At their very best, restaurants offer us a sense of escape. Stop by Hutch & Spoon, a tucked-away nook on north Larimer, for a foamy cappuccino and breakfast sandwich, and the morning suddenly seems a little bit brighter. Order tapas at Olivéa in Uptown, and leave the eatery pledging to take a trip to Spain. Restaurants done right have this power. Under their spell, we can remake ourselves—if only for a couple of hours.
This year's crop of Denver's best new restaurants (listed in no particular order) all offer diversions—some more daring than others. Relive a childhood fishing trip over bites of Venue Bistro's crispy walleye; discover the wonders of bone marrow at TAG; or transport yourself to Italy in the spreadable boccalone nduja sausage at Colt & Gray.
Book your reservation at one (or all) of these spots now—and let the Great Escape begin.
1553 Platte St.
Dinner at Colt & Gray in Riverfront comes with a sense of decorum rarely found in Denver. The architectural space, divided into a smart bar and an elegant dining room, deftly juxtaposes pub and white-tablecloth styles of dining: Five bucks at the bar buys snacks like blue cheese-dusted gourgères or crispy pig trotters, while the dining room serves dishes like crisp-skinned roasted trout with guanciale and herb-crusted rack of lamb with glazed lamb belly. Both sides of the menu exude confidence and technique—something that comes from chef-owner Nelson Perkins' experience cooking at renowned Blue Hill and Public in the Big Apple. (That's not to mention his chef de cuisine's time at the Spotted Pig in NYC or his sous chef's turn at the Kitchen.) Even playful moments—lobster bangers and mash or bacon-cashew caramel corn—underscore the depth of talent in the kitchen. The space furthers the experience with decor that conveys rustic farmhouse style and urban sophistication. With poise, excitement, and comfort all rolled into one, Colt & Gray is the new face of Denver dining.
The plush banquette along the west wall allows for the best people-watching, not to mention views of the striking, steel-framed windows.
Blue cheese-dusted gourgères; herb-crusted rack of lamb with glazed lamb belly, Brussels sprouts, and mascarpone polenta; lobster bangers and mash; roasted trout with guanciale, sweet corn, farro, preserved lemon, and roasted fennel
Did You Know?
In addition to being an adept mixologist, bar manager Kevin Burke is a classically trained ballet dancer.
719 E. 17th Ave.
When it was announced that Duo Restaurant owners Stephanie Bonin and Keith Arnold were partnering with chef John Broening and pastry chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom on a new venture, Olivéa quickly became the most anticipated project of the year. The restaurant opened in Uptown in May, and it has made good use of the former Aix space—walls have been painted a stormy gray, the bar seems larger and less awkward than before, and the vibrant dining room is jammed with tables. Some grouse that the tables are too close and that noise reverberates off the hard surfaces, but we like the tight, bustling-bistro vibe that comes from close quarters. It feels alive and in-the-know. Olivéa can be experienced one of two ways: Make a meal out of Broening's creative small plates (flatbread with lamb sausage, eggplant, wilted greens, and feta; patatas bravas with aïoli), or settle down for a more traditional meal (duck meatballs on creamy polenta or grilled skirt steak with onion mermelada and romesco). Either way, don't skip dessert. If you're lucky, the rustic walnut-honey tart (which notched Lozada-Hissom a 2009 James Beard Foundation nomination) will be available. If not, order the first treat that sounds good—you can hardly go wrong with any of the characteristically balanced desserts.
The two tables against the back wall are the quietest and most tucked away.
Duck meatballs with polenta; hazelnut dacquoise dessert; breakfast flatbread with applewood-smoked bacon, crème fraîche, caramelized onions, and two sunny-side-up eggs
Did You Know?
Thanks to his father's job as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, Chef Broening spent the bulk of his childhood in France, Portugal, and the Soviet Union.
1047 Pearl St., Boulder
For Boulder—and for chef-owner Bradford Heap—Salt Bistro is more than a restaurant; it's a project that gets to the heart of community. Heap bought the beloved Tom's Tavern (opened in 1959 by city councilman Tom Eldridge) last fall and spent a year renovating and restoring the space. He kept what he could, reusing nearly every surface: Old floor joists found new life in front steps and community tables; window glass and metal boiler plates became a sculptural dividing wall; and the 120-year-old tin ceiling was restored to its former glory. One last Tom's tribute can be found on the menu: The tavern burger (souped up with all-natural beef, pickled onions, and Grafton cheddar) is the only staple on the ever-changing board. The rest of the eats reflect Heap's farm-to-table philosophy, with locally inspired dishes—many of them cooked in the restaurant's wood-fired oven—lining the menu. Look for seasonal vegetables (don't miss the fire-roasted cauliflower with breadcrumbs and capers) or rotisserie leg of lamb served with an earthy ratatouille. But don't get too hung up on one dish; it's likely to be gone next week—even tomorrow—depending on available produce and product.
Nab a seat at the chef's counter, which looks right into Heap's glossy kitchen.
Deconstructed pork belly BLT; wood-grilled beef shoulder fillet; beignets with lemon curd
Did You Know?
Gnarled planks from a locally wind-blown tree make up both the bar and the "fire bar" (i.e., the chef's counter).
3090 Larimer St.
Housed in the historic Charpiot building on north Larimer Street, Hutch & Spoon's narrow space and old-fashioned vibe—complete with miniature white tile, framed chalkboard menus and chef-owner Tracy Zimmer's charming spoon collection—practically begs you to slow down. Which is just what Zimmer wants, because what's important here are the homespun eats crafted to recall after-school snacks and weekends at grandma's house. Order from the breakfast menu (available all day) and find breakfast sandwiches like the buttery scrambled egg and feta tucked between toothsome whole wheat. Lunch means comfy sandwiches like meatloaf and melted cheddar, grilled cheese with house-made peach chutney, and chicken pesto on sourdough. The menu is small and simple, and usually punctuated by a homemade soda in seasonal flavors like watermelon-lemonade or cucumber. The idea here isn't to be overwhelmed by choices, but to be nurtured by them.
The two-top across from the cash register (note the old-fashioned phone).
Meatloaf and cheddar sandwich; eggplant caponata sandwich; egg and feta breakfast sandwich
Did You Know?
Zimmer got his start at Deluxe restaurant on South Broadway, where he was the head server for five years.
704 S. Pearl St.
The sandwich can be a pedestrian, uninspired snack, or it can be a carefully crafted meal. The latter is what you'll find at Vert Kitchen, an upscale, European-style sandwich shop in West Wash Park. A quick read through owner Noah Stephens and chef Emily Welch's menu proves that this is not your average lunch spot: The steak sandwich (l'entrecôte) layers arugula, herbed skirt steak, and walnut mustard; the lemon tuna comes stirred with chervil, cucumber, and Greek yogurt; and the tortilla española stacks a traditional potato omelet with aïoli and Manchego cheese. Even the prosaic-sounding BLT is gussied up with fresh mozzarella, and the roasted turkey comes with balsamic figs, chèvre, and pine nuts. Vert's menu encourages you to rethink lunch and reevaluate flavors by eating like a chef, while offering insight into Stephens and Welch's passion. The two met in Paris while simultaneously pursuing culinary degrees, and that Parisian influence at Vert (pronounced vehr) is pervasive. All of the items—including the salads, soups, and baked goods—adhere to French principles: made from scratch, seasonal, local, high-quality produce.
This tiny spot bustles, so grab any seat you can.
BLT; tortilla española sandwich; curry chicken salad
Did You Know?
The kids' meal may be the best deal in town, with a crustless sandwich, seasonal fruit, and an organic juice box for $6.
3301 Tejon St.
God bless the cocktail that kicked off the Squeaky Bean. In 2006, owner Johnny Ballen was in Palmanova, Italy, sipping a classically effervescent blend of orange-flavored Aperol, Prosecco, and sparkling water, when he began dreaming up his perfect restaurant. Three years later, in May 2009, the Squeaky Bean threw open its doors, inviting diners to sip the drink—dubbed the Squeaky Spritz—and order off an eclectic, largely seasonal menu. Heading up the kitchen is chef Max MacKissock, who first caught our eye at Vita (a "Best New Restaurant" in 2007). Here, in his tiny but well-stocked kitchen, you can sense MacKissock's growth as a chef. This is confident, smart, even daring food. Dishes like creamy duck rillettes served with house-made mustard and fruit preserves or caramely braised beef cheeks show his reach, while side dishes like custardy spoon bread and wickedly delicious potato fonduta (served in a hollowed-out potato) demonstrate his playfulness. You can tell MacKissock is having fun, and a happy chef makes a happy restaurant.
A two-top along the windows is best for taking in the space while still being right in the middle of the action.
Squash gratin with salsa verde; beef cheeks; gluten-free chocolate dessert
Did You Know?
The restaurant is named after the sound a green bean makes when bitten.
2785 Iris Ave., Boulder
Chef Alec Schuler doesn't just pay lip service to sustainability: Beams decorating Arugula's kitchen window are reclaimed; the floors are made of refabbed bits and pieces of wood waste from furniture manufacturers; and Arugula's menu (printed on recycled paper, what else?) is locally and seasonally focused. Schuler, who also owns Arugula, takes his mission one notch further by anchoring the menu with wholesome, nutritionally sound dishes; what's good for you is also good for the environment, which is to say naturally raised meats, organic produce, and sustainably sourced seafood. The result is a rustic Italian menu with an ever-changing roster of appetizer and entrée specials. But when dishes like Long Family Farm pork loin with grilled apple and roasted chicken risotto with Hazel Dell mushrooms arrive, you'll forget all about Schuler's noble premise and simply revel in the exquisite balance of flavor and texture. The bonus: You can feel good about a meal here—from start to finish.
The booths in the back lend themselves to more intimate conversation, but the middle of the dining room is where the action is.
House-made vin santo pâté; white beans with Molinari pancetta
Did You Know?
Chef Schuler attended the Natural Gourmet Institute, a nutritionally oriented cooking school, and 80 percent of his dishes can be made vegan.
3609 W. 32nd Ave.
When Venue's chef, James Rugile, creates a dish, he thinks it all the way through to the end. Take the mussels appetizer: He lines the bottom of a serving plate with artisanal bread to soak up the rich tarragon, chorizo, and oven-roasted tomato broth. Guaranteed: You'll fight over the last bites of saturated crust. Throughout his menus, Rugile has a knack for taking ordinary-sounding ingredients (the mussels are a prime example), and spinning them into something extraordinary. He swirls grits with gooey Emmentaler cheese, pairs gnocchi with acorn squash and crunchy pepitas, and even turns mundane walleye into a sinful entrée of crispy fish, potato noodles, and bacon vinaigrette. Rugile's brand of cuisine could be labeled progressive comfort food—and his skills are perfectly suited to turning out time-consuming, meticulous dishes that feel anything but fussy. All the more impressive is that Rugile is just 25 years old. The chef and his understated cuisine are perfectly matched to owner (and trained chef) Holly Hartnett's modest Highland dining room.
Along the wall, under the black-and-white photo of the chef's knife.
Mussels; lamb shank tagliatelle; shrimp and grits; crispy walleye
Did You Know?
Before opening Venue, owner Holly Hartnett managed Table 6 for several years.
1441 Larimer St.
At his namesake restaurant, Troy Guard bills the menu as "continental social food"—a confounding description, until you realize this means that dishes are meant to be shared around the table. Guard's zesty eats pull from all over the globe, but more often than not it's Asian and Latin elements (yuzu, mole, chiles) that find cohesion. This isn't simple food; rather, it's multidimensional cuisine, with each layer building a profile necessary to the dish's success. That can make for tricky kitchen work, but the flavorful twists and turns work splendidly, if sometimes unexpectedly. Take the flash-seared Kona Kampachi bedecked with yuzu, jalapeño, ginger, and orange Pop Rocks. It sounds ridiculous, until you discover how the candy simulta-neously heightens the fish's sweetness and tames the jalapeño's fire. How Guard came up with that combination will certainly be dinner-table chatter, as will the stunning glassed-in wine cellar and the superb cocktails that include the Tabasco-hinting Amante Picante. If there's a drawback to TAG, it's the timing. Perhaps the time-consuming, multiflavored dishes are to blame. Or maybe the staff has been instructed to allow diners to linger between courses. But the pacing seems clumsy for such a polished restaurant—especially one with such creative and well-executed food.
Slip into one of the sultry red booths (transplanted from the erstwhile Mao restaurant) that offer privacy and a view of the wine cellar.
The flash-seared Kona Kampachi with Pop Rocks; French onion "soup" dumplings; achiote rabbit; Amante Picante cocktail
Did You Know?
The light fixtures in the main dining room are made from recycled milk cartons.
701 Grant St.
The year's hottest trends are bacon, burgers, and noodle bars. Bones, Frank Bonanno's fourth restaurant, capitalizes on the latter. His 25-seater in Capitol Hill serves up bowl after bowl of Asian-inspired noodles—the kind of food Bonanno himself likes to eat. The most popular dish is the buttery lobster, edamame, and miso ramen, and one item that should be on everyone's list is the succulent steamed buns with pork belly. (To read more about Bones, including the inside story of the restaurant's opening, see "Roll the Bones" on page 84.)
The counter (usually reserved for walk-ins) allows you to see the action in the kitchen—plus, you get to chat up the chefs.
Steamed buns with pork belly; black cod tempura; ba mee noodle bowl with organic vegetables, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, and tofu tempura
Did You Know?
One Friday a month, Bones serves hamachi collar—arguably the sweetest and best part of the fish. Call ahead and ask about the special.