Feature

Denver’s Best New Restaurants

Ten new eateries where the food, staff, and ambiance make for fantastic dining discoveries.

December 2006

What makes a best new restaurant? It takes more than just a plate of good food. There’s consistency to take into account, and the waitstaff and the ambience too, but mostly it’s that spirited vibe when an eatery fires on all cylinders. When that happens the kitchen knows it, as do the servers, and the diners can feel it. There’s something special about being a part of that moment—and it’s something you’ll experience at all 10 of these metro-area restaurants.

For the last 14 months we’ve kept a crib sheet of the new places opening in and around Denver. We’ve noted spaces with hype and discovered other spots that opened without any fanfare. We’ve visited them all—chewing our way through crêpes with chantilly cream, duck confit, Cuban sandwiches, tandoori chicken, vegetarian hot dogs, and always, always dessert.

Denver’s dining scene continues to mature, embracing trends like Peruvian cuisine and seasonally focused menus. We also learned that Highland—especially booming East Highland—is the place to be, as three of our 10 are located in that urban neighborhood. Most important, we’ve found a handful of restaurants of all price ranges and cuisines that will wrap you in the moment and entice you to visit time and again.

Cafe Mondo
3301 Tejon St., 303-433-4626

When Cafe Mondo first opened last December, the window-wrapped space, bakery case stocked with mouthwatering goodies, and gourmet lunch sandwiches made regulars out of us. And then the San Franscisco-esque East Highland restaurant blossomed into a nighttime spot with wine-and-cheese tastings, wine-paired dinners, and sake parties. The paired dinners—for which the menu is posted with a sign-up sheet—include three to seven courses, with dishes ranging from sublime butternut squash soup to a hearty lamb chop with wild mushroom demi and scalloped sweet potatoes. And there's little surprise that the wine pairings are spot on, as owner Ellen Quinn Kratzer is the wife of Mondo Vino's Duey Kratzer.

Eat The decadent BBT (thick-cut bacon, fresh basil, and juicy tomato) on housemade focaccia at lunch.
Drink The wine list changes regularly; ask grape guru Duey Kratzer for a perfect pairing.
Don't Miss The buckwheat waffles with blackberry syrup and a side of the savory sweet-potato hash at breakfast.
Sit Inside against the south-facing window, or bring the paper and spread out at the bar.

Chutney's
880 Happy Canyon Road, Castle Rock, 303-660-2020, www.chutneysfoodandwine.com

We loved the late Denver Woodlands for what it was: a bare-bones, no pretenses, all-veggie Indian establishment in an Aurora strip mall. And we adore what Managing Director Kannan Alagappan and Executive Chef Ravi Chandra have created with Chutney's, their brand-new, polished Indian restaurant in Castle Pines Village. The extensive, eclectic menu guides diners from staples such as tandoori chicken and saag paneer to regional specialties such as butter-roast dosa, an enormous crispy crêpe filled with spiced potatoes and served with tomato chutney, coconut chutney, cilantro chutney, and lentil soup. Be sure to make note of the menu itself—the scroll-like paper comes straight from India.

Eat Subzi korma, a blend of fresh vegetables, fruits, and nuts in a creamy saffron-nutmeg onion sauce over rice.
Drink Mark West Pinot Noir.
Don't Miss The dahi aloo puri, a traditional Bombay street vendor snack of crispy bite-size wafers stuffed with spiced potatoes, chickpeas, cilantro, yogurt, and chutneys.
Sit At table No. 23, with bamboo walls, cushy upholstery, and views of the restaurant's comings and goings.

Duo Restaurant
2413 W. 32nd Ave., 303-477-4141, www.duodenver.com

We can't say enough about Duo. Not only has the restaurant, which opened last October, played a strategic role in revitalizing the corner of 32nd Avenue and Zuni Street, but Executive Chef John Broening's seasonal cuisine constantly surprises and comforts us. We've dined here too many times to count, and never do we leave without eating two things: the arugula salad tossed with warm bacon dressing, pears, Gorgonzola, and walnuts, and some kind (any kind) of dessert. Owners Stephanie Bonin and Keith Arnold have captured the true essence of the neighborhood restaurant—simple food, a low-key but polished ambience, and the hum of neighbors trading stories.

Eat Porter braised pork stew with fingerling potatoes, pearl onions, and mustard greens.
Drink Dale's Pale Ale (or any of the Colorado microbrews available).
Don't miss Sticky toffee pudding—or anything pastry chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom whips up.
Sit At a two-top next to the windows, or at the cozy bar for dessert.

Gaïa Bistro
1551 S. Pearl St., 303-777-5699

In June, when Gaïa Bistro took over the spot of the former La-Ti-Da coffeehouse and knitting store, it brought a vibrant breakfast and lunch trade to Old South Pearl Street. Already the neighborhood was busy with top-notch dinner options such as Sushi Den and Black Pearl, but morning and midday meals were scarce. Now, thanks to owner Patrick Mangold-White and chef Drew Middleton, breakfast means goodies such as crunchy homemade granola with brown sugar and cream. Lunch serves up savory crêpes made with organic buckwheat flour and oven-roasted tomatoes, poblano peppers, goat cheese, basil pesto, and onions. On weekends, the wait for breakfast can top 45 minutes, but it's worth it to order up an organic, free-trade coffee and linger while waiting for a seat.

Eat The tuna sandwich with capers, red onion, and tomatoes on fluffy focaccia.
Drink Fresh-squeezed orange juice or a French press made with Kaladi Coffee.
Don't Miss Plum and stewed cherries crêpe with chantilly cream or any of the hand-crafted breads made by Pajama Baking Co., Mangold-White's bread company.
Sit At the patio on nice days; otherwise, get a table in the sunny front room.

Gelman's Gourmet
2911 W. 38th Ave., 303-458-1163, www.gelmansmarket.com

We're sure the naysayers told Charlene Connolly and Michelle and Steve Gelman not to open Gelman's on 38th Avenue, one block east of Federal. But aren't we glad the trio disregarded the advice. Since Gelman's opened in December 2005, we've spent many an hour at a corner table, become addicted to the asparagus chicken sandwich with breaded chicken, bacon, and asparagus cream sauce, and told anyone who would listen about this dining gem. What we love most: the welcoming staff, the hand-painted tabletops, and the fresh take on gourmet food. No other market we know serves Challa French toast, marinated hanger steak, or crispy fish and chips with housemade tartar sauce. Bonus: There's a full bar with a rockin' martini happy hour Fridays from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Eat The eggs Gelman—smoked ham, asparagus, and poached eggs on English muffin topped with asparagus bacon cream sauce with homemade fries.
Drink The Flirtini: Stoli Razberi, Cointreau, pineapple juice, and Champagne.
Don't Miss Homemade Asiago and artichoke dip served with fresh baguette and veggies (on the dinner menu).
Sit At the far corner table, near the window, for the perfect vantage point to take it all in.

Límon
1618 E. 17th Ave., 303-322-0898, www.limondenver.com

If you've never had Peruvian food, here's what you're missing: cebiche, pisco sours, fresh fish, hot peppers, nutty farro, and purple potatoes. The cuisine is rich with Chinese, Spanish, and French influence—and at Límon, chef-owner Alex Gurevich serves an eclectic menu that uses South American ingredients in nontraditional ways. Open since July, the 17th Avenue restaurant has seen huge business serving starters such as the mango, passion fruit, and prawn cebiche and the yucca chips with black mint-béarnaise dipping sauce. For dinner we go for the arroz con pato—a balanced dish of crispy duck confit, cilantro rice, sugar snap peas, and cotija-aji rocoto salsa. The final effect: delicious and exotic but still approachable.

Eat Crispy duck confit over cilantro rice, sugar snap peas, and cotija-aji rocoto salsa.
Drink Chicha Morado—a traditional Peruvian beverage made of purple corn, pineapple, cloves, and cinnamon.
Don't Miss Lucuma (a Peruvian fruit) ice cream and Alfajores cookies, shortbread-like treats filled with dulce de leche.
Sit Inside along the far wall for a perfect perch overlooking the entire restaurant.

Steuben's 523 E. 17th Ave., 303-830-1001, www.steubens.com

We love everything about Steuben's: the menu stocked with American regional classics, the space that used to be a garage, the retro decor, the laidback vibe, and the dealio prices. Open only since June, the restaurant on 17th Avenue feels like it's always been there dishing up authentic Maine lobster rolls, the city's best iceberg wedge, perfectly spicy étouffee, a mean green chile cheeseburger, and crispy fried chicken. And it comes as no surprise to us that it's the Vesta Dipping Grill team—Josh and Jen Wolkon and chef Matt Selby—pulling off perfection with the help of Executive Chef Brandon Biederman, who kicks out great food to a packed dining room every day. Bonus: Recently the check for a party of eight rang up at $178.92—that's $53 dollars a couple with a 20 percent tip.

Eat The Cubano sandwich stacked with ham, house-roasted pork shoulder, sour pickles, dill pickles, Swiss cheese, mustard, and mayo. Dip it in the side of garlicky chimichurri.
Drink Sessions lager.
Don't Miss The butterscotch pudding with vanilla wafers and Wednesday night's fish-n-chips special.
Sit In one of the brown vinyl booths.

Steve's Snappin' Dogs
3525 E. Colfax Ave., 303-333-7627, www.stevessnappindogs.com

At Steve's Snappin' Dogs on Colfax Avenue, owners Steve and Linda Ballas elevate the frankfurter to the level of fine food. Forget the corner cart—since February, Steve's Snappin' Dogs has been a restaurant dedicated to the dog. Dress yours up any way you like with more than 20 add-ons, ranging from celery salt, dill pickles, and chips to grilled red onions and bacon. Go messy with the Denver burrito dog (chile con carne, Cheddar Jack cheese, jalapeños, bacon, tomato, and romaine in a tortilla) or keep it low carb by tossing the bun in favor of Romaine lettuce or a flour tortilla. No matter what's piled on top, Steve makes sure all customers know they're eating New Jersey-imported Thumann's brand frankfurters with 100 percent beef and pork.

Eat The Jersey dog with spicy mustard, green relish, caraway sauerkraut, red onions, and bacon (for nonmeat eaters, try the fantastic veggie dog).
Drink Fresh-brewed iced tea with peach flavoring.
Don't Miss Deep-fried carrot sticks and green beans.
Sit At the counter.

Tula
250 Josephine St., 303-377-3488

In what's been a cursed space since Radek Cerny closed Papillon Cafe in 2002, chef-owner Chris Douglas is making a name for himself and his fine Mexican food at Tula. And while we often intend to stop by the Cherry Creek restaurant just for margaritas and the trio of seviches served with homemade chips, we always end up staying for dinner. That's when we order the tender duck confit leg and seared breast with homemade pumpkin ravioli, roasted lobster mushrooms, and a brown butter duck sage sauce. On a busy night, Tula hums with activity: flatwear clinks against plates, servers whisk by bringing new dishes and clearing old, diners nearby raise glasses in a cheer. The whole feel of Tula is just right—a touch of Mexico in a part glossy, part rustic space blended with a very real, very pleasant dining experience.

Eat Spanish chorizo-wrapped scallops in blood-orange-habanero butter sauce, celeriac purée, and fried carrots.
Drink Prickly pear margarita made with tequila-infused fruit.
Don't Miss Tuna nachos with crispy wontons, seared ahi, guacamole, Fresno peppers, and chipotle cream sauce.
Sit In the bar.

Virgilio's Pizzeria Neapolitana
7986 W. Alameda Ave., Lakewood, 303-985-2777, www.virgiliospizzeria.com

Virgilio's feels a bit like a Mystic Pizza—the passion is pizza pie, the servers are young and hard-working, and the owner, Italian-born and Connecticut-raised Virgilio Mario Urbano, is always on hand. Since opening last October, Urbano has seated, served, and chatted up customers, making sure his restaurant exceeds expectations. The large menu encourages many visits—one day we fold slices of the New York-style pie in half, another we use a knife and fork on the thick-crust Sicilian pies, and another we twirl spaghetti around with Mama's marinara. But each time, over at our two-top, Virgilio checks in, making sure the organic field-green salad with feta (mounds and mounds of feta) and homemade balsamic tastes just right and that the thin crust on our margherita pizza meets expectations. Both dishes leave us grinning and digging in for more.

Eat The house favorite: white pizza with ricotta, garlic, sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, and spinach.
Drink La Rossa by Moretti, a dark amber lager.
Don't Miss The garlic knots or the decadent spinach pinwheels stuffed with ricotta, garlic, mozarella, and spinach.
Sit At the two-top near the brick-lined ovens.