Denver’s dining scene is not only growing, it’s diversifying. Building on 2016 trends, market halls remain popular, veggie-forward menus still reign, and New American cooking is a prime genre (though maybe that’s not so much a trend as a catch-all for the personal cooking that defines America’s restaurants at large). Still, new patterns are emerging all the time. Here are the ten defining dining trends in the Mile High City in 2017.
Frozen rosé (or frozé) poured forth from drink spigots this year, dominating Instagram feeds via the Infinite Monkey Theorem (Denver’s OG frozé), Tupelo Honey and Max’s Wine Dive. But Denver’s frosty beverage obsession wasn’t limited to wine; see the frozen Negroni at White Pie, the frozen screwdriver at Hashtag, the banana daiquiri at Wayward and the rotating frozen drink at Señor Bear for proof.
The Mile High’s obsession with smoke (hey, we’re talking the wood-fired variety) continued into 2017, with several high-profile openings centered around the grill. Seasonal cooking gets the wood-fired treatment at Annette, Cattivella turns out Italian food and pizza by way of its open oven, and Citizen Rail is dialing up the heat on dry-aged cuts of meat. These restaurants join such venerable wood-fired spots as Acorn, Bar Dough and Boulder’s Basta, which continue to showcase the rustic style of cooking.
If 2008 was the year of the gastropub and 2012 the era of kale, it’s very possible that 2017 will wind up as the age of poke. Raw tuna dominated lunch in Denver this year, as the poke industry swelled to encompass dozens of establishments. While Ohana Hawaiian Kitchen qualifies as the city’s first poke purveyor, PokeCity commands a sizable following in the Tech Center, and Turtle Boat gives poke a sustainable twist. Even full-service restaurants got into the poke game, offering composed takes on the dish alongside wood-fired meat and seafood (Mister Tuna) or inventive variations on Asian food (Departure).
Once an outlying Denver neighborhood, Stapleton came on strong as a restaurant destination this year. Stanley Marketplace quickly jumped to the forefront of Denver’s market halls; Eastbridge saw a collection of big openings like Cattivella, Hashtag and Concourse Bistro Moderne; and new locations of some of Denver’s biggest sensations (Rosenberg’s Bagels, Los Chingones, Next Door) staked a claim in the neighborhood. Is this the city’s hottest dining destination? It’s certainly rife with excuses to head east.
High-Profile Hotel Restaurants
The days of mediocre hotel restaurants are long gone, but Denver has seen an unusual number of top-notch hotel restaurants opening this year. Cherry Creek’s Halcyon Hotel brought us Departure and Quality Italian, the Maven houses Kachina, Urban Farmer revived the Oxford Hotel’s dining, and Kimpton’s brand-new Born Hotel is home to both Citizen Rail and Tavernetta. Far from mere amenities for weary travelers, these restaurants rightfully command their own local followings — and are worth checking out, even if you’re not checking in.
Just last year, we found ourselves asking where all the steakhouses had gone. But this old-fashioned genre is undergoing a refresh, which started in Denver with Guard and Grace and continued this year with versions both overt — Urban Farmer and a forthcoming, Basque-style steakhouse from Bryan Dayton and Amos Watts in Boulder — and subtle: Citizen Rail and Hearth & Dram don’t call themselves steakhouses, but they offer carnivorous entree options that put old-school steakhouses to shame. These are not your grandfather’s clubby emporia of expensive steer and cabernet: Hallmarks of the new crop include plenty of options for herbivores, lively atmospheres, well-rounded beverage programs and affordable items up and down the menu.
Hope you’ve practiced tipping your head back and drinking the stream shooting from a bulbous porrón, because these Spanish serving vessels are popping up in restaurants all over the metro area. In addition to cider, the traditional porrón beverage, El Five, Hop Alley and Boulder’s Arcana all serve large-format cocktails in these pitchers, which are inevitably passed among ebullient imbibers and consumed straight from the spout.
Ice Cream Sandwiches
It doesn’t get much more classic than ice cream when it comes to dessert, but lately there’s been an uptick in creative ice cream sandwiches. Behold Sweet Cooie’s Gooey Cooie, which packs a scoop inside a split doughnut drizzled with glaze, or the PopTart ice cream sandwiches touted by Ice Cream Riot. And then there’s the version at Denver Central Market’s High Point, made with a flaky kouign-amann.
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Cacio e Pepe
Seems like an inordinate number of Italian restaurants entered the market this year — but perhaps that’s because we saw the high-profile debuts of Tavernetta from team Frasca, Cattivella from Elise Wiggins, New York City import Quality Italian, and Il Posto 2.0. Many more restaurants still are touting refined plates of handmade pasta, but were we to distill this trend to a dish, it’d be cacio e pepe, a simple cheese-and-pepper pasta that is suddenly ubiquitous. Eat your way through the versions at Dio Mio, Bar Dough, Coperta and White Pie, and toast Rome for this killer comfort food.
Nashville Hot Chicken
Nashville-style hot chicken was slow to fly in Denver, but this year brought a veritable flock of versions, all with the trademark cayenne rub and side of pickles. Find it in sandwich form at the newly opened Birdcall, or in classic exuberance at both locations of Steuben’s and the Post Chicken & Beer. We’re also eagerly awaiting a revival of Frank Bonanno’s Lou’s, the original Nashville-hot purveyor in the Mile High.
This story first appeared in Bites, our annual restaurant guide inserted in the September 28 issue of Westword.