Feature

Denver's 25 Best Restaurants 2016

From funky hot spots to neighborhood bistros, there's a restaurant in Denver to satisfy your every craving.

October 2016

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

2. Basta 

*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

3. Frasca Food and Wine 

*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

4. Mercantile Dining & Provision 

*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

5. Acorn 

*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

6. Bar Dough 

*New to the list

Having chef and co-owner Max MacKissock cooking again is a boon to the Denver dining scene: MacKissock’s talent is so immense that the two years he took off between leaving the Squeaky Bean and opening Bar Dough in LoHi felt like an eternity. But at his year-old restaurant, MacKissock now seems to have settled ever more comfortably into his calling. His cooking is still bright and replete with exciting combinations, but it’s less precious, more mature, and more approachable. And that’s not just because there’s pizza on the menu. Dishes like the lamb shoulder with charred red onion, puffed grains, and salsa verde also score high on the elevated-comfort-food scale. 2227 W. 32nd Ave., 720-668-8506

7. ChoLon 

*Last year 4

In 2010, Lon Symensma traded New York City for Denver because he craved the Colorado lifestyle and recognized that our burgeoning dining scene was on the verge of exploding. In the years since, Symensma has used ChoLon as a way to educate and challenge diners on the topic of modern Southeast Asian cuisine. He has won us over with intensely colorful, vibrant, and thrilling dishes that pull insight and inspiration from near and far. Take the tandoori lamb chops with caramelized yogurt and biryani, or the okonomiyaki-esque dancing scallops with a sweet corn pancake and bonito flakes that ripple in the steam. Symensma’s dishes function as a microcosm of the chef himself: Colorado flair combined with far-flung influences. 1555 Blake St., 303-353-5223

8. The Plimoth 

*Last year 20

When chef Peter Ryan opened the Plimoth north of City Park three years ago, he wasn’t looking to make a big splash, nor was he looking for press—but he got both because the tidy corner restaurant was just that good. Ryan, who is an alum of Z Cuisine and a former instructor at Cook Street School of Culinary Arts, simply wanted to feed the neighborhood. Never did he expect the Plimoth, which is named after his hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts, to become a dining destination where reservations are practically a must. Despite its popularity, not much has changed since the Plimoth’s opening days. Ryan and his staff’s intention to cook the European-style food they want to eat—pork rillettes; creative salads that toss together ingredients such as lentils, sunchokes, and lime vinaigrette; roasted rabbit loin—has served them well. 2335 E. 28th Ave., 303-297-1215

9. Beast and Bottle 

*Last year 7

Chef Paul Reilly co-owns Beast & Bottle with his sister Aileen Reilly, and together they produce a dining experience that perfectly fits Uptown’s eclectic vibe. That’s due largely to beverage director Jon Feuersanger’s always-packed bar and Paul’s well-edited menu, which showcases the meat and fish the team butchers daily in its tiny kitchen. What Paul does with those cuts wanders enough outside of the norm to be intriguing (lamb ribs with molasses mustard and giardiniera) while still adhering to standbys like goat’s milk gnudi and pork with sweet corn and chanterelles. But the best part of Beast & Bottle is that whether you’re a neighbor or not, you feel like one every time you walk through the door.  719 E. 17th Ave., 303-623-3223

10. Sushi Ronin 

*New to the list

Chef Corey Baker

Local sushi fans usually fall into one of two camps: Sushi Den or Sushi Sasa. But there’s a new player in town that will surely cut into both loyal fan bases: Sushi Ronin. More than any other spot around town, Sushi Ronin adheres to the omakase (or chef’s choice) philosophy. Of course, you could order from the menu, but why, when you can leave it up to whip-smart chef and co-owner Corey Baker? Whatever you decide when you stop by the LoHi hot spot, you’ll find yourself rewarded with gorgeous fish arranged like precious jewels. Count on Sushi Ronin becoming your new staple. 2930 Umatilla St., 303-955-8741

11. Work & Class 

*Last year 6

It’s hard to believe Work & Class isn’t quite three years old. In that short time, the constantly jammed American-meets-Latin eatery has become an anchor for RiNo, a neighborhood that’s experiencing unprecedented growth. Work & Class’ come-and-get-it, all-are-welcome vibe and approachable food—cochinita pibil; roasted goat; blue corn empanadas—are well worth the inevitable wait (Work & Class doesn’t take reservations). If you can, sit at the four-seat chef’s counter for a view of the impossibly tiny kitchen and the impressive talent of chef-owner Dana Rodriguez. The restaurant may be young, but it’s already become a Denver staple. 2500 Larimer St., 303-292-0700

12. Oak at Fourteenth 

*Last year 11

Chef Steven Redzikowski

Wood-fired cooking has become so much a part of the dining vernacular that it’s easy to forget that Oak at Fourteenth (the big sister of Acorn, number five on this list) in Boulder was one of the first local spots to build a concept around live-fire cooking. Six years after it opened, chef and co-owner Steven Redzikowski still loads the logs into the flames and cooks with creative abandon. What might surprise diners, however, is that often the best way to experience Oak is through its lighter dishes: carrot and lemongrass soup served with a rice crisp; sweet-corn succotash; the ever-changing farmers’ salad; or the salted-just-right crudo. The execution of these delicate dishes in what could be a meat-heavy restaurant is one of Redzikowski’s most impressive accomplishments. 1400 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-444-3622

13. Fruition Restaurant 

*Last year 14

In February, Fruition Restaurant on Sixth Avenue will celebrate 10 years, and from day one, Fruition was so dialed in that it became an instant classic. Chef-owner Alex Seidel is one of the most thoughtful, realistic, and innovative chefs in the local market (his second restaurant, Mercantile Dining & Provision, landed at number four on this list). Assuming the role of chef and farmer—he owns Fruition Farms Dairy & Creamery in Larkspur—allows Seidel, not to mention his team, which is headed up by chef de cuisine Jonathan Kaiser, to truly connect the stories of the land to the plate. That affinity shows up in no small part on Fruition’s menu, which is both wildly creative (duck breast with pistachio olive oil cake) and reliably comforting (pasta carbonara with house-cured pork belly and broth made from the farm’s Cacio Pecora cheese). 1313 E. Sixth Ave., 303-831-1962

14. Guard and Grace 

*Last year 17

Guard and Grace is something of a high-wire act. While the restaurant caters to many types of diners—lunch-seeking downtowners, happy hour goers, couples celebrating special occasions, colleagues working business deals—it does so in a way that strays from the steak-house formula. Instead of being built just on meat and potatoes, Guard and Grace has a beautiful raw bar, cures its own charcuterie, and offers an impressive selection of fish set off by details such as Thai carrot purée or sweet soy butter. With nine eateries to his name, the fact that chef Troy Guard can run Guard and Grace as smoothly as he does is a true triumph. 1801 California St., 303-293-8500

15. Blackbelly Market 

*Last year 24

You can bet that at a restaurant such as Hosea Rosenberg’s Blackbelly Market in Boulder, the meat dishes will have a starring role. After all, the two-year-old eatery specializes in whole-animal butchery, while also dry-aging its meats, curing its own salumi, using bones for stock, and even making candles out of beef tallow. But the menu also shows a softer side of the chef. Posole is a nod to the Top Chef winner’s home state of New Mexico; fish comes dressed in sophisticated sauces like saffron beurre blanc; and local vegetables are prized and anchor their own dishes. Meanwhile, Rosenberg’s plans continue to unfold: In April, he opened a full-scale butcher shop next door to the restaurant. 1606 Conestoga St., Boulder, 303-247-1000

16. Pizzeria Locale Boulder 

*17 in 2012

Many people associate Pizzeria Locale with the fast-casual concept that launched in Denver three years ago (and has since expanded to Kansas City, Missouri, and Cincinnati). But Pizzeria Locale Boulder is a different entity entirely. Yes, both are pizzerias, and yes, Frasca Food and Wine’s Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson own both—but the Boulder outpost is so differentthat the fact that it shares a name with its fast-casual brethren might confuse diners. Yes, wood-fired pizzas are made in the Neapolitan style, combining the best of local and imported ingredients. But what secures our vote are the salads, small plates, and out-of-this-world wine list that pulls from the Frasca well next door in terms of bottles and knowledge—a privilege the staff rightly exploits. Same goes for the seasoned kitchen, which turns out fresh and creative dishes we could eat for the rest of time. 1730 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-3003

17. To The Wind Bistro 

*Last year 9

When you first discover To The Wind Bistro on East Colfax Avenue, you’ll probably realize you’ve driven by it dozens of times and never noticed it. That suits husband-and-wife team Royce Oliveira and Leanne Adamson just fine because even for regulars, the 16-seat restaurant feels like a well-kept secret. If you can, sit at one of the four bar stools and watch as Oliveira and his team craft cornmeal waffles with roasted pork shoulder (the restaurant’s signature dish); foie gras torchon with a peanut butter madeleine; or a to-die-for savory clafoutis—all from the confines of the smallest professional kitchen you’ve likely ever seen. 3333 E. Colfax Ave., 303-316-3333

18. Sushi Den 

*Last year 8

For more than three decades, brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki have defined sushi in Denver, and their close ties to Japanese fish markets ensure that the Platt Park staple offers varieties of seafood rarely found elsewhere in town. To best experience the Kizaki magic, request a seat at the sushi bar. This will likely mean a longer wait, but the rewards of one-on-one service, coupled with watching the sushi chefs’ knife skills, are worth it. Insist on your favorites, but don’t miss the “aburi hotate” (two pieces of lightly seared scallops). It’s so good, you’ll want to order another round. 1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826

19. The Populist 

*Last year 5

We have much to thank the Populist for, including galvanizing the restaurant scene that has come to define the RiNo neighborhood. Before Noah Price, Jonathan Power, and Cliff White took a chance on the building at the corner of 32nd and Larimer streets, Crema Coffee House (also owned by the three) and Hutch & Spoon were virtual islands in a sea of warehouses. Now, four years later, the restaurant that built its foundation on the idea of communal dining has seen the local community grow up around it. Come for the 5 to 7 p.m. happy hour and continue on with dishes such as the crepelike farinata with summer squash and miso-glazed eggplant medallions. With dishes topping out at $25, the final bill is frequently a pleasant surprise. 3163 Larimer St., 720-432-3163

20. Stoic & Genuine 

*Last year 16

At Stoic & Genuine, aqua-colored glass-blown Japanese fishing lures glow behind the host stand, the raw bar twinkles with an icy light, and a painting of a giant octopus sprawls over a wall. The jewel-box space draws you in, as does the promise of ice-cold oysters and pristine seafood. Start with a round of perfectly shucked bivalves and a granita cocktail (flavors change, but the cucumber tarragon and rosé are our favorites), then move to the umami-forward broccoli and avocado salad and the ever-creative hamachi crudo. Next, it’s time to choose from a menu that unfolds in many directions: sardines, peel-n-eats, a seafood tower, whole roasted haddock, surf and turf. In the short two-plus years since Stoic & Genuine opened, the trio of Beth Gruitch, Jennifer Jasinski, and Jorel Pierce has created a platform for exquisite seafood in Denver. Union Station, 1701 Wynkoop St., 303-640-3474

21. Bittersweet 

*Last year 21

In the five years since Olav Peterson and his wife, Melissa Severson, opened Bittersweet in Washington Park West, the eatery has come into full bloom. Like the maturing gardens that flank the restaurant, Bittersweet appears to have settled into itself. For years, Peterson pulled double duty cooking on the line and working the dining room. But recently, he left the kitchen for the front of the house to better connect with guests. Peterson seems in his element, but most important, the food hasn’t suffered: Dishes such as a thick pork chop with fennel jam and guanciale vinaigrette, dry-aged bison rib-eye, and cobia with leek tamale indicate that the current crew is more than up to the job of meeting the sky-high expectations Peterson has set for stunning presentations and complex flavors. 500 E. Alameda Ave., 303-942-0320

22. Old Major 

*Last year 15

Arrive before your reservation time, find a seat at Old Major’s bar, and order a cocktail (try the Modern Savage, Old Major’s version of a Black Manhattan, with whiskey, amaro, and sarsaparilla bitters) to experience one of the best parts of this 3.5-year-old LoHi restaurant. The extra time allows you to relax into the evening and to better take in the rustic, barnlike space that once housed a roller rink. Then, dinner. Squeeze into your table and select from executive chef and owner Justin Brunson’s menu: It’s a meaty one with a nose-to-tail mission. If you’ve come hungry and are dining with a crowd, splurge on the 24-ounce Colorado rib-eye. It’s a whopping $90, but it might very well be the best steak you’ve ever had. 3316 Tejon St., 720-420-0622

23. Barolo Grill 

*Last year 12

It’s rare for a restaurant to remain relevant for 20 years. And yet Barolo Grill, a Northern Italian stalwart on East Sixth Avenue, has done just that. Having a strong focal point (in this case, the regions of Piedmont and Tuscany) certainly anchors the menu, but we think it’s the staff’s annual trip to Italy that infuses the dining experience with the genuine spirit of Italian food, drink, and hospitality. The best time of year to visit Barolo is shortly after the team has returned from its summer pilgrimage, as that’s when executive chef Darrel Truett’s inspiration burns brightest. 3030 E. Sixth Ave., 303-393-1040

24. Mizuna 

*Last year 13

Barman Austin Carson

When Mizuna turned 15—something of an eternity in the restaurant industry—earlier this year, it was an occasion worth celebrating. In advance of the party, and in recognition of Mizuna’s years, chef and owner Frank Bonanno briefly closed the restaurant for a remodel. The refreshed space feels more graceful thanks to new floors, a more generous bar (behind which barman Austin Carson can better work his magic), and softer lighting. The effect is one that makes the restaurant seem more open without stripping it of its intimacy. And Mizuna, with its butter- and cream-drenched French dishes, still reigns supreme for special occasions, when flawless service is key and indulgence calls. 225 E. Seventh Ave., 303-832-4778

25. Bistro Barbès 

*Last year 19

At the core of a successful restaurant is a clear viewpoint, and a keen sense of identity is ever more important in our flooded dining scene. This is where Bistro Barbès, led by chef-owner Jon Robbins, shines. Barbès’ menu has French undertones (Robbins, after all, is classically trained), but it’s the vibrant North African, Middle Eastern, and Spanish impressions that differentiate Barbès and entice us back again and again. Here, “chermoula” (an herby North African marinade), sumac, “zhoug” (a Middle Eastern chile sauce), and madras curry aren’t just ingredients; they’re nods to Robbins’ years in Barbès, a vibrant neighborhood in Paris swirled with multicultural influences. 5021 E. 28th Ave., 720-398-8085  


Additional reporting by Callie Sumlin