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.