Over the past decade or two, the fast-casual model has taken the restaurant industry by storm — much of which has emanated from Denver. But while you can find plenty of quick, easy and semi-wholesome meals for folks on the go, there's now a push to sit down and enjoy not just your surroundings, but elevated food as well. Enter the fine-casual, or fast-fine, restaurant, a place dedicated to really good meals but without the pomp and ceremony of a classic sit-down space. Denver is on the forefront of this dining style, too. Here are ten of the best places in town that fit well in this description, presented in alphabetical order.
1. Biju's Little Curry Shop
4279 Tennyson Street, 303-975-6886
1441 26th Street, 303-292-3500
Curry in a hurry should be a thing we all experience, and Biju Thomas's multi-location, fast-casual concept has the Denver market cornered. Each hearty bowl comes packed with South Indian flavors, from masala beef to vindaloo chicken to coconut curry. Unlike the other places on the fine-casual list, Biju's plays to the fast-casual side as well. But given the uniqueness of the idea and the made-from-scratch ethic Thomas employs, the point-and-serve model fits right in. Chase your lunch or dinner with a house-crafted chai tea and add a little spice to your life as you take in the brightly colored, lively surroundings.
1644 Platte Street
Chef Steven Redzikowski opened this rotisserie eatery in 2015, and unlike his fine-dining establishments Acorn and Oak on Fourteenth in Boulder, this one allows guests a more casual approach. To start with, you order the rotisserie chicken, wagyu French dip, pear-and-Gorgonzola salad or macaroni and cheese from the counter, or pick up one of the pre-made sandwiches in the cold case up front. No matter which way you go, the food has the same quality as one would expect from a Redzikowski restaurant, and the coffee, cocktails, beer and wine showcase the excellent tastes of beverage director Bryan Dayton. Once you decide on a delectable dish from the menu, you simply order and pay. In return, the cashier will give a number so you can plop down wherever you want to sit and wait for someone to bring you that pint of local beer, rotisserie-roasted lamb leg and slice of daily cheesecake. Prices geared toward everyday dining mean that you can head to this LoHi spot for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all on a first-come, first-served basis.
2500 Larimer Street
When this lauded pizza shop opened in RiNo during the summer of 2014, it may have helped kick off the fine-casual trend. Not only did the restaurant serve gourmet wood-fired pizzas, fresh oysters, batched cocktails and wine on tap, but everything on the menu is of the highest quality. Guests can order carefully constructed pies like the clam with pancetta and roasted garlic, the mushroom with crème fraîche, frisse and onion, or the signature pie with sausage, kale, mozzarella and chile flakes. The only trick: scoring one of the 25 seats in this 640-square-foot shipping-container space. Once you do, you'll find the experience quick, easy and delicious.
4. Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery
4990 East Colfax Avenue
With a name that includes the words "casual urban eatery," one might not have high hopes for the quality of the food. But at Chop Shop in the Park Hill neighborhood, chef Clint Wangsnes has turned nonchalant into elegant. The menu gets highlighted by seasonal fare; a recent dinner slate included 48-hour short ribs, lemon adobo chicken with vegetables, grilled-salmon pad Thai, and smoked chicken pastrami on grilled rye. Each dish gets artistically plated to look as if it were being served in a more upscale establishment. Wangsnes has also made the space sustainable by utilizing disposable bamboo flatware, glasses made from used wine bottles, and washcloths in the bathrooms in lieu of paper towels (classy and environmentally friendly). Lowry residents can look forward to their own Chop Shop opening in the former Salty Rita's space this month.
5. Chow Morso inside Avanti Food & Beverage
3200 Pecos Street
Some would argue that the entirety of Avanti reflects the fast-casual concept, and they would be right. But in the context of fine-casual, Ryan Fletter and chef Darrel Truett's Chow Morso shines. The Barolo Grill's team cooks up Italian classics like housemade tagliatelle, slow-roasted Bolognese, fresh pesto, handmade gnocchi and creamy gelato in seasonal flavors. You might have to wait ten minutes or so for a plate of the steaming pasta, but a short delay is all part of the game — and well worth it.
Keep reading for more fast-fine restaurants...
6. Dio Mio Handmade Pasta
3264 Larimer Street
With one bite of chefs Spencer White and Alex Figura's ultra-fresh pasta, you may wonder why their RiNo restaurant isn't a sit-down spot with full service. That's exactly the reaction expected when delving into the world of fine- and fast-casual eateries. You'll want to go here for a special occasion because the food is just that good, but you'll also revel in the fact that you can afford to go here any time you crave an excellent lunch or dinner. On the small but solid menu at Dio Mio, guests will find tangy half-moon mezzaluna stuffed with sunchokes and highlighted with clementines; tender squares of fazzoletti enhanced by mint and lamb ragù; and housemade sourdough served with burrata and prosciutto. After you order at the counter, the staff comes by to bring the food — in courses, if need be — and often stops back to pick up dirty dishes and see how you're doing. In fact, save for the paying in advance (though you can pay after, if you wish) and the brightly lit room, it feels just like going out to eat in any other regular restaurant.
7. Honor Society
1900 16th Street
In the summer of 2015, this spirited causal eatery opened up behind Union Station. Guests order their food from the long wooden counter and then take a number and find a seat. All the silverware and water must be procured by you, the customer, and the only thing brought to the table is the food you just paid for. The menu proves a little different than that of many fine-casual spots; start by selecting a protein — chicken, fish or beef — or a hearty roasted-vegetable mix. Then, choose whether you want it served on one of three salad bases, on a plate with two seasonal sides, or as a sandwich. The food comes out simple and pure, all high-quality and made with love.
8. Olive & Finch
1552 East 17th Avenue
At this charming counter-service eatery, the concept stems from the food markets found in the European countryside, meaning that dishes prove portable, fresh and fairly simple. Founded by chef Mary Nguyen in 2013, the Uptown location of her popular spot contains a bakery, market and — most important — a cafe-style kitchen that serves breakfast, lunch and an early dinner. The menu includes salads, soups and sandwiches, and for the morning meal, Nguyen offers cage-free eggs in a variety of fun and flavorful ways. Order before you sit down, or get the high-class food to go. Anyone living in or near Cherry Creek will be happy to know that a second location of Olive & Finch will open on February 1 at 3390 East First Avenue.
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9. SK Provisions inside the Denver Central Market
2669 Larimer Street
In the city's latest market hall in RiNo, it's not surprising to find wisps of fine-casual decking the halls. In this case it's SK Provisions, the small and thoughtful shop run by chef/owner Sean Kelly, also of Desmond Bar and Grill. The house specialty is slow-roasted meats such as chicken and porchetta, which can be stuffed into a sandwich or taco. Guests can also order burgers, roasted vegetables, homemade soups, salads and more. Get your gourmet grub to go (in a family pack) or sit at the casual counter space and enjoy the goods inside the lively market.
10. Vital Root
3915 Tennyson Street
At first glance, Justin Cucci's latest addition to his family of restaurants (which includes Linger, Root Down and Ophelia's Electric Soapbox) doesn't look like much, but between the well-assembled vegetarian menu and little details scattered about the venue, guests can see why this eatery fits into the fast-fine trend. For starters, although the food proves inexpensive compared to the fare at Cucci's sit-down joints, the quality remains just as impressive. Vital Root uses organic oils and flours (none of which are wheat) while eliminating refined sugar — all to create healthy food from scratch. Go for breakfast, lunch or dinner and order a seriously wholesome smoothie, banh mi tacos with edamame pâté and lemongrass tofu, Korean BBQ "wings," and a vegan chocolate pot de crème for dessert. After you choose and pay, a server will come by and find your number to deliver your food. But if you want water, you have to head to the water station yourself, a fun touch that allows guests to choose from three different types of H2O — more choices than most fine-dining restaurants offer.