This year may have set a record for new restaurant openings in metro Denver. Trendspotting became difficult, as so much volume led to multiple variations of almost anything good, whether it was fast-casual service, tiny dining rooms, fried chicken, wood-fired everything, restaurants with their own attached markets, or simple typographical symbols representing a common conjunction (we're talking about you, ampersand). Still, our favorite new restaurants of 2014 started trends or elevated them to the highest form, rather than merely following the pack. Among them you'll find two fast-casual joints turning out creative and delicious dishes worth of fine-dining establishments, several kitchens relying on wood-burning ovens and grills, some of Denver's smallest bistros, a couple of eateries peddling house-made products from their own mini-markets -- and even a sprinkling of ampersands. Because whatever the trend, it's the chefs, restaurateurs and staff that truly make a restaurant great, not the concept -- or the typography. Keep reading to see (in alphabetical order) the fifteen best new restaurants of 2014.
See also: The Ten Best Hotel Restaurants in Denver
15) Argyll Whisky Beer 1035 East 17th Avenue 303-847-0850
Those of us who lamented the closing of restaurant mogul Robert Thompson's groundbreaking Argyll in Cherry Creek worried about how the concept would survive the transition to Uptown, where the restaurant finally reopened in June 2014. Would his gastropub -- now named Argyll Whisky Beer -- feel passé? After all, hundreds of restaurants have opened in town since Argyll 1.0 fell prey to Cherry Creek's cramped, subterranean location. Had the city moved on -- even if the owner hadn't, as evidenced by the words "non oblitus" (Latin for "not forgotten") written on the new bar? But as it turns out, Thompson has re-created a fine gastropub that reflects the way we eat -- and drink -- in Denver now, not in Cherry Creek in 2008. The space is spacious, with a sunny atrium and a decor made of odds and ends that fit together in fun ways. The menu, too, is every bit as fun and comfortable as pub fare should be, with the requisite seasonal, high-end touches expected of a gastropub --- and a bit of British cheekiness, too. Fortunately, the menu still includes the Scotch egg, as well as the original Argyll's housemade potato chips with malt-vinegar gastrique. But there's also duck-liver mousse, cauliflower curry, an updated version of bangers and mash, and even savory-leaning desserts, like a chocolate mousse touched with masala and tempered by salted almonds. "We wanted to create a gastropub that...reflects the way the Brits eat today," says Thompson. It's the way we want to eat, too.
14) Bistro Barbes 5021 East 28th Avenue 720-398-8085
If Denver were a different city, or if dining trends had gone in a different direction, Bistro Barbès might have ended up a higher-end restaurant. Chef/owner Jon Robbins's original vision was to create a brick-and-mortar, prix-fixe-only version of Gypsy Kitchen, a pop-up supper club that he'd hosted around town. "But no one's eating Michelin-star food," he says. "It might be going out of fashion." Good food never goes out of fashion, though, and so Robbins turned the former Park Hill home of Pary's on 28th into Bistro Barbès, a tiny eatery filled with big, big flavors. Robbins's experience with classic technique shows in his elegant sauces (his nickname is Beurre Blanc), and his time in Paris is reflected at this restaurant, which feels like an intersection of French and North African cultures with a little Denver thrown in for good measure.
13) Blackbelly Market 1606 Conestoga Street, Boulder 303-247-1000
"Under-promise and over-deliver." That's chef/owner Hosea Rosenberg's way of describing the straightforward menu at Blackbelly Market, the latest extension of his Blackbelly brand that has grown from food truck to catering company to local farm -- and now to this understated restaurant in a less-than-trendy east Boulder neighborhood. But it's not just a restaurant; Blackbelly is also a salumeria making fresh sausage and cured meats, a butcher shop and market selling housemade packaged foods, and a deli counter serving grab-and-go breakfast items starting at 7 a.m. every morning. The details in the dishes that make good on over-delivering quality and flavor include head-on shrimp and meticulously sourced cornmeal in the shrimp and grits, smoked pork and Hatch chiles (delivered, roasted and peeled at the height of the season) in the green chile posole, and a strikingly fresh chimichurri siding hanger steak (or other cuts of the day) perfectly cooked to temperature.
12) Brazen 4450 West 38th Avenue 720-638-1242
Christopher Sargent opened Brazen with the goal of "downtown food and service in a neighborhood setting," striking a balance between local appeal and chef-driven panache on the border of West Highland and Berkeley. A menu big on flavor but low on pretension -- what could be called bruschetta with toppings like roasted mushrooms or pork belly with cauliflower puree are simply referred to as toast -- features only a handful of small plates and even fewer large plates built for two. But those limited choices mean guests can mix and match, choosing from a variety of seasonal vegetable sides, selections of braised and roasted meats and expertly handled seafood. A late-night menu, served after 10:30 p.m, leans a little more international, with bowls of ramen, chicken pate and pork belly banh mi, and flatiron steak tacos. Seating is limited in the tiny, strip-mall space, but try for a seat at the chef's counter and feel like you're in the middle of the action. It's dining the way chefs want to dine when they're not cooking for others. Keep reading for eleven more of the best new restaurants in Denver in 2014.
11) Cart-Driver 2500 Larimer Street 303-292-3553
Cart-Driver opened this summer in a trendy, shipping-container development in the hot RiNo neighborhood. But while the 25-seat restaurant is new, the person behind it is not. For years, co-owner Kelly Whitaker has been building a name for himself at Basta, a full-service restaurant in Boulder that features short ribs, wood-roasted chicken, pizza and an admirable wine list. A wood-fired oven and Neapolitan pizza are also the driving forces behind Cart-Driver. Although this tiny spot takes the fast-casual approach, with counter service, a tightly edited menu of pizzas (no design-your-own options) and a handful of small plates, the ingredients are top-notch and the food is produced with care. Bargain-hunters should be sure to hit the late-night happy hour.
10) Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery 4990 East Colfax Avenue 720-550-7665
Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery, which opened this summer on a revitalizing stretch of East Colfax Avenue, is not your normal fast-casual joint -- at least, not if your definition of fast-casual begins and ends with Chipotle. Run by Clint Wangsnes, a veteran chef with experience in Hawaii, Napa Valley and Miami Beach, the restaurant could easily moonlight as one of the trendy full-service spots that have taken over the city these past few years, with exposed brick and tables and booths crafted of wide-plank barn wood; even cocktails are batched and served with happy-hour nibbles such as sliders and hoisin-tamarind ribs. Wangsnes, however, decided to go in a more casual direction, adding an order line, glowing computerized menu boards and clip-on numbers to facilitate food delivery. And he did so because he wanted to serve a group that's barely tolerated, much less emphasized, by most restaurateurs: families, who deserve good food, too. And Chop Shop definitely delivers.
9) 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 a layer at a time on a horizontal rod is either a recipe for weirdness or a stroke of creative genius that takes full advantage of the skills of Sushi Sasa owner Wayne Conwell and baum-cake expert Heather Alcott. The place opens at 9 a.m. every morning as a bakery cafe 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 says hers is the only one in the U.S.). Denver diners are often leery of cafe 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. With a modern, minimalist dining room and a 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.
8) Gozo 30 South Broadway 720-638-1462 In March of 2014, the Italian/Spanish-inspired Gozo finally opened in the South Broadway storefront that was once home to Deluxe and Delite. It's undergone a major renovation; the two spaces have been merged into a big, whitewashed room with a chef's counter that faces the wood-burning oven, a long bar and two cozy seating areas. A seat by that oven can get steamy, but Gozo is a hot restaurant in more ways than one. Founding executive chef Nicholas Petrilli (who has since moved on) and founder/front-of-the-house manager Frank Jolley IV both spent time in kitchens in Napa, and their experience is reflected in both the impeccable service and the amazing dishes you'll find at Gozo. Jolley likes to describe his place as an "Italian wine bar married with Spanish tapas," and that's a merger we're happy to toast. Keep reading for seven more of the best new restaurants in Denver in 2014. 7) Mercantile Dining & Provision 1701 Wynkoop Street 720-460-3733
Alex Seidel has a leg up on the farm-to-table movement: he operates his own farm to supply meat, dairy and produce to his first restaurant, Fruition, as well as Mercantile, which opened as a market, deli and dining room in Union Station in early September. Mercantile's menu is punctuated with preserves, pickles, cured meats and aged cheeses, many from Fruition Farms and Mercantile's own kitchen. Seasonal, local and foraged ingredients speak for themselves in simple presentations amid house-made pastas, subtle sauces and unfussy platings. Whole branzino propped upright on a serving platter and massive, Flintstone-esque tomahawk pork chops highlight the list of head-turning "Family Dinner" entrees. A well-trained staff moves with ease among widely spaced tables and booths, serving guests with with nonchalant grace that seems almost old-fashioned by modern, casual standards. Mercantile's style and comfortable sophistication fit perfectly in the restored grandeur of Union Station, which, while stunning, remains grounded in its roots as a hub of commerce and transportation.
6) The Nickel 1100 14th Street 720-889-2128
When the Nickel opened mid-summer in the Hotel Teatro, it had a big void to fill, created when Prima and Restaurant Kevin Taylor closed to make way for a complete remodel of the hotel's ground floor. With only one restaurant to serve the hotel and its guests as well as hungry theater-goers and Denverites looking for a posh night out, the Nickel and its menu, centered on wood-grilled meats and locally sourced produce, has risen to the challenge. Oak- and cherry-wood smoke add subtle campfire touches to grilled octopus in a salad of celery, green olives and potatoes as well as to simple bites like toasted levain topped with rosemary goat cheese. Such rustic entrees as lamb Bolognese over ricotta gnocchi and short ribs Genovese warm the soul with strong Italian influence. Dark woods, gold and brown textiles, high, gauzy curtains and comfortable chairs swathed in leather give the Nickel the relaxed but sophisticated air of a period country manor -- fitting for one of Denver's top hotel restaurants. Keep reading for five more of the best new restaurants in Denver in 2014.
5) 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 fast 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, among others. 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. 4) Sarto's 2900 West 25th Avenue 303-455-1400 Fans of Barolo Grill will remember Brian Laird for his upscale interpretations of Italian classics. Now he finally has his own place at Sarto's, where he's delving into regional Italian specialties as well as a few Italian-American favorites. Sarto's cicchetti bar sets the restaurant apart with small plates tailor-made to guests' preferences. Those might include pizza with salt cod and shrimp, skewered sweetbread with caramelized pear, or a delicate fritto misto of calimari and scallops. For heartier fare, Sarto's excels at house-made pastas, like little agnolotti al plin stuffed with veal and kale, broad pappardelle with slow-cooked ragu, or even a wedge of lasagna that would make mama proud. There's nothing homey about the dining room, though; cool whites and soothing grays with splashes of orange make for an elegant but relaxing ambiance. Keep reading for three more of the best new restaurants in Denver in 2014 3) Stoic & Genuine 1701 Wynkoop Street 303-640-3474
Aside from the name, everything about Stoic & Genuine shouts seafood. In the raw bar, oysters and crab legs glisten on ice. Emerald-glass floats, salvaged from fishing nets, fill a case by the hostess stand. Light bounces off mirrored panels like moonlight on silvery water. Sand fencing wraps around the ceiling, and oversized shutters hang over the windows in front, the ones that would let in sea breezes and the squawking of gulls if we were near the ocean. When the restaurant debuted in early July -- the first to open in the renovated Union Station downtown -- expectations ran sky-high. That wasn't surprising, considering it was the first venture from partners Beth Gruitch and Jennifer Jasinski since the latter had nabbed a James Beard award for Best Chef Southwest. And Stoic & Genuine is definitely a keeper, though you shouldn't arrive expecting a seafaring version of Gruitch and Jasinski's other restaurants. Instead, you'll find a hip spot to eat impeccably sourced seafood -- some elegant, some casual, much of it served on small plates.
2) To the Wind Bistro 3333 East Colfax Avenue 303-316-3333
Bigger isn't always better, which is why Mizuna alum Royce Oliveira chose a 628-square-foot location on East Colfax Avenue for the home of To the Wind Bistro, the restaurant he opened in March 2014 with his wife and pastry chef, Leanne Adamson. "We were looking for something small," Oliveira explains. "That way, if I mess up, I mess up small rather than mess up big." But To the Wind Bistro rarely messes up. The menu is adjusted daily based on what sold well the night before and what's available at the neighborhood Sprouts, and the dishes in this tiny spot are cooked with the kind of urgency and passion that are harder to come by in restaurants with more seats, more cooks, more middlemen. There are no middlemen here, just two cooks who have put their heart into the place.
1) Work & Class 2500 Larimer Street 303-292-0700
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Rarely does a restaurant capture the moment as well as Work & Class, which opened in the Ballpark neighborhood in January. And we're not just talking about how it embodies 21st-century sustainability with its shipping-container shell. There's something about this American/Latin American eatery that seems so right now -- and so right, especially if you like rooting for the underdog. Delores Tronco, owner-buckstopper, as she jokingly calls herself, left a job in communications to take a risk in the food industry. Tony Maciag, owner-general manager, hails from Detroit, an underdog with a capital "U." Dana Rodriguez, owner-executive chef, grew up on a farm in Mexico without running water or electricity, moved to the United States with three young daughters, and worked her way up from dishwasher at Panzano to chef de cuisine at Bistro Vendôme. These backgrounds inspired the restaurant's name -- say it quickly and you'll hear "working class" -- and its concept, pitched by Tronco to investors as "a square meal, a stiff drink and a fair price." Work & Class delivers all that -- and so much more.