This year, the top eateries in the Mile-High City present more than just tasty cuisine. In uncertain times, these eight hotspots offer approachability, affordability, and a great excuse to have a little fun.
The Burger King
8439 Park Meadows Center Drive, Lone Tree, 303-790-9630, www.thecounterburger.com
When the craving for a burger hits, we're willing to drive the 17.4 miles from our doorstep to The Counter in Lone Tree. Sure, there are closer spots, but each bite of all-natural ground beef, provolone, lettuce, tomato, fried onions, sautéed mushrooms, and sun-dried tomato vinaigrette reassures us that the mileage was worth it. Toss in crispy fried onion strings and a thick mocha milk shake, and there's no better way to spend gas money.
"You'd think burgers would have been done every which way, but we do it better," says Josh Blanchard, the Colorado-based operations partner for The Counter, a Los Angeles-based chain. A bold claim, but one that Blanchard and team deliver on.
For starters, The Counter uses freshly ground (never frozen), certified humanely raised Angus beef. Patties are hand-formed and cooked to order—not something you often find at a chain. You also get a choice of 56 toppings (herbed goat cheese spread, dried cranberries, fried egg) and bun options, including English muffins.
And those crispy fried onion strings: Most burger shops—and especially chains—fry up frozen, prepackaged rings. Not here. The kitchen cuts up whole onions, soaks them for 24 hours in buttermilk water, makes its own breading mix, breads the onions, and fries them to order every single day. Same deal with the milk shakes: Each one is hand-spun, with real ingredients. "We add fresh bananas, fresh peanut butter, fresh chocolate—everything is made to order. We don't use mixes," Blanchard says.
On the way home, we're already thinking about another visit. Perhaps for our next experience we won't have to drive quite so far—The Counter plans to add four new metro-area locations by 2011.
Don't Miss The Counter Burger, crispy fried onion strings
Hot Seat Grab a stool at the soda fountain-like bar for a view of the crew mixing milk shakes and delivering stacked burgers.
Fun Fact The restaurant offers more than 312,000 burger combinations.
Insiders Know Try swapping the hamburger bun for a toasted English muffin.
The Sweet Spot
D Bar Desserts
1475 E. 17th Ave., 303-861-4710, www.dbardesserts.com
You could say D Bar Desserts came about because of a stolen wallet. A year and a half ago, while visiting Denver, pastry chef Lisa Bailey was in Strings' storage room using the phone to cancel swiped credit cards. As Bailey sat on hold, she took in the leaded windows and the airy space that had been relegated to storage. Later that day she mentioned to Strings owner Noel Cunningham that he should do something with that space. His response: "Why don't you do something?" And so, with the help of her husband and business partner, pastry chef Keegan Gerhard, she did. D Bar Desserts opened Memorial Day.
The idea for a dessert bar, an enterprise selling high-concept sweets (plus a short menu of savory bites such as Kobe beef sliders and antipasti plates), would seem natural for a couple of pastry chefs, but Gerhard and Bailey aren't your everyday professionals. They're masters, and Gerhard is a celebrity (he hosts the Food Network Challenge) with a resume that includes work with Jacquy Pfeiffer and Charlie Trotter. Bailey learned the art of pastry from her grandmother and rose through the ranks, working at the Four Seasons in Houston and Lilette in New Orleans, and most recently at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort and Hotel. Gerhard and Bailey met while competing at the World Pastry Cup in Lyon, France, and now the husband-and-wife team works side by side, dishing up sugary goodness in Uptown.
Pulling open the doors to the chocolate-brown and sea-glass blue space is like unwrapping a present. The pastry case's fresh tarts, cookies, cupcakes, and various other sweets beckon and entice. This is some sort of heaven—a happy place, wrapped in sugar and celebration and confection. And it's packed.
Scan the menu—chocolate cake and a milk shake, flan with plantains, coconut, caramel, and vanilla ice cream—you can't go wrong. Bonus: These treats are affordable enough to warrant return visits.
Don't Miss Cake and shake, tropical Pavlova
Hot Seat Catch all the action at the eight-person community table, located right in the middle of the space.
Conversation Starter Chef/co-owner Keegan Gerhard used to live and train in Colorado Springs while he was on the Olympic cycling development team.
A Treat Special-order a cupcake cake—a gigantic cake fashioned to look like the mini version, complete with a twirl of icing and sprinkles—for a birthday party.