Feature

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.

6. Luca D’Italia

711 Grant St., 303-832-6600, lucadenver.com

At Luca D’Italia, chef-owner Frank Bonanno’s ode to Italian cuisine, the artistry and craftsmanship of the food is attention-getting. The extensive menu includes house-made cheese and charcuterie (two of Bonanno’s obsessions), hand-rolled pasta, and a selection of fine meat and seafood dishes. You’ll feel compelled to try dishes you don’t see very often, such as pig trotters topped with baby octopus, fat Portuguese sardines laid atop bruschetta, or the rabbit tasting with savory, prosciutto-wrapped involtini rolls.

7. Bittersweet

500 E. Alameda Ave., 303-942-0320, bittersweetdenver.com

When Bittersweet opened on New Year’s Eve, it didn’t take long for the word to spread of chef Olav Peterson’s ambitious take on farm-to-table cuisine. His extensive parking lot garden supplies much of the restaurant’s seasonal produce. But it’s what Peterson does with that produce that makes dining here a celebration. His flavors are layered, complex, and modern. His inspired interpretation of classics such as clam chowder (made with mussel liqueur) and Reuben sandwiches (made with cured sweetbreads) will cause you to abandon the originals.

8. Z Cuisine

2239 W. 30th Ave., 303-477-1111, zcuisineonline.com

If a single item can define chef-owner Patrick Dupays’ cuisine, you can find it in Z Cuisine’s crostini that anchors the warm goat cheese salad. In three bites, this platform of toasted bread, soaked through with pistou (French pesto) and topped with melted chevrè, showcases Dupays’ ability to elevate the simplest of elements into rustic, exacting combinations. You see this truth of ingredient and skill across the menu. This is especially evident in the carpaccio de boeuf grille: Colorado grass-fed beef tri-tip rubbed with fresh herbs and spices—grilled rare, sliced, and served with chimichurri, a butter lettuce salad, and crispy duck-fat potatoes. As if to further demonstrate his simple methodology, Dupays recently removed half a dozen seats. This ensures a more intimate dining experience, with service that’s efficient, informed, and patient—never mind the two-hour wait for your table. To best navigate Z Cuisine, arrive early (before 6 p.m.) to secure seats.

9. Potager

1109 Ogden St., 303-832-5788, potagerrestaurant.com

Each time we dine at the 14-and-a-half-year-old Potager, we fall in love with chef-owner Teri Rippeto’s restaurant a little more. “Urban” best describes the loftlike space’s exposed brick walls, concrete floors, and open kitchen. The cooks and waitstaff thrive on this transparency, and it carries all the way through to the menu. With the open kitchen, diners are privy to the whole process: the ingredients, the prep work, the cooking, and the final plating of the dishes they just ordered. A bonus is Rippeto’s dedication to local, sustainable, impeccably sourced ingredients (long before there was such a movement). As a result, her dishes taste of the earth and the sea with a brightness few other chefs manage to capture.

10. Colt & Gray

1553 Platte St., 303-477-1447, coltandgray.com

Just months after it opened, we put Colt & Gray on our Top 25 list—and one year later here it sits, firmly anchored among the city’s very best. We love the understated modern decor and clubby British feel of the space. We love the innovative list of cocktails (though we often default to the barman’s choice) and bar snacks like the bacon-cashew caramel corn, which caught the attention of Bon Appétit. Mostly, though, it’s chef-owner Nelson Perkins’ skill at uniting taste and texture in surprising ways that keeps us coming back. He marries a rich and silky foie gras with a rustic slice of raisin brioche and tart apple gelée to create an appetizer that is at once creamy, sweet, and tart. The chic, snug restaurant, located at the base of the Highland Bridge, is almost always packed with a democratic mix of professionals and hipsters, which proves Colt & Gray’s widespread appeal.

11. Barolo Grill

3030 E. Sixth Ave., 303-393-1040, barologrilldenver.com

At Barolo Grill, servers offer so much more than simply taking orders, filling water glasses, and whisking away empty plates—they connect the dots and complete the dining experience. Of course, the waitstaff is knowledgeable, and much of this comes from annual trips to Italy to learn about particular wines, regions, and cuisine nuances. But there’s also an approachability and a grace few other restaurants strike. Then there’s the menu, which was recently taken over by Darrel Truett when longtime chef Brian Laird moved on. Given the dishes we’ve tasted, he’s slid into the role seamlessly. Truett’s cuisine sings with freshness and inspiration—and appears more seasonally focused than in the past—without betraying Barolo’s dedication to Northern Italian fare. When Barolo underwent renovations this summer, we sighed with relief. What a difference a fresh coat of paint makes, and there’s no sign of the oh-so-’90s faux grapevines.

12. Cafe Aion

1235 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder, 303-993-8131, cafeaion.com

What chef-owner Dakota Soifer has created in Café Aion, on Boulder’s Hill, is truly special. Here’s a successful restaurant that defies location (i.e., Collegeville), is reasonably priced, and adheres to the farm-to-table movement. Given Soifer’s credentials (years chefing at the Kitchen and San Francisco’s renowned Zuni Café, and a summer cooking for Meadow Lark Farm), it would be easy to reach overkill on greens sourced from this farmer, and beef raised by that rancher. Instead, Soifer focuses on simply turning out “la merenda”—small plates—that are jammed with seasonal flavor and interest. Pile your table with a selection of these tapas, most of which are served on earthenware dishes, and get busy sharing.

13. Fuel

3455 Ringsby Court, 303-296-4642, fuelcafedenver.com

What Fuel chef-owner Bob Blair has done is admirable: He’s built a destination restaurant in a quirky space where most other restaurants would have failed. Instead, his 70-seat spot bustles with diners from all over the city for lunch and, three nights a week, for dinner. His avant-garde approach to location applies to the menu too. Blair cooks what he likes to eat, and the result is a convivial vibe and a menu that reads as if he’s cooking for a large dinner party. The experience is downright neighborly with casual service and dishes that are fresh, homespun, and easy to comprehend.

14. The Kitchen

1039 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-544-5973, thekitchencafe.com

The Kitchen in Boulder has what all farm-to-table restaurants aspire to have: an intensely local focus, relying heavily on meat and produce from Colorado. (The chalkboards inside the Kitchen’s light and airy space give prominent thanks to local producers.) It’s got a welcoming vibe—shared dining is encouraged at a long, community dining table. But what keeps tables full night after night is chef and co-owner Hugo Matheson’s passionate take on seasonal cuisine. Among our recent favorites: the buttery hand-rolled gnocchi with meaty Hazel Dell mushrooms, and the grilled Long Farm pork chop served with a sweet-tart rhubarb jam. It’s quite a feat that despite running three restaurants now (the Kitchen Next Door opened in June), the staff is visibly more focused and fine-tuned than in recent years. Bonus: The Kitchen is coming to LoDo in the spring.

15. Olivéa

719 E. 17th Ave., 303-861-5050, olivearestaurant.com

One of the things we love about Olivéa is how comfortable it is. Pull open the door and you’re engulfed in the rush of energy that pulses inside this small Uptown restaurant. Even with tight tables, noise remains at a conversation-friendly volume—which is good because you’ll want to discuss dishes, such as the meaty lamb sausage or chickpea fries, with your dining companion. We appreciate that at Olivéa, chef and co-owner John Broening is constantly experimenting and always tempting diners with something a little out of the ordinary. One of our favorite ways to eat here is to order several small plates and one entrée; this ensures you’ll get to taste multiple items and still have room for dessert. Don’t pass up pastry chef (and James Beard Foundation–recognized) Yasmin Lozada-Hissom’s creations.

16. Izakaya Den

1518 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0691, izakayaden.net

Izakaya Den has accomplished what many restaurants attempt but few ever master: the seamless integration of ingredients and cuisine from around the world. While the beautiful South Pearl Street space (a sister restaurant to the ever-popular Sushi Den across the street) is distinctly Asian with oversize fabric lanterns, lacquered woodwork, and a long, narrow sushi bar, the small plates menu offers much more than traditional Japanese. There’s a bit of Italian in the panzanella salad, a hint of Chinese in the siu mai and the hoisin duck crostini, and a dash of Western influence in the Colorado lamb chops with jalapeño-mint sauce. Or, you can be thoroughly satisfied by the roster of fresh sashimi and nigiri. Either way, you leave happy, intrigued, and hungry for more.

17. Duo

2413 W. 32nd Ave., 303-477-4141, duodenver.com

At some point during every meal at Duo, we find ourselves stopping, midbite, to marvel at chef John Broening’s often unexpected but always keen flavors. One night it might be the succulent roasted prawns with fava-bean pesto, energized by a lemony watercress salad. On another, it might be the dash of fresh mint inside the slender lamb-and-ricotta cannelloni, or the tantalizing addition of goat cheese and pancetta to the playful deep-fried polenta sticks. Broening, who heads up both Duo and Olivéa—ranked 17 and 15 on this list—was one of Denver’s earliest supporters of seasonal, organic cuisine, and his experience and expertise shows. Bonus: Duo’s warm, exposed brick ambience.

18. Table 6

609 Corona St., 303-831-8800, table6denver.com

On those nights when we need an extra dose of comfort and familiarity, Table 6 is often where we end up. This small American bistro in Alamo Placita has long been a neighborhood favorite, thanks to chef Scott Parker’s playful take on seasonal cuisine. The menu, parts of which change daily, is artful and always contains several surprising combinations—buttermilk fried chicken with jalapeño slaw, for example, or a tater tot salad complete with bacon and a poached egg, or barramundi that’s punched up with horseradish latkes. However, there have been times recently when the cheekiness of some dishes feels at odds with the rest of the thoughtful menu.

19. Rioja

1431 Larimer St., 303-820-2282, riojadenver.com

We love the mediterranean flavors found on Rioja’s menu. Under chef and co-owner Jennifer Jasinski, cliché pork belly is transformed into something more nuanced, thanks to cardamom and fragrant curried garbanzo bean purée. Risotto, served with quail, is brought to life with caramelized onion and black trumpet mushrooms. Jasinski is a master at crafting smart dishes, we just wish the eatery’s decor reflected the same finesse.

20. Tables

2267 Kearney St., 303-388-0299, tablesonkearney.com

There’s something about Tables, Amy Vitale and Dustin Barrett’s Park Hill restaurant, that feels effortless. This sense of ease comes from the carefully cultivated shabby-chic furniture, details like blankets offered to patio diners when temperatures dip, and the accessible menu. Unfussy dishes like the stellar, hand-cranked burger (toppings change nightly), a superb pork chop gussied up with house-made sausage, and reliable seafood entrées, anchor the board. Plus, there’s the casual but knowledgeable waitstaff who befriend you and your dining companions—to the point that you’d like to invite them to take a seat and join you. Our only quibble with Tables is that given the recent growth of Denver’s dining scene, the restaurant’s menu can seem thin on inspiration.

21. Opus

2575 W. Main St., Littleton, 303-703-6787, opusdine.com

A year and a half ago, when Michael Long left Opus to open Aría in Cherry Creek, executive chef Sean McGaughey took over the burners. Even at 26, McGaughey was already a seasoned chef, having cooked under Long since 2007. He continues to turn out impressive cuisine; this time, though, the dishes are all his. McGaughey boasts a degree of culinary talent that defies his youth, backed by time cooking in Summit County, not to mention Cannes, France. You’ll see French influences in many of his dishes, not the least of which is the olive-braised veal breast with sweetbread stuffing and pan jus. The entrée is decadent, but puddles of sharp olive tapanade cut the richness. Another don’t-miss: the seared Hudson Valley foie gras served alongside a mini chocolate soufflé. Now, if only the formerly polished service could work out the clumsy kinks.

22. Linger

2030 W. 30th Ave., 303-993-3120, lingerdenver.com

When Justin Cucci opened Root Down three years ago, he established his penchant for building restaurants that pulse with energy and capitalize on unparalleled views. His second endeavor is Linger, which sits in the refabbed Olinger parking garage—a jam-packed, multilevel space with a box view of the skyline. Drink in the experience at the bar from the rooftop patio, or through the main dining room’s enormous garage-door windows. Linger’s menu—an enticing mishmash of street food from around the globe—banishes the entrée in favor of share-it-around small plates. Instead of being trite, portions are generous and prices (which hover around $10) are downright reasonable. It’s not unusual to get your fill (plus drinks) for $30 a person. Don’t miss the sensational, not-your-usual goat cheese and melon salad, the fava and pea hummus, the Mongolian barbecue duck buns, or any of the soups.

23. Edge

1111 14th St., 303-389-3343, edgerestaurantdenver.com

We fell in love with Edge Restaurant & Bar, the steak house inside the new Four Seasons Hotel, the second we realized it wasn’t your typical white-tablecloth, dark-wood steak joint. At Edge, chef Simon Purvis puts a thoroughly modern spin on tradition. Here, you can order all the dishes you expect—USDA prime beef, crab cakes, creamed spinach—but those dishes are creative and smart. The meat is grilled over pecan wood. The crab cakes come with a fragrant basil sauce, not been-there-done-that rémoulade. The creamed spinach is shot through with zesty horseradish. The space itself is also thoroughly modern, even if it does retain some of the impersonal ambience of a hotel. Bonus: We love the accessible wine list.

24. Il Posto

2011 E. 17th Ave., 303-394-0100, ilpostodenver.com

Il Posto is the kind of welcoming neighborhood restaurant where you immediately feel like a regular, even when it’s your first visit. The appeal comes from the simple space with its chalkboard menus and open kitchen, and the attentive, eager-to-please waitstaff. But mostly, it’s all about chef-owner Andrea Frizzi’s fresh take on Italian cuisine. Frizzi, who relies heavily on hand-crafted, seasonal ingredients, is a fan of clean flavors and surprising elements. Yes, those are crunchy pistachios and sweet English peas folded in with the sheep ricotta cavatelli. Yes, those are plump red grapes served alongside the pork belly. Yes, the risotto has been blended with strawberries and sweet red wine. Though the offerings aren’t extensive, we still have difficulty choosing a single entrée—so much so that we often order the never-disappointing daily tasting menu. We encourage you to do the same.

25. Vesta Dipping Grill

1822 Blake St., 303-296-1970, vestagrill.com

When asked where to take out-of-towners or where to schedule a business dinner, we almost always recommend this venerable spot. The exposed-brick, LoDo space feels both urban and welcoming, and the lively vibe is simply one of the city’s best. We appreciate that, nearly 15 years ago, Vesta was one of the first restaurants to open in the still-burgeoning downtown area—and it still makes its presence known. Over the years, chef Matt Selby has perfected the art of the dipping sauce but while menu changes reflect dining trends, the concept itself is beginning to feel limited.