Ernie's Bar & Pizza has become a go-to place

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I may eat just about every meal at a restaurant, but I rarely return to the same spots unless I'm doing a review. This is partly because of job-related time constraints and partly my own gastronomic distraction: There are just too many restaurants to explore in Denver to warrant returning to the same places over and over.

A few restaurants are big exceptions to that rule, though, and they're the restaurants I often find myself returning to when I don't have to go anywhere at all. One of those spots? Ernie's Bar & Pizza.

When I reviewed Ernie's last year, I loved its neighborhood feel. "Even if you've never been here before, you're likely to feel the same sense of comfort that comes from making a restaurant your own," I wrote. "This is a restaurant where I could go every day -- especially when there's no occasion."

True to those words, I began suggesting Ernies as a spot for group gatherings, happy hour and low-key social reunions. I liked it because it was comfortable and unassuming, one of the few places I could really turn off my brain and stop thinking about work while I kicked back a couple of beers or an Italian margarita and ate whatever someone else wanted to order.

But when I dropped in for dinner with some friends on New Year's Eve, Ernie's gave me even more reason to come back: The kitchen had definitely improved its already solid food.

A round of chicken wings offered the first hint of change. The crisp skin encased meat so succulent it slipped easily from the bone, and packed a little lip-stinging heat, mellowed by the now-perfect housemade ranch and blue cheese dressings.

The real delight, though, was the pizza. My friends ordered a margherita, which had not been my favorite pie. This one completely blew me away. The crust was thinner, airier and crisper -- one of the best I've found in Denver. The tomato sauce was simultaneously sweet and zingy, the mozzarella freshly sliced and the basil freshly cut. The pizza was gooey but light, hearty but fresh.

I ate in wide-eyed wonder and with a newfound respect for everyone involved with Ernie's. It's impressive when a restaurant staff keeps working to improve -- even when it already has a pretty good thing going.

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