Acorn is more than just an outpost of Boulder favorite Oak at Fourteenth. It’s one of Denver’s best restaurants.
The oak-grilled Rocky Jr. chicken is one example of Acorn’s shareable, large-format dishes. Photography by Carmel Zucker.
For more information about how 5280's rating system works, read this post from critic Stacey Brugeman.
For a new restaurant, a pre-opening media frenzy—the kind that places an establishment on a gilded pedestal before its doors even open—is both a blessing and a curse. Some restaurants—like Curtis Duffy’s Grace in Chicago or Sean Brock’s Nashville rendition of Husk—go on to earn Michelin stars, perfect restaurant reviews, or cultlike followings. Other places falter under the pressure. One local example: Corner House. The restaurant was Colorado’s sole entrant on Eater’s national list of last year’s 40 most anticipated openings, yet it received mixed reviews, and the opening chef departed less than a year later when the restaurant temporarily closed to rework things. Across town in RiNo, Acorn—from barman Bryan Dayton and chef Steven Redzikowski (the celebrated duo behind Boulder’s Oak at Fourteenth)—was the subject of such early anticipation. This spot, however, lives up to every drop of advance ink it received.
I knew Acorn was special just seconds into my first visit. Located inside the Source (an artisan food market that opened on Brighton Boulevard last fall), the eatery features an exposed brick wall covered with colorful graffiti art that predated the rehabilitation of the 1880s foundry building. Husky tool chests hold silverware and napkins. An eight-seat chef’s counter overlooks the glowing, 1,000-degree oven in Redzikowski’s open kitchen. Tables are made of marble reclaimed from a downtown bank building. Dayton blares the Roots and Jay Z. The shelves of his backbar are lined with more glassware shapes than I could count.
This scene draws a consistently crowded house that is almost as diverse as the population on a New York City subway. There’s the laptop-toting wine rep with his tight black jeans, hoodie, and slicked-back mane. A few tables away are two buddies in ski beanies who left the second half of a joint on the rear tire of their Jeep. A middle-aged duo in puffy coats and yoga clogs meet for a drink. A gray-haired couple arrive hand-in-hand for a lunch date. An older woman in a Navajo blanket coat has driven across town to check out the hot new restaurant. “I thought all I would see was skinny jeans, mustaches, and tattoos,” Dayton says. But the surprisingly diverse clientele he serves is a testament to Acorn’s significance.
Dayton’s presence can be felt in every meal. His list of cocktails, sorted into “booze free,” “low booze,” and “high booze” categories, has received national praise. Acorn’s beer list, at 16 pours, is not huge but offers almost as many styles among the choices. The wine-by-the-glass selections are perhaps too concise—with only two whites and two reds—but a clever list of bottles helps compensate. In a state not known for easy access to wines with significant age, Acorn offers options like Colorado’s last allotment of a 10-year-old Bordeaux. And sweet wines are not forgotten: Flip your dessert menu over to find Moscato d’Asti, Tokay, and other pairing possibilities.
But Dayton’s influence runs far deeper than the beverage program: It’s clear that Acorn is owned in part by a man who has spent his career in the front of the house. Across five visits, with a different waiter each time, our service was universally exemplary, with remarkable attention to detail. Sure, there were rogue moments of human error. A beer pairing showed up a few bites into our crispy-skinned half chicken, one server was a bit too chatty, and a runner told us a blue cheese was feta. But these experiences were rare exceptions, and two of the three oversights were acknowledged. More important: Acorn’s waitstaff is getting a far longer list of details right.
Servers offer still or sparkling water and quickly bring taller Collins glasses to replace shorter tumblers when you select the version with bubbles. Staffers study their pre-service notes about ingredient provenance and can fluently answer questions about the width and thickness of tagliarini, the anatomical origin of hamachi collar, or the meaning of sofrito. They show so much enthusiasm for learning the answers they don’t know—like whether slices of coconut curry duck breast are cold- or hot-smoked—that they dart off to the kitchen for the answer before you can even say it’s not necessary. (It is hot-smoked.) Between courses, flatware is fully replaced, tables are wiped, and managers check on you. Servers artfully divide a bottle of wine among three courses and four diners. They present every single dish with the thorough detail that chef-owner Steven Redzikowski’s thoughtfully procured ingredients deserve.
Despite the unpretentious format of shared plates and Acorn’s urban space, you can taste Redzikowski’s impressive resumé. Before opening Oak, the chef, owner, and mohawked Long Island native cooked for the ever-so-fine dining rooms of Le Cirque, Jean-Georges, the Little Nell, Frasca Food and Wine, and the late Cyrus in Sonoma County—where he met Acorn’s second in command, executive sous chef Amos Watts. From a menu that is printed almost daily, Redzikowski and Watts are keeping pace with dishes that mirror those found at the nation’s most in-vogue restaurants. There’s a ceviche of chopped razor clams, placed in their shells with diced cucumber and spears of tarragon; there’s a crudo of sliced scallops, smothered in brown butter tableside. But Redzikowski also includes timeless standbys. A salad featuring a mound of kale shaved more finely than paper passed through a shredder, translucently thin apple rounds, microcrumbles of Parmesan cheese, and candied almonds is a welcome holdover from Oak. All-American classics—like a 38-ounce rib-eye, sliced so the juices run into twice-fried coarse-smashed Yukon Golds—keep company with imported traditions. Pieces of octopus from Spain are tossed with house-made squid ink pasta, and the kitchen sends out a cast-iron skillet of gyro-style lamb, cubes of fried chickpea flour cake, charred shishito peppers, and cooling tzatziki.
In all of these dishes, the kitchen duo remembers important components like texture. Creamy Burrata cheese arrives with parsnips two ways (a silky purée and tender coins) and is topped with shavings of fresh black truffle and fried bits of bread. Such careful attention to detail unites the menu’s diversity, as does Redzikowski’s impressive commitment to wood-fueled cooking and his passion for keeping each dish just simple enough to let the quality of its raw ingredients sing. “Oak is the hottest burning wood you can get, without imparting a ton of flavor,” Redzikowski told me of his wood-fired oven and grill. “We try to source really well, and we don’t want to mask that too much.”
His kitchen at Acorn is not without fault. That hamachi collar and a brioche doughnut covered in foie gras were too dry. Someone had a heavy hand when salting the Gruyère and shallot bread pudding that accompanied a large-format half chicken. From a dessert program that, at press time, Redzikowski was planning to revamp, every offering tasted like it was lacking a few teaspoons of sugar. Moreover, the haphazardly listed menu of small plates would benefit from being organized by size or palate progression.
Even with these easy fixes, the Source’s informal warehouse feel and the cold, detached bathrooms are enough to keep Acorn from garnering the perfect five-star rating of a white-tablecloth establishment. But this is a restaurant with heart, soul, guts, and enviable execution. With Redzikowski’s experience, Dayton’s accolades, the success of Oak in Boulder, and the media savvy of the team behind the Source, Acorn may have been placed on a pedestal before it served its first meal. But this is one restaurant that has earned the right to stay there.