2011: The 25 Best Restaurants

After many months of eating, hours of analyzing hundreds of dishes, and untold numbers of discussions, we have compiled a list of the most compelling places to dine in Denver—and beyond. 

October 2011

When we set out to rank restaurants for our second annual 25 Best Restaurants list, we didn’t expect there to be a huge shift from 2010’s roundup. Boy, were we wrong. The last year has seen a tremendous number of new—and very good—restaurants open, and the local dining scene has continued to mature and rocket upward. The result: a list that sings the praises of seven restaurants that weren’t included last year (either because they weren’t open or because the kitchens have stepped up their games). There was also a significant amount of upward—and downward—movement, and inevitably, a few places fell off the list entirely. 

In putting together this ranking, we do everything we can to make an inherently subjective process—choosing a good restaurant—more objective. We assign points to every dish we try, average them, and give each restaurant an overall food score. We allot points for service (knowledge, attentiveness, friendliness) and ambience (comfort, noise level, and how inviting the space is). We recognize that restaurants thrive or die on something as indefinable as “vibe,” so we also assign a “rave rating” to each establishment.

Finally, once we’ve narrowed the choices to 30-some contenders, we spend hours analyzing the picks, discussing dining trends, revisiting places (over and over and over again), and shuffling restaurants up or down in ranking. In short, the list you hold in your hands is the culmination of many months of eating, hundreds of dishes, and an untold number of hours evaluating, scoring, and debating. We hope our choices, and the order in which they’re placed, incites discussion—not to mention many dinners out.

1. Frasca

1738 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-6966, frascafoodandwine.com

Not only is Frasca Food and Wine’s exquisite food beautifully composed, it’s thoughtful—even intellectual—while still managing to be accessible. In chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson’s hands, something as seemingly simple as a rustic ragu takes on an ethereal nature. Ask the server and he’ll divulge that it’s duck mousse that adds the unusual depth and almost imperceptible silkiness. This element of deep comfort and subtlety shines through each and every dish, rendering Frasca a dining experience unlike any other in Colorado. Of course, the wine program, led by master sommelier Bobby Stuckey, is equally distinguished—and we leave it to him to pair our courses. Add to this a remodeled dining room so graceful you’d never know it had been ever-so-slightly reconfigured. Best of all, despite the price and the national accolades, we’ve never encountered even a modicum of stuffiness. Far from it, Frasca is the very definition of restraint and grace.

2. Fruition

1313 E. Sixth Ave., 303-831-1962, fruitionrestaurant.com

One meal at Fruition is all it takes to understand why in 2010, Food & Wine named chef-owner Alex Seidel one of the 10 best new chefs in America. Seidel’s seasonal cuisine, which relies in part on goods from his 10-acre farm in Larkspur, manages to be both simple and sophisticated. Grab a spoonful of his porcini mushroom consommé, for example, and you’ll be transfixed by the rich, earthy smell of fresh mushrooms—a sensory experience matched by the bites that follow: succulent braised short rib, sweetly seared scallops, and tender bone-marrow agnolotti. Like all of Seidel’s dishes, this one is loaded with intensely satisfying flavors.

3. Mizuna

225 E. Seventh Ave., 303-832-4778, mizunadenver.com

While many restaurants become stale after just a couple of years, Mizuna still retains its edge after 10. The chief reason is that chef-owner Frank Bonanno constantly tinkers: In the past month, he’s added a prix-fixe component (something Bonanno has envisioned doing since day one). Across the menu, offerings change regularly, which means there’s always something new to try—be it the fresh, roasted bacon with house-made sauerkraut or the striped bass with Snow Creek oyster velouté. Even when he’s not on the line (Bonanno now owns seven spots in Denver) his kitchen runs seamlessly. On the wine side, eschew the list and allow your server or the wine director, Lynn Whittum, to make a selection—you won’t be disappointed. Tip: Request seating in the main dining room rather than the small overflow space.

4. Sushi Den

1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826, sushiden.net

The always-packed Sushi Den is legendary for its boat-fresh fish, much of which is sourced daily from Japan. Just as impressive: Brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki opened the Den 26 years ago. We like to begin the meal with the chef’s special sampler plate, which might include sweet and tiny oysters on the half shell, a crispy square of miso cod, and raw, dissolve-on-contact wasabi bincho. From there, it’s an easy choice to move on to some combination of sushi or sashimi, but we’ve been equally rewarded by entrée selections such as grilled halibut drizzled with honey miso. While it may seem like an odd choice for dessert at a sushi restaurant, we learned long ago to save room for Toshi’s wife’s decadent banana cream pie.

5. ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro

1555 Blake St., #101, 303-353-5223, cholon.com

A year ago, local foodies rejoiced when Chef Lon Symensma chose Denver as home for ChoLon, his modern approach to Southeast Asian street food. Located in a polished space (think low lighting, high ceilings, and minimalist decor) in LoDo, ChoLon offers an impressive interpretation of Asian dishes. Under Symensma’s inspired guidance, typically dumbed-down items such as dumplings, pot stickers, and spring rolls are transformed into artful cuisine with sharp, creative plating and luxurious flavors. We always start a visit to ChoLon with the French onion soup dumplings, and end it with the five-spice doughnuts and Vietnamese coffee ice cream.