With the incredible number of bars and restaurants that opened this past year, trend-following can lead you down a pretty deep rabbit hole. Sure, there was plenty of kale on Denver's menus, but a big part of that is that kale is cheap and easy to grow in Colorado. But when it comes to spending real money to open a new restaurant, decisions that could mean the life or death of an eatery steer restaurateurs in the direction of pleasing the most people without becoming boring or derivative. Trends grow because customers spend money on the foods and fashions that appeal to them. A restaurant's style, location, the amenities it provides and the basic concept it chooses to present to the public are all part of trend-setting -- and trend-following. Keep reading for a list of the ten top trends in Denver-area restaurants in 2014.
10) The Fast-Casual Explosion
Denver has always been at the top of the fast-casual game, but we get it if you're a little tired of the big players. Even though Chipotle, Qdoba, Noodles & Company and Quiznos were born in Denver, you can go to almost any city in America and eat the same burritos, noodle bowls and sandwiches. But for something unique to Denver -- and uniquely tasty -- there are still many fast-casual options, from giant Japanese rolls at Boulder's Motomaki to the fiery and vibrant curries of Biju's Little Curry Shop. In fact, this city saw so many new fast-casual joints this year that we had no trouble coming up with a list of the ten best.
9) Expanding to Multiple Locations -- In and Out of Colorado
If a single restaurant keeps packing the house night after night, multiple restaurants mean restaurateurs can spread the popularity to a bigger audience. Boulder favorites Jax Fish House and the Kitchen (and the Kitchen Next Door) have opened multiple locations in the Denver metro area and beyond. In 2014, both groups opened out-of-state locations, too: Jax built a new fish house in Kansas City while the Kitchen opened a location in Chicago in October. Punch Bowl Social has also continued expansion outside of Colorado, adding Detroit to a list that also includes Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. Snarf's, which just opened a new spot on West 38th Avenue in north Denver, has been busy beyond our state borders too, with sandwich shops opening in Chicago (the fourth Snarf's in that city) and Austin.
In Denver, this year's expansions included a new Snooze in Union Station, a downtown location for longtime favorite Duffeyroll Cafe, an expansion of Biker Jim's sausage empire into Highlands Ranch, and a sprawling, second Viewhouse location in Centennial. Even breweries got in on the action: Dry Dock Brewing Co. opened a second brewing facility and tap room in Aurora.
8) Markets and Butcher Counters Inside Restaurants
Wherever restaurants couldn't squeeze in additional tables for added revenue, they installed cold cases, pantry shelves and butcher counters to sell pickled and jarred products, salumi and charcuterie; prime cuts of beef, pork and lamb; and all manner of baked goods. Mercantile Dining & Provision topped the list by dedicating serious square footage (and a good part of its name) to a cheese and meat counter selling high-end cheese, cured meats and pickled vegetables from owner Alex Seidel's Fruition Farms. Hosea Rosenberg's Blackbelly Market brought the market movement to Boulder with a butcher counter, display cases for fresh sausage and aged salumi, and a grab-and-go breakfast menu that includes classic Colorado-style breakfast burritos. Olive & Finch, Sarto's, Butcher's Bistro, and D Bar also opened with separate spaces for retail sales of their housemade goods.
Keep reading for more of the top restaurant trends in Denver in 2014.
7) Chef's Counters
Smaller restaurants found creative ways to add seats by including chef's counters -- basically bar seating with a view of the kitchen crew in action. Sarto's is one of the best examples of the bunch, with chef Brian Laird focusing on a handful of guests at his intimate cicchetti bar, where he tailors a series of small plates to each customer's preferences. Chef Lance Barto is also in the spotlight at cozy Brazen, while the chef's counter at To the Wind Bistro comprises a significant chunk of the nineteen-seat bistro. And even the Village Cork, which closed for several months this year, reopened with a gleaming new kitchen complete with a row of stools for curious customers.
6) The Restaurant Explosion in Fort Collins
Jax Fish House, the Kitchen and MainLine (from the Breckenridge-Wynkoop group) have all moved into Fort Collins in recent years, opening the door for other restaurateurs to make the mid-sized college town a new dining mecca. This year, Illegal Pete's opened its first burrito bar outside of the Denver-Boulder metro area there and Rare Italian, a more upscale eatery from the owners of the Rio Grande (which got its start in Fort Collins in 1986), just debuted there.
5) Colorado Tap Lists
More and more bars and restaurants opened with long rows of beer taps, many featuring predominantly Colorado brews. With the explosion of new breweries in the state, it hasn't been hard for bartenders to offer a wide range of choices in styles and brands. Homegrown Tap & Dough features fourteen Colorado pours; Sunnyside Burger Bar offers fifteen. But that's just scratching the surface. The Colorado Keg House opened in Broomfield earlier this year; it's currently listing 71 different kegs and casks sourced from around the state. To the Wind Bistro may have a dining room the size of a beer coaster, but it has six tap handles featuring Colorado beer and one cider, plus another eleven by the bottle. That means almost every customer in the place (which only seats nineteen) could order a separate Colorado brew. At Asbury Provisions in the University of Denver neighborhood, 16 of its 25 tap handles are dedicated to Colorado beer and cider.
4) Cooking Over Wood
Chefs embraced the primal side of cooking by roasting, grilling and baking almost everything they could in wood-fired ovens and grills. Cart-Driver's Neapolitan pizzas bear the aromatic touch of wood smoke, as do the pies at Homegrown Tap & Dough. The grilling going on at the Nickel can be smelled even outside the Hotel Teatro, where the new restaurant makes its home. Gozo on Broadway cooks everything from clams to half-chickens in its domed oven. A little farther north, the Post Brewing Co. fired up the wood to add flavor to its pork shoulder and other roasted meats, even while specializing in some of best fried chicken around. In addition to pizza places and fine dining establishments, a number of new barbecues opened in the region, notably Kings BBQ and 3 Sons BBQ , a take-out joint that added a full-service dining room this summer.
Keep reading for more of the top restaurant trends in Denver in 2014.
3) Oysters/Raw Bars
Fresh, raw seafood popped up on quite a few new menus this year, with several restaurants building raw bars to display multiple varieties of glistening oysters. Stoic & Genuine offers a concise menu of cooked seafood specialties, but the oysters are the main draw, with three varieties farmed just for the restaurant. Stout Street Social downtown and Spruce in the Hotel Boulderado also installed raw bars in the front of their new dining rooms. Other new eateries that made bivalves part of their offerings include North County, Brazen and Block & Larder.
Burgers continued to be big business in Denver, and the competition is fierce. Out-of-state chains BurgerFi, Hopdoddy, Bad Daddy's (in Cherry Creek North and Northglenn) moved in to compete for Denver's burger bucks alongside new local players Sunnyside Burger Bar, the Royal, 5280 Burger Bar, Boulevard Burger and Tap, another Park Burger in Hilltop (with a RiNo location set to open in January). Joining the battle was Ignite, which retooled its menu and name -- to Ignite Burgers & Lounge -- to focus more on hamburgers.
Some places just didn't stack up, though; the last of the Five Star Burger chain outposts in Colorado dried up in July, and Boost Burger opened and closed on Federal Boulevard in the span of just a few months.
1) The Ampersand
The ampersand and the word "and" mean the same thing, so it's not really the use of the curly typographical symbol that's the trend ("bar & grill" has been around for decades; "kitchen & tap house" is just a slight variation), but rather restaurants joining two words or names with the ubiquitous conjunction. Ultimately, though, it's just a name and not an indicator of the eatery's staying power or quality. Getting over the ampersand in 2015 could be as much of a trend in 2015 as getting rid of it. Here are just some of the conjoined restaurant and bar names that appeared in 2014, whether they used the word "and" or a symbol to represent it:
Block & Larder Finkel & Garf Craft Beer Fire and Ice Bistro Fork & Spoon Guard and Grace Orange & Brew Salt & Grinder Stoic & Genuine Wood & Sid's BBQ Pit Work & Class Yak & Yeti Restaurant and Event Center
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.