There’s got to be more to a restaurant than just food on a plate. Otherwise, why bother? Dining out is an occasion, even on a Tuesday night; it should indulge all of your senses, not just taste. There’s the feeling you get when you walk into the room, the scent of flowers on your table, snippets of conversation from the next booth. It all adds up to an experience, and it’s why we don’t just settle for takeout every night of the week. With that in mind this year, we created the 5280 master list—our go-to restaurant guide packed with everything from tried-and-true favorites to the Mile-High’s newest hotspots. No doubt some of your picks didn’t make our final cut, but that’s all the more reason to compare notes and compile a list of your own. Allow us to get you started.
Bonnie Brae Tavern
If the teal walls and historical photos don’t designate the Bonnie Brae Tavern a Denver institution, the No. 5 pizza piled high with sausage, mushrooms, pepperoni, and onions will convince you of the shop’s staying power. Favorite place to sit: in “Grandma’s” (the late owner Sue Dire’s) booth in the middle of the room. Word is that when Dire passed away in 2002, diners loyal to the 72-year-old eatery showered the table in flowers and cards. 740 S. University Blvd., 303-777-2262.
More from our 101 Dining Experiences Every Denverite Must Have Issue
- Restaurant Olivia Opens with a New Look and Lots of Pasta
- What Happened When Denver Public Library Eliminated Overdue Fines?
- These Young Colorado Farmers Are Changing the Future of Agriculture
- 3 New Places to Party Are Coming to LoDo
- Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe Owners Are Moving to New York
- What Is Ozone, and Why Are Colorado’s Levels So Bad?
- Steal These Design Ideas From Park Hyatt Beaver Creek’s Gorgeous Renovation
Bump & Grind Café
The funky Bump & Grind Café is all about good food and tongue-and-cheek references. We love the “kissed” or “dissed” peanut-butter cookies, topped with or without a Hershey’s Kiss, the raspberry jammies cookies, and the over-the-top fluffernutter sandwiches with peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. 439 E. 17th Ave., 303-861-4841
The chic space and Indian menu are your first introduction to Chutney’s. But what you’ll remember are the honey gobi (cauliflower tossed in garlic-honey sauce and green onions) and the lamb chop curry. Sit at table No. 23 and ask if proprietor Kannan Alagappan can stop by your table to chat about the cuisine. 880 Happy Canyon Road, Castle Rock, 303-660-0202
Hit the Capital Grille on a Friday night, but skip the dining room in favor of the bar. Toast the weekend with a Stoli Doley (pineapple-infused vodka shaken over ice). 1450 Larimer St., 303-539-2500
If you only dine at Domo Restaurant once a year, make it during cherry blossom season. Request a table outside in the serene Japanese garden, and order the savory iridofu donburi (scrambled tofu, seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, soybeans, and carrots over brown rice). If the sun gets too hot, pull on one of the lightweight straw hats set out by staff. 1365 Osage St., 303-595-3666
Go early on a Tuesday or Wednesday and know that Café Brazil welcomes your little one. While you dine on the pernambuco (scallops with garlic, shallots, coconut milk, orange essence, veggies, and kafir lime leaf over herbed rice) your child will love the South American music, the lights, and the friendly staff. Sit by the window or at the two-top by the partition for the most space. 4408 Lowell Blvd., 303-480-1877
Spend an afternoon on some of the Front Range’s best trails (that’d be Boulder), then duck in for dinner on Chautauqua Dining Hall‘s front porch. Kids will beg for the green eggs and ham, while adults will swoon over their cider-glazed pork loin with caramelized apples. 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, 303-440-3776
Belly dancers smile provocatively as they whirl around Mataam Fez Moroccan Restaurant‘s exotic dining room. Waiters breeze by the dancers, bringing steaming Moroccan delicacies to customers seated on the floor. Vegetarians will enjoy butter-bathed Moroccan spiced artichokes with green olives and preserved lemon. 4609 E. Colfax Ave., 303-399-9282
For Rioja‘s best seat, head straight to the south end of the tiny back bar. Watch the garde-manger in action as she builds your Rioja “picnic”: a selection of Spanish chorizo, duck breast, bresaola, warm and cold cheeses, olives, nuts, and orange confit. 1431 Larimer St., 303-820-2282
Sit in Café Star’s semicircular bar area rimmed by the Chagall-like stained-glass wall. Sip on a hearty Bloody Mary (the secret ingredient is Guinness), and for sustenance order a pizzetta with Black Mission fig jam, Spanish blue cheese, and crispy pancetta. 3201 E. Colfax Ave., 303-320-8635
At tiny Z Cuisine, window tables are a hot commodity. Should you be so lucky to be seated there, pretend you’re in Paris and order a bottle of Burgundy and chef Patrick Dupays’ savory cassoulet with hand-picked French Tarbais beans. 2239 W. 30th Ave., 303-477-1111
Finally, a sports bar that understands the fans: The multiroom Blake Street Tavern has HDTVs big and small, and patrons get seated in front of whichever screen has the game they want. If you still can’t hear the audio, request a “sound dog” gizmo and tune in your game of choice. 2401 Blake St., 303-675-0505
Snagging a table at charming (and bustling) Potager is no easy feat, but if you’ve got a choice sit by the exposed brick wall—tables there afford you a view of the Capitol Hill restaurant’s comings and goings and allow more privacy. No matter where you sit, don’t miss the decadent chocolate pudding. 1109 Ogden St., 303-832-5788
The Oven Pizza e Vino is first and foremost a pizza spot, but it offers up a far more stylish scene than the usual pie joint. Pull up a lime-green leather barstool and treat yourself to the roasted seasonal veggie salad (hint: add Haystack goat cheese). 7167 W. Alaska Drive, Lakewood, 303-934-7600
Some of LoDo’s most prime people-watching awaits on The Market‘s sunny patio—opt for the iconic coffee joint’s fresh brews or order up a half-and-half, a blend of fresh-squeezed orange juice and fresh-squeezed carrot juice. 1445 Larimer St., 303-534-5140
Lady and the Tramp fans will want a corner table at Mikey’s Italian Bistro. The red-and-white checked tablecloths, drippy candles, and Dean Martin soundtrack encourage a nuzzle here and there—and, of course, the classic joint dishes up a mean spaghetti and meatballs. 4140 W. 38th Ave., 303-433-7400
If the teal walls and historical photos don’t designate the Bonnie Brae Tavern a Denver institution, the No. 5 pizza piled high with sausage, mushrooms, pepperoni, and onions will convince you of the shop’s staying power. Favorite place to sit: in “Grandma’s” (the late owner Sue Dire’s) booth in the middle of the room. Word is that when Dire passed away in 2002, diners loyal to the 72-year-old eatery showered the table in flowers and cards. 740 S. University Blvd., 303-777-2262
The original Jax Fish House might be in Boulder, but we prefer the slightly roomier Denver outpost. Singles should set up shop at the bar and survey the scene over oyster shooters—fresh-shucked East Coast oysters, spicy vodka, and Bloody Mary mix. 1539 17th St., 303-292-5767
If only the walls could talk at My Brother’s Bar (one-time hangout for beatnik Neal Cassady). Instead, let Jimmy the bartender fill you in on the history. Fridays at lunchtime are an especially good time to sidle up to the bar, order a JCB (jalapeño cheeseburger), and hang with the regulars. When you’re finished drinking, put a coaster over your glass; otherwise Jimmy’ll keep the beer flowing. 2376 15th St., 303-455-9991
The legendary sexy booths, copper menus, and undulating bar make Vesta Dipping Grill a favorite—and that’s before scanning the menu and ordering a pitcher of sangria. It’s at the top of our list when entertaining out-of-towners. 1822 Blake St., 303-296-1970
Five o’clock is the magic hour at Frasca—each day patrons line up outside for one of the 14 seats reserved for walk-in traffic. Once seated at the salumi bar, a table, or at the bar, close the menu and allow your server to order for you. Chef Lachlan Patterson and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey won’t let you down. 1738 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-6966
Balmy evenings beg for dinner on Mizuna‘s tiny front patio. Buttery lobster mac-n-cheese, seared yellowfin tuna with gulf prawns in lobster-lime broth, and banana tarte tatin with rum ice cream taste even better when eaten al fresco. 225 E. Seventh Ave., 303-832-4778
If you must do business at lunch, take your client to one of the lovely private booths at L’Atelier, where cell phones aren’t verboten. Boulder chef Radek Cerny, back from a stint with the culinary wizard Ferran Adria, is bringing new magic to the menu with dishes such as lobster with potato foam, duck confit with liquid potatoes, and Scottish smoked salmon with horseradish foam. 1739 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-7233
Wander outside and catch a sunset from The Fort‘s back patio. Continue the light show inside with a table by the window—order a gunpowder whiskey and let the kids choose from the impressive kiddie menu. 19192 Highway 8, Morrison, 303-697-4771
Homemade brats, German potato salad, and fresh sauerkraut can all be found at the Continental Delicatessen. Eat near the counter and catch up on some great local gossip (in German, of course) or tote your picnic to City Park, where you can discretely sip a cold lager. 250 Steele St., 303-388-3354
When you’re tired of the same old, same old, escape to Denver’s Budapest Bistro for rich chicken paprika with earthy Hungarian spices. Pair an after-dinner glass of Tokay dessert wine with the sweet crêpe-like palacsinta. Tuck into the booths next to the antique mirror collection and ask if chef Anna Helvig can tell you stories about her homeland. 1585 S. Pearl St., 303-744-2520
Elway’s Colorado Steak House is a place to see and be seen, so why not order a dish that will have all eyes turning in your direction? The generous shrimp cocktail arrives with three jumbo prawns perched on the edge of a crystal goblet set with dry ice. Wave away the fog and dip into garlic aïoli, mustard-mayo, horseradish, or cocktail sauce. Sit at the bar when John Miller is tending and he’ll pour you a spicy Bloody Mary. 2500 E. First Ave., 303-399-5353
The Flagstaff House‘s award-winning wine list is the pride and joy of Colorado. Reserve the table tucked between north and east windows for an incredible view, and splurge on a special-occasion vintage (such as Domaine Romanee-Conti Grant Cru Burgundy) from the 20,000-bottle collection. 1138 Flagstaff Road, Boulder, 303-442-4640
Avoid the Dushanbe Teahouse on Saturdays and Wednesdays, when the Boulder Farmers’ market is going strong right outside the doors. Instead, try a quiet Thursday and call ahead to reserve a cushiony seat on the floor pillows at one of the two corner low-rise tables. Don’t miss the house tea gingerbread—it was recently featured on the Food Network. 1770 13th St., Boulder, 303-442-4993
Even if there are plenty of linen-draped tables available, ask the host at Panzano if you can sit at the bar near the kitchen. You can peruse the entire open kitchen, watch your pesce alla griglia (grilled fish in a Tuscan stew) or vitallo val d’aosta (scallopine of veal) cook in the pan, and chat up executive chef Elise Wiggins, who may even give you a taste of whatever else she has on the stove. 909 17th St., 303-296-3525
We love carry out at eateries like Steuben’s and Pei Wei that offer designated take-away areas and well-designed containers.
We loathe when our favorite spots get too big for their britches—as seen in a rise in snootiness or a decline in food quality. (One certain newish Highland coffee shop shall remain unnamed.)
We love how local restaurants such as Restaurant 4580 and Rioja have integrated harissa—a spicy Tunisian paste made of chiles, garlic, cumin, coriander, caraway, and olive oil—into rubs and marinades.
“Nouveau junk food” is one of the latest dining trends—and Nine75 revives old favorites by serving swirled cotton candy the size of soccer balls and old-fashioned root beer floats. Take note of who enjoys it most: you or your kids. 975 Lincoln St., 303-975-0975
The seasonal, regional bistro fare at Duo has us smitten, but dessert often steals the show. If it’s on the menu, opt for the shortbready apple tart for two or the sticky toffee pudding, and pair it with potent French-press coffee served in mismatched china cups. 2413 W. 32nd Ave., 303-477-4141
Barolo Grill garners praise for its braised duckling or delicate gnocchi, but not to be missed is pastry chef Scott Hybbeneth’s pepato di zenzero, warm gingerbread with crème inglese topped with English toffee and Medjool dates. 3030 E. Sixth Ave., 303-393-1040
A slice of Sonda Brewster’s strawberry cake—two tiers of Barbie-pink cake glued together with equally pink icing—is worth a trip to NoNo’s Cafe in itself. Brewster bakes five cakes a day (from a New Orleans recipe passed down by her grandmother), and the Littleton restaurant only sells the treat by the slice. Call to reserve your piece before heading over. 3005 W. County Line Road, Littleton, 303-738-8330
Learn to mambo, salsa, or tango to live licks at Rhumba on Sundays from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Arrive early (about noonish) to claim a spot by the garage-door window right next to the bar—it’ll ensure prompt mojito refills, not to mention a place to scope out a tango partner. 950 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-7771
There are few experiences more quintessentially Denver than having brunch on Highland’s Garden Cafe‘s patio. The tucked-away, beautifully landscaped grounds make you feel as if you’re in a secret garden. And the morning only gets better after ordering a doughy, raisin-specked cinnamon roll covered in cream cheese icing—the recipe originated with chef/owner Pat Perry’s grandmother. 3927 W. 32nd Ave., 303-458-5920
Find a cozy spot in the bar section of Mel’s Restaurant & Bar (tables along the back wall are just far enough from the live piano music that you can hear your date) and order the vanilla panna cotta with pomegranate gelée. Up the romance quotient with a glass of orange Moscato from Evergreen’s Creekside Cellars. 235 Fillmore St., 303-333-3979
Ask the Cruise Room‘s old-school bartenders to mix up a madras—then watch as they squeeze an entire orange into the vodka-cranberry mixture in a highball. Few cocktails will ever taste this fresh. 1600 17th St., 303-825-1107
Rheinlander Bakery‘s cases entice with freshly baked strudels, cookies, cinnamon crisps, breakfast pastries, and cakes—most of them sugar-free or gluten-free. All are delicious. 5721 Olde Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada, 303-467-1810
A warm night on Límon‘s patio calls for the refreshing lucuma ice cream (which tastes like vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate ice creams all swirled together) and Alfajores cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche. 1618 E. 17th Ave., 303-322-0898
When the server at La Sandía delivers the makings for guacamole, let the kids do the mixing. They’ll love smashing the avocado, cilantro, onion, tomato, and serrano chile with a mortar and pestle. 8340 E. 49th Ave., Unit 1690, 303-373-9100
For a twist on the common cocktail, choose Gelazzi‘s Dreamsicle, an icy treat blended from white gelato, orange gelato, and two shots of amaretto. 1411 Larimer St., 303-534-5056
No one can resist one of Gateaux‘s beautifully iced, buttery sugar cookies. Buy a box or just one treat for the road. 1160 N. Speer Blvd., 303-376-0070
Crêpes ‘n Crêpes comforts on chilly days with a frothy cappuccino and a hot-off-the-griddle crêpe slathered with Nutella. A counter seat is coziest. 2816 E. Third Ave., 303-320-4184
There’s something so indulgent about a glass of Champagne in the middle of the afternoon—especially when paired with Emogène‘s chocolate passion cake. 2415 E. Second Ave., 303-388-7900
After your kid’s soccer game, zigzag over to Icon Burger (conveniently located by the Y’s soccer fields). Griddled buns, hot fries, thick shakes to toast the winning team, and cold beers for the supportive parents…really, what’s not to love? 2755 Dagny Way, Lafayette, 303-926-9700
Kids feeling restless? Stop off at André’s Confiserie Suisse for a quick pick-me-up. Adults will reach for the delicate linzertortes while kids point to tiny, almond-flavored frogs filled with strawberry jam or strawberry buttercream. Pile back in the car to devour them, and you won’t hear another peep. Go before 11 a.m. or after 1 p.m. to miss the lunchtime crush. 370 S. Garfield St., 303-322-8871
The funky Bump & Grind Café is all about good food and tongue-and-cheek references. We love the “kissed” or “dissed” peanut-butter cookies, topped with or without a Hershey’s Kiss, the raspberry jammies cookies, and the over-the-top fluffernutter sandwiches with peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. 439 E. 17th Ave., 303-861-4841
Grab the girls for afternoon tea at the Brown Palace. Listen for twinkling piano music, clinking china cups, and ladylike conversation over traditional tea sandwiches and mini pastries. The best part: Once seated under the glass-domed atrium, you’re never rushed. 321 17th St., 303-297-3111
Home-grown Bonnie Brae Ice Cream is busy all year long, but the best time to visit is in the heat of the summer, when it’s too hot to eat just about anything else. Just make sure to be patient—you won’t be the only one thinking a double scoop of Snickers Delight sounds good. 799 S. University Blvd., 303-777-0808
A stone’s throw from Red Rocks Amphitheater, hikers, bikers, and concertgoers flock to the Morrison Inn‘s sunny deck for frosty margs. Try Juan’s specialty sweet-and-sour mix in the gold margarita, or choose from 13 different fruity flavors (including tasty wild berry). Pass on the other cocktails—they tend to be too weak. Come early on concert nights and beat the crowds. 301 Bear Creek Ave., Morrison, 303-697-6650
Drop in at Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill on your birthday and drink for free. Order an Irish coffee, listen to Patrick Stone on the piano, and thumb through the bible of lyrics ranging from Sinatra and Billie Holiday to Patsy Cline and Otis Redding. If Paulie Lopez, an octogenarian who fills in once in a blue moon, is tickling the ivories, consider it your lucky night. 980 Grant St., 303-860-1655
Dietrich’s Chocolates and Espresso draws in chocolate lovers with its vast collection of boutique, grand cru, and even diabetic-friendly treats. Pick up a bag of extra-dark DeVries chocolates (which are locally made), and then stay for a Bavarian breakfast of semmel rolls, German cold cuts, and artisan cheeses in the tiny cafe. Sit close to the register and chat with German-born owner Erich Dietrich. 1734 E. Evans Ave., 303-777-3358
Across the street from Dietrich’s lies Trompeau Bakery, home of Denver’s best croissants. Pastry chef Pascal Trompeau is a native of Limoges, France, and his delicate pastries start with the finest flour and country sweet cream butter, and then turn into the kind of flakey croissants worthy of Paris. Plan to arrive in the morning, as the shop closes at 1 p.m. 1727 E. Evans Ave., 303-698-9682
Palace Arms, Denver’s grande dame restaurant, whisks diners to a different era with its tableside Caesar salad, bananas Foster, and strolling martini cart. Tuck into the deep leather booths near the circle of Revolutionary battle flags and feel like a VIP. 321 17th St., 303-297-3111
At the Peaks Lounge, 27 floors up in the Grand Hyatt, candlelight, decadent desserts, and a stunning view of the city will send date night through the stratosphere. Score with a table right by the window and order the New York cheesecake with shards of tempered chocolate, a swirl of sugar threads, and a delicately twisted tuile cookie. 650 15th St., 303-436-1234
Take the family to Aurora Cinema Grill for dinner and a movie. Arrive before 6 p.m. for $2 first-run flicks, sit back in comfy turquoise chairs, and order up a pleasing mix of adult cocktails and full-on kid fare (thick strawberry shakes, salty fries, and great hot wings). 13682 E. Alameda Ave., Aurora, 303-344-3456
We loathe cold butter and cold bread.
We love restaurants that are bottling and selling their products so we can enjoy them at home. Pantry must-haves: Vesta Dipping Grill’s dried berry chutney, Frasca’s red pepper jelly, and Cafe Bisque’s lavender honey.
We loathe that Colorado wines still get a bad rap. While our state’s vines are still very young, there are a number of wineries turning out excellent vino (such as the award-winning Two Rivers and Plum Creek wineries).
A perfect Sunday morning: a secluded corner booth at Zaidy’s Deli downtown, The New York Times, and an order of the desayuno fuerte—sautéed spinach, onions, tomatoes, and garlic on a potato latke topped with two poached eggs and Parmesan cheese. 1512 Lawrence St., 303-893-3600
Have a light lunch on Sunday and save your appetite for Lola‘s family-style paella—a fitting dish for the live Latin music the restaurant brings in from 2 to 5 p.m. 1575 Boulder St., 720-570-8686
Nearly every restaurant has calamari on the menu, but Solera‘s Thai-style version with spiced peanuts and mint is a standout. Sit at the bar and order wine by the glass—or, better yet, stay for dinner. We never let an opportunity pass to dine on chef/owner Goose Sorensen’s seasonal duck dish. 5410 E. Colfax Ave., 303-388-8429
The Cherry Cricket has built its reputation on the reliable Little Cricket burger and a basket of frings, but we swear by the Alice Springs chicken sandwich. The grilled chicken breast comes topped with mushrooms, bacon, honey dijon sauce, and melted Cheddar. 2641 E. Second Ave., 303-322-7666
Every Friday from 4 p.m. until it’s gone, Proto’s Pizzeria Napoletana dishes up its white clam pizza with garlic-infused olive oil, mozzarella, and oregano. Bring the kids, who’ll love watching the pizza chefs juggle dough (order kiddos a margherita pie with homemade mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, and fresh basil). 2401 15th St., 720-855-9400
In cozy Cafe Bisque, watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen or simply observe the neighborhood comings and goings over lemon poppy-seed pancakes with maple syrup and homemade churn-style butter. 224 Union Blvd., Lakewood, 303-985-4151
The piquillo pepper is the hot Spanish ingredient of the moment, and sexy 9th Door knows just what to do with it. Choose either the fire-roasted version stuffed with creamy goat cheese and Serrano ham or the tapa baked in olive oil and garlic and topped with a crusty baguette. Friday after work is the best time to grab a table—but 9 p.m. is when the bar scene starts to match the food’s spice. 1808 Blake St., 303-292-2229
Order the carpaccio at Strings and the paper-thin rare beef arrives on a chilled glass tile with capers, onions, shaved Parmesan, and toast points. Refined, elegant, and delicious. 1700 Humboldt St., 303-831-7310
For a very special occasion we dine at Opus and choose the ever-changing, nine-course premium feature menu. Dinner, which is up to chef Michael Long’s discretion, promises the ultimate in luxury (think butter-poached lobster, silky foie gras) and costs accordingly ($195 per person, including wine). 2575 W. Main St., Littleton, 303-703-6787
Devil’s Food dishes up more than heavenly pastries. We avoid the busy weekend rush at this Old South Gaylord hotspot in favor of a weekday visit and a cozy table toward the back, where we lunch on the apple, Brie, and caramelized onion sandwich on nutty ciabatta. 1024 S. Gaylord St., 303-733-7448
Sunday afternoon dinners at M&D’s Barbeque Café range from Cajun fried chicken with red beans and rice to pan-fried catfish with black-eyed pea jambalaya and crawfish sauce. Keep an eye out for Denver politicos; this is prime hangout territory. 2000 E. 28th Ave., 303-296-1760
Let master sushi chef Toshi Kizaki introduce you to “omakase” at Denchu, Sushi Den‘s private dining room. Only open Saturday nights, the room has 10 seats and requires diners to give up control as Kizaki crafts each eight to 10-course meal from the day’s freshest ingredients. 1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826
Steuben’s serves the best of American comfort food, be it an authentic Maine lobster roll or dreamy butterscotch pudding. But may we suggest the meatloaf? One catch: It’s only available on Tuesdays. What makes the dish worth a special trip: chefs Matt Selby and Brandon Biederman’s divine combo of ground beef, veal, and bacon. 523 E. 17th Ave., 303-830-1001
Throw on the retro fur or don your basic black and head to Deluxe, a moody urban eatery on Broadway where chef-owner Dylan Moore’s California cuisine cuts through the fanfare and gets real. Cozy up to the copper-topped bar and watch the kitchen send out dishes like the five-spiced ribs, whose riches and complexity unfold like fine wine. Top off dinner with a chocolate-chip ice cream sandwich. 30 S. Broadway, 303-722-1550
Take the kids to lunch at Oshima Ramen for a round of the “super oshima ramen” with miso base, fresh noodles, tender gyoza noodles, and mounds of paper-thin pork. Follow it up with a scoop of ginger ice cream. Children love to sit at the round table, where they can scribble on the walls (it’s encouraged) and order Ramune soda pop with marbles inside the bottle. Cool. 7800 E. Hampden Ave., 720-482-0264
Adults aren’t the only ones enamored with Tula Latin Bistro—the shorter set adores it too. Lounge on the comfy ostrich banquette and order up kid-approved mac-n-cheese, followed by Mexican animal cookies dipped in warm cajeta caramel. 250 Josephine St., 303-377-3488
After hours and still hungry? Step into the denlike bar at Cherry Creek’s Sketch Food and Wine for one last pour and the homemade chicken pot pie. The flaky crust and the familiar flavors will wrap up the evening with a cozy finale. 250 Steele St., 303-333-1763
How do you plan a night at the Denver Center and feel like a VIP? Beat the crowds by arriving at 5 p.m. and valet park across the street at the Hotel Teatro. Dine on Restaurant Kevin Taylor’s pre-theater menu, with dishes such as roast pavé of Atlantic salmon with black truffle sauce or vanilla-glazed lobster. Both are sure to warrant the night’s first standing ovation. 1106 14th St., 303-820-2600
Not only is Table 6 open on Monday nights, the slow day is also an ideal time to book the private dining room for a wine pairing dinner. Call ahead to ask general manager and sommelier Aaron Forman how to create a special evening to match wine to your food or vice versa. 609 Corona St., 303-831-8800
At Pulcinella Ristorante‘s wine dinners, forget about meeting a mere wine rep—this Lafayette restaurant flies Italian winemakers straight from Piedmont. The vintners arrive with recipes in hand and their best bottles in tow. 300 S. Public Road, Lafayette, 303-604-2888
Pop into La Casa de Manuel at lunchtime for friendly service and an order of wet burritos bathed in fiery green chile. Choose the shredded beef version with its spicy/savory filling topped with cheese, lettuce, and fresh tomato. 3158 Larimer St., 303-295-1752
Boulder commuters should swing by Dish Gourmet for a gourmet sandwich that can be eaten with one hand on the wheel. The “Which Came First?” comes on freshly baked ciabatta that hugs two farm-fresh eggs, Long Family Farm bacon, and melted Muenster cheese. 1918 Pearl St., Boulder, 720-565-5933
It may not be an English pub, but Mirepoix dishes up a mean fish and chips. Fresh black cod is coated with a Fat Tire batter and quickly fried so the puffy coating seals in the fish’s freshness. A side of Parmesan-rosemary frites and homemade caper tartar sauce adds the proper pungency and seasoning. 150 Clayton Lane, 303-253-3000
Reserve the Buckhorn Exchange‘s front alcove and soak in the 114-year history. Dine on buffalo prime rib, then stroll past the countless animal trophies to the upstairs bar and catch Roz Brown’s live “music for old goats.” (Take the light-rail train to the Buckhorn—it has its own stop.) 1000 Osage St., 303-534-9505
Burnt Toast captures the same funky vibe that Dot’s Diner used to have during its glory days in the old gas station on Pearl Street. Order a pot of coffee, a plate of Erin’s Eggs (scrambled and placed on a bed of sautéed onions and zucchini, served with a hot biscuit), and settle in by the sunny windows to read the paper, digest some poetry, or write your socialist manifesto. 1235 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder, 303-440-5200
You can taste The Kitchen‘s farm-to-table philosophy in the simple, rustic fare. Savor the sea in Ingrid’s mussels, or lap up the off-the-vine freshness of creamy tomato soup. Hint: Bring the kids in at 6 p.m. on a summer night when local produce is at its peak. 1039 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-544-5973
Commandeer the horseshoe countertop at Sushi Tora on Thursday nights, when chef Mora-san gets his freshest fish flown in from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. Arrive at 9 p.m., order the omakase, and listen carefully as he describes each dish coming across the sushi bar. Make a special request for sea urchin and surf clam. 2014 10th St., Boulder, 303-444-2280
Twinkle lights, a warm summer breeze, and a glass of Pinot Grigio set the mood on the petite patio at Tables, a Park Hill sandwich shop turned dinner destination. Locals stroll over on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights for the ever-changing seasonal menu. Grab a two-top and snack on the succulent tuna tartare, an appetizer of crispy won tons, fresh ahi tuna, sesame seeds, and crisp greens. 2267 Kearney St., 303-388-0299
At Aix, an intimate Uptown restaurant with warm-hued walls, Euro art, and soft music, the sexy and stylish ambience only enhances the dining experience. Not that the duck cassoulet, wild mushroom soup with truffle oil, or herb-encrusted filet with golden raisins, potato cake, and bordelaise sauce need any help. 719 E. 17th Ave., 303-831-1296
We love entrées steeped with tea or spiced up with coffee. Of note: Parallel Seventeen’s jasmine-tea smoked duck confit and coffee-braised beef short rib.
We loathe restaurants that mislabel sea scallops as diver scallops, and charge accordingly. (Diver scallops, which are only in season November through mid April, are harvested by hand one by one.)
We love heavy cream (for coffee) that pours out as thick as melted ice cream—Solera’s got it, and Restaurant Kody used to.
Even Bon Appetit loves Taco Jalisco‘s bottomless chips and the complimentary homemade salsas that range from fresh pico de gallo to smooth tomatillo-avocado. Save room for the tacos al carbon. 4309 W. 38th Ave., 303-458-1437
Centennial’s Wingin’ It makes all 23 of its hot wing sauces—including spicy Cajun, garlic, Chernobyl, and, our favorite, mango barbecue—from scratch. The deal gets even better if you visit Monday or Tuesday for 39-cent wings. 8200 S. Quebec St., Centennial, 720-207-2435
Bistro Vendôme‘s Wine and Cheese Wednesdays make for a perfect ending to the work day. Sit at the bar and chat up bartender Jamil Tealer while sipping a trio of wines and snacking on crusty bread and three cheeses ($12). 1424 Larimer St., 303- 825-3232
At Brix you don’t have to worry about dirtying up the tablecloth when enjoying the clams with chorizo sausage. Here, the attitude is laid-back and the tables are draped in butcher paper. Order a glass of wine and get a pour equal to quarter of a bottle. 3000 E. Third Ave., 303-333-3355
Jack-n-Grill‘s signature corn in a cup—a mixture of hot corn kernels, tons of butter, Parmesan cheese, chile powder, and lemon juice—brings us back time and again. Go during the fall chile season and come home with a bushel of freshly roasted chiles. Beware the cash-only policy. 2524 N. Federal Blvd., 303-964-9544
Find one of Denver’s best dining deals at Luca d’Italia. Stop by Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday for two courses and two glasses of wine for $25. We start with the panzanella salad with tomatoes, basil, roasted peppers, capers, and smoked mozzarella, and then order the hearty pappardelle Bolognese with wild boar ragù and Parmesan. 711 Grant St., 303-832-6600
Fast food gets fancy at Biker Jim’s sausage cart on the 16th Street Mall. Chat with Jim as he grills your peppery reindeer, Southwestern-spiced bison, or jalapeño-Cheddar elk sausage to order. Grab a bag of chips and a drink for the dealio price of $5. Corner of 16th and Arapahoe streets Bang! is surely best known for its meatloaf—edged in bacon and drizzled with zesty ketchup, the entrée comes with creamy mashed potatoes and gravy and sautéed spinach. The $14 price tag hardly seems steep when the portion is hearty enough for two. 3472 32nd Ave., 303-455-1117
Tom’s Home Cookin’ does brisk lunch business dishing up Southern favorites. The menu changes daily, but plan on the likes of gooey mac-n-cheese, candied yams, barbecued ribs, and old-fashioned Coca-Cola cake. Get there around 11 a.m. for the best selection—and bring cash. 800 E. 26th Ave., 303-388-8035
Hit up Zolo Grill on a weekday at 5 p.m. to catch a coveted seat on the patio, order a Zolorita for only $3, and dine on fire-roasted chile rellenos stuffed with fresh Oaxaca cheese and drizzled with ancho chile mole. 2525 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, 303-449-0444
The ultimate hangover cure: Pete’s Kitchen‘s $5.75 pancake sandwich with scrambled eggs and chopped ham between two pancakes. For simpler eats, you can’t beat the thick vanilla milkshakes and crispy hash browns. 1962 E. Colfax Ave., 303-321-3139
Hit Swimclub 32‘s rush-hour menu on weekdays from 5 to 6 p.m., when the star of the menu, the miso-marinated black cod, costs only eight bucks. Sit at the bar and secretly scope out the artsy crowd by watching in the oversized mirror. 3628 W. 32nd Ave., 720-889-7946
Displaced cheeseheads will be right at home at Rocky Flats Lounge‘s Friday-night fish fries. Ranchers, cowboys, bikers, and plain old regular folk come for the huge planks of tender walleye ($15.95) and catfish ($9.95) that cross the bar in this Wisconsin-style roadhouse. Come at 5 p.m. to beat the crowds, and park it by the pool room near the Brett Favre shrine. 11229 Highway 93, 303-499-4242
It’s your quintessential pizza joint/dive bar with a Midwestern twist, but the Edgewater Inn delivers the goods—namely decent pies, cold schooners of beer (try a signature “red beer”), and a place to kick back and relax. Large pizzas top out at $14.95, and the rest of the menu runs from $3.95 sandwiches to an $8.50 calzone. Go during a Broncos game, but only if you’re a fan. 5302 W. 25th Ave., Edgewater, 303-237-3524
At Dazzle you find not only a swanky jazz club but also excellent (and reasonable) eats. The extensive happy hour menu offers culinary delights like tasty fried green tomatoes with roasted tomato sauce, refreshing grilled avocado with corn salsa, and goat cheese with crostinis—all for $5 each. Grab a seat at the bar, listen to the jazz wafting from the lounge, and chill. 930 Lincoln St., 303-839-5100
Mona’s gets it right: Reasonably priced gourmet eats morning, noon, and night. We’re fans of the huevos rancheros ($6.98), but it’s the dinner menu that scores most highly. Order high-end dishes such as the savory pork tenderloin with jalapeño sweet potatoes and bacon vinaigrette for $15 and leave stuffed. 2364 15th St., 303-455-4503
We love the frankfurters at Steve’s Snappin’ Dogs (especially the veggie dog), but what really sells us on the place is the excellent service. Owner Steve Ballas is almost always there making the rounds, talking to customers, and offering samples. 3525 E. Colfax Ave., 303-333-7627
We love green restaurants like The Kitchen and Mateo.
We loathe dried-out and uninspired pastries. We’ve tasted too many cardboard-like croissants, desiccated brownies, and overworked scones.
We love grass-fed, Colorado-raised beef.
Chef of the Year: Jennifer Jasinski
Rioja and Bistro Vendôme
By Carol W. Maybach
In 2001, 5280 named Executive Chef Jennifer Jasinski Denver’s Top Rising Chef, just a year after she’d landed behind the burners at Panzano, a glossy Italian restaurant inside the Hotel Monaco. She came to the job primed with experience—11 years working with Wolfgang Puck and jobs at the Rainbow Room in New York City, Postrio in San Francisco, Ledoyan in Paris, and the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles—and ready to strike out on her own.
At Panzano she turned out dishes such as the carpaccio di tonno with sushi-grade tuna, crispy artichoke chips, and tuna tartare. That appetizer’s balance of lemon, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, artichoke, and fish gave Denver diners a fresh take on Italian food—and insight into Jasinski’s innovative style. Menu-wide Jasinski parlayed straightforward ingredients and fresh flavors into contemporary dishes: Tapanade came blended with sun-dried tomatoes; pizza arrived with figs, Gorgonzola, prosciutto, arugula; and Tuscan white bean soup was garnished with goat cheese. In paying attention to the details of each dish, Jasinski turned the hotel restaurant into a destination and began winning awards, including the 2004 Colorado Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation.
Seven years after making her mark at Panzano she’s moved on—opening Rioja, her flagship Mediterranean restaurant on Larimer Square, in November 2004 and acquiring the cozy Bistro Vendôme across the street this past spring. At Rioja, Jasinski’s Mediterranean fare met instant success in its simple, rustic approach to cooking. “People thought they had pegged me at Panzano as being some kind of Italian cooking guru that I’m not,” she states modestly. “I’m very good at what I do, but I have picked up skills cooking all kinds of different styles of food in my life. I lived in France. I cooked in France. So I have a deep regard and understanding of the food of the Mediterranean.” And so, when Bistro Vendôme came up for sale Jasinski was driven to save what she considered one of the true gems on Larimer Square. “I wasn’t looking to do a second place,” she explains. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of someone else owning that beautiful little French bistro.”
It was a brilliant business decision. With the restaurant directly across the street from Rioja, Jasinski can run between both venues at a moment’s notice, allowing her to simultaneously keep an administrative eye on both. “I can walk over any time to check on the food and the customers, but I completely trust the person I hired there as chef to do a great job.” She’s referring to chef Matt Anderson, whom she brought on to give Bistro Vendôme its own identity. “I didn’t want my guests to feel they were just experiencing a retake of Rioja’s food.”
Jasinski doesn’t want to change the feeling of Bistro Vendôme; she simply wants to give it her personal touch. She does that by starting with a respect for the restaurant’s previous executive chef, Eric Roeder. “I loved Eric’s food. I just want to bring in more of the flavors I remember from when I was living in France,” she explains. “I believe bistro fare should be straightforward, and it should carry a lower price point. It should be clean, simple, and well thought-out.” She points to the steak tartare as the item on the current menu that best reflects her philosophy. “Under Eric, the tartare had some Asian ingredients like soy. I go back to the really old, traditional recipes, and replace those ingredients with things that are really French. Now, I think we have the best steak tartare in town.”
Her enthusiasm doesn’t waiver a bit when she switches to talking about Rioja. “People ask me what they should eat at Rioja and it’s so hard for me to answer that question, because it’s like choosing between my children: I love to make everything. Pasta, though, is really my signature dish at Rioja, because I make it with my own hands,” she says.
The tactile aspects of cooking directly affect Jasinski’s feeling about cooking trends. “It seems to me there are two big movements in this country right now,” she says. “There are people doing science, and there are people who focus on what they do with their hands. I’m a hand person—I like the resurgence in all the handmade salami and sausages instead of doing things with foams and chemicals. At Rioja, we do everything we can in-house.”
Since arriving in Denver seven years ago, Jasinski has shot to the top of the food chain. Her restaurants on Larimer Square—once somewhat of a culinary wasteland—are packed, her food has been written up in Food & Wine, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and she’s cooked alongside esteemed local chefs Frank Bonanno and Matt Selby at the James Beard House. “Chef Jen” has carved out a niche with her cheerful demeanor and food that is bright and innovative, and above all approachable. And in a city that’s long favored hearty steak, Jasinski has proven—not once or twice but thrice—that she’s got the talent to tempt, educate, and delight Denver diners.
We love chefs who take pride in crafting unique vegetarian dishes. We especially adore Max MacKissock’s outstanding winter squash lasagna at Vita, and Adam Mali’s roasted butternut squash and goat-cheese agnolotti at Montecito.
We loathe the oh-so-predictable dessert menu trifecta: bread pudding, tiramisù, and crème brûlée.
We love junk food with a fine-dining execution—cotton candy spun on site, creamy puddings, housemade doughnuts.