer makers expected to enter the fray in 2018. Closings have been few and far between, but 2017 marked the sale and/or consolidation of several Colorado breweries. In Boulder, Boulder Beer Company took over the old Walnut Brewing Space, while the Post Brewing Company bought the Shine Restaurant & Gathering Space location, where Shine had also brewed beer. In Denver, North Carolina's Thirsty Monk bought out Deep Draft Brewing on East 17th Avenue, and Wit's End closed up its west Denver brewhouse and taproom to shack up with Strange Craft Beer, where both companies will produce beers on the same system. In Fort Collins, Canadian brewer Red Truck bought out Fort Collins Brewing and will reopen the expansive restaurant and taproom under the Red Truck name in 2018.