With nearly 30 restaurants in the running, we whittled the list down to the best eight eateries in the Mile High City.
It’s been quite a year, Denver. As far as we can tell, the, um, sluggish economy hasn’t stopped new restaurants from flinging open their doors—and thank goodness for that, because our local dining scene is more vibrant than ever. If anything, many of the new places in town reflect a refreshing price consciousness and menu accessibility that had previously fallen away. You’ll find bargains at eateries like the dainty Middle Eastern–focused Arabesque or dialed-down, hearty fare at Euclid Hall. Of course, this list still offers choices for fine dining—namely Shanahan’s Steakhouse and ChoLon, but most of the eight restaurants that made this year’s cut fall squarely in the middle. So no matter what you’re craving, check out the metro area’s most promising new spots. Ready, set…eat!
Ondo's Spanish Tapas Bar
At Ondo’s, a year-old Spanish restaurant in Cherry Creek, chefs Curt and Deicy Steinbecker are finally doing the tapa justice. No meal here should begin without an order of the classic tortilla Española (a wedge of egg-and-potato omelet served at room temperature) or the patatas bravas—perhaps Spain’s most famous bar snack—fried potato wedges dredged in a spicy, roasted red pepper sauce. From there, the salad tossed with Manchego cheese, Serrano ham, and cherry tomatoes offers bright acidity that cleanses the palate before going back for more. Our one concern is that the restaurant sits in a difficult location—a subterranean space that doesn’t offer much ambience—but we believe the Steinbeckers, and Ondo’s remarkable food, have staying power.
Where To Sit: If it’s not busy, the space can feel cold, so ask for the snug two-top that’s closest to the bar.
What To Order: Croquetas de jámon, albondigas en salsa, ensalada de Manchego y Serrano 250 Steele St., 303-975-6514, ondostapas.com
The first time we tried to visit Arabesque, we drove right past it. The building it occupies on Boulder’s Walnut Street looks bank-like from the outside, but once you head inside, you’ll find a cozy, sun-lit space that has a community coffeeshop feel. Grab a table, sip a cool glass of water (subtly flavored with rose water), and study the small menu written on the chalkboard. When your server returns, order the curry oil–drizzled chicken shawarma and the sampler platter—a classic smorgasbord of hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, and tangy stuffed grape leaves. The Arabic bread, though, is the true star: It both lightly wraps the tender chicken into a sandwich and comes alongside the sampler platter. Order extra, and then rip off hunks of the freshly baked, puffy rounds to scoop up the lemony hummus (studded with whole garbanzo beans) and smoky baba ghanoush. The flavors are so pure and comforting that when you get up to pay the check, you’ll want to thank owners Manal and Saib Jarrar as they cook in their small, open kitchen.
Where To Sit: If you visit during a rare slow moment, sit at the sun-drenched table in the corner by the windows. Otherwise, grab any seat you can.
What To Order: Lentil soup, chicken shawarma, Mid-East sampler platter 1634 Walnut St., Boulder, 720-242-8623, arabesqueboulder.com
ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro
It was big news when New York chef Lon Symensma announced he was leaving the Big Apple to open his first signature restaurant in Denver. And yet, some foodies remained hesitant—concerned that Symensma was coming to town to educate local diners on the finer points of Southeast Asian cuisine. Truth is, Denver diners do not appreciate being told what to eat. But then ChoLon opened, and misgivings fell by the wayside. Within the beautiful, modern space there’s nary a New York attitude. Instead, there’s a generosity and accessibility that extends from the service to the menu. When trying a new dish—take the kaya toast with coconut jam and soft egg that’s wildly popular in Southeast Asia—there’s an immediate connection and a sense of fluency. Likewise with the soup dumplings: Even if you’ve never had them before, after one bite you immediately understand this is comfort food. This is, in fact, our favorite way to experience ChoLon—through the small bites menu (available from 11 a.m.), which will delight, surprise, and satisfy you with each dish.
Where To Sit: At the chef’s counter for a birds-eye view into the kitchen.
What To Order: Kaya toast with coconut jam and soft egg, soup dumplings, green papaya salad with tamarind sorbet, stir-fried Brussels sprouts with ground pork and mint. 1555 Blake St., Suite 101, 303-353-5223, cholon.com
There’s something about a steak dinner that drums up a sense of occasion—even if it’s just another Tuesday night and there’s nothing in particular to celebrate. There’s the pomp and circumstance of a weighty wine list, tantalizing cuts of prime beef and decadent sides, and dedicated service that makes you feel like a VIP. On all of this, Shanahan’s delivers. And this is a relief because the multimillion dollar restaurant got off to a rocky start, ditching its original chef just weeks after opening. But now, under the guidance of executive chef Keith Stich, there’s the growing sense of polish that you expect at a steak house. (For more, see page 146 for a full review of Shanahan’s.)
Where To Sit: The half-round, elevated booths lend a view of the dining room while also feeling comfortably snug.
What To Order: Kobe beef carpaccio, Wagyu rib-eye filet, diver scallops with tarragon-lemon sauce, creamed spinach. 5085 S. Syracuse St., 303-770-7300, www.shanahanssteakhouse.com
Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen
If you try to compare Euclid Hall to Rioja or Bistro Vendôme, chef Jennifer Jasinski’s other restaurants, you’re going about things all wrong. Euclid Hall is a departure for Jasinski—and she’s loving it. The restaurant is a beer hall (albeit a fancy one), with a vast, well-curated suds list and a hearty menu lined with items such as poutine (gravy-drizzled fries and cheese curds), schnitzel, and hand-cranked sausage. These are cold-weather eats that demand a to-hell-with-the-diet attitude and a meaty pint of IPA. And yet, while the food has masculine qualities, Jasinski has softened the edges, sneaking in a bit of refinement that lightens, brightens—and even makes—each dish. Take the griddled cheese sandwich: Jasinski pairs the aggressive funk of Camembert with the soft, supple flavors of Colorado peach preserves. On the flip side, she takes the classic pairing of chicken and waffles, and punches up the flavor with tart, acidic buttermilk sourdough waffles. There’s a yin and a yang to each offering—and the best way to find it is to dine with a group and order a whole mess of dishes to share.
Where To Sit: For a view of the open kitchen, but still a sense of tucked-away coziness, ask to sit at table 31 or 32—minibooths nestled along the south wall.
What To Order: The works (house-made sausages, pickled vegetables, mustards, and bretzel bread), roasted duck poutine, funnel cake–fried bananas. 1317 14th St., 303-595-4255, euclidhall.com
When the news broke that Dakota Soifer, a veteran of the Kitchen and Meadow Lark Farm Dinners, would open his own place on the Hill in Boulder, the dining community waited anxiously. Here was a chef who understood the importance of local, seasonal, and letting the ingredients drive the dish. When you eat Soifer’s food, you understand that commitment. The dishes taste as they should: fried cauliflower is reminiscent of the crunchy, earthy vegetable it is, and even the warming spices and apricots of the Moroccan pork don’t mask the flavors of the meat. Dipping sauces aren’t afterthoughts either; instead they’re punched with bold ingredients such as smoked paprika, cumin, or saffron. The stripped-down space, like Soifer’s cooking, is rustic and comfortable, and we simply can’t get enough.
Where To Sit: The horseshoe-shaped bar offers good views, but a four-top provides the best table space for an abundance of shared dishes.
What To Order: The menu changes on a whim, but try to taste the fried cauliflower with saffron yogurt, house-cured meats and accoutrements, fried chicken, and vanilla ice cream drizzled with olive oil. 1235 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder, 303-993-8131, cafeaion.com
The Village Cork
While we’ve frequented the Village Cork since it opened in 2001, we’re elated that owner Lisa Lapp recently expanded her wine bar to include dinner service. And she couldn’t have done it without the talents of chef Samir Mohammad, who came aboard in January. What he has done with a makeshift kitchen (one convection oven and two butane burners) is mind-boggling. Each evening he turns out a roster of 10-plus seasonal dishes such as velvety butternut squash soup, pommes frites that will change your outlook on fries (these roasted fingerlings arrive with salted, crackly skin and a lusty lemon-herb garlic aïoli for dipping), a cozy, perfect-for-a-cold-day lobster pot pie, and delicate pumpkin-chai panna cotta. Mohammad’s menu changes weekly, if not daily, but there’s always an excellent veggie trio often anchored by a fluffy, pungent blue cheese soufflé. Of course, you can still order traditional wine bar fare such as the warmed Brie with apples and roasted garlic or an antipasto plate, which showcases locally cured meats. Our advice: Start with those, but stay for dinner.
Where To Sit: In the front room, at one of the high tables with the banquette.
What To Order: Don’t miss the vegetarian trio—the blue cheese soufflé is a showstopper—butternut squash soup, pommes frites, lobster pot pie. 1300 S. Pearl St., 303-282-8399, villagecork.com
If you’ve dined at Mangiamo Pronto!, a year-old Italian eatery on the corner of Wazee and 17th streets, chances are it’s been for lunch. That’s when the hungry work crowds descend for charred-crust pizzas in Italian combinations (we love the cotto: spicy cappicola, apricot-balsamic mermellata, arugula, and Parmesan), the zingy chickpea salad, and panini stuffed with goods such as Black Forest ham, Taleggio cheese, roasted pear, and baby arugula. Lunch here is very good, but dinner is excellent—and yet, few people seem to have made the discovery. And that’s a shame, because chef and owner Enrique Guerrero serves one of the more simple and satisfying evening meals in town. For proof, order some pasta—all of which is handmade and hand-rolled in-house. The effect is lovely, silky, and decadent thanks to combinations such as the morto with crispy pancetta, fried egg, and Parmesan butter tossed with ribbons of eggy linguine. The prices are beyond reasonable for food clearly made with precision and dedication—and the wine list follows suit. While not a fancy place, Mangiamo Pronto! is just the spot for an impromptu evening out, or even (if you dine early) dinner with the kids.
Where To Sit: During the day, grab any seat you can. At night, select the table in the back corner for the most privacy.
What To Order: Any of the fresh pasta dishes (but especially the morto or the mezzaluna), mushroom bruschetta, olive oil gelato1601 17th St., 303-297-1229, mangiamopronto.com/denver