2012: The 25 Best Restaurants

From northern Italian sophistication to authentic street tacos—and just about everything in between—these restaurants are the very best of the Front Range dining scene. Make your reservation today.

October 2012

No. 16: Trillium (New to the list)

With Trillium, Scandinavia’s suddenly in-vogue cuisine lands in Denver. But it’s not all lox, horseradish, and pickled herring. At this Ballpark restaurant, chef-owner Ryan Leinonen puts his spin on the stark cuisine by warming it up, softening the edges, and at times incorporating updated versions of his Finnish grandmother’s recipes. What arise are splendid, comforting eats that are vastly different from other dishes around town. Sure, there’s pork, steak, and duck (all served with refined sides), but the bulk of the menu centers on cold-water fish such as steelhead trout and whitefish. This is a refreshing shift from the ubiquitous seared scallop and pan-roasted halibut dishes on other menus. Although somewhat sparse, the space is generous enough for a girls’ night out, a raucous birthday party, or a quiet dinner for two. /2134 Larimer St., 303-379-9759, trilliumdenver.com

No. 17: Pizzeria Locale (New to the list)

Before burgers and tacos were the hot trends, it was pizza—specifically Neapolitan-style pizza. Translation: thin-crusted, charred in a wood-fired oven, and topped with pristine ingredients such as San Marzano tomatoes and cured meats. The best example of this Napoli-inspired dish is found in Boulder at the ever-busy Pizzeria Locale. Owned by the same team as Frasca Food and Wine (number 1, page 60) next door, it’s no surprise that every detail is attended to: The pizzas—don’t miss the diavola with basil and salame—are fired in a hand-built, Italian-imported Stefano Ferrara oven (the only one in Colorado). The meats are sliced paper-thin on a prized VDF slicer (the first to be imported to North America). The final result is a cut-it-yourself circle of chewy dough, crispy crust, and tomatoey warmth. /1730 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-3003, pizzerialocale.com

No. 18: TAG Restaurant (New to the list)

TAG, Troy Guard’s Larimer Square restaurant, suits the historic street’s in-the-now spirit. Walk inside the long, skinny space and notice the decibel level: It’s loud and boisterous in a way that swoops you up into a pleasing swirl of energy. This translates to the servers, too—they hustle to and fro, taking orders, answering questions, and ferrying cocktails and plates. Lean on them to decipher the menu (and then lean on them again when you’re ready for the check; this process is always more arduous than it should be). The multicultural dishes, which pull from Guard’s upbringing in Hawaii, his stints in Asia, and his home in Colorado, almost always contain some unheard-of ingredient and clever sauce. As incongruous as this approach might seem, Guard cooks clearheaded, powerful dishes. The Szechuan pork’s toasted Israeli couscous and zucchini come ringed with a sweet and fiery dragon sauce that adds savoriness and depth to most anything it touches. Likewise, entrées such as heady goat enchiladas draped in guajillo chile sauce and grounded with crunchy slaw push diners out of their comfort zones. For the best experience, reserve a table on the main floor. /1441 Larimer St., 303-996-9985, tag-restaurant.com

No. 19: Potager Restaurant & Wine Bar (9)

It’s the top of the menu coupled with Potager’s timeless space (that bucolic patio!) and attentive service that keep this restaurant firmly on this list. Although Potager opened in 1997, the Capitol Hill spot still feels fresh and relevant. It also has the rare ability to appeal to both the special-occasion crowd and the spontaneous neighborhood diner. That sense of community is apparent the moment you walk through the door. Perhaps it’s the urban space that balances concrete with wood and glass. Or maybe it’s chef and co-owner Teri Rippeto’s farm-to-table approach that she began adhering to long before the concept was a trend. I greatly appreciate the simplicity and the philosophy of letting ingredients speak for themselves. The entrées, however, need a little more finessing, and often seasoning. I suggest ordering a couple of appetizers (all of which are generously portioned), a glass of wine, and finishing with the legendary chocolate pudding. /1109 Ogden St., 303-832-5788, potagerrestaurant.com

No. 20: Fuel Café (13)

Bob Blair’s Fuel Café is an oasis on the edge of downtown. The four-year-old eatery, which anchors the TAXI district, has become a destination for those tired of the mainstream. Judging by the packed house during brunch, lunch, and dinner, scores of diners are looking to escape the day-to-day and enjoy the simple pleasure of good food. Service is friendly, if distracted, but the low-key atmosphere explains it away as the desire not to interfere. Some entrées need a tad more attention before arriving at the table: herb spaetzle under a terrific pork chop was more crunch than dumpling, and a Spanish-style fish stew required more heat and body. But there are moments of brilliance in the charred rainbow carrot salad with quinoa or a skirt steak with avocado-peanut salsa and roasted corn. These are dishes that nourish and please, all while encouraging you to share a bite across the table. /3455 Ringsby Court, 303-996-6988, fuelcafedenver.com