You could say this year’s list of Denver’s best new dining spots is all about the numbers. This is the first time in five years we’ve included 10 restaurants, instead of just eight. But it’s where many of these eateries are found that really makes things interesting: Not only are all of the restaurants located in Denver proper, but half of them opened in neighborhoods that last year were hardly dining destinations (the southern stretch of Ballpark, the northern border of RiNo, North City Park). Behold, the 10 very best restaurants to hit the Mile High City in the past year.
5280.com Exclusive: Check out 5280 food editor Amanda M. Faison's behind-the-scenes snapshots of Denver's best new restaurants.
Opened: September 2013
Opening an offshoot of a popular restaurant can often be a mixed blessing. But there’s nothing “mixed” about Acorn, the RiNo restaurant from executive chef Steven Redzikowski and beverage director Bryan Dayton. In just six months, Acorn has defined itself as its own entity, even as it continues to build on the wood-fired cuisine of Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, which Redzikowski and Dayton own, too. There are a handful of dishes that hail from the mother ship—namely, Oak’s kale salad, shrimp and grits, and tomato-braised meatballs—but the rest of the menu is original and complements Acorn’s urban and contemporary vibe. Against the background of graffiti walls in a refabbed 1800s warehouse, dishes come family style but with the finesse of a white-tablecloth restaurant. The brilliant food (oh-so-trendy hamachi collar, tender smoked duck, beautifully braised octopus), the unexpected space, and the casual, jeans-clad waitstaff are cohesive. Dayton’s beverage program, which offers wildly inventive cocktails that range from alcohol-free to low-booze to high-octane, is another high point. Come with a crowd and order the crispy cumin-spiced bone-in pork shoulder. The 56-ounce cut generously serves four or five (with leftovers), and you’ll talk about it for months. 3350 Brighton Blvd., 720-542-3721, denveracorn.com
Opened: December 2013
What’s refreshing about Lower48? For one thing, the prices. Little bites (called “Each” on the menu—as in, one nibble for each person) top out at $2.50 apiece. This is a steal for a taste of co-owner and executive chef Alexander Figura’s exquisite cooking. Figura’s resumé includes stints at Frasca Food and Wine, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, and El Celler de Can Roca, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Girona, Spain. At Lower48, Figura blends artisanal, heritage, and farm-to-table philosophies with high-tech, modern skillfulness. The balance of those seemingly opposing sensibilities is clear from the start of each meal, with snacks such as hoecakes with citrus-cured salmon and horseradish, each topped with a flash-fried caperberry and a dried wisp of kumquat. The menu—inspired by the culinary traditions of the lower 48 states—continues thoughtfully as you move on to items like braised octopus bathed in a sweet onion broth with rancho gordo butter beans, clams, and sourdough croutons. Under Figura and co-owner Mario Nocifera, Lower48 is intelligent and provoking—and it’s sure to be just the thing to draw diners to a yet-to-be-discovered corner of Ballpark. 2020 Lawrence St., 303-942-0262, lower48kitchen.com
THE CURTIS CLUB
Opened: November 2013
Barn wood, tin ceiling tiles, tractor-seat stools, wagon wheels—such archetypal details could feel hackneyed. But not at the Curtis Club, where these design elements coexist with refined features like the backbar’s lush, distressed photograph of a tree-lined lake; dining room chairs upholstered in sweeping ivory and gold patterns; ruby-red wallpaper etched with gold; and a magnificent feathered and horned sculpture. It’s an apt setting for chef Eric Johnson’s New American cuisine. Johnson, who cooked at the Flagstaff House for eight years, didn’t set out to Westernize the menu, though. Sure, there’s game (bison and rabbit), but the bison is turned into Bolognese and served over almond fettuccini with house-made ricotta; the rabbit loin comes wrapped in crispy pancetta and dotted with preserved lemon. The Maine lobster sits on creamy, lardon-flavored grits, and the trio of sliders includes beef, Colorado bass, and vegetarian patties. This is food that, like the restaurant’s congenial vibe, combines everyday appeal with fine-dining finesse. 2100 Curtis St., 720-420-9898, thecurtisclub.com
Opened: December 2013
Chef-restaurateur troy guard is a busy man: He opened TAG Burger Bar in 2012 (there’s a second location pending) while already running TAG Restaurant and TAG Raw Bar. Then, in late November, he and pastry chef Noah French debuted Sugarmill, a dessert bar and cafe near the funky intersection of Broadway and 24th Street. Not even a week later, he opened Los Chingones, a vibrant ode to Mexican cuisine, right next door to Sugarmill. The bright and loud eatery falls squarely in between cantina and taqueria with 20 hot and cold dishes plus 11 tacos. The flavors are bold and items carry the trademark twists that Guard has become known for: Octopus tacos come drizzled with a blood orange glaze; nachos are topped with crunchy, shredded pig ears; a fancied-up guacamole stars chorizo and pickled jalapeño. In short, Guard employs unexpected ingredients in unusual ways—and at Los Chingones, he puts a new spin on an age-old cuisine. His next task? Tweaking the steak house model for his soon-to-open Guard & Grace at 1801 California Street. 2461 Larimer St., #102, 303-295-0686, facebook.com/loschingonesdenver
Neighborhood: Congress Park
Opened: February 2013
Of all the spots on this list, Cafe Max is the only one that 5280 staffers visit almost weekly. The clean-lined, midcentury modern design draws you in, as does the tight menu of savory and sweet dishes. Owned by Max Hopewell-Arizmendi and Yuki Koyama, the cafe feels both urban (it’s located on Colfax Avenue) and timeless with items such as the European-inspired panino with Brie, prosciutto, and fig spread on levain. Butternut squash soup is made with coconut milk and garnished with goat cheese, croutons, and olive oil; a hummus plate served with toasted ciabatta, caperberries, and a halo of vegetables is garnished with olive oil. A generous selection of buttery shortbread cookies, golden-crusted pies, and dainty madeleines beautifully displayed under glass domes rounds out the offerings. We like that Hopewell-Arizmendi takes risks: He stocks soba-cha (tea made from buckwheat) from Tea Wing in New York, serves a sweet pie made from navy beans, and bakes cookies tinted green from matcha tea. The coffee and tea offerings are deep, but come in the evening for lowered lights, votive candles, and chatter over a generous charcuterie platter and the agreeable wine list, and you’ll discover that Cafe Max is perhaps Denver’s best-kept dining secret. 2412 E. Colfax Ave., 303-333-0003, cafemax.net
Neighborhood: City Park North
Opened: November 2013
Some cities boast an abundance of small, intimate restaurants. Portland, Oregon, is one; Philadelphia is another. The Plimoth feels like an ode to those cherished dining experiences in which one server works the room and the bartender doubles as the front of the house manager. The Plimoth’s space holds 40 seats, and the majority of the diners come from the North City Park and Mayfair neighborhoods. But once people taste chef Pete Ryan’s classically inspired dishes that lean on French technique, word will catch on, and these tables will be some of the most difficult in town to get. Quite simply, Ryan, formerly of Z Cuisine and Cook Street School of Culinary Arts, is creating a menu that’s not to be missed: Thanks to two days of marinating in red wine and beef stock, braised beef shanks are unctuous, while tasting slightly smoky from a bacon-y sauce. Pierogies sit like pillows next to jewel-tone pieces of salmon garnished with baby frisée. The cauliflower-turnip gratinée is destined to become the Plimoth’s signature item. Served in a miniscule cast-iron skillet, the cozy dish is a fitting metaphor for a restaurant that fills a void in the Denver scene. 2335 28th Ave., 303-297-1215, theplimoth.com
Neighborhood: Platt Park
Opened: October 2013
When, after nearly 10 years, Scott Parker left Table 6’s kitchen, you knew he was going to do something big. And so he has at Session Kitchen, where his bold, globally inspired menu stands up to a dining room that doubles as a showcase for 15 artists’ large-form works. The art, which ranges from a multidimensional mobile to graffiti art, creates individual dining spaces within the restaurant. Such multiple personalities demand a chef who can be equally dynamic and unflinching. Parker is up for it. Proof can be found in the deeply flavorful rosemary lamb collar with kabocha squash and griddled plancha bread or the cast-iron dish of pierogies and Brussels sprouts tossed with Frank’s RedHot butter. Parker has always stretched the bounds of textures and flavors, and here he does it with renewed excitement. Session Kitchen is the best concept yet from the Breckenridge-Wynkoop holding group, perhaps because it’s less brewpub (though there is an excellent selection of rotating taps) and more restaurant—one that adds variety to the Platt Park neighborhood. 1518 S. Pearl St., 720-763-3387, sessionkitchen.com
Opened: February 2013
If anyone has had a year to celebrate, it’s chef Justin Brunson. He opened Old Major last February and within months picked up a top new restaurant nod from Bon Appétit, not to mention the number 10 slot on our annual 25 Best Restaurants list. He also received the go-ahead from the health department to cure meats in a glass-enclosed space inside the restaurant’s dining room. Then, in December, Brunson expanded his celebrated Masterpiece Delicatessen to Uptown. Brunson doesn’t cook dainty food—many dishes feature house-butchered pork from Brush and Hotchkiss—but there are delicate nuances such as soft poached eggs, pomegranate demi-glace, and citrus-hazelnut vinaigrette that elevate dishes so they befit the urban dining experience. 3316 Tejon St., 720-420-0622, oldmajordenver.com
OLIVE + FINCH
Opened: December 2013
Even before Olive & Finch opened in December, potential customers would peer through the glass, pleading with chef-owner Mary Nguyen to open the doors. Sure enough, when the cafe debuted weeks later, the crowds descended. Clearly, Olive & Finch—a cafe and coffeeshop offering heaps of gorgeous pastries and a casual, mostly health-focused menu—is just what this eastern stretch of Uptown needed. At any given time, you can find the counter packed with laptop-toting coffee drinkers; tables filled with friends lunching on fresh-pressed juices, blackened fish sandwiches, and quinoa salads; and young professionals stopping by for a macaron. Olive & Finch also does double duty as a market, with rotating salads in the deli case and a curbside delivery program that extends to the entire menu. Although it has only been open for three months, Olive & Finch has already sewn itself into the fabric of the neighborhood. 1552 E. 17th Ave., 303-832-8663, oliveandfincheatery.com
BEAST & BOTTLE
Opened: March 2013
Small and intimate, focused, and intent on not being everything to everyone, Beast & Bottle is a shining example of Denver’s new wave of restaurants. This sophisticated Uptown spot from siblings Paul and Aileen Reilly has the ease of a neighborhood eatery but serves decidedly downtown cuisine. At its essence, Beast & Bottle is a gathering spot: Pop in for a glass of wine and a small plate (the airy vegetable soufflé is a sure bet), and don’t be surprised if you end up staying for dinner. When you do, expect imaginative dishes, such as the roasted squab with foie gras and black trumpet mushrooms, that push boundaries but remain comforting. The seafood program is especially exciting: Paul, having studied fishing practices in Maine, is dedicated to serving fish and seafood that are both abundant and responsibly harvested (that means household names like salmon and halibut are replaced by Gulf of Mexico–caught tuna and fluke). The same goes for meat, all of which is butchered inside Beast & Bottle’s tiny kitchen. Paul isn’t just putting out a menu; he’s stretching himself as a chef and establishing himself as a pioneer of sustainability. 719 E. 17th Ave., 303-623-3223, beastandbottle.com
NEW & NOTABLE
As the food scene expands by the week, so should your to-try list. Seven more spots where you can shop, drink, and eat—right now.
CapRock Farm Bar
Gone are the days when the floral and fabulous CapRock Gin was difficult to find. The distillery’s farm bar gives the gin—and other booze from its own Peak Spirits—a long-overdue showcase.
Go for: the Take the High Road, a cocktail with gin, celery syrup, Granny Smith apples, and smoked salt. 3350 Brighton Blvd. (inside the Source), 303-828-7887, facebook.com/caprockfarmbar
Pizzeria Locale Denver
The fast-casual Denver version of the Boulder original turns out excellent Neapolitan-style pizza—and quickly.
Go for: the decadent Mais pizza with mozzarella, crème fraîche, prosciutto cotto, and corn. 550 Broadway, 720-508-8828, pizzerialocale.com/denver.html
Root Down DIA
The DIA outpost of Root Down is reason enough to get to the airport early. Service is quick, and the menu is full of healthy hits.
Go for: the terrific tofu scramble. Concourse C, Denver International Airport, 303-342-6959
Consider this cocktail bar Colt & Gray’s little sister. The sleek ivory decor sets the stage for the bar team’s prowess.
Go for: the D.T.O., Ernest Hemingway’s favorite hand-shaken daiquiri with white rum, lime juice, and a bit of sugar. 1553 Platte St., 303-477-1447
Pastry chef Noah French’s sparkling ode to sugar serves more than just dessert. Go for: the stacked breakfast sandwich and the dreamy peanut butter parfait. 2461 Larimer St., #101, 303-297-3540, facebook.com/sugarmill
The Truffle Table
An offshoot of the Truffle Cheese Shop on Sixth Avenue, the Truffle Table takes cheese and makes it a meal.
Go for: Raclette Wednesdays when, for $40, you and a date can get your fill of the melted cheese. 2556 15th St., 303-455-9463, truffletable.com
“This is the way your grandmother used to shop,” says Kate Kavanaugh, co-owner of the three-month-old LoHi butchery.
Go for: gorgeous cuts of pork, beef, and various sundries. 3226 Tejon St., 303-477-6328, westerndaughters.com
-Photography by Carmel Zucker