The last days of the year are a time to reflect on what came to pass in the previous months. In Denver, we've been blessed with a continuous stream — a flood, really — of new restaurants to satisfy our every craving. While some fell by the wayside of mediocrity, many others stand out for memorable settings, service and food — so many that it was difficult to narrow down our choices for the best new restaurants to open in Denver in 2016. (And that's not including places like Denver Central Market, because the massive RiNo destination isn't a restaurant — though there's plenty of great food to be had from the many vendors inside.)
In fact, since we first unveiled our list of the best restaurants to open in the metro area, a few more promising spots debuted that deserve a space on the roster. So here's the updated list, chronicling the fifteen best new restaurants to open in 2016, in alphabetical order.
1160 Madison Street
Although 12@Madison didn't open until the middle of December, the early results are in — and it appears that chef/owner Jeff Osaka has another hit on his hands. We've slurped the noodles at Osaka Ramen; we've shoveled down fresh fish plucked from the carousel at Sushi-Rama; we've strolled through Denver Central Market overwhelmed by mouthwatering choices. But this reboot of his original restaurant, twelve, which closed more than two years ago, feels like the completion of a circle. The new menu will shift with the seasons, offering small plates grouped from light to heavy, with subcategories divided into three of each: soups/salads, vegetables, pasta, seafood, light meats (chicken and friends), heavy meats (think beef) and desserts. The style of food resists easy categorization; Osaka avoids farm-to-table, sustainable, New American or other catchphrases that could lead guests to the wrong conclusion. Instead, dishes are thoughtful — almost intellectual — in design and execution under the eye of chef de cuisine Ashley McBrady. Early favorites include a play on toads in a hole, veal sweetbreads, and gently roasted radishes with rutabaga and turnips.
909 Walnut Street, Boulder
When Arcana opened in Boulder in February, it eschewed the New American style of cooking (a mashup of traditional American cooking techniques and international ingredients) so prevalent in restaurants today. Instead, Arcana carefully and deliberately went about creating an Old American restaurant, emphasizing traditional American techniques with a distinctly regional bent — Colorado grains, locally farmed meats and seasonal vegetables. Combine that with a downright luxurious dining room with plush bar stools, tin ceilings and custom dinnerware, and everything old is new again.
1550 17th Street
Helmed by culinary power couple John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, Avelina is proving that industrial chic isn’t everything. At this quiet downtown restaurant that opened this summer, lighting is gentle, background music stays in the background, and stools and banquettes — covered in Italian leather and chenille — are so comfortable, you’ll want to stay all night. Avelina’s highly shareable menu can be described as seasonal New American with Mediterranean flair, but it’s more helpful to view it as essential Broening/Lozada-Hissom: deceptively simple, intriguing, wisely sauced, surprisingly light. Wood-fired flatbreads feature Moroccan-spiced lamb and roasted cauliflower. Warm artichokes, quartered and fully cleaned, form striking silhouettes, their slender stems tucked against roasted shiitakes. Yuzu- and chile-glazed short ribs arrive in three paves on a rectangular platter spread with carrot purée and gingery sautéed vegetables. Longtime fans will swoon over the reappearance of Lozada-Hissom’s signature olive-oil cake, but the rustic millefeuille, listed on the menu as a dulce de leche stack, is generating its own legend.
1591 South Colorado Boulevard
Those lamenting the dearth of real Chinese food in Denver — as well as anyone who's curious about what real Chinese food actually tastes like — should hurry to the Bronze Empire, the restaurant that Tian Xia and Jing Wang, a pair of University of Denver students who moved to Denver from Beijing, opened this year on South Colorado Boulevard. Hot pot is what Xia missed most about his homeland, and now he's graciously sharing a taste of it with his adopted home town. Once seated in the modern, inviting dining room, the first thing you'll do when ordering is pick a soup, selecting a flavor profile and a broth — ranging from vegetable-based mushroom or tomato broths to the spicy soup made with beef broth. Then order meats and veggies that come on the side so you can add them as the broth starts bubbling in front of you. We recommend lamb and ribeye, tofu skin, mushrooms and plenty of greens.
400 East 20th Avenue
Brother-and-sister team Paul and Aileen Reilly couldn’t have picked a better spot for Coperta, their Italian followup to Beast + Bottle. Its location across from Benedict Fountain Park means that after a leisurely meal, you can walk out the door, belly full of wine, pasta and cheese, and engage in that most Italian of traditions: the passeggiata, or evening stroll. Prior to launch, the pair traveled widely throughout Rome and points south, and came home with a menu that includes several knockout dishes, including chewy cavatelli with meat ragù, bucatini all'amatriciana with salty nubs of guanciale, and polenta, which defies its humble origins with a richness that comes from butter and leftover whey. Chicken isn’t always the most exciting dish on a menu, but Coperta’s pollo allo diavolo makes you reconsider that assumption: Diavolo means “devil,” and this wood-charred half-chicken lives up to its name, fiery from its chile marinade, Calabrian chiles and the red-tinged chile oil ringing the plate. While dinner can be be a destination affair, Coperta aims to be a neighborhood gathering spot, with coffee and pastries for breakfast and smart combinations of soups, salads and panini for lunch.
249 Columbine Street
So you're not going to Cherry Creek for dinner, you say? Well, toss out your notions of hip Denver restaurant neighborhoods and head inside the new Halcyon Hotel for a taste of chef Gregory Gourdet's pan-Asian menu. The chef perfected his concept at the first Departure in Portland, Oregon, before coming to Denver armed with deadly accurate Korean bibimbap and Chinese dim sum and stir-fries (like XO fried rice with crab and Chinese sausage), along with Japanese-inspired sushi and skewers grilled over white-hot charcoal. Depending on where you're seated, you'll feel like you're aboard a luxury ocean liner, a space station or a mid-’70s jumbo jet: Prepare for Departure.
Fish N Beer
3510 Larimer Street
The understated simplicity of chef/restaurateur Kevin Morrison's latest effort — from the plain name to the spare fish-house menu — does little to prepare diners for the quality and execution of each dish coming from a kitchen headed by chef/partner Aniedra Nichols. Fans of Morrison's Tacos Tequila Whiskey will understand that great food doesn't need to be fancy or fussed with. Fish N Beer serves up deep-fried fun from uniquely delicious blowfish tails to crispy little smelt, but whole fish grilled over oak coals puts the tiny RiNo eatery above the standard seafood shack. Even the ubiquitous charcuterie plate gets a seaside makeover here, with tonnato, smoked-fish dip and soy-glazed salmon collar standing in for more common sausage, pâté and cheese.
98 Steele Street
The new Matsuhisa in Cherry Creek — one of many in chef Nobu Matsuhisa's international collection — is everything we expected from the seasoned chef, who combines Japanese tradition and culinary artistry with worldly flavors. The space is opulent and stunning, the reservation list tight, and the plates executed with a painter's skill and mastery of color and form. This is no Friday-night hangout, but rather a destination event for the most special of occasions. We're saving our pennies.
Keep reading for the rest of the list of best new restaurants...
3033 Brighton Boulevard
After years of opening all manner of restaurants, executive chef/partner Troy Guard returns to his roots with Mister Tuna, a high-energy spot in RiNo’s Industry building. And what a fun restaurant it is — but not in the default-casual way, with free-flowing craft beer, wings and cornhole on the lawn. Here the best tables are inside (not on the patio), where the room comes into its own as night falls. Under the cover of darkness, the long, narrow space becomes increasingly grown-up, with a dynamite mural of a woman’s face and a black-and-gold color scheme that totters between sexy and elegant. Divided into the categories of raw bar, appetizers and entrees, the menu reflects influences ranging from Hawaiian to Vietnamese to Indian. This being Guard’s house, the most memorable fare involves the sea: kampachi with mint, Thai basil, chiles and cilantro; ahi poke with buttery avocado and quinoa; and corvina with kimchi-tossed wheat berries. But other dishes shine, too, and many capture the best of Guard’s fusion-rich background, including carrot agnolotti with a Thai carrot-herb salad, grilled pizzas and rotisserie pork collar with lavender mustard.
1560 Boulder Street
Mizu was another latecomer, opening the first weekend of December. According to owner Hong Lee, an izakaya is a Japanese bar with tapas-style dishes, small plates meant to be eaten with alcoholic beverages. "Traditional izakayas don't have a sushi bar," he adds, but Mizu does — which is a good thing for customers, since it shows off seafood from Lee's extensive network of purveyors that he's built up while running eight other restaurants throughout the metro area. Beyond sushi, meats and fish grilled over Japanese binchotan charcoal are among the draws, but don't miss the foie gras or the housemade tofu, served chilled and drizzled with a salty-sweet sauce — so smooth and creamy it's like savory soft-serve ice cream.
Que Bueno Suerte!
1518 Pearl Street
While this Latin American eatery on South Pearl Street (which filled the former Session Kitchen with bold colors and Mayan-themed decor) has only had a couple of weeks to attract new customers, the food of executive chef Vicente Sosa (late of Work & Class) should soon pack the place. Corn tortillas cooked fresh daily carry everything from rich bone marrow to slow-cooked pork. Pudgy panuchos are like tortillas stuffed with refried black beans, here topped with zingy shredded chicken and marinated red onion. Don't go expecting standard combo plates; instead spring for something a little special like pheasant cooked to a fiery orange in pibil-style sauce (a specialty of Sosa's home town in the Yucatan) and Oaxacan mole with crispy-skinned duck.
3040 Blake Street
Perhaps no other restaurant captures the direction of Denver’s food scene as much as the Preservery, the brainchild of wife-husband duo Whitney and Obe Ariss. To wit: The Preservery is in RiNo, the turbo-thrusted neighborhood that’s the envy of many a city planner. Gratuity is built into the pricing, in line with the owners’ socially minded outlook. Live music happens on a regular basis, including classical piano from Obe himself. The Arisses are clearly the heart and soul of the place, but it is chef de cuisine Brendan Russell who translates their vision and lifts the Preservery out of the realm of the super-trendy and into the much narrower category of memorable dinners you'll want to experience over and over. The seasonally inspired menu is full of choices – think octopus to vegan salads to wagyu – but salads and desserts are particularly strong. Russell spent time at Frasca Food and Wine as well as Foliage, a Michelin two-star establishment in London, and his background shows in accents like cilantro purée alongside buttermilk panna cotta, earthy turmeric to temper the sweetness of onion jam, and edible flowers. This is cooking for right now, in this adventurous, booming heart of the New West.
River and Woods
2328 Pearl Street, Boulder
Comfort food isn't dead; we still want our macaroni and cheese, our corn dogs and our meatloaf. You can find all of those at chef Daniel Asher's cozy Boulder cottage, but the chef, with a well-deserved reputation from his time as culinary director of Linger, Root Down and Ophelia's, doesn't take the easy way out when it comes to evoking food memories. Your mom or grandma probably never presented you with a big slab of chicken-fried calamari, a bowl of matzoh-ball ramen or a plate of sticky duck wings. Asher serves up comfort food that triggers bliss while taking off in new directions to make memories for repeat guests (of whom there will be many). But River and Woods also respects the past, with family recipes submitted by guests and longtime friends of the owners. The gnocchi verde comes from the restaurant's previous tenant, John's, which served Boulder for four decades, while a baked mac and cheese, a summery panzanella salad and a side of bourbon baked beans all come from customer submissions. And that's comforting, indeed.
2930 Umatilla Street
Being the first doesn't always guarantee a strong finish, but Sushi Ronin, which opened on January 2, 2016, has managed to stay among the frontrunners longer than any other restaurant this year. Among the many sushi bars opening in early 2016, Sushi Ronin distinguished itself with uncommon dishes from traditional Japanese cuisine along with a tantalizing omakase (chef's choice) menu. The combination of sleek, modern design with Pacific Rim elements transports diners to Tokyo's Ginza district while remaining firmly rooted in LoHi hipness. Choose from "cool" or "warm" menus, with "Southern Barbarian" pickled fish giving a sharp bite, only to be tamed by miso-marinated black cod. For a more casual night, settle in at the bar in the back for small plates and sake or Japanese single-malt whisky.
The Way Back
4132 West 38th Avenue
Is the Way Back a great bar or an understated restaurant with a secretly stunning menu? We don't mind thinking of it as both — and the secret won't be kept for long, since the West Highland wonder is also on our list of the best new bars of 2106. Balanced yet creative cocktails, a surprising slate of ciders and a thoughtful wine list add to the bar's appeal, while a series of seasonal small plates — many with vegetables as the stars — bolster a few larger entrees, including an always-comforting roasted half-chicken. If you've taken our suggestion and headed over for drinks, now's the time to find your way back for an excellent dinner, too.
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.