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.
The Best-Kept Secret
3455 Ringsby Court, #105, 303-296-4642,
If the cardinal rule of a successful restaurant is location, then Fuel Café, which anchors the hard-to-find Taxi development in Riverfront North, defies all logic. And yet the urban-industrial space and cook-owner Bob Blair's inspired lunchtime eats pull in a packed house every day. "We sell out of our specials 90 percent of time—and we sell out by 1:30 p.m.," says Blair.
The specials are whatever Blair feels like cooking: One day it's "steak and potatoes" with potato puffs and beef carpaccio; another day it's polenta gratin with braised mustard greens and grana Padano cheese; and another it's Green Goddess chicken salad. "I can't stand leftovers; I can't stand cooking the same thing," he explains. "I cook eclectic, fun food, and see what happens." Blair says it's these dishes (for which he sends out a daily e-mail update) that draw the crowds; we say it's more than that. It's the sense that you've discovered a diamond in the rough.
Blair fell into his cooking career almost by accident. Though always a help in the family kitchen (he's the second oldest of eight kids), Blair didn't realize his talent until years later. In college his girlfriend asked him to moonlight at her sorority house while the cook was out sick, and his dishes were instant hits. "That opened my eyes to the reactions that my cooking could bring," he says. His skills were further validated when a friend's father approached him to open a restaurant in Oklahoma. Those plans fell through, and eventually Blair—who never attended culinary school—cooked at the original Parisi Italian Market and Deli (on 44th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard) before going into catering; he later returned to Parisi at its current location on Tennyson Avenue.
When Mickey Zeppelin, the developer behind Taxi, tapped Blair to open Fuel, Zeppelin explained he wanted a cafe that would be creative and outside of the box—Fuel delivers. "The restaurant must fit the neighborhood," says Blair. "And it does."
Don't Miss Soup du jour, Cubano sandwich
Hot Seat Sit against the back wall for a perfect view of the bustling, super-hip crowd.
Check It Out Don't miss Fuel's creative small plates menu on Thursday nights (the only night dinner is served).
Diner Tip Get yourself onto Fuel's e-mail list for messages about daily specials.
The Slice of Heaven
Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria
2129 Larimer St., 303-296-7000, www.marcoscoalfiredpizza.com
"Just look at this flour," Mark Dym says as it cascades through his fingers. The silky blend barely raises a cloud as it falls back into the bin. This flour started it all, bringing about career changes and kicking off a dream for Mark and his wife, Kristy. They first learned of this magic ingredient—Caputo OO from Italy—when dining at a napoletana pizzeria in Miami Beach. They were instantly hooked on the delicate flavor of the crust, and soon Mark, who had just sold his commercial cleaning company, called the flour company to learn more.
Despite having exactly zero restaurant experience, the two opened Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria in Ballpark in June. Now the Dyms dish up pizzas that cook in 60 seconds in 1,000-degree Italian ovens, and the resulting pies are light and chewy with gooey cheese and top-notch fixings.
Though all the pizzas are made on the same crust, the menu is split down the middle, with two main styles offered. The simple napoletana pizza champions traditional, imported ingredients such as prosciutto di Parma and caciocavallo Italian cheese. The New York-style pies are a heartier, more American version of pizza—think pepperoni, sausage, and mushrooms. The pies, plus an impressive antipasti plate and an order of limoncello-glazed, coal-fired chicken wings, make for a cozy, casual meal for a weekday lunch or a Saturday night.
Mark and Kristy's presence only adds to the experience. The two are always there, cheerfully pulling 17-hour days, walking the dining room, and checking on every table. Mark's enthusiasm for his patrons, his restaurant, and his pizza is contagious. Show even the slightest interest and he's off, giving you a tour of the brick-lined ovens before showing off the gigantic mixer that makes the dough. And then, voice laced with wonder, he'll introduce you to the velvety Italian flour that kicked it all off.
Don't Miss Toscana pizza, Brooklyn pizza,
Hot Seat When the weather's warm, find a seat near the outdoor fire pit; otherwise, request an indoor table with a view of the ovens.
Trivia Tidbit Shortly after the restaurant's $15,000 mixer was delivered from Italy, a staff member dropped it down a flight of 30 stairs.
Conversation Starter Ask owner Mark Dym about his days as an ostrich broker.
Make recipes from these restaurants in your own kitchen.
In the 365 days since we put together last year's list of the best new restaurants, the world has changed. The housing bubble has popped, the stock market has tanked, and the government has spent gobs of money propping up our economy. Quite honestly, it sounds like a perfect time to eat out—to get away for a couple of hours, to relax, to come together over the table and share a meal.
That might mean trading bites of cake and shake at D Bar (fact: even in a down economy, the dessert trade holds firm), or seeking solace in the cabin-in-the-woods feel of Beatrice & Woodsley, or licking sauce from your fingers at the Q Worldly Barbeque. Or maybe your perfect meal out is choosing the cozy pairing of steak frites, biting into a stellar burger, scorching your mouth on bubbling pizza, indulging in a stacked sandwich, or discovering the daily whims of an inspired chef.
Lucky for us in the Mile-High City, 2008 has been a fortuitous year for new restaurants. Not only will you see the nation's dining trends playing out in the local scene—the love of all things pork, the continuation of burgermania, the rise of the cocktail, and the dedication to local and seasonal cuisine—you'll find more approachable and affordable eateries than ever. In fact, all eight of the restaurants on this year's list provide, in their own way, an escape—and there's not a white tablecloth among them. So, make the call, book a table, and allow yourself to have some fun.
The Great Escape
Beatrice & Woodsley
38 S. Broadway, 303-777-3505, www.beatriceandwoodsley.com
When it comes to concepts, we've seen it all—the zoolike chain complete with plastic animals, a destination restaurant where everything—menus included—was wrapped in cashmere, and the super-mod bar that served teensy-weensy small plates. But few could rival Beatrice & Woodsley's painstaking recreation of a long-forgotten cabin in the woods.
For owners Kevin Delk and John Skogstad, already known for their over-the-top Mario's Double Daughter's Salotto and award-winning Two-Fisted Mario's Pizza, this is a dream two years in the making. The idea originated with the folktale of Beatrice and Woodsley, a winemaker's daughter and a poor cooper in the 1800s. As the story goes, the couple moved from California to Colorado, where Woodsley hand-built a cabin in the woods for his bride and they lived happily ever after. Delk and Skogstad have recreated that cabin as if they'd stumbled upon it today—long unused and reclaimed by the forest, but once dearly loved. Think aspen trees pushing up through floorboards, tarnished lanterns hanging overhead, wispy drapes, and a dusty root (wine) cellar. And the space works, partly because, as Delk says, "People in Denver are appreciative of the past and the present."
With this larger-than-life concept, one might worry that the decor would overshadow the food. It doesn't. Instead, chef Pete List's cuisine plays to the theater of the space by balancing the rustic with the sophisticated. Dishes are a modern, eclectic mix of food inspired by the early 1900s—a gorgeous platter of roasted seasonal vegetables, roasted pork loin with grits, sweet-onion tartlets with garlic-milk jam and wild baby arugula, and crispy soba noodle cake with pickled vegetables and sweet soy. The idea, says Skogstad, is to present small plates that are one part rustic, hearty, and Old World, and the other part sophisticated and clean. Though not every dish makes the leap, there are many—including the rabbit with braised leg stuffing—that conjure up visions of Beatrice and Woodsley themselves, sharing bites by candlelight.
Don't Miss Soba noodle cakes, hot chocolate for two
Hot Seat Ask for a table in the cozy front room, where the restaurant's cabinlike feel is at its best.
Trivia Tidbit Yes, those are real aspen trees decorating the space.
Extra Credit Kudos if you can figure out how to work the wacky bathroom sinks. (Hint: Pull the chain and be patient.)
The Neighborhood Favorite
1294 S. Broadway, 720-974-0602, www.bistroonedenver.com
Each evening, Bistro One chef Olav Peterson and his kitchen crew pause at the kitchen window to watch the sun set over the Rockies. "We appreciate seeing the art and beauty of nature right in front of us," Peterson says. This gives insight into Peterson's M.O.: He likes to keep things simple and pure. The South Broadway restaurant bakes its own breads (from brioche to rye), cures its own pastrami, corned beef, and bacon, and makes its own pasta. "There's pride in the kitchen," he says, "so much more so because we're involved in every element."
Peterson has always been meticulous. At age 14 he started his kitchen career washing dishes at the French Bakery in Castle Rock, hoping to get a shot at cooking. His mentor told him, "You're the best [dishwasher], so you can't move to the line."
"I had to get all the dishes done, and then I could go learn something in the kitchen," says Peterson.
That attention to detail is now reflected in Bistro One—in the way the sharp lines, dark wood, and cornflower-blue contemporary accents complement the clean, simple cuisine. That doesn't mean Peterson doesn't get creative—to wit, his fettuccine and meatballs are composed of made-from-scratch pasta and served with medium-rare Kobe beef meatballs. Servers bob with excitement when you order one of their favorite dishes (the crock of decadent crawfish mac and cheese with béchamel and house-cured bacon tops the list). And when dishes, such as the sweet-soy buffalo, arrive at the table, they prompt a clatter of forks as diners pass plates and share tastes.
Those experiences run over to lunch (order the steak frites) and brunch, where the French toast, made with house-baked bread, reigns as the city's best. At all meals—Bistro One serves brunch, lunch, and dinner—servings are plentiful and astoundingly well priced (dinner entrées top out at $22, and lunch averages $10). As a true American bistro, this is the kind of spot you'll want to visit a couple of times a week.
Don't Miss Crawfish mac and cheese, sweet-soy buffalo, lemon-olive oil cake
Hot Seat Ask for a booth in the middle of the restaurant, where the high backs offer privacy but still lend a view.
Chef's Take Chef Olav Peterson says hollandaise sauce should make you happy inside—taste his sunny version at brunch, and you'll agree.
1575 Central St., 303-561-3354
When Justin Brunson and Steve Allee were cooking together at Luca D'Italia, they'd spend long hours at the grill and pasta stations swapping foodie dreams and hatching a plan to strike out on their own in the restaurant world. Something simple, maybe. "We thought we could start a sandwich shop without a bunch of overhead," says Brunson.
The two found friends to put up money, and did a trial run out of the Lancer Lounge, a dive bar located in the same building as Luca. The Lancer, best known for its cheap drinks, provided two things: a kitchen, and a platform for the public to taste the sandwich menu and give feedback. Word spread of the inventive eats, and the Lancer's crowd suddenly became dotted with in-the-know foodies. The response was enough to give Brunson and Allee the confidence they needed; they signed a lease on a space in Highland and got to work tiling, painting, and designing what would become Masterpiece Delicatessen.
When the doors first opened in May, the only sandwich that remained from the trial menu was the black truffle egg salad. "We had to change everything up because we only have electric equipment here—a flattop grill and a convection oven," as opposed to the full-blown kitchen at the Lancer, explains Brunson. We love the egg salad's delicate balance of earthiness and creaminess, but we're just as taken with the braised beef brisket, Cubano, and smoked turkey offerings. What sets these seemingly ordinary sandwiches apart is a chef's touch—red wine gastrique and Taleggio fondue with the braised beef brisket; slow-roasted mojo-brined pork on the Cubano; cranberry honey accompanying the smoked turkey.
Masterpiece is a gold mine, so much so that it's already outgrown its digs. Space might be tight, but Brunson and Allee are planning to stay put. Of course, if they need more room there's always the Lancer.
Don't Miss Braised beef brisket, black truffle egg salad
Hot Seat Park it anywhere you can—if this spot has a drawback, it's the limited number of tables and chairs.
On the Side All sandwiches come with the choice of chips or pasta salad—opt for the creative, ever-changing pasta.
The Grill Master
The Q Worldly Barbeque, Blues, and Jazz Lounge
2817 E. Third Ave., 303-399-7227, www.theqbarbeque.com
Now that seven months have passed, Bekah Donovan, co-owner of the Q Worldly Barbeque, can laugh about the restaurant's opening night. "We opened at 5 p.m. and our main beverage distributor delivered 95 cases of beer, liquor, and wine at 5:15 p.m.," she says. "It was the ultimate restaurant chaos."
Since that day in late May, things have gotten a lot smoother at the Q. Now, regulars line up at lunch for beef brisket, St. Louis spareribs, and sandwiches stacked with smoked meat, coleslaw, onion rings, and sweet pickles. At night, music lovers flock for live blues and jazz—with a side of barbecue and (very) cold beer.
For Donovan and business partner David Pellegrin, the idea for pairing blues and jazz with barbecue grew out of their other business. The two own Soleil, a Mediterranean grill and wine bar a few steps from the Q. Upon paying the check at Soleil, patrons would often ask where they could catch some live music. Since there's nary a spot nearby, the duo started to wonder. Pellegrin had always wanted to open a barbecue joint, and Cherry Creek needed a live music venue (not to mention affordable eats), and so the concept was born and the menu planning, testing, and tasting began.
All the meats are dry-rubbed and then smoked low and slow in the massive in-house rotisserie smoker. It's worth looking over the counter to ogle the 3,000-pound beast, which is capable of smoking up to 800 pounds of meat at once. After you pay your respects, head to the sauce bar—a bonanza of a dozen homemade sauces whipped up from recipes created by Pellegrin (who is a classically trained chef), co-owner and executive chef Ben Donovan, and manager Andy Clapp. Look for sauce staples such as tangy Kansas City, spicy Memphis, and creamy Alabama, plus a host of global flavors—Asian sake, chile-mint Thai, and mango-habanero. Regulars know to keep an eye out for the sauce of the week—it might be Indian, Korean, or African.
There's something for everyone on the Q's vast menu. Our favorite dish of the moment: the monstrous pulled-pork shoulder sandwich with a side of fried-to-order potato chips—and don't forget the sauce.
Don't Miss Pulled-pork shoulder sandwich, cooked-to-order chips
Hot Seat Position yourself near the sauce bar—the closer you are, the more opportunities to sample the different flavors.
Groove Time Pair your barbecue with live blues and jazz, Wednesday through Saturday nights.
Sweet Stuff Finish off lunch or dinner in Southern style—with a marshmallowy moon pie.
The Best of the Rest Our favorite highlights from Denver's newest eateries.
Thanks to a major overhaul, Billy's Inn—once a dark and dingy bar hanging on from the 1930s—is now northwest Denver's hottest gathering spot. We give high marks to the bright interior, fab burgers, and ever-changing specials. 4403 Lowell Blvd., 303-455-9733, www.billysinn.com
Since we can't decide if we like Jonesy's mac-and-cheese fries or the Buffalo fries better, we get a split order—which means two mounds of fries, one covered in melted cheese and bacon, the other topped with blue cheese and Frank's Hot Sauce. 400 E. 20th Ave., 303-863-7473, www.jeatbar.com
Locanda Del Borgo
Ward off winter's chill with Locanda's homemade ravioli, filled with creamy ricotta and fresh spinach. What ties this cozy dish together is the divine sage-and-cream sauce. 5575 E. Third Ave., 303-388-0282, www.locanda-del-borgo.com
Tastes Wine Bar & Bistro
We appreciate a wine list that's ever-evolving, and Tastes' by-the-glass menu changes every couple of weeks. If available, don't miss the fruity Paro Pinot Noir from California that drinks like it's from Oregon's Willamette Valley. 1033 E. 17th Ave., 303-459-2311, www.tasteswinebar.com
Bang for the Buck
Boa on West 32nd Boa's Mexican and Asian comfort food—choose from the West or East side of the menu—comes at an excellent price. The generous entrées (our fave is the Korean bibimbap rice bowl with sliced meat, veggies, and a fried egg) cost an average of $10 and come with sides. Don't miss ordering the fideo, a Mexican vermicelli soup with green chile and tomato. 3464 W. 32nd Ave., 303-484-9628
Good for a Laugh
Little Man Ice Cream
Kudos to whomever came up with the witty sign at the ice cream shop's register: "Lactaid for sale, 50 cents." Of course, the homemade ice cream—in flavors ranging from classic strawberry to dulce de leche—is worth the extra 50 cents. 2620 16th St., 303-455-3811, www.littlemanicecream.com
Indulge French Bistro
The chocolate lava cake has been replicated ad nauseam, but order the treat at Indulge and discover what this heavenly, chocolaty treat is supposed to taste like. Bonus: A scoop of mango sorbet comes on top. 4140 W. 38th Ave., 303-433-7400, www.indulgefrenchbistro.com
Eat at the Bar
While a trip to Paris may be out of the question, opt for the French decor at Brasserie Felix. That, plus a bowl of Felix's mussels with hot frites, makes a visit feel like a mini-vacation. 3901 Tennyson St., 303-953-2401, www.brasseriefelix.net
Given the sinner-and-saint juxtaposition of Jing's decor (the black lounge is draped in sultry dark purples, while the restaurant is decked in heavenly whites), you'd expect the bathrooms to deliver similar drama, and they do. The super-modern space is fit with glass stall doors that are disconcertingly see-through—until they frost over when you turn the lock. 5370 Greenwood Plaza Blvd., Greenwood Village, 303-779-6888, www.jingrestaurant.com
Pajama Baking Company
Our favorite time to visit this South Pearl market is on nice days when the staff throws open the garage doors—all the better to see neighbors milling about, purchasing fresh baked goods and prepared foods (don't miss the meatballs in marinara), and standing in line for the unbelievably creamy homemade ice cream. 1595 S. Pearl St., 303-733-3622
Exploitation of a Trend
Lala's Wine Bar & Pizzeria
Thin-crust pizzas are everywhere you look, but that hardly matters because Lala's bakes its to perfection. Combos are inventive, but our fave is the Il David, a white pizza with three cheeses, herbed grilled chicken, artichoke hearts, oven-dried tomatoes, and roasted garlic and red peppers. 410 E. Seventh Ave., 303-861-9463
An offshoot of Deluxe Restaurant next door, Delite is the perfect fit for the Broadway nightlife scene. The lounge-y space is trendy-cool with exposed brick and mod-gray walls, thumping beats, fresh-mixed cocktails, and a happy hour that runs 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. (Open Tuesday through Saturday) 32 S. Broadway, 303-722-1278
Kick off a meal at Encore with an order of the fiery Telluride jalapeño poppers. Wrapped in apple-smoked bacon, these starters—made with red jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese—are as gorgeous to look at as they are hot. 2250 E. Colfax Ave., 303-355-1112, www.encoreoncolfax.com