In 2013, more than 250 restaurants opened in metro Denver, everything from ambitious crowd-pleasers like Old Major and Best of Denver winner Lower48 Kitchen to a smattering of out-of-state doughnut houses. While 2014 might not be quite on pace to top last year's opening numbers, there's been no shortage of new establishments. Trends lean toward neighborhood bistros and cafes with small dining rooms -- some with twenty seats or fewer -- and comfort-food menus abound. But most newcomers are not content to recycle old ideas: Goat appears in various forms; elaborate pastries star alongside meticulously crafted sushi plates; touchy techniques like braising and notoriously tricky seafood cuts are handled deftly by new and pedigreed chefs alike.
Here's our list, in no particular order, of the top ten new restaurants to open in the first six months in 2014 -- one of which opened in the first week of the year and several of which have barely turned the page on the wall calendar.
10) The Post Brewing Co. 105 West Emma Street, Lafayette 303-593-2066 One of the first new eateries to hang its shingle in 2014, the Post got off to a running start thanks to guidance from Big Red F, the restaurant group behind Lola and the growing stable of Jax Fish Houses along the Front Range. Drawing families and beer lovers alike from bucolic Lafayette and further afield with picnic-worthy delights like fried chicken, deviled eggs and pimento spread, chef Brett Smith and his crew aren't content to settle for ordinary renditions of Midwestern standbys. That chicken wallows in buttermilk before getting an herb-flecked coating of gluten-free flour for a serious crunch; the deviled eggs come topped with crispy shreds of pork cheek; and the pimento spread, served warm, features goat cheese instead of the scary orange stuff. Beers, like a malty-if-style-boggling session barleywine by former Dogfish Head whiz Bryan Selders, add to the fun. Daily blue-plate specials, like Saturday's thin-pounded chicken fried steak, mean you can work your way through the regular menu or come back each week for your favorite.
9) Range 918 17th Street 720-726-4800 Hotel restaurants are not always the best indicator of a city's trends and food obsessions, but Range, located in the new Renaissance Denver Hotel, hits all the right notes in terms of style and menu. Heavily armored in woods of different finishes (yes, that includes barnwood) and highlighted with splashes of orange, Range even sports an uber-hip wood-slab community table. The hotel is geared toward business travelers, tourists and conventioneers, of course, so a Colorado-themed menu with touches of the Old West seems like a good bet to keep guests spending dollars in-house. But locals, too, might be drawn to wood-fired inventions like flatbread with bacon jam and appetizers spiked with heat from padron and habanero peppers. The kitchen also dabbles in pickling and preserving to up the chuck-wagon grub theme. Colorado lamb competes for attention, in the form of shank and sausage, with other bacon-smacked dishes.
8) To the Wind Bistro 3333 East Colfax Avenue 303-316-3333 With a dining room as small as at this precocious bistro (with little more than a dozen chairs), the focus is necessarily on the kitchen, even more so when the chef is cooking in plain view behind a chef's counter. Early fans have certainly been focusing on the excellent dishes of Royce Oliveira, formerly of Mizuna, Axios and the Village Cork, whose playful menu traipses easily across old- and new-world inspirations. Empanadas, for example, come stuffed -- like some childhood nursery rhyme -- with earthy escargot and mushrooms, while crisp-edged duck confit and shaved foie gras ride together on a waffle made with stout from Epic Brewing. Desserts by pastry chef Leanne Adamson, including moist pineapple upside-down cake and cherry clafoutis, also bridge French and American traditions. A beer-heavy beverage menu, the inspiration for the bistro's tipsy moniker, is built to emphasis the food's flavors. With or without booze, though, this little eatery has us drunk with delight.
7) Bistro Barbès 5021 East 28th Avenue 720-398-8085 Bistro Barbès (pronounced "bar-bess," according to the staff) recently took over the space formerly occupied by Parry's and Satchel's before that; it's named for a Parisian neighborhood and market heavy with North African immigrants and culinary influence. As in that neighborhood, chef Jon Robbins perfumes his rotating menu with the spices of Morocco while keeping grounded in French technique. An interpretation of vichyssoise might make an appearance one week, while harissa and baharat might show up in potato dishes or composed salads. The little bistro, boasting about thirty seats, is part of a welcome wave of small, chef-driven neighborhood restaurants with equal parts tight focus and loose charm.
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6) Maria Empanada 1298 South Broadway 303-934-2221 This Argentinean café and bakery isn't new to Denver, but its new digs in Platt Park are much more of a rebirth than a simple relocation. While the original spot on a seedy stretch of Mississippi Boulevard looked more like a fur trapper's outpost (with a rustic pine-pole façade), the new shop sports gleaming white tile, a high-end espresso machine and enough pastry-case square footage to properly display the many empanadas, tortas and desserts being baked up in a much improved kitchen. Empanada varieties follow a traditional Argentinean pattern; each plump pastry has its own shape based on the filling. The best of the bunch may be the corn version with sweet corn kernels spiced, cheesed and swaddled in tender dough. Other tempting fillings include spinach with béchamel; the classic combo of ground beef, peppers, hard-boiled egg and olives; and a caprese with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Thick wedges of tarta, like a savory deep-dish pie, come loaded with spinach, mixed minced vegetables in cheese or mushroom and leek. For a little eye-rolling indulgence, the perfect alfajores (sugar-dusted sandwich cookies) come in two sizes, the smaller of which can be popped in the mouth like an Argentinean prescription to perk up a dreary day.
5) Blooming Beets Kitchen 3303 30th Street, Boulder 303-443-3479 Hot on the heels of America's latest health trend, the paleo diet, Blooming Beets opened in late spring to the audible appreciation of paleo practitioners in Boulder (as evidenced by the crowd-sourced funding that got the place open). Unlike other restrictive diets (fat-free French fries, anyone?), in the right hands, with recipes from founder Iva Paleckova executed by chef Brittany Kerr, grain-free cooking can yield delicious results. Grass-fed or otherwise pasture-raised meats and low-carb veggies (rather than piles of beans or potatoes) form the basis, while processed seed oils are eschewed in favor and flavorful fats like butter and coconut oil, resulting in an excellent base of high-quality ingredients. Chefs will tell you that fat means flavor, and the modern but satisfying presentations from the kitchen are bursting with freshness from lively sauces like the tart, tarragon-punched and butter-rich topping on the wild salmon or the avocado and wasabi blend that accompanies a seared tuna appetizer. Even if you don't buy the premise behind the food, ignore the caveman-kitchen shtick popular on the Internet and just indulge in some great food. You won't even miss the basket of bread.
4) Glaze by Sasa 1160 Madison Street 720-387-7890 Teaming one of Denver's top sushi masters with a bakery known for circular cakes that bake on a horizontal rod, one thin layer at a time, is either a recipe for weirdness or a stroke of creative genius that takes full advantage of the skills of Sushi Sasa owner and chief knife-wielder Wayne Conwell and baum cake expert Heather Alcott. The place opens at 9 a.m. every morning as a bakery café featuring tarts, macarons and coffee drinks; lunch and dinner showcase Conwell's creative and precise sushi along with other Japanese dishes like soba and udon noodle bowls and, of course, plated desserts, many built around slices of baumkuchen -- a Japanese-German hybrid that requires a special oven (Alcott's is one of only two or three in the U.S.). Denver diners are often leery of café restaurants that try to be too many things at once, but everything that crosses the counter here, as much art as cuisine, demonstrates expertise, quality and sheer fun, ensuring a spot on this list. With a modern, minimalist dining room and sleek sushi bar, the restaurant still pulls off warmth and charm in part because of the confidence and sincerity pouring from the kitchen and bakery.
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3) Argyll Whisky Beer 1035 East 17th Avenue 303-847-0850 Those of us who lamented the closing of restaurant mogul Robert Thompson's gastropub of the same name in Cherry Creek will breathe a sigh of relief that the new incarnation, no longer sporting the ungainly designation, still features hip versions of English pub classics, like that killer Scotch egg with the miraculously unctuous yolk. Also returning are house-made charcuterie like a humble but pork-heavy country pate and a sleeker, smoother duck liver mousse. Fans of London pub grub will appreciate the Indian influence in the tamarind chicken curry and in savory-leaning desserts, like a chocolate mousse touched with masala and tempered by salted almonds. John Broening, late of the now defunct Le Grande Bistro, adds his experience and wisdom to a large but tight menu. Done up in an eclectic Scottish and English theme accented by reclaimed and repurposed odds and ends, the only recognizable feature from the old Las Margaritas is the sun-drenched glass atrium fronting 17th Avenue.
2) Gozo 30 South Broadway 720-638-1462 In her recent review of Gozo, our restaurant critic Gretchen Kurtz's only complaint was with the heat and character spilling in from South Broadway through the restaurant's open patio garage doors. The heat coming from the kitchen's wood-fired oven, though, is perfect for the pizzas and piccolo -- small plates like clams with chickpeas and chorizo or roasted cauliflower over lentils -- not to mention larger entrees like sea bass with a crackling skin and braised porchetta with warm poached figs. Despite a celebrity-spiked resume, chef Nicholas Petrilli (who spent time as a TV chef and food stylist) turns out down-to-earth dishes that aren't fussed with or fretted over. The Spanish- and Italian-inspired ingredients and preparations speak for themselves, leaving guests to appreciate the pure flavors, subtly kissed with wood from the oven. South Broadway already has its trendy night spots and time-honored dives; it's great to see a new name (even if it's absent from the storefront) serving food as hot as the Baker neighborhood's appeal.
1) Work & Class 2500 Larimer Street 303-292-0700 When Gretchen Kurtz reviewed this tiny and tinny (it's built from shipping containers) restaurant, she called it a "game changer." Beyond comfort food, chef Dana Rodriguez and crew disguise elegant and complex flavors in homey preparations and Spartan presentations. Mounds of braised and pulled meats, like brilliant cochinita pibil and a no-less-deserving cabrito, herb-scented whole roasted chicken and dense but yielding short ribs sell by the pound and come in tin pans with little flair. It's just you and the food and those intense flavors built with time and purpose and passion. Still, a table full of smaller and larger pans and plates sporting spoon bread, braised greens and chickpea croquettes takes on a Zen-like beauty while conjuring Sunday family dinner with passed plates and boisterous conversation.
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With new restaurants this good, we can't wait to see what the rest of 2014 has in store.