What a difference a year makes. It’s just a few weeks shy of my third anniversary as 5280’s food editor, and I’ve eaten thousands of Colorado meals since taking on the role. Thousands! Over the past year alone, I’ve counted more than 600 restaurant meals, many of which were used to select the 25 spots that appear in the magazine’s October cover story, “25 Best Restaurants.” It’s never been more difficult to make those choices.

The parameters of my decision-making process remain the same (see below) and are based on my culinary education, experience cooking and serving in restaurants, and 15-plus years in digital and print food media. And as always, the list is a momentary snapshot of what’s happening in our dining scene: These are the restaurants I’m most confident about and proud to send people to right now.

Here’s a recap of my methodology:

  • Restaurants have to be open by May 15 to be considered for the list, which is finalized in early August and published in the October issue.
  • This year, there were 75 restaurants under consideration, compiled from new openings, past winners, and places that consistently do a wonderful job.
  • Any Front Range restaurant is eligible, which means that the excellent meals I’ve had in farther-flung areas of Colorado are covered in other ways.
  • There is no connection between ad/sales/marketing and editorial content at 5280. In fact, I don’t know which Colorado businesses have purchased ads until each issue is laid out, fact-checked, and days away from the printer; my stories are due months earlier.
  • I dine anonymously and pay for everything I consume. If my table is sent any freebies, I add the relevant amount to the tip and then tip on the overall total.
  • If I am recognized and the service transforms from standard to spectacular, I send a colleague back to the restaurant without me to report on how they are treated.
  • After each meal, I take notes about the experience so I won’t forget any details.
  • I rank each dining experience on food/drink, service, and atmosphere, assigning each aspect a score on a 10-point scale.
5280 food editor Denise Mickelsen. Photo by Drew Carlson

This year, I also thought a lot about the recent zeitgeist regarding inclusion—that is, the desire to welcome, and celebrate, new voices and faces at the proverbial table. But with only 25 seats at said table and “best” as the bar for judgment, I struggled with just how wide to expand my definition of what that means. Should I keep old favorites on the list when new restaurants—or established places exhibiting new visions—are pushing the Front Range dining scene forward? Do I include, say, Pony Up, whose French dips and craft cocktails I adore, or Comal Heritage Food Incubator, which serves only lunch on weekdays but is making an impact on our community by training local immigrant women to run their own food businesses? Do I kick fine-dining bastions off the list because they cater to the wealthiest among us, even if I experienced transcendent moments of hospitality and culinary execution in their care? In the end, I did my best to broaden the list’s scope and give fresh life to it.

And so, here it is! I focused and organized this year’s list around the aspect of each restaurant that I’m most obsessed with: the food, the drinks, the vibe, the mission, or the culinary mashups—dare I say fusion?—that are defining some of the most creative and cravable plates in Denver, Boulder, and Aurora. These are the restaurants where I believe you’ll find the most rewarding meals this year, but I hope you’ll let me know about your experiences—and your opinions about the list—either way. And, finally, please shoot me a note if you know of a restaurant I should consider for 2020. You can reach me at dining@5280.com, on Instagram, or Facebook.