25 Best Restaurants 2013

After countless lunches and dinners, tens of thousands of calories, and hours of careful deliberation and debate, our fourth annual ranking of the Denver area’s best restaurants is complete. Dig in for a comprehensive, of-the-moment snapshot of the local dining scene.

October 2013

Find 5280's 2014 picks for Denver-Boulder's 25 Best Restaurants here

1 Frasca Food and Wine (last year 1)
If there’s any question about Frasca Food and Wine’s attention to excellence, look to the restaurant’s long list of accolades. There are write-ups in Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, and the Wall Street Journal, and not one, but two highly coveted James Beard Foundation Awards: one from 2008 for Best Chef: Southwest; the other from earlier this year for Outstanding Wine Program. These nods confirm what Colorado diners have known for years: Frasca is not only the best restaurant in the metro area—it’s one of the nation’s very best. Service, which is driven by co-owner and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey, is graceful, confident, and goes virtually unnoticed until you’re released into the night feeling coddled and indulged. The weighty wine list is worthy of study, but turn choices over to Stuckey, Matthew Mather, and Carlin Karr, Frasca’s team of decorated wine experts, and you’ll never be disappointed. The Italian menu, executed by chef and co-owner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, fulfills the universal human need for comfort—house-made pappardelle tangles with zucchini ribbons in a soul-stirring scallop sauce—in a precise, almost intellectual manner. Perhaps the best part of Frasca is that a visit doesn’t have to be a once-a-year celebration. Sit at the bar and experience the same food and service without committing to a table several weeks out. Or, make a reservation for the Monday tasting dinners, at which you’ll nab a four-course, prix-fixe menu for $50 a person. 1738 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-6966, frascafoodandwine.com

2 ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro (last year 3)
Mention ChoLon to a group of friends and someone will instantly reference the soup dumplings. Intended or not, chef Lon Symensma has staked his reputation—and ChoLon’s—on those beautifully wrapped pockets of sweet onion soup and Gruyère cheese. But to only know ChoLon by the dumplings would be an oversight. The pork belly buns are a fully evolved street snack, with artistic dollops of hoisin and unctuous slabs of pork belly slathered with sesame-honey glaze. The steamed buns themselves are doughy, chewy—perfect. Likewise, the Singapore chicken rice will entice you with shreds of poached chicken, tangles of cooling cucumber steeped in the aroma of coconuty-citrusy pandan leaves, and a bowl of fiery sambal for mixing in. Simplicity is not in Symensma’s vocabulary as he applies layer after layer of flavor and technique to balance sweet and savory, hot and cool, Old World and New—to enchanting effect. 1555 Blake St., 303-353-5223, cholon.com


3 Sushi Den (last year 2)
When owner Toshi Kizaki moved Izakaya Den from across Pearl Street to the space next door to Sushi Den, both restaurants underwent substantial change. The kitchens are now combined (and expanded), and though the restaurants function as separate entities, there are windows and doors that connect the two. And yet, Sushi Den, with its ever-fresh selection of seafood, is unwavering and impressive. Our recommendation to avoid the inevitable wait: Leave your name at Sushi Den’s hostess stand and head to Ten Qoo, Izakaya Den’s spectacular upstairs bar and cocktail lounge. On warm evenings, the retractable roof is open to the elements (in fact, “Ten Qoo” means “open sky” in Japanese), and the buzz of the modern, highly designed space is palpable. When your table opens at Sushi Den, pay the tab and head one door down for a feast of jewel-like nigiri and sashimi. Bonus: Don’t want to wait? Go for lunch, when the same impeccable fish grace the menu. 1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826, sushiden.net


4 Mizuna (last year 6)
Eleven years after Frank Bonanno opened Mizuna, some diners might wonder why the lobster macaroni and cheese remains on the menu. After all, Mizuna is known for its innovation. But this was Bonanno’s first signature dish in his first restaurant, and it propelled him onto the Denver scene—and even now, the trifecta of briny lobster, smooth mascarpone, and tender pasta is superb. Today, many years and many restaurants later, the starter can be used as a metaphor for Bonanno’s culinary leanings. The dish signifies decadence, refinement, balance, and ultimately, steadiness—all characteristics present in Bonanno’s ever-expanding empire. And so the lobster macaroni and cheese lives on, alongside more ambitious dishes such as the octopus à la plancha, with its impossibly tender octopus and smoky tomato broth, and an ethereal veal tenderloin draped over a complex onion sauce. Elegant service and a wine-by-the-glass program that surpasses others in terms of interest, breadth, and price will round out the near-perfect evening. 225 E. Seventh Ave., 303-832-4778, mizunadenver.com


5 Bittersweet (last year 11)
A year ago, chef Olav Peterson seemed to suffer from ingredient overload; at times his stunning presentations teetered on flavor imbalance from too many elements. This year, however, Peterson has reverted back to the simplicity that has always been his strength. Dishes such as the duck breast arrive crowned with coins of watermelon radish (sliced just thickly enough to impart delicate crunch) and cherries, which are halved and served in a sauce thickened with the meat’s jus. In a halibut dish, the fish’s delicate sweetness remains the focal point even against plush Meyer lemon gnocchi, brown butter, and a burst of red grapes. Peterson is justifiably proud of where Bittersweet sits today, two and a half years into its run. He credits his staff—many of whom have joined since January—for demanding excellence. One of those new additions is pastry chef Kris Padalino, whose exacting talent (order the terrariumlike dessert Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) has elevated a dessert program that was already one of the best in the city. 500 E. Alameda Ave., 303-942-0320, bittersweetdenver.com


6 Potager (last year 19)
Chef-owner Teri Rippeto subscribes to the ideal that food is only as good as the ingredients themselves. It’s such a basic premise, and yet when Rippeto opened Potager in 1997, she was considered a pioneer in the Denver dining scene. Depending on the season, you will taste the sunniest of summer tomatoes or the earthiest of winter turnips in Rippeto’s dishes. There’s much to be said about leaving an ingredient alone and allowing its natural flavors to bloom, but there have been times in the past when Rippeto had too light a hand. Last year, her attention seemed focused on the top half of the menu. Starters were, without exception, seasoned beautifully and carefully conceived. The entrées, however, did not receive the same consideration. That oversight has since been corrected—and beautifully so. Portions are generous and curated but not overly meticulous. Seasoning is spot-on. Free-flowing service from one of the city’s best teams follows suit. And there’s something about the classically urban space that never ceases to pull you in and make you feel like you’re in the know. 1109 Ogden St., 303-832-5788, potagerrestaurant.com


7 Fruition Restaurant (last year 5)
When Alex Seidel hired Stephanie Caraway, one of Food & Wine’s 2010 sommeliers of the year, he was making a statement. Fruition’s beverage program has never been its strength: The wine list accomplishes what it needs to but without aplomb—which is troublesome for a restaurant that regularly receives national attention. (For that matter, there’s little cocktail fluency either, which is a black mark in today’s drink-crazed culture.) The expectation is that Caraway will infuse the tiny space with a bottle selection worthy of Seidel’s thoughtful cooking. His best dishes are those that reflect his working farm and dairy in Larkspur. Less successful are those that don’t hew to Seidel’s typical subtlety, such as a corn dog–inspired, sausage-stuffed squash blossom. After a trying time for Seidel—he parted ways with co-owner Paul Attardi in December—the addition of Caraway signifies not only a new beginning but also a turning point. This partnership will also be on display at Seidel’s forthcoming restaurant at Union Station. 1313 E. Sixth Ave., 303-831-1962, fruitionrestaurant.com


8 Luca D’Italia (last year 4)
The experience of dining at Luca plays out in chef-owner Frank Bonanno’s elegant Italian dishes, which contain just enough rusticity to not feel overstated. For several years, the kitchen was entrusted to chef de cuisine Hunter Pritchett, who ably melded his talent with Bonanno’s vision. When Pritchett left in January to take a job in Los Angeles, pasta chef Eric Cimino replaced him. Luca’s pastas remain as light and flawless as ever, but other areas of the menu need more precision: Some items are too salty; others could benefit from a bit more seasoning. A recent Arctic char dish, however, displayed Cimino’s sense of balance. The crispy-skinned fish arrived with beautifully cooked artichokes, cannellini and fava beans, and summer squash. One last note: The restrooms of a restaurant such as Luca need to be as expertly executed as the rest of the experience. An overhaul is long overdue. 711 Grant St., 303-832-6600, lucadenver.com