We thought at first there might be something in the water. Everywhere we looked, new restaurants had cropped up around Denver—not just in the usual downtown spots, but also in bustling ‘hoods, suburban enclaves, bedroom communities. Suddenly, things are buzzing: new chefs, new projects, new menus, restaurants packed on weeknights. And Denver diners are eating differently. “They’re not just eating salads anymore,” says Frank Bonanno, chef and owner of Mizuna, Luca d’Italia, and the new Osteria Marco. “They’re ordering four courses and bottles of wine on a Thursday.”
It’s not only Denver’s food scene that’s on fire; the same is true in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, even London. But here in the Mile-High City, our growth is especially noticeable as the breadth of dining options expands at a dizzying rate. “There are a larger number of restaurants opening in a greater number than I can remember,” says seasoned restaurateur Mel Master, who has three spots around town and has owned restaurants in New York and London.
In previous years we had to dig deeper to unearth the newest gems; this year it was all we could do to narrow the choices to 10. And in looking at our winners, it’s easy to see certain trends emerging. Of the bunch, four eateries offer Italian-Mediterranean cuisine, just about half are located in the Boulder area, and nearly all offer seasonal menus.
Simple and regional—the year’s two buzzwords—come up again and again when looking over these restaurants’ menus, tasting the dishes, and talking to the chefs. After years of fancy foams and stacked ingredients, most Denver chefs, like those in the rest of the country, are finding their sweet spot in simplicity. “There’s an acceptance of simple being good, not ordinary,” says Master. To wit, the offerings at some of these year’s winners: bison ribs at Big Hoss, chile-dusted chocolates at French 250, prosciutto, arugula, and mozzarella panini at Osteria Marco. Read on for the rest of the best of 2007.
Big Hoss Bar-B-Q Steakhouse
3961 Tennyson St., 720-855-3061, www.bighossbarbq.com
Tucked into a booth with pints of beer and plates of St. Louis-style ribs, Texas brisket, and Kansas City pulled pork before us, we’re transfixed by Big Hoss Bar-B-Q Steakhouse’s spirited vibe. Could be the heavenly scent of smoke and vinegar that fills the air, or the booming voice of owner Hoss Orwat holding court in the sunken bar, or the diners—many of whom Orwat knows by name—trading “huntin'” stories over PBRs. Or it could be the handsome, masculine dining room that feels somehow refined and comfortable all at once.
This is upscale barbecue (read: no Styrofoam or plastic forks), but it’s still the perfect spot to roll up your sleeves, order more meat than you should, and get your grub on. The smoky chicken smothered in a tangy Alabama white sauce will likely disappear first, followed by tender brisket and pulled pork, spot-on coleslaw, and crispy steak fries dunked in Big Hoss sauce.
This zesty blend—a bottle of which sits on each table—combines Orwat’s favorite elements from each barbecue region: the Carolinas, Kansas City, Memphis, and Texas. The result is a punchy sauce that complements everything you put it on—savory baked beans, meaty bison back ribs, cracklin’ rib tips, and the crispy hand-cut chips.
Opened December 2006
Best Bites The Memphis Belle sandwich with brisket and a side of steak fries
Hot Seat Grab a booth near the bar in the handsome dining room.
Don’t Miss Big Hoss’ addictive barbecue sauce, which is sold at the restaurant and at Whole Foods.
Black Cat Bistro
1964 13th St., Boulder, 303-444-9110, www.blackcatboulder.com
When Boulder’s Black Cat Bistro opens for service each night, diners can be assured that the produce, dairy, and meats were sourced from nearby farms—sometimes even from executive chef Eric Skokan’s backyard. His organically grown herbs, veggies, and fruit—and eggs produced by the family-raised hens—all find their way onto his restaurant’s menu. Skokan cooks as a gardener harvests, eating and preparing only what’s in season.
Skokan trained at vegetarian and organic restaurants in San Francisco (Valentine’s Café) and Washington, D.C. (Nora’s), before landing in Colorado as head chef for Alice’s Restaurant at the Gold Lake Mountain Resort and Spa. Now, at Black Cat (his first restaurant) Skokan focuses on classic European recipes—building upon individual flavors, intensifying each ingredient, and then adding just enough contrast to make the dish interesting while keeping it uncluttered. Diners, while tucked into cushy booths in the intimate dining room, sip on boutique wines and pluck bites from assorted plates that deliver Skokan’s own brand of magic.
Black Cat’s dessert menu further tempts with choices such as a luxurious flourless chocolate cake and delicate panna cotta, but we opt for the ice creams made by Skokan’s own Hatton Creamy. These delicious, organic treats come in unusual flavors, but it’s the malted milk ice cream—served with a pitcher of white chocolate for drizzling—that brings the meal to an end sweetly and slowly.
Opened October 2006
Best Bites Slow-braised Highland beef with roasted corn risotto, tomatoes, and bordelaise sauce
Hot Seat Call ahead to reserve the private booth in the back of the dining room—it feels like a fortune teller’s table.
Don’t Miss The five- or seven-course tasting menus. Bonus: Chef Skokan often throws in extra dishes simply because he can’t resist cooking something specially for you.
950 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-7771
When restaurateur Dave Query closed the Caribbean-focused Rhumba and opened Centro in its place, this Boulder location finally found its identity. As opposed to Rhumba’s island fusion, Centro’s Latin American menu is straightforward—corn, chiles, meat, shrimp, veggies, and chicken—and spectacular. Soulful dishes such as chef Ian Clark’s cheesy smoked pork belly masa cakes have the spice and interest to bring you back for more. And more comes in the form of dishes like the hearty barbecue beef tacos with chorizo hash, a whole tilapia for two (cheekily named “the third date”), and the vaguely spicy seafood and potato enchilada suiza.
Even the new decor reflects the casual menu’s refinement: Rhumba’s wild colors, funky sculptures, and awkward tables are replaced with elegant Cabernet-red walls, stunning black-and-white Richard Avedon photographs, and a long community table that frees up space near the bar. Centro does brisk cocktail business serving fresh takes on drinks—try the cucumber-mint limemade, Dark ‘n’ Stormy with fresh-squeezed lime, rum, and ginger ale, or the sultry Manzarita with elderflower and apple juice. Our advice: Sip on a signature cocktail before dinner and then stick around after your meal for a slice of the burnt mango and lime pie.
Opened March 2007
Best Bites Dulce de leche crêpes with pecans
Hot Seat Pull up a stool at the bar where you can see—and be seen by—everyone who walks through the door.
Don’t Miss Cocktail hour sipping a Manzarita—Gran Centario Plata tequila, St. Germain elderflower, apple juice, cinnamon, and fresh lime juice—with Devlin, the Centro’s bartender who dreamed up this tasty cocktail. Look for the recipe in Food & Wine Magazine’s Cocktail Guide.
210 Franklin St., Niwot, 303-652-0777
Niwot, a small town in the heart of north Boulder County’s organic farmland, seems an apt spot for a locally focused, sustainable-minded chef to open a restaurant. And that’s just what chef-owner Bradford Heap has done at Colterra (which means “to cultivate the earth” in Latin). The menu leans heavily on Colorado ingredients, and Heap taps several local farms for produce (Oxford, Cure, and Full Circle), cheese (Haystack and MouCo), and meats (Lassater Ranch, Coleman Ranch, and King Canyon Buffalo). As he cooks he gently coddles and balances each ingredient’s flavor and evokes seasonal notes. Case in point: One late-summer meal of crispy duck breast with soft duck confit polenta, local carrots, summer squash, raspberry, and caramelized honey tasted of long sunny days and harvest.
Heap’s training with some of the world’s best chefs, including Alain Ducasse, Georges Blanc, and Carlo Cioni, perfectly prepared him for this venture. And Colterra’s menu, inspired by the classics of Southern France and Northern Italy, brings new sophistication to Niwot.
Opened May 2007
Best Bites Local roasted beets, local greens, chévre, and walnut salad with raspberry vinaigrette
Hot Seat Secure a table in the west room, or, in the warmer months, the tree-lined patio.
Don’t Miss Colterra’s Sunday Suppers, a three-course prix-fixe dinner paired with wine. Wander the streets of quaint downtown Niwot before or after your meal.
250 Steele St., 303-331-0250
Even without knowing chef Jeremy Thomas’ impressive background—Evergreen’s Tivoli Deer Restaurant, the Game Creek Club in the Vail Valley, and the Brown Palace’s Ship Tavern—you can taste the pedigree in his dishes. Witness his skills in French 250’s pulled lamb shank sandwich with perfect mirepoix, the silky flanks of sea bass with skin crisped just right, and a flawless example of salade niçoise. In too many kitchens salads are an afterthought, but under Thomas’ watch the niçoise is bright with briney olives melding with hardboiled eggs, seared ahi, crisp Bibb lettuce and haricots verts, sweet tomatoes, and fingerling potatoes baked and sliced like chips. In many ways, this salad is a metaphor for Thomas’ cooking: His dishes—heavenly split pea soup with shrimp and crème fraîche and a knockout scallop entrée with artichokes, bacon, and pea coulis—are usually simple and classic but meticulously executed and deeply flavorful. End lunch or dinner with an order of the Amour 250, an assortment of three locally made chocolates. Enjoy the rich goodies right there, or have them boxed to go and prolong the French 250 experience.
Opened August 2007
Best Bites Loup de mer (Mediterranean sea bass) with haricots verts, beurre noisette, and pine nuts
Hot Seat Table 12 is dubbed the “love table” for its cozy location along the front of the room.
Don’t Miss French 250’s restored 1975 Cadillac limo, which will pick you up for dinner and drop you off after the feast. The ride is complimentary—all you have to do is tip. (There is a 10-mile limit.)
1313 E. Sixth Ave., 303-831-1962
When restaurants like Fruition open their doors, it’s not only good for the surrounding neighborhood, it’s good for Denver as a whole. Chef Alex Seidel and sommelier Paul Attardi have created an instant classic that, in just a matter of months, has already garnered national attention. Seidel and Attardi’s tenures at Colorado favorites such as Sweet Basil in Vail, Aubergine, and Mizuna have enabled them to dazzle customers with refined regional comfort food and seamless service—without any pretense. With Fruition, the duo has created the perfect balance of sophistication and ease.
Set in the Sixth Avenue building that once housed Sean Kelly’s Clair de Lune and Somethin’ Else, Fruition is always abuzz with neighbors gathering and sharing a meal. Seasonal dishes that are big on flavor, texture, and presentation stream out of Seidel’s tiny kitchen into the russet-and-cream dining room. Diners—many of whom are already regulars—swoon over the approachable eats, such as the heirloom tomato soup served with warm burrata grilled cheese and the pasta carbonara with hand-made cavatelli and house-cured pork belly.
Seidel and Attardi’s combination of inspiration, fluidity, and graciousness have produced a restaurant that should rise to the top of every Denverite’s list.
Opened February 2007
Best Bites Maple Leaf Farms duck breast with arugula, smoked duck prosciutto, and red onion marmalade
Hot Seat For less congestion, reserve a table by the window.
Don’t Miss The chance to chat with both sommelier Paul Attardi and chef Alex Seidel, usually later in the evening.
1518 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0691
It’s been dubbed Sushi Den II, but Izakaya Den is more than a replica of its popular cousin. You can still order ultrafresh sushi and sashimi, but the most exciting dishes come in the form of small plates. Small plates and world fusion may sound tired, but a few bites of wild mushroom and Gruyère tartelettes with Japanese eggplant baba ghanouj or seared Kobe beef medallions with edamame and watermelon will convince you otherwise. Owner Toshi Kizaki hopes diners will experiment a bit—nibble this, sip that, and generally mix things up by dining on a waffle paired with blackened Arctic char, jícama with diver scallops, hoisin duck with crème fraîche. We’re so taken with the concept that we’ve tasted our way through most of the menu and have yet to find a dish that doesn’t surprise and satisfy. Equally exciting is the space itself. Located diagonally across from Sushi Den in a building that resembles a bank from the outside, Izakaya opens into a glamorous, airy space with vaulted ceilings, huge dangling Japanese lanterns, and rustic lacquered beams crisscrossing overhead—the effect calls to mind scenes from the Last Samurai. Our only complaint is that in a space so well orchestrated and concepted, servers seem underdressed in baggy T-shirts and black pants.
Opened August 2007
Best Bites Seared diver scallops over avocado, jícama, and ruby red grapefruit salad with Pommes Paille and sweet carrot-soy essence; Kobe beef medallions with watermelon and edamame
Hot Seat Wherever you sit, look up and admire the vaulted ceilings and the Japanese lanterns overhead.
Don’t Miss Even if it’s the only sushi you order, start off with the crispy tuna—a stylized wedge of spicy tuna, flash-fried sushi rice, avocado, jalapeños, and roe.
1453 Larimer St., 303-534-5855
When Frank Bonanno opened Osteria Marco in Larimer Square, he cast aside the fine linens that adorn his tables at Mizuna and Luca d’Italia and created a casual tavern with deep-set wooden booths, a spacious bar, and a simple Italian menu. “The idea is that this is a fun place—no linens, no Riedel glasses,” says Bonanno. “Come have some nibbles, a great bottle of wine, and eat like you do in Italy.” In the truest sense, an osteria is a humble restaurant meant to be a gathering place—and we think Bonanno’s version succeeds.
The space (once home to Del Mar Crab House) feels fresh and lively, with classic black-and-white accents and an airiness that defies the subterranean location. Paintings of pigs add a hint of humor while complementing the salumi bar. The message: artisanal, simple, Italian.
The menu lists approachable eats such as fresh house-made mozzarella salted just so, paper-thin cured meats (don’t miss the bresaola, a red wine-cured beef), rustic pizza, and stacked paninis. We can’t resist lingering over meatball sliders that come three to a plate, or savoring the judiciously portioned roasted beet salad brightened with oranges, mint, and hazelnuts. Osteria’s prices sit right too, with dishes averaging about $10, and glasses of Italian wine running $5 to $11.
As the newest restaurant on our list, Osteria does have its rough edges—the music (’80s pop?) can seem erratic, a few tables are lit too brightly, and, on occasion, service can be uneven. That said, Bonanno appears committed to working out the kinks and delivering what he is best known for: excellent food.
Opened October 2007
Best Bites The ever-changing meats and cheese platters
Hot Seat Settle in to one of the high-backed booths for a view of the bar and the panini station.
Don’t Miss The salumi bar as you walk in the door.
1265 Alpine Ave., Boulder, 303-442-6100
Relax into Radda Trattoria’s Etruscan vibe and you might forget you’re in north Boulder. At least, that’s what chef Matthew Jansen is hoping for when you come in for his rustic Tuscan fare—and you won’t be disappointed. This isn’t spaghetti and meatballs or stuffed shells; rather, Jansen works to educate diners bite by bite about simple, regional Italian cuisine. Having spent several months in Radda, a small town in the heart of the wine-rich Chianti region, Jansen features the hearty, traditional dishes of the Italian countryside: penne with wild boar ragú, farro-and-vegetable soup, and pizza with house-made fennel sausage.
Radda serves all three meals, and for each menu Jansen sources the freshest, most local ingredients he can find. Regulars stop by for breakfast to read the paper over a cup of espresso, buttery brioche, and a farm-fresh egg. The sun-drenched windows pull in the lunchtime crowd for a plate of gnocchi alla bolognese or the Caesar with grana padano cheese. Dinner crowds clamber to find a spot (Radda does not accept reservations) in the airy dining room, and they’re willing to wait upward of 90 minutes to enjoy Jansen’s spot-on cuisine, a spectacular glass of wine—and a fleeting slice of Italy.
Opened February 2007
Best Bites Wood-oven-fired prosciutto crudo pizza
Hot Seat Grab one of the two-top tables next to the demonstration kitchen, where you can watch the chefs’ every move.
Don’t Miss The opportunity to sit at the bar and chat with ex-Frasca bartender Steve Peters while savoring a glass of spectacular Vin Santo and Radda’s homemade biscotti.
1575 Boulder St., 303-477-4600
Vita is both a lounge and restaurant, and it surprises on both fronts. As deftly as the bar caters to beautiful types sipping shaken martinis and pomegranate mojitos, the kitchen creates its own star power. Chef Max Mackissock sends out creative Mediterranean eats that befit the sleek restaurant: a delicate winter squash lasagna with ricotta, spinach, and sage pesto wrapped liked a present, a long rectangular platter of plump ravioli, and a caramelized hangar steak served with a dollop of mascarpone potato purée so rich you dream of more.
Mackissock clearly understands the power of balance, and he goes to the edge of creativity. To wit: His “favorite salad” is a medley of roasted Red Bliss potatoes, olive tapenade, pepper bacon, asparagus, baby greens, tuna carpaccio, and a fried egg. With each bite the diner tastes Spain, Italy, and Greece in equal parts and perfect harmony. Add an excellent (and gorgeous) waitstaff, live jazz several nights a week, and one heck of a view, and you’ve got a top restaurant.
Opened December 2006
Best Bites The seasonal ravioli dish—recently made with house-made goat ricotta, asparagus, baby tomatoes, cerignola olives, and Parmesan
Hot Seat Request one of the sexy, loungy booths that’s made for cocktail sipping and canoodling. Or, on a nice night, the rooftop patio.
Don’t Miss Dining on a Tuesday when bottles of wine are half price. If it’s a special evening, we recommend ordering the La Poderina Brunello di Montalcino (normally $125).