From funky hot spots to neighborhood bistros, there's a restaurant in Denver to satisfy your every craving.
RiNo’s Hop Alley radiates fun, from wild cocktails to tongue-numbing Chinese-inspired dishes. Photography by Aaron Colussi
Hunting for this year’s top restaurants revealed one thing: Denver’s dining scene has never been more diverse, dynamic, or delicious. No matter what you’re craving—casual and loud, buttoned-up and quiet, or a mashup of all the above—it’s right here, right now.
1. Hop Alley
*New to the list
Tommy Lee has pulled off a neat trick with Hop Alley: He’s taken a cuisine (American Chinese) deeply ingrained in the national psyche and catapulted it far beyond the clichés of mu shu pork and kung pao chicken. The intense flavors—peanut-y bang bang sauce on the chilled tofu; umami-rich oyster sauce on the Shanghai rice cakes; tongue-numbing Sichuan bean sauce on the steamed eggplant—are as big and bold as Hop Alley’s charcoal black walls, neon pink menus, and loud music. But Lee and his cooks’ penchant for vibrant and enticing salty-spicy dishes transcends the eatery’s footprint. The restaurant has kick-started an underdeveloped quadrant of RiNo, bucked trends (no dessert!), and wowed diners with flavors that are Chinese in essence but passed through a Southeast Asian lens. This isn’t fusion. Rather, it’s a careful—near perfect—amalgamation of comfort food and something wholly new. 3500 Larimer St., 720-379-8340
*Last year 10
Chef Kelly Whitaker
When Kelly Whitaker opened Basta in 2010, he named his Boulder restaurant for the Italian word “enough.” It was a double entendre meant to inspire satisfaction and, almost more important, simplicity. Basta’s menu of items like crudo, ember-cooked veggies, and fish roasted with lemon slices and herbs might be concise—but it’s not plain, thanks to Whitaker’s dedication to procuring the very best domestic ingredients and letting them do their work. Here, good food doesn’t need pomp and circumstance. Instead, with each dish, Basta proves that with exquisite raw materials and solid technique, you don’t need anything more. 3601 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, 303-997-8775
*Last year 2
Even before you walk through the doors of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, you know what awaits: practically perfect service, food plated so beautifully that you hesitate before picking up your fork, and an impeccable wine program. Frasca is the very definition of fine dining (to wit: crostata is cut and doled out tableside by a white-gloved server), and yet there’s somehow a natural ease that is more in keeping with a neighborhood restaurant than a gilded experience. If you can manage to snag a seat at the bar, you’re in for a more casual, but still flawless, evening. 1738 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-6966
*Last year 3
Chef-owner Alex Seidel’s Mercantile Dining & Provision is singular in Denver. It’s an impressive variety of concepts under one roof: a prepared food and charcuterie market, a full-service bar, and an all-day restaurant. Each bears the hallmark of Seidel’s thoughtful creativity. Stop by in the morning for croissants and Commonwealth coffee. Head in for a casual lunch and choose a salad (do not miss the niçoise) or sandwich. Or make a reservation for dinner and experience Mercantile at its most finely tuned with full service and a seasoned waitstaff. Union Station, 1701 Wynkoop St., 720-460-3733
*Last year 1
Choose any dish on Acorn’s menu and revel in chef and co-owner Steven Redzikowski’s masterful approach to food. His discerning eye juxtaposes textures (such as crusty bread with heirloom tomatoes, pearls of Sardinian pasta with clams, and crisp radish with hamachi) to create dishes unlike any you’ve had before. This, coupled with barman and co-owner Bryan Dayton’s beverage expertise, defines the Acorn experience. Order a sampling of small plates and share them with the table, comparing and contrasting as you go. Acorn is the three-year-old Denver offshoot of Boulder’s Oak at Fourteenth (number 12 on this list), and although the two share similarities, it’s Acorn’s energetic and casual reliability that puts it in our top five. The Source, 3350 Brighton Blvd., 720-542-3721