I like loud restaurants. I also like quiet restaurants, and fancy restaurants, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants—mostly, I just enjoy dining out in all its various incarnations. But if given the choice, I’ll often pick noisy, lively joints over quieter, stuffier alternatives. For me, the former showcase the vibrancy of city living; they are like the parties I wish I could pull off at home, only with better drinks and better food in a cooler space.
I was reminded of my predilection during a recent dinner at Work & Class, the Ballpark restaurant built inside of steel shipping containers. The place was packed (as Work & Class almost always is in the evening), and the crowd was young and hip and having fun, and it was so loud, in fact, that at one point I told my dining companion I was going to be hoarse the next day. Sometime during that intoxicating evening, I realized the Denver restaurant scene had reached a tipping point: Newish spots such as Acorn at the Source, the Plimoth near City Park, and Work & Class are heralding a fresh era of informal dining in the Mile High City. “The restaurant culture is in flux, and it’s a change that suits the Denver lifestyle,” says 5280 food editor Amanda M. Faison. “The new breed of restaurants is more casual than in the past, but don’t mistake that for casual food. Dishes are still composed with fine-dining techniques and upscale ingredients, but the prices are lower, the music is louder, and the service is more dressed-down—all of which makes for an experience that’s more accessible.”
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As Faison notes in her introduction to this year’s “25 Best Restaurants,” much of the buzz in and around foodie circles of late has been on the subject of the alleged demise of fine dining. That talk is premature at best, totally overblown at worst. On the Front Range alone, icons such as Frasca Food and Wine and Mizuna are consistently booked and continue to deliver impeccable dining experiences. In New York, there’s Le Bernardin; in New Orleans, there’s Commander’s Palace; in Napa Valley, there’s the French Laundry. I’ll bet you a bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon those places aren’t going out of business anytime soon. But, as Faison says, things are changing: Bon Appétit restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton has noted that the national restaurant scene is skewing more casual than it has in the past, and as Amelia Lester wrote in the New Yorker recently, “It feels just right for now to serve a serious three-course meal, at relatively gentle prices…without a tablecloth.” That means fewer “jackets-required” spots, fewer $300 dinners, and more exposed tabletops. I’ll raise a glass to that.