Cafe critic Gretchen Kurtz has been extolling the virtues of small dining rooms in recent reviews, including this week's look at Bistro Barbes. In fact, she seems to be having a summer-long, cross-country love affair with tiny, independent restaurants, writing that "they tend to exude honesty, urgency and passion."
We agree -- and her passion for small but focused eateries inspired us to make a list of ten of the top tiny restaurants in Denver. Our criteria? Aside from great food, we kept the seating limit to no more than forty (including bars and counters, but not counting outdoor tables) and listed only full-service (not walk-up or fast-casual) restaurants. Here they are, counting down from largest to smallest.
10) Uncle 2215 West 32nd Avenue 303-433-3263 40 seats The crowd outside Uncle, which doesn't take reservations, is often bigger than the number of guests eating inside, so popular is Tommy Lee's homage to Asian noodles. A brimming bowl of Uncle's chashu ramen seems more voluminous than the joint itself, which can get cacophonous at the height of dinner service. Keep your elbows in at the counter or risk dunking your shirt sleeves in your neighbor's broth. 9) Bones 701 Grant Street 303-860-2929 36 seats Bones, Frank Bonanno's joint at the corner of Seventh and Grant, is big only on flavor and accolades; the space itself has only 36 seats. Not exactly traditional, the menu at Bones typically spans Japanese and Korean flavors with typical Bonanno flair: tsukumen ramen gets a Western punch with hominy and green chiles while bibimbap receives a scattering of earthy quinoa and farro. 8) Glaze by Sasa 1160 Madison Street 720-387-7890 35 seats A seat at the sushi bar offers the most ambiance and intimacy at this Japanese bakery-by-day, restaurant-by-night overseen by Wayne Conwell, owner of the original Sushi Sasa at 15th and Platte streets. Expect the same precise and creative seafood dishes at this second spot, along with a few elegant versions of soba noodle bowls and cooked seafood dishes. Oh, and then there's the strangely beautiful spit-roasted cakes that emerge from the "Red Dragon," a Japanese baumcake oven that dominates the tiny space.
Keep reading for more diminutive dining rooms...
7) Gaia 1551 South Pearl Street 303-777-5699 30 seats Eating breakfast or lunch at Gaia is like dropping in on an old friend; the neighborhood cottage-turned-restaurant has maintained much of the charm and decor of a vintage bungalow common in the Platt Park neighborhood. The morning menu offers crepes large and thin enough to be used as window coverings and supplemented with garden-fresh (really -- just take a peep out back) herbs and greens. Dinner's still a warm and charming affair, whether you sit inside or on the spacious wrap-around patio with a great view of Old South Pearl. 6) Bistro Barbes 5021 East 28th Avenue 720-398-8085 28 seats Bistro Barbes opened in April this year in a restaurant-starved Park Hill neighborhood. Owner and chef Jon Robbins offers an ambitious and frequently shifting menu of dishes touched by North African, Spanish and Middle-Eastern cuisines. The atmosphere is neighborhood-comfortable and when the weather is nice, the garage doors open the place up. Previous tiny eateries Satchel's (now the cavernous, 55-seat Satchel's on 6th) and Parry's also once occupied this shoebox of a space. 5) DiFranco's 955 Lincoln Street 720-253-1244 27 seats
When it comes to Italian cuisine, simplicity, craftsmanship and unassailable ingredients are what count -- and DiFranco's, an unassuming, low-key joint in the Golden Triangle that Ryan DiFranco opened in 2012 as an Italian deli, then expanded into a (tiny) restaurant, embraces all of those attributes. But fair warning: If you're heading over for some heavenly homemade pasta, DiFranco's has only two tables, a community counter and a few spots on the patio.
4) Z Cuisine 25 seats (40 in À Côté Bar a Absinthe) While Z Cuisine and its sister bar, À Côté, operate under the same ownership and kitchen, the main bistro stands on its own as one of Denver's smallest -- and tastiest -- restaurants. Come early for a table, since Z doesn't take reservations, or have a seat at the bar next door and enjoy a few sips of the green fairy while you wait for a dinner table. The menu leans toward traditional French preparations --think crusty bowls of onion soup and cheesy gratins -- but changes regularly. A chalkboard lists daily specials -- but the place is small enough that you can listen in as your neighbors get the rundown from their server. Keep reading for our last three diminutive dining rooms... 3) Mayan Manjar Yucateco 5209 West Mississippi Avenue, Lakewood 303-936-5562 24 seats "Once you've tasted Mayan Manjar's food, you'll believe in the power of the underdog," writes Gretchen Kurtz in her recent review of this tiny, Yucatan-flavored joint. With the appeal of a fur trapper's lodge on the outside and not much more than a typical cinder-block taqueria on the inside, Mayan Manjar may not be located in one of the city's trendy neighborhoods, but it's a trendsetter in focusing on hyper-regional cuisine rather than offering bland stand-ins or dumbed-down fare. 2) Empanada Express Grill 4301 West 44th Avenue 303-955-8362 22 seats This cozy corner of Venezuelan cuisine features the namesake empanadas, plus fat arepas made from white corn flour and a few hard-to-find appetizers like tequeños (fried dough sticks), cachapas (corn flour pancakes) and mashed yucca. Additional treats include South American soft drinks and fried plantain -- both the sweet, ripe slices and the starchier chips made from the green fruit. Service is relaxed but friendly, so don't go if you're in a hurry -- but if you don't mind the slow pace, the food is worth the wait. 1) To the Wind Bistro 3333 East Colfax Avenue 303-316-3333 19 seats Another miniature marvel that garnered positive print from our critic, To the Wind is run by chef Royce Oliveira and his wife and pastry chef, Leanne Adamson. Oliveira focuses on beer-friendly foods that are far from typical bar fare. Surprising escargot empanadas or lamb sweetbreads and pastrami with sauerkraut give way to Adamson's desserts -- like chocolate stout cake and seasonal fruit tarts. With seven local brews on tap and more by the bottle than there are seats in the place, To the Wind might be the state you leave in as well as the name of the restaurant.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.