From mom-and-pop barbecues to flashy dinner clubs, the diversity of Denver's restaurant scene grew with almost exponential vigor in 2015. While the sheer number of openings this year didn't match the incredible pace of 2014, the variety and depth filled in gaps to make our city a competitor among the country's top food cities, with new-American small-plates eateries vying with pizza joints and Asian noodle counters for Denver diners. Here are the fifteen best restaurants to open in metro Denver in 2015, in chronological order of openings.
15) Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que
2387 South Downing Street
Why on earth would a native Texan leave home and move north to make barbecue in Denver? For Coy and Rachael Webb, owners of Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que, which opened last January, Colorado's culinary history is more than just Rocky Mountain oysters and steakhouses. It also includes the barbecue tradition of smoked lamb that the Webbs have resurrected under the designation of Colorado craft barbecue. There's lamb (shank), brisket, pulled pork and bison short ribs, too. All are delicious, lightly smoked and perfectly juicy. This isn't a re-creation of Texas-style barbecue; this is something altogether unique to Colorado, and we're lucky to have it.
1420 East 18th Avenue
Onefold isn’t like other breakfast spots in town. It doesn’t make a living on eggs Benedict and oversized pancakes soaked in syrup, and it doesn’t serve lattes. Instead, the simple eatery focuses on a handful of quirky dishes that showcase the Chinese-American and Filipino roots of owners Terese and Mark Nery. Don’t miss the bacon-fried rice or the congee, with jasmine rice cooked until the grains form a thick, comforting stew that’s finished with poached eggs, chicken confit, soy sauce, chile oil and ginger. The Nerys grew up in metro Denver, so they know that any breakfast joint must offer a burrito — but theirs stands out in the crowd, with potatoes crisped in duck and pork fat, scrambled eggs, Tender Belly bacon and green chile. And this fall, the restaurant branched out into dinner, offering drinks and a tight menu of small plates for the nighttime crowd.
13) Four Friends Kitchen
2893 Roslyn Street
This family-friendly breakfast-and-lunch spot opened in March in Stapleton. It's not a trendy place to see and be seen; it isn’t around the corner from the Denver Art Museum or Union Station or anyplace you’re going to spend the rest of your day, unless you’re headed to your kid’s soccer game on a nearby field. Rather, the Southern-inspired fare is the draw at Four Friends. Don’t miss the buttery drop biscuits, beignets with crème anglaise and berry compote, the open-faced chicken-and-waffle sandwich topped with apple coleslaw, or the Down South Trio, with green-chile macaroni and cheese, peanut-crusted chicken tenders and collard greens. The huevos rancheros, a lasagna-like stack of whole corn tortillas, refried beans, avocados, cheese and eggs, strays from the Southern mold but charms nonetheless.
42 South Broadway
Lon Symensma’s first venture, ChoLon, distinguished itself as one of the city’s very best restaurants from the get-go. In March, Symensma opened Cho77, a more casual eatery on South Broadway that focuses on street foods from Southeast Asia. Decor beautifully emphasizes the theme, with hanging plants and lights strung between exposed-brick walls exuding an outdoor vibe. Even the chairs are red, a nod to Saigon’s ubiquitous red street stools, which are filled at all hours with people nose-down in noodle bowls. The compact, noodle-heavy menu is rife with dishes modeled after foods that Symensma and chef de cuisine/partner Ryan Gorby enjoyed on their travels throughout Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia: a roti wrap reimagined as a pizza, with lentils, lamb bacon, a fried egg and tomato curry; Thai coconut curry soup served in a two-tiered tiffin; chilled rice noodles with pork and a refreshing herb salad; and a vegetarian version of hokkien mee, with mushroom gravy and wok-charred vegetables. Save room for dessert: You won’t want to miss the decadent coconut-green-tea milkshake with passion-fruit boba and sweet fried crisps molded into the shape of lotus blossoms.
11) Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox
1215 20th Street
Justin Cucci has already experienced wild success with Linger and Root Down, and Ophelia's Electric Soapbox, which opened in April in the Ballpark neighborhood, is even more ambitious. Cucci calls the space a "gastro-brothel," since it occupies the ground floor and basement of the Airedale building, which has been a bordello, flophouse and peep-show parlor during its hundred-year history. Now decked out in ’70s swank and vintage soft-core art, Ophelia's is an adult-themed funhouse showcasing bold, garish colors, low-slung lounges, a giant projection screen and a sunken stage and dance floor. The food isn’t content to be the backup singer, however. The small-plates menu skews eclectic, offering a Colorado ostrich burger, Belgian mussels in saison curry broth, and Scandinavian duck meatballs with parsnip grits. Between the bold menu, the bolder decor and the swelling sounds of live music, Ophelia's is a head-spinning experience.
3927 West 32nd Avenue
After a major overhaul of the two conjoined Victorian houses that had housed Highland's Garden Cafe for nearly twenty years, Solitaire opened in April with a brand-new enclosed wraparound porch and brighter, airier dining rooms. There's also a full bar and an impressive fire pit in the spruced-up front garden. Mark Ferguson (who owns the restaurant with his wife, Andrea Faulisi Ferguson) has created a menu of small plates that shift with the seasons, plates that offer delight and whimsy along with serious flavor. If they’re on the menu – and they most likely won’t be, given that the menu changes nightly — try the charred Spanish octopus curled over saffron zabaglione, the unconventional Caprese with stone fruit and tomatoes, and the miniature lamb T-bone atop orzo spiked with watermelon, arugula and marinated cotija cheese. In a neighborhood known more for family-friendly pop-in eateries, Solitaire brings a new level of style and sophistication but keeps the pretension at bay for a fun and lively experience.
9) Osaka Ramen
2611 Walnut Street
The entrance to Osaka Ramen in RiNo is easy to miss, with only a small sign above the door and the basement space bordering on cafeteria austerity. Based on appearances alone, you'd never guess that this noodle house's opening in May was one of the most highly anticipated in town. But when you taste one of the rich, complex ramen bowls made with long-simmered broths and perfectly springy noodles, it all makes sense. The milky tonkotsu captures the essence of pork and then adds a jiggly egg and bright notes of pickled ginger, while the salty shio and shoyu versions do the same for chicken, with deft flourishes of mushroom, scallions and bitter greens. Although ramen is the star here, culinary director-owner Jeff Osaka's fine-dining experience shines through in his list of small plates: a simple bowl of chilled green beans dashed with sesame, addictive bacon-fried rice and some of the best fried chicken in town. Save room for Osaka's wife’s mochi doughnuts — she'll be very disappointed if you don't, and you'll be disappointed to miss them, too.
8) Blue Pan Pizza
3930 West 32nd Avenue
Who in Colorado had heard of Detroit-style pizza until dough wiz Jeff Smokevitch made a name for it at Brown Dog Pizza in Telluride? Smokevitch and partner-in-pie Giles Flanagin expanded to Denver when they opened Blue Pan in West Highland in June. Rectangular, deep-dish Detroit pizza isn't the only kind Blue Pan does well, though: The kitchen also turns out crave-worthy and creative classic Italian, Chicago cracker-thin and New York styles. Every batch of dough — even the excellent gluten-free version — is slow-risen for three days, and each style of pizza has its own oven deck and temperature. With the Detroit-style, the result is a light, porous crust with crisp, caramelized edges from the three-cheese blend that bakes directly against the edge of the steel pan.
7) Milk & Honey Bar-Kitchen
1414 Larimer Street
In June, Larimer Square added another high-end option for diners: Milk & Honey Bar-Kitchen. Old-timers might remember chef-owner Michael Shiell as the name behind Michael’s of Cherry Creek, which had a long run in the '90s. But there’s nothing old about Milk & Honey. Located in an elegantly remodeled, subterranean space across from Bistro Vendôme, it feels a world away, whether you sip wine in the European-style bricked-in courtyard or inside, in one of the sleek, white-leather banquettes. The name refers to the Promised Land, and this is indeed a place of indulgence, offering everything from oysters to foie gras bonbons dipped in cashew brittle to Asian-accented fish.
6) Rebel Restaurant
3763 Wynkoop Street
From the outside, Rebel Restaurant, which opened in July, looks a lot like the dive bars that once filled this RiNo space; in fact, you can still see the faded letters for Flynn’s Inn, the occupant several incarnations back, on the brick. But what’s happening inside symbolizes just how far Denver’s restaurant scene has come over the past few years. This is food that challenges, not comforts, with everything from half a pig’s head to whole octopus to creamed chipped beef made with heart and garnished with gold leaf. In a nod to the chef-owners’ Ukrainian-American heritage, the ever-changing menu always includes some kind of pierogi, but rather than stuffing them with traditional fillings, the kitchen changes things up with foie and mushrooms or pork green chile. Like the dishes themselves, the concept isn’t for everyone, but its authenticity and unpredictability are refreshing in an era when too many menus look the same.
807 13th Avenue, Golden
Abejas is Spanish for "bees," but this cozy Golden charmer doesn't serve Latin-inspired fare. Instead, the place is named for owners Brandon Bortles and Barry Dobesh — lifelong friends known to friends as "the Bs." What you will find is an eclectic, seasonal roster of clever yet grounded dishes with French and Mediterranean influence from chef Nicholas Ames. Among the small plates and entrees, you'll find pork-based specialties like terrines and daily cuts from whole pigs butchered in-house weekly. Vegetables also get the spotlight with thoughtful preparations like salt-roasted celeriac in a frisee salad and grilled kale stems atop steamy black cod. The food is bolstered by an excellent, value-based wine list with reasonably priced bottles of the Blind Watchmaker from Infinite Monkey Theorem, an uncommon Castelfeder Rieder lagrein from Italy, and more. Whatever you decide to eat, it's quickly clear that these Bs are killer.
4) Café Marmotte
290 South Downing Street
While Denver lost a couple of favorite French restaurants this year — most notably Le Central — it gained a new one in Cafe Marmotte, the second Colorado bistro from owners Mairen Reagan and chef Mark Reggiannini, who run a similar concept in Telluride. The quaint neighborhood spot hides a rich menu of well-executed classics from coq au vin to beouf bourguignon, plus more modern offerings like ahi carpaccio and steak tartare with pork belly and prosciutto deviled eggs. Settle into the banquette at the back for an intimate date night or grab a seat at the four-stool bar up front for warm, professional service and a deep wine list. Whatever you decide, it's bon appetit once again in Denver.
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1501 South Pearl Street
Ototo is Japanese for "little brother," the perfect name for the third eatery in the family of restaurants that brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki have established on Old South Pearl. The long, narrow restaurant has a sleek, intimate front room built around the bar and exhibition kitchen, with big windows looking out on the Platt Park neighborhood. An earlier incarnation of Ototo closed in January 2012, but the new version that reopened in the same space in September came with a confidence and clarity of vision — with a new menu featuring robata grilled meats, Japanese small plates, noodle bowls and a small raw-bar selection — that solidifies its position as an equal to its older siblings.
2) Bar Dough
2227 West 32nd Avenue
To mistake Juan and Katie Padró's new Italian eatery, right next door to their Highland Tap & Burger, for just another wood-fired pizza joint would be to miss out on the Italian and Italian-American fare from chef-partner Max MacKissock, who not so long ago thrilled Denver palates at the Squeaky Bean. This time around, MacKissock is channeling his younger days as a chef in Italy and New York, creating speidini (skewered meats), fettunta (similar to bruschetta) and hand-made pastas dressed in traditional sauces. Add to that a long, stately bar serving Italian wines, beers and spritzes concocted with house-made sodas, and you've got the hottest thing going in LoHi.
1) Il Porcellino
4324 West 41st Avenue
Veteran Denver chefs Brian Albano and Bill Miner switched gears from catering careers to open an Italian salumeria in the Berkeley neighborhood in October. Bringing on butcher Corey Nead and chef Bryan Languell to help turn whole Colorado hogs into traditional cured meats and other charcuterie products, Miner and Albano have already carved out a considerable following of pork lovers. Soups, sandwiches and other daily specials lure the Tennyson Street lunch crowd; there's also a deli case full of sausage, terrines, bacon, ham and rillettes. And just last week, Il Porcellino was given the go-ahead by the health department to begin selling dry-cured salumi — finocchiono, chorizo, and cacciatore — that have been aging since the shop opened. Party trays, whole holiday hams and shelves full of gourmet pantry items help make the shop Denver's number-one sausage fest.
And a bonus: Avanti Food & Beverage
3200 Pecos Street
When the Avanti food hall opened in Lower Highland in July, it immediately became one of the city's top culinary destinations — and one of the most innovative food and drink meccas in the country. Avanti actually houses seven eateries under one roof, each separately owned and each signed to short-term leases of various lengths to encourage turnover and variety. Choose from Mexican tortas, Japanese noodle bowls, "Mexi-terranean" small plates, shawarmas, pizza, arepas or farm-to-table bites — and top your selection with an artisan ale or cocktail from Avanti's imaginative bartenders. While Avanti's rooftop decks look out over Denver, all of Denver is looking to Avanti as a model for great things to come.