Feature

Dining in Denver

For the first time ever, we rank the top 25 restaurants in the region. Plus: Denver's best chefs and dining trends.

March 2010

For the past 12 months, we've tasted, dipped, spooned, and sipped our way through Denver and Boulder's finest restaurants. We've had some truly unforgettable meals, and, yes, we've also had a few disappointments along the way. But when we sat down to put together this ranking, what became abundantly clear was the depth and the breadth of our local restaurant scene—in which you'll find not only elegance and execution, but also creativity and whimsy. Put very simply, there's never been a better time to be dining in Denver. Cheers.

1. Frasca

Boulder
Before Frasca opened in 2004, few local diners had heard of Friuli, Italy. Now, thanks to chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson's flawless northern Italian cuisine, this little-known region is more than just a point of conversation between foodies—it's a small obsession. In drawing inspiration from the area's dedication to seasonal dining and its farming culture, Mackinnon-Patterson cultivated a menu that honors sustainability. His expertise comes through in perfectly executed dishes such as ravioli filled with house-made ricotta and a farm-fresh egg. His simple, elegant dishes arrive against a backdrop of polished service—servers whisk in and out, gracefully replenishing water glasses, presenting new dishes, and removing finished ones as if it were an impeccably choreographed dance. The crowning detail is master sommelier Bobby Stuckey's vast, unpretentious wine knowledge, which further elevates every bite, every sip, and every moment. 1738 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-6966, www.frascafoodandwine.com

2. Mizuna

Governor's Park
Frank Bonanno's flagship restaurant still retains its seamless elegance nine years after opening its doors. In this tiny kitchen, ingredients are carefully sourced, technique is unparalleled, and flavors are as rich and warm as the dining room's creamy yellow walls. The result is an elegant evening that's made even more so with bites of French-influenced cuisine like pan-roasted ostrich loin and chestnut bread pudding or stuffed jumbo prawns with house-cured chorizo and potato stew. 225 E. Seventh Ave., 303-832-4778, www.mizunadenver.com

3. Fruition

Alamo Placita
For such an unconventional space—a skinny dining room with an unexceptional view of Sixth Avenue, and no bar—Fruition functions like a much larger restaurant. Chef and co-owner Alex Seidel has garnered national attention for his seasonal menu and his dedication to pristine ingredients. (Last year he bought a 10-acre farm in Larkspur where he raises chickens, goats, sheep, and produce.) And although the American menu reflects the fruit of Seidel's labors (try any dish with wild arugula), the farm-to-table experience has simply honed his already razor-sharp focus as a chef. 1313 E. Sixth Ave., 303-831-1962, www.fruitionrestaurant.com

4. Luca d'Italia

Governor's Park
Inside Luca's chocolate-brown walls, white tablecloths appear extra crisp and a window into the kitchen offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the action. The setting serves as a metaphor for chef-owner Frank Bonanno's cooking: sophisticated, luminous, and accessible. The restaurant is an ode to Bonanno's Italian roots, and the affable waitstaff helps guide you through the many courses, with appropriate wine pairings. If there's a dish not to miss, it's the decadent and rustic braised veal tortelloni. 711 Grant St., 303-832-6600, www.lucadenver. com

5. Opus

Littleton
If Opus, chef Michael Long's fine-dining restaurant, were located downtown, everyone would know it by name. Instead, this seven-year-old spot in Old Town Littleton is only semidiscovered. Those who have tasted dishes such as the dazzling sea scallops with pancetta and cranberry Brussels sprouts, however, know Long's genius. He is a master of juxtaposition—pairing sweet with spicy, crunchy with creamy—in a way that always amplifies the main ingredient. 2575 W. Main St., Littleton, 303-703-6787, www.opusdine.com

6. Sushi Den

Platt Park
Long the pinnacle of sushi in Denver, Toshi and Yasu Kizaki's Sushi Den never loses its edge. Demand speaks for itself: Hardly a night goes by that the restaurant doesn't experience a full house, despite several add-ons and remodels to render more table space. And everyone comes for one thing: the fish, much of which is sourced straight from the Nagahama fish market in Japan. The stunning, precise presentation is a bonus. Nab a spot at the sushi bar, relinquish control to the chef, and see what he delivers. 1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826, www.sushiden.net

7. Table 6

Alamo Placita
When asked for a restaurant recommendation, more often than not Table 6 is the first to slip off our lips. Chef Scott Parker's playful menu (take the little Phillies appetizer, a gussied-up version of the Philly cheese steak, as an example) will put all diners at ease. At the same time, dishes such as braised veal breast with spinach, spelt, and baked onion appeal to well-versed diners. As a bonus, the vegetarian entrée never fails to inspire even the most dedicated carnivores. Owner-sommelier Aaron Forman, clad in his signature thrift-store sports coat, is forever working the small, exposed-brick space, greeting, pouring, and making all diners feel right at home. 609 Corona St., 303-831-8800, www.table6denver.com

8. Potager

Capitol Hill
It may sit in the middle of Capitol Hill, but there's something positively San Franciscan about Potager. Maybe it's the chic, bohemian vibe, or the laid-back but spot-on waitstaff, or the Chez Panisse-esque menu. Whatever it is, we like it—and even more so since Denver can claim it as its own. Go to Potager for a glass of biodynamic wine and chef-owner Teri Rippeto's legendary cassoulet, or eschew the wait-list and order dinner at the bar. 1109 Ogden St., 303-832-5788, www.potagerrestaurant.com

9. Tables

Park Hill
At this cozy Park Hill spot, husband and wife Dustin Barrett and Amy Vitale are just as often found greeting diners at the front as they are cooking in the back. And each evening, plates as nuanced as seared scallops over a heavenly Meyer lemon risotto or black cod over a hearty chowder vie for favorite status. 2267 Kearney St., 303-388-0299, www.tablesonkearney.com

10. Colt & Gray

Riverfront
If you order nothing else at Colt & Gray, make it the Long Family Farms crispy pig trotters. This memorable bar snack—well-seasoned, addictive patties made from the meat of pigs' feet—underscores chef-owner Nelson Perkins' cooking philosophy: simple, clean, and unexpected. That approach is pervasive throughout the menu—not to mention the city-meets-hunt club space. You'll find it in the whole, roasted trout with spicy guanciale sausage and earthy farro, the salmon tartare tossed with minced beet greens, or the buttery, bratwurstlike lobster bangers. Whatever the combination, Colt & Gray's dishes are inspired and balanced—and, along with the hip space, are a huge reason this newcomer has us paying very close attention. 1553 Platte St., 303-477-1447, www.coltandgray.com

11. L'Atelier

Boulder
What strikes us most about L'Atelier is how unstuffy it feels for a fancy French restaurant. While the small space is formal (fine china, white tablecloths, and the like), it's also playful. The tone is set by chef-owner Radek Cerny's collection of figurines, most of which are displayed in shadow boxes along the walls. That whimsy is continued with each dish—and though the food itself is serious (filet mignon tartare, scallops with Peekytoe crab risotto, and duck confit), Cerny's plate design is anything but. The colors and patterns he evokes are downright artistic—and something to savor. 1739 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-7233, www. latelierboulder.com

12. Rioja

Downtown
Jennifer Jasinski, chef-owner of Rioja, has made her culinary mark by mining the flavors of the Mediterranean. Take the artichoke tortelloni—a combo of goat cheese- and artichoke mousse-stuffed pasta with artichoke broth, queso de mano cheese, a touch of truffle, and fresh chervil. The dish is all about the artichoke's complexity, and it perfectly captures the earthy, light flavors that taste of spring, even on a winter's day. Jasinski's dishes often sound complex (Colorado lamb two ways, grilled T-bone, house-made lamb merguez sausage, crisp couscous pillows, caramelized fennel, tomato coulis, and preserved lemon yogurt), but on the fork they're easily deciphered and exquisitely flavored. 1433 Larimer St., 303-820-2282, www.riojadenver.com

13. Solera

East Colfax
Goose Sorensen, chef-owner of Solera, has done something amazing: Despite the dismal economy, he's seen his business grow more than 25 percent. He's added small plates to pull in more bar business, but, most important, he's continued cooking his brand of American cuisine. That translates into accessible but refined dishes such as the thick and smoky pork chop with whipped yams, grilled onions, and chipotle pork jus and a homey half-chicken served with sweet potato bread pudding and Brussels sprouts. After 10 years in business, we're happy to report, Sorensen has found his sweet spot. 5410 E. Colfax Ave., 303-388-8429, www.solerarestaurant.com

14. Bones

Governor's Park
Push through Bones' front door and you'll find a 34-seater that's right in the middle of the national noodle trend. The restaurant (yet another from Frank Bonanno) bustles at both lunch and dinner as diners slurp bowls of heady broth and twirl udon, soba, and ramen noodles with chopsticks. The soulful flavors are rooted in Asia but offer French twists—the signature poached lobster, edamame, and lobster-miso ramen among them. Even with the noodle options, the best of the menu can be found in the addictive steamed buns stuffed with shredded pork belly and hoisin. 701 Grant St., 303-860-2929, www.bonesdenver.com

15. Salt

Boulder
Opening a restaurant is always a blood-sweat-and-tears endeavor, but for chef-owner Bradford Heap, Salt was especially so. He spent more than a year renovating the former location of Tom's Tavern, a once-beloved Boulder bar and eatery. He pulled up floorboards, removed ceilings (only to discover pristine, 100-year-old tin tiles), switched out windows and piping—all while reincorporating the materials in the new space. On the menu, ingredients like Hazel Dell mushrooms, Long Family Farms pork, and Munson Farm greens showcase local and organic farms—and the tavern burger is a nod to the erstwhile Tom's, though it's been updated with grass-fed beef, bacon, pickled onion, and Grafton cheddar. 1047 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-444-7258, www.saltboulderbistro.com

16. Vesta Dipping Grill

Downtown
When it first opened in 1997, Vesta's circular booths, concrete-topped bar, and saucy menu rendered it the city's must-go restaurant. Thirteen years later, the downtown spot is still flooded with diners in search of chef Matt Selby's bold cuisine. Many dishes—such as the piquant madras-grilled venison or smoked and grilled duck breast—have become staples, and Selby has deftly massaged a trend (dipping sauces) into his signature venue for creativity. Despite having dined at Vesta dozens of times, we're still entranced by the moody lighting and the sultry of-the-minute menu. 1822 Blake St., 303-296-1970, www.vestagrill.com

17. Duo

Highland
Everything about Duo is refreshing and comfortable. This sense of ease extends to chef John Broening's intelligent take on brunch and dinner: light shrimp-risotto fritters, soulful braised wild boar, warm white bean salad. Here, you'll find a restaurant that's designed to both nourish and inspire. 2413 W. 32nd Ave., 303-477-4141, www.duodenver.com

18. Z Cuisine

Highland
Certain restaurants ooze authenticity, and Z Cuisine, chef-owner Patrick Dupays' French bistro, is one of those spots. Inside the tiny space, French is spoken, ceramic pitchers deliver wine, and braised meats perfume the air. The wait for a table is often hours—but the lingering is worth it. 2239 W. 30th Ave., 303-477-1111, www.zcuisineonline.com

19. Fuel Cafe

RiNo
It's a testament to Bob Blair's cooking that the tucked-away Fuel Cafe has not only survived but also thrived. Once you find this funky, eclectic eatery (located in the TAXI development in burgeoning RiNo), you'll return for the dynamic soups (hope for the showstopping sausage and white bean with escarole), the Cubano sandwich, and the specials the kitchen cooks up each day. Open for lunch during the week and dinner Thursday through Saturday, the restaurant has a constantly changing menu that reflects Blair's mood. One day, that means Asian braised short ribs with kimchi; the next it's comfort food in the form of crispy oyster po'boys. 3455 Ringsby Court, 303-996-6988, www.fuelcafedenver.com

20. Squeaky Bean

Highland
The Squeaky Bean debunks the myth that a well-equipped kitchen is the cornerstone of a great restaurant. This Highland spot functions with two overworked convection ovens, and yet chef Max MacKissock turns out ambitious eats ranging from lemony tuna conserva and smooth rillettes to tender beef cheeks. His sense of texture and flavor has impressed us since we first tasted his food at Vita, but here diners can watch—and taste—as MacKissock comes into his own as a well-rounded, seasonally focused chef. 3301 Tejon St., 303-284-0053, www.thesqueakybean.net

21. The Kitchen

Boulder
If the goal of a restaurant is to serve the community, then the Kitchen is a resounding success. This Boulder spot thrives on the shared experience—community tables, a give-and-take approach of supporting local farmers and ranchers, and the shared dishes that punctuate the weekday happy hour. Every day, the crowds of loyal patrons that gather for Hugo Matheson's soulful dishes (heirloom squash farrotto and pan-seared haddock with pecan spaetzle) illustrate how, in six short years, this eatery has come to define Boulder dining. 1039 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-544-5973, www.thekitchencafe.com

22. Barolo Grill

Cherry Creek
Blair Taylor's Barolo Grill maintains a level of service rarely matched. The northern Italian eatery—as well known for its signature duck dish as its celebrated wine program—welcomes with service that's sharp, confident, and eager to guide you through chef Brian Laird's rustic cuisine. 3030 E. Sixth Ave., 303-393-1040, www.barologrilldenver.com

23. Venue

Highland
The mark of a great chef is the ability to anticipate: to foresee tastes, trends, and what diners really want. Such is the case at Venue, where chef James Rugile creates simple and unpretentious dishes with rich flavors and textures. His cuisine is the mark of a steady hand—and an active mind. 3609 W. 32nd Ave., 303-477-0477, www.venuebistro.com

24. Black Cat

Boulder
This cozy nook of a restaurant doesn't have a bad table—but it does have a great one. Nab the seats overlooking Black Cat's kitchen window and you're privy to all the action. You'll watch as ingredients (many of which come from chef-owner Eric Skokan's farm) are finessed into composed dishes. Don't be tempted to skip over the appetizers—it is here that we think Skokan's cuisine is the most finely tuned. 1964 13th St., Boulder, 303-444-9110, www.blackcatboulder.com

25. Olivéa

Uptown
Over the winter, the Mediterranean flavors of Olivéa have sustained us. We taste Spain in chef and co-owner John Broening's smoky patatas bravas, Italy in the duck meatballs with creamy polenta, and France in the caper-studded tuna crostini. Supplement any of these dishes with the house-cured charcuterie or the dynamic pork belly with tangerine glaze and lentils, and rejoice in an Uptown restaurant that challenges and educates with each bite. 719 E. 17th Ave., 303-861-5050, www.olivearestaurant.com

Food Craze

Fads come and go, but these food-driven highlights seem here to stay. Where to find—and eat—these trends.

Street Eats
Downtowners line up at Gastro Cart (corner of 18th and Curtis streets) for the likes of pulled-pork sandwiches with smoked curry sauce, Granny Smith apples, and cabbage on a sesame roll.

Korean Food
Experience this fiery cuisine's many nuances at Silla (3005 S. Peoria St., Aurora, 303-338-5070). Or, go light on authenticity and try the Korean Reuben at Rack & Rye (1320 15th St., 720-620-4920, www.rackandrye.com)—ask for extra kimchi slaw.

Pork
Pork in all its glory can be found in the bacon flight at the Berkshire (7352 E. 29th St., 303-321-4010, www.theberkshirerestaurant.com). Four tasty strips, four different ways: garlic, cinnamon-chipotle, curry, and balsamic. At Il Posto (2011 E. 17th Ave., 303-394-0100, www.ilpostodenver.com) pork belly and sopressa (Italian salami) add density to stracci pasta with roasted baby eggplants and San Marzano sugo.

Creative Vegetarian
Shazz (4262 Lowell Blvd., 303-477-1407,www.shazzdenver.com) serves a veggie cassoulet—hearty with tender squash and cranberry beans—that puts all those years of portobellos to shame. The same can be said for Root Down's (1600 W. 33rd Ave., 303-993-4200, www.rootdowndenver.com) butternut squash risotto with spinach, pumpkin seeds, and sage-brown butter.

High-End Burgers
Park Burger (1890 S. Pearl St., 720-242-9951, www. parkburger.com) stacks our favorite combo: a Harris Ranch beef patty topped with ham, a fried egg, and melty Swiss cheese.

Nose-to-Tail Dining
We applaud chefs who make an effort to use the whole animal. Don't miss Twelve's (2233 Larimer St., 303-293-0287, www.twelverestaurant.com) delicate and crispy veal sweetbreads, Panzano's (1717 Champa St., 303-296-3525, www.panzano-denver.com) fried beef heart, or TAG's (1441 Larimer St., 303-996-9985, www.tag-restaurant.com) decadent roasted Wagyu bone marrow.

Gastropub
High-end pub grub is on the menu. Hit Argyll (2700 E. Third Ave., 720-382-1117, www.argyllpub.com) for the Indian-style mussels and Jonesy's EatBar (400 E. 20th Ave., (303-863-7473, www.jeatbar.com) for flaky curry samosas.

Underground Supper Clubs
These dinner societies have a certain cachet (you either know about them or you don't), and they're gaining traction. Here in Denver, we've got two—50 Top (invite only) and Hush Denver (www.hushdenver.com).

Agave Nectar
This darling of the sweetener world is showing up in main dishes­—like LoHi SteakBar's (3200 Tejon St., 303-927-6334) warm roasted chicken salad with avocado and goat cheese.

Top Chefs

Each year we, as diners, are influenced by the chefs whose restaurants we frequent. It's through their dishes that we broaden our culinary horizons, experience the trends, and rediscover the pleasure that can come from a perfect bite. We commend the chefs below for the excitement they've brought to the Denver­-Boulder scene.

Chef of the Year
Toshi Kizaki, Sushi Den, Izakaya Den, Den Deli
Over the past 20 years, Toshi Kizaki has proven to skeptics that ocean-fresh fish can—and does—exist in landlocked Colorado. With prudent sourcing and a brother who works Japan's largest fish market, Sushi Den's seafood sees only 24 hours between being caught and landing on a plate. Kizaki's unprecedented Japanese cuisine has such a following that, two years ago, he opened Izakaya Den across the street to help feed demand. The menu offers sushi along with a creative Japanese tapas-style menu (grilled panzanella salad, hoisin duck tostada) that further demonstrates Kizaki's depth as a chef. And in November of last year, Kizaki added a third Platt Park spot, Den Deli, that functions as a Japanese-style deli, seafood market, and noodle bar. His dedication to authenticity is relentless—he even refused to serve ramen at Den Deli until the flavor profiles met his strict expectations. Excellence is difficult to achieve in even one restaurant; Kizaki manages near perfection in three.

Rising Star
James Rugile, Venue
When James Rugile took the executive chef position at Venue 18 months ago, few had ever heard of him. Now this 25-year-old, who honed his skills at Black Pearl and Vesta Dipping Grill, has exploded onto the Denver dining scene. He's a bold-faced name in the newspaper; he's spearheaded the Highlands' Chef Collaborative (a small group of like-minded neighborhood chefs); and he's always dining out (everywhere from Olivéa to Frasca) and surveying the competition. We appreciate Rugile's depth of natural talent, his dedication to simple and seasonal eats, and his insatiable drive to better both his restaurant and the greater dining community.

Pastry Chef
Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, Duo and Olivéa
Anyone who has ordered dessert at Duo or Olivéa already knows the power that pastry chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom wields. Her sweets succeed in the balance of texture and flavor—never will you experience a cloying or jaded bite. Instead, her carefully crafted desserts strike an equilibrium of sweet, savory, and salty in every single bite. For proof, order any dessert featuring a heavenly semifreddo.