Cooking over hardwood is a red-hot trend right now, and many new restaurants are outfitting themselves with grills, ovens and rotisseries fueled by oak, hickory, mesquite and fruit woods. Newcomers are adding a smoky note to the skies over Denver, along with many older favorites. Here are the twelve best wood-fired restaurants in the metro area — keeping in mind that we're leaving barbecue and primarily-pizza places for another day.
3350 Brighton Boulevard
Acorn, which opened in September 2013, doesn’t fall too far from its older sibling, Boulder's Oak at Fourteenth (which also made this list). The space is different, of course: Acorn takes full advantage of the ultra-urban, industrial-chic feel of the Source, with plenty of exposed brick, metal ducts and graffiti. But the menu embodies the same "wood-fired seasonal cooking" that's made Oak one of Boulder's most inspiring — and popular — restaurants, here focusing more on small plates, and a few very large plates, rather than dividing dishes by more traditional courses.
2501 Dallas Street, Aurora
Located in Stanley Marketplace, Annette follows in the footsteps of many small-plates eateries that anchor our dining scene, not least of which is Acorn, where chef/owner Caroline Glover previously worked. Seasonal ingredients are revered, and pickled accents pop up everywhere. A wood-fired grill adds a cozy rusticity that you smell when you walk in the door. The restaurant is at its best when showcasing Glover’s take on comfort food: pillowy gnocchi, or whole wood-grilled fish with Calabrian chile jam, grilled carrots and snap peas.
909 Walnut Street, Boulder
When Arcana opened in 2016, the mission of this high-aspiring Boulder restaurant was to explore what it calls “the true identity of American cuisine,” putting out elaborate, special-occasion fare. Under chef/partner Kyle Mendenhall, the restaurant adds the rustic elements of smoke and char to its seasonal Colorado cuisine, with an intriguing nod to history in touches such as slapjacks and kitchen pepper. The restaurant goes to extra lengths, baking its own bread and making its own cultured butter; the simplicity of both allow diners to taste the wood flavors captured in the bread.
2227 West 32nd Avenue
To mistake Juan and Katie Padro's Italian eatery, which opened right next door to their Highland Tap & Burger in the fall of 2015, for just another wood-fired-pizza joint would be to miss out on the Italian and Italian-American fare from chef-partner Max MacKissock and new executive chef Carrie Baird. Handmade pastas dressed in traditional (and not-so-traditional) sauces tempt alongside fire-roasted carrots and meats like porchetta that pick up a hint of smoke.
3601 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
Chef/owner Kelly Whitaker has a passion for grains, bread and baking, which is evident in the wood-baked loaves and pizzas at his Boulder restaurant. But pizza isn't the only thing Whitaker cooks in the Italian dome oven: a selection of seasonal and rustic small plates — all kissed with smoke — and a few larger plates focus on simplicity and the ingredients at hand.
10195 East 29th Avenue
With Cattivella (which means "naughty girl"), chef/owner Elise Wiggins has created the kind of restaurant that reflects her many experiences traveling, working and eating in Italy. There's the wood-fired pizza oven used for far more than just pizzas; even beans are slow-cooked in glass flasks nestled in hot embers. There's the adjustable wood grill that gives meats (much of it brought in whole, then butchered and dry-aged on site) and vegetables a rustic, old-world depth of flavor. And there are the housemade breads and pastas that separate Cattivella from the standard bistro or trattoria. You're sure to feel spoiled — and even a little naughty — enjoying all types of delights at this unabashedly Italian eatery.
Fish N Beer
3510 Larimer Street
Bigger may be better for certain things, but smaller and louder are no-brainers when it comes to instant ambience – and Fish N Beer, the latest offering from Kevin Morrison of Tacos Tequila Whiskey fame, has it in spades. The menu is as compact as the fifty-seat space, offering a tightly managed list of wood-grilled oysters and other small bites, plus wood-fired entrees and seasonal sides. Underutilized cuts make winsome appearances: Soy-glazed salmon collars sizzle on the open grill, and even standards like Brussels sprouts are charred over flames — and then tossed in bone-marrow butter.
Hearth & Dram
1801 Wewatta Street
Jeffrey Wall was looking for a reason to come to Denver when the executive-chef position at Hearth & Dram popped up on his computer screen. It was a perfect match: The restaurant’s concept called for an ambitious whiskey collection, one Wall could match with a menu piled high with charcuterie, wood-fired proteins and unusual vegetables, as well as whole-beast feasts. The menu for Hearth & Dram, which continues to evolve, is loaded with smoked duck, brisket and even a hangar steak, along with spit-roasted specialties that end up in sandwiches and platters.
The "ñ" makes all the difference for Leña, a smart Latin bistro on South Broadway. The name is the Spanish term for firewood, and a smoky flavor permeates much of Leña's menu. The roster, which draws from Mexico and Central and South America, boasts hard-to-find regional specialties like tlacoyos and Peruvian potatoes alongside simple cuts of meat from the grill. A full bar stocked with South American spirits like pisco makes the cross-continental journey a smooth one.
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3033 Brighton Boulevard
Troy Guard's homage to the Hawaii of his youth covers far more than grilled meats, since a sushi bar, a pickling station and housemade pastas are all part of the program — but you'd be remiss if you skipped the rotisserie selections slow-roasted over oak embers. Lamb, pork and beef all get a go over the grill, as do Pueblo-grown yams, shiitake mushrooms and a variety of seafood. It's like a campfire cookout with a chef as your camping buddy.
Oak at Fourteenth
1400 Pearl Street, Boulder
The excellence of Oak at Fourteenth is apparent from the first sip of a cocktail created by beverage director/co-owner Bryan Dayton to the last taste of short rib or duck breast from chef/co-owner Steven Redzikowski's menu. The dining room is modern and streamlined, yet still feels warm and inviting, perhaps because of the wood smoke wafting from the kitchen. But whether the sense of comfort comes from that soft, campfire aroma or from the well-trained staff that never misses a beat, dinner at Oak is a full sensory experience, not just another meal. Since you're here to eat, though, bring a group and indulge in a large-format platter; the impressive ancho-glazed pork shoulder surrounded in roasted — nearly candied, really — seasonal vegetables is a jaw-dropper, even before you take your first bite. Wood-fired cooking has taken over the restaurant scene in Denver and Boulder, but Oak was one of the trailblazers that made it all possible.