Denver's thirteen biggest culinary stories of 2013: the good, the bad, the surprising and the tragic

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While we prepare to ring in 2014, here's a look back at the biggest culinary stories that shaped 2013. Some will make you raise your eyebrows, others will inspire you, and a few will make your eyes glisten -- but they all made 2013 a year to remember, even if there are some things that we'd rather forget.

See also: 20 breweries that plan to open in Denver in 2014

13) Notable chef shuffles

In the wee hours of 2013, just after the ball had dropped ushering in 2013, Lance Barto, the opening chef of Central Bistro, finished his last hurrah in the kitchen, the result of a firing by Isiah Salazar, Central's owner. "He felt the future of the restaurant would be in better hands if it was left to someone else," revealed Barto, who would then go on to open the Social, a restaurant in Castle Pines, where he's turning out excellent dishes. In August, while the rest of us were lamenting the dog days of summer, executive chef Max MacKissock made tongues wag when he unexpectedly exited the kitchen of the Squeaky Bean, a restaurant he built from the ground up with owner Johnny Ballen. MacKissock has since landed in the galley of Williams & Graham, while the Bean's kitchen is now quarterbacked by Theo Adley, the former chef-owner of the Pinyon, in Boulder. Just under a year ago, Matt Selby, who had made a big name for himself as the chef at Vesta Dipping Grill, a stint he held for fifteen years, exited that kitchen to become the chef-partner of Corner House, a restaurant in the Jefferson Park neighborhood that's owned by Scott Kinsey and James Iacino, president of Seattle Fish Company. "This is just such an incredible opportunity," said Selby when the news broke that he was leaving the Vesta Group, which also includes Ace and Steuben's. But last month, that opportunity came to an end when Selby and the Corner House parted ways.

12) Jennifer Jasinski wins big

2013 was a banner year for Jennifer Jasinski, chef-owner of Rioja, Bistro Vendome, Euclid Hall and the forthcoming Stoic and Genuine, which will open next year in Union Station. The star chef, a prodigy of Wolfgang Puck, not only took home the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef in the Southwest honor, making her the first Denver chef to do so, but she also kicked some serious ass on Top Chef Masters, earning herself a coveted spot in the final three. She didn't win the whole kit and caboodle, but she cemented herself as one of America's best chefs, and, perhaps more important, raised $35,000 for Work Options for Women, a Denver nonprofit that teaches food-service skills to underprivileged women. And that's not all: The Daily Meal also named Jasinski one of the most "badass female chefs in America." Given Jasinski's track record, expect Stoic & Genuine, the kitchen of which will be commanded by Jorel Pierce, chef at Euclid Hall, to generate even more accolades.

11) It's raining doughnuts and cronuts

Cupcakes? Screw cupcakes. 2013 was the undisputed year of the doughnut (and, nationally, the cronut, a cross between a doughnut and a croissant), and Denver was graced (or glazed) with more than enough doughnut shacks to raise the dead. Voodoo Doughnut, the Portland-based sugar shack that's renowned for its quirky and salacious flavor combinations and doughnut names, descended upon Denver earlier this month, commanding block-long crowds. For doughnuts! Then again, when Dunkin' Doughnuts opened on Broadway in late September, that street was bumper-to-bumper with cars stretching all the way to Colfax. Hell, even I stood in line for an hour. And next year, Josh Schwab, who's been pimping doughnuts at farmers' markets and local cafes, will open Glazed and Confused, a brick-and-mortar doughnut den that's slated to rise in April.

10) The Source, Denver's first indoor artisan market, opens in RiNo

After months...and months...and months of hungry impatience on the part of Denverites yearning for a year-round culinary showroom, the Source, a promising -- and pioneering -- new project from urban developers Mickey and Kyle Zeppelin, the progressive trailblazers behind the TAXI development in River North, unveiled its first tenant, Comida Cantina, in late August. Since then, the 25,000-square foot culinary marketplace, which occupies an old warehouse, has unveiled Acorn, a restaurant from Bryan Dayton and Steve Redzikowski, who also own Oak at Fourteenth, in Boulder; Mondo Market, a lovely cheese shop; Meathead, a butchery; CapRock Farm Bar, which focuses on fantastic small-batch spirits distilled in Hotchkiss, Colorado; Crooked Stave, a brewery and taproom; Babette'S, a bread bakery; Boxcar Roasters; the Proper Pour, a wine shop; and Americanum Provisions, a produce-intensive market that sources most of what it sells from within ten miles of its front door. It's a culmination of everything culinary under one roof, not to mention a terrific model for future food market endeavors, and while the Zeppelins took their time signing tenants, the result of their efforts was well worth the wait.

9) Pizzeria Locale partners with Chipotle Mexican Grill

Earlier this year, when Westword restaurant critic reviewed the Denver outpost of Pizzeria Locale, the spinoff of the original Boulder location owned by Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson (of Frasca Food and Wine fame), she called it "Pizzeria Locale, Steve Ells-style, where you order at the counter and watch a line of white-shirted, red-hatted employees spoon toppings from metal containers onto dough that's loaded onto the spinning oven floor." Lo and behold, Ells, the mastermind behind homegrown mega-chain Chipotle Mexican Grill, along with Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson, just announced a joint partnership -- a partnership that was secretly cemented behind closed doors two years ago, at the same time that Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson began plotting their foray into Denver. And the crew has plans to multiply: Two or three more stores are slated to open in Denver -- and if Chipotle's success is any indication of what's to come, you can bet that Pizzeria Locale will pop up in another markets around the country, and the world.

8) St. Louis-style pizza -- and the processed cheese that paves it -- arrives in Denver

Back in October, comedian and television host Jimmy Kimmel squarely insulted the city of St. Louis when he royally crucified Imo's, a legendary, family-owned St. Louis-style pizza chain that Kimmel described as a "terrible, terrible pizza place," adding that the Midwestern chain, which has additional locations in Missouri, Illinois and Kansas City, also turns out "disgusting toasted raviolis." But Marc Dak, along with his wife Stacy, a St. Louis native, are laughing all the way to the bank. In late October, in Park Hill, the couple unleashed Arch Pizza, a St. Louis-style pizzeria modeled after Imo's, and they're continuing to enjoy the ride: a second outpost of Arch Pizza opened earlier this month in Lone Tree, and two additional locations are on the horizon for next year. Is it time to praise Provel?

7) Trader Joe's announces five forthcoming Colorado stores

In early November, when Trader Joe's, the insanely popular California-based grocer, announced that it was opening five Colorado stores -- three in Denver, one in Boulder and another in Fort Collins -- it generated a wave of euphoric fist pumping. For years, there's been a petition to recruit Trader Joe's to Colorado, and come Valentine's Day, when three of the five stores are scheduled to open, you can bet that everyone who signed that petition will be responsible for snarling traffic across the entire metro area. And you thought that getting a damn doughnut from Voodoo was an exercise in patience. Just wait, people: It's going to be an epic shit show.

6) A Denver restaurant -- Ho Mei Chinese -- earns the distinction as the third worst restaurant in America

Every year, the Daily Meal does a comprehensive survey, wherein it announces the 101 Best Restaurants in America. And in October, the Daily Meal revealed its picks for the worst restaurants in America, scratching "deep into the recesses of the culinary dustbin" to discover the worst scum of all -- the five most horrific restaurants in America -- and it included one in metro Denver, namely Ho Mei Chinese, which ballyhoos two Denver locations. Curious, we sent one of our staffers to the Colorado Boulevard location to investigate, and when she brought the grub back to the office, there was a collective spew of "ick."

5) Old South Pearl Street restaurant resurgence

A few years ago, Old South Pearl Street, which had previously trumpeted a formidable restaurant scene, lost its luster when several of the restaurants that made it a popular dining destination, closed. Pearl Street Grill, India's Pearl, Ototo Den and Izakaya Den all shuttered in 2012, but in 2013, the street experienced a major comeback. After a year of construction that carved out the original home of the Pearl Street Grill, the new Izakaya Den opened in June, revealing a stunning space, complete with a rooftop patio, that dropped jaws. And then there's Session Kitchen, a two-tiered, dramatically designed, art-centric showstopper from Breckenridge-Wynkoop that opened in October in the former Izakaya Den quarters. That restaurant, the kitchen of which is quarterbacked by kitchen magician Scott Parker, who spent ten years behind the line at Table 6, intertwines Parker's whimsical culinary prowess with bar manager Michael Cerretani's equally imaginative cocktail program. And Samir Mohammad, who cooked at the Village Cork for several years before landing the exec-chef position at Lala's Wine Bar + Pizzeria, is back on the block as the exec chef of Black Pearl, a mainstay on South Pearl Street that will undoubtedly benefit from Mohammad's impressive talent.

4) The culinary scene at DIA takes off -- and soars sky high

For far too long, Denver International Airport, the fifth busiest in the world, was ridiculously bereft of good restaurants, but that all changed in 2013. Now, when you're flight is delayed, there are numerous places to kick back, relax and swell your belly with magical foodstuffs that were once regulated to the city's urban core. Restaurateur Justin Cucci opened a second Root Down at DIA, in Concourse C, and it's nothing short of spectacular. Elway's -- and its testosterone-charged steaks -- also entered the soaring scene, as did Udi's, Crú Food and Wine Bar and Vino Volo. And in 2014, Steve's Snappin' Dogs and ModMarket will also take flight at DIA.

3) Union Station announces a swell of restaurants

Earlier this year, the Union Station Alliance -- a partnership comprised of Larimer Associates, REGen LLC, Sage Hospitality and Urban Neighborhoods -- announced that Snooze, The Kitchen Next Door and Mercantile, a new restaurant from Fruition chef-owner Alex Seidel and wine superstar Stephanie Caraway would occupy square footage at the historic train depot, which will ultimately house a 112-room hotel, along with retail tenants and several more bars and restaurants, including Stoic & Genuine and the Terminal Room. Thirsty Lion Pub & Grill, Zoe Ma Ma and Protein Bar, all of which will occupy the One Union Station Building at 16th and Wynkoop streets, a separate project from East West Partners, are slated to open next summer, as are the restaurants in Union Station. And when the projects are completed, that section of LoDo is going to be on every foodnik's "must-eat" list.

2) John Broening and Robert Thompson reconnect at Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar

Years ago, in 2003, John Broening, Robert Thompson and Thompson's ex-wife Leigh Jones, who owns Jonesy's EatBar, opened a downtown French brasserie called Brasserie Rouge. It was, for its short tenure, the best restaurant in Denver -- not just the best French restaurant, but the best restaurant. Period. Broening and Thompson went their separate ways but remained friends, and earlier this year, in the heat of a hot July, the two reunited at Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar, where Broening is the executive chef. "Robert has always empowered his chefs, and he has a great knack for concepts that work, from the decor to the service to the logo -- the whole brand works, and I'm excited to be a part of that," said Broening, who also gives credit to Brasserie Rouge -- and Thompson -- for catapulting his career. "Brasserie Rouge was the restaurant that made my reputation in Denver, and we were one of the first places to do designer cocktails, one of the first places to make our own charcuterie and do a real cheese plate, and a lot of that has to do with Robert, who trusts and respects his chefs," noted Broening. It's a partnership that will continue to thrive in 20i4, when the two will resurrect Argyll in the former Las Margaritas space in Uptown.

1) The closing of a Strings, a restaurant landmark

In April of this year, Tammy Cunningham, who had operated Strings following the heart-wrenching death of her husband Noel Cunningham, who committed suicide in December of 2011, made the difficult decision to close the landmark restaurant that stood on the corner of 17th and Humboldt for nearly 27 years. The closure of Strings didn't come as a surprise -- Cunningham's primary passion is her therapy practice -- but the announcement still made our eyes wet with tears. Strings wasn't just a restaurant -- it was a place that spawned a lifetime of memories. And Humboldt Farm. Fish. Wine, the restaurant that took over the space, is making new ones.

In Memoriam
In Memoriam

In 2013, the Denver community lost two amazing men: Curtis Caldwell, the former sous chef of Vesta Dripping Grill, who unexpectedly passed away in January, and Jeffrey Parr, a partner in Leigh Sullivan Enterprises, a restaurant consultancy company spearheaded by Leigh Sullivan, who also founded the Denver Five, over which Parr had a profound influence. Parr, who is survived by his wife Libby and Brooklyn, their young son, died in his sleep in the early morning hours of December 21. It is with deep, deep sadness that we say goodbye to these wonderful men, whose lives were tragically cut short. Thank you for giving us so many special memories. Rest in peace.

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