In December, we brought you our list of the fifteen best new restaurants in 2015. But there was a late flurry of activity at the end of the year, and the intervening months have given us time to sample, ruminate on and pare down our favorites to a sleek list of ten — with a couple of surprises from eateries that squeezed in just under the deadline. The big winners were Asian cuisine, inventive New American and old-world Italian, with time-honored methods of meat curing and wood-fired cooking earning our respect. Although many eateries that didn't make the final cut are also great destinations, our final ten represent the best of the best, with style and attitude that embody the spirit of 2015...that diners should be enjoying for many years to come.
Here are the ten best restaurants to open last year, in alphabetical order — with the winner of Best New Restaurant in this year's Best of Denver in the number-one slot.
807 13th Avenue, Golden
Abejas is Spanish for "bees," but this cozy Golden charmer doesn't serve Latin-inspired fare. Instead, the place is named for owners Brandon Bortles and Barry Dobesh — lifelong friends known to pals as "the Bs." Abejas boasts an eclectic seasonal roster of clever yet grounded dishes with French and Mediterranean influences created by chef Nicholas Ames. Among the small plates and entrees, you'll find pork-based specialties like terrines and daily cuts from whole pigs butchered in-house weekly. Vegetables also get the spotlight, with thoughtful preparations like carrot and almond soup with carrot-top pesto and saffron-braised fennel served with seared scallops. The food is bolstered by an excellent value-based wine list and thoughtful house cocktails. Whatever you decide to eat, it's quickly clear that these Bs are killer.
9. Bar Dough
2227 West 32nd Avenue
To mistake Juan and Katie Padró's new Italian eatery, right next door to their Highland Tap & Burger, for just another wood-fired-pizza joint would be to miss out on the Italian and Italian-American fare from chef-partner Max MacKissock, who is channeling his younger days as a chef in Italy and New York, creating speidini (skewered meats), fettunta (similar to bruschetta) and handmade pastas dressed in traditional sauces. Add to that a long, stately bar serving Italian wines, beers and spritzes concocted with housemade sodas, and you've got the hottest thing going in LoHi. Not sure where to start? Try the grilled octopus with charred eggplant, which we awarded Best Octopus this year.
8. Blue Pan Pizza
3930 West 32nd Avenue
Pizza whiz Jeff Smokevitch and partner-in-pie Giles Flanagin brought Blue Pan to West Highland in June after Smokevitch's success with Brown Dog Pizza in Telluride. Rectangular deep-dish pizza is the star of the show and won our award for Best Detroit-Style Pizza this year, but the kitchen also turns out crave-worthy and creative classic Italian, Chicago cracker-thin and New York styles. Every batch of dough — even the excellent gluten-free version — is slow-risen for three days, and each style of pizza has its own oven deck and temperature. With the Detroit-style, the result is a light, porous crust with crisp, caramelized edges from the three-cheese blend that bakes directly against the edge of the steel pan. It's so good, you'll wonder how the Motor City kept this style of pizza secret for so long.
7. Desmond Bar & Grill
2230 Oneida Street
Not long ago, it was considered risky to open a restaurant past a certain block on Larimer Street. With all the construction dust in that area, though, these days the risk lies in other neighborhoods, such as Park Hill, where noted chef/restaurateur Sean Kelly recently opened Desmond. But if anyone can turn a quiet locale into a hot spot, it’s Kelly, a longtime presence on the Denver scene who’s been involved in a number of high-profile gigs, including at Barolo Grill (where he served as opening chef) and his spectacular Aubergine Cafe. Desmond's mix of classic bar treats, like a juicy burger and by-the-book Buffalo wings alongside soulful Mediterranean flavors, just earned the eatery our award for Best New Neighborhood Restaurant.
42 South Broadway
Lon Symensma’s first venture, ChoLon, distinguished itself as one of the city’s very best restaurants from the get-go. In March 2015, Symensma opened Cho77, a more casual eatery on South Broadway that focuses on street foods from Southeast Asia. Decor beautifully emphasizes the theme, with hanging plants and lights strung between exposed-brick walls exuding an outdoor vibe. Even the chairs are red, a nod to Saigon’s ubiquitous red street stools, which are filled at all hours with people nose-down in noodle bowls. The compact, noodle-heavy menu is rife with dishes modeled after foods that Symensma and chef de cuisine/partner Ryan Gorby enjoyed on their travels throughout Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. Dishes change frequently, but look for the Thai coconut curry soup served in a two-tiered tiffin, housemade bao buns and glazed chicken wings good enough to win a Best of Denver award. And on a stretch of one of Denver's best streets for food lovers, Cho77 stood out enough to also earn Best Restaurant on Broadway.
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Keep reading for the rest of our ten best new restaurants for 2015...
5. Il Porcellino
4324 West 41st Avenue
In October, veteran Denver chefs Brian Albano and Bill Miner opened their Italian salumeria in the Berkeley neighborhood, where they turn whole Colorado hogs into traditional cured meats and other charcuterie products. In the months since, the two have carved out a considerable following of pork lovers, but the deli-style soups, sandwiches and other daily specials also lure the Tennyson Street lunch crowd. If you're looking to take something home, there's a deli case full of sausage, terrines, bacon, ham and rillettes, along with dry-cured salumi — finocchiono, chorizo, and cacciatore, among others — that have been aging since the shop opened. Far more than just a lunch stop, we were wowed enough to give Il Porcellino this year's award for Best Sandwich Shop.
4. Ophelia's Electric Soapbox
1215 20th Street
Justin Cucci has already experienced wild success with Linger and Root Down, and Ophelia's Electric Soapbox, which opened in April in the Ballpark neighborhood, is even more ambitious. Cucci calls the space a "gastro-brothel," since it occupies the ground floor and basement of the Airedale building, which has been a bordello, flophouse and peep-show parlor during its hundred-year history. Now decked out in ’70s swank and vintage soft-core art, Ophelia's is an adult-themed funhouse showcasing bold, garish colors, low-slung lounges, a giant projection screen and a sunken stage and dance floor. The food isn’t content to be the backup singer, however. The small-plates menu skews eclectic, offering a Colorado ostrich burger, Belgian mussels in saison curry broth, and Scandinavian duck meatballs with parsnip grits. But this isn't just a haven for fans of unusual meats; Cucci's penchant for plant-based plates earned Ophelia's our award for Best Non-Vegetarian Restaurant for Vegetarians.
3. Osaka Ramen
2611 Walnut Street, 303-955-7938
2817 East Third Avenue, 303-524-9229
Based on appearances alone, you'd never guess that these bare-bones noodle houses in RiNo and Cherry Creek were among the most anticipated openings in town last year. But when you taste one of the rich, complex ramen bowls made with long-simmered broths and perfectly springy noodles, you'll know why they earned our Best Noodle Bar award this year. The milky tonkotsu captures the essence of pork and then adds a jiggly egg and bright notes of pickled ginger, while the salty shio and shoyu versions do the same for chicken, with deft flourishes of mushroom, scallions and bitter greens. Although ramen is the star here, culinary director/owner Jeff Osaka's fine-dining experience shines through in his list of small plates: a simple bowl of chilled green beans dashed with sesame, addictive bacon fried rice and some of the best fried chicken in town. Save room for Osaka's wife’s mochi doughnuts — she'll be very disappointed if you don't, and you'll be disappointed to miss them, too.
3927 West 32nd Avenue
After a major overhaul of the two conjoined Victorian houses that had housed Highland's Garden Cafe for nearly twenty years, Solitaire opened last April with a brand-new enclosed wraparound porch and brighter, airier dining rooms. There's also a full bar and an impressive fire pit in the spruced-up front garden. Chef Mark Ferguson, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Andrea Faulisi Ferguson, has created a menu of small plates that shift with the seasons, plates that offer delight and whimsy along with serious flavor. If they’re on the menu – and they most likely won’t be, given that the lineup changes nightly — try the charred Spanish octopus curled over saffron zabaglione, the unconventional Caprese with stone fruit and tomatoes, and the miniature lamb T-bone atop orzo spiked with watermelon, arugula and marinated cotija cheese. Ferguson's skill in surprising us with unique ingredient combinations earned him our award for Best Chef and put Solitaire on the map as Best Restaurant on West 32nd Avenue.
1. Hop Alley
3500 Larimer Street
No new restaurant captured the zeitgeist of Denver's dining scene quite like Hop Alley when it opened in December 2015; it's the second eatery from Tommy Lee, whose noodle bar Uncle was no less of a hit when it debuted in 2012. How did Lee repeat that success? With a slate of rare, regional Chinese dishes — many borrowed from his childhood visits to Hong Kong — tied to tradition by wood-fire cooking and amplified by the funky flavors of vegetables fermented and pickled in-house. The name Hop Alley honors Denver's original Chinatown, but the cuisine, overseen by chef Todd Somma, wanders far from standard Chinese-American fare, with cumin-tinged lamb sandwiches called rou jia mo from Shaanxi province; tongue-buzzing spices from Sichuan; and alternating cooling and warming elements to keep the palate stimulated — from jiggly chilled tofu to earthy char-siu pork belly with braised mustard greens. The eatery's instant success is proof that Denver diners are ready to be challenged, titillated and rewarded with a whole new world of gustatory experience.