Frasca Food and Wine (last year 1)
If there’s any question about Frasca Food and Wine’s attention to excellence, look to the restaurant’s long list of accolades. There are write-ups in Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, and the Wall Street Journal, and not one, but two highly coveted James Beard Foundation Awards: one from 2008 for Best Chef: Southwest; the other from earlier this year for Outstanding Wine Program. These nods confirm what Colorado diners have known for years: Frasca is not only the best restaurant in the metro area—it’s one of the nation’s very best. Service, which is driven by co-owner and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey, is graceful, confident, and goes virtually unnoticed until you’re released into the night feeling coddled and indulged. The weighty wine list is worthy of study, but turn choices over to Stuckey, Matthew Mather, and Carlin Karr, Frasca’s team of decorated wine experts, and you’ll never be disappointed. The Italian menu, executed by chef and co-owner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, fulfills the universal human need for comfort—house-made pappardelle tangles with zucchini ribbons in a soul-stirring scallop sauce—in a precise, almost intellectual manner. Perhaps the best part of Frasca is that a visit doesn’t have to be a once-a-year celebration. Sit at the bar and experience the same food and service without committing to a table several weeks out. Or, make a reservation for the Monday tasting dinners, at which you’ll nab a four-course, prix-fixe menu for $50 a person. 1738 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-6966,

ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro (last year 3)
Mention ChoLon to a group of friends and someone will instantly reference the soup dumplings. Intended or not, chef Lon Symensma has staked his reputation—and ChoLon’s—on those beautifully wrapped pockets of sweet onion soup and Gruyère cheese. But to only know ChoLon by the dumplings would be an oversight. The pork belly buns are a fully evolved street snack, with artistic dollops of hoisin and unctuous slabs of pork belly slathered with sesame-honey glaze. The steamed buns themselves are doughy, chewy—perfect. Likewise, the Singapore chicken rice will entice you with shreds of poached chicken, tangles of cooling cucumber steeped in the aroma of coconuty-citrusy pandan leaves, and a bowl of fiery sambal for mixing in. Simplicity is not in Symensma’s vocabulary as he applies layer after layer of flavor and technique to balance sweet and savory, hot and cool, Old World and New—to enchanting effect. 1555 Blake St., 303-353-5223,

Sushi Den (last year 2)
When owner Toshi Kizaki moved Izakaya Den from across Pearl Street to the space next door to Sushi Den, both restaurants underwent substantial change. The kitchens are now combined (and expanded), and though the restaurants function as separate entities, there are windows and doors that connect the two. And yet, Sushi Den, with its ever-fresh selection of seafood, is unwavering and impressive. Our recommendation to avoid the inevitable wait: Leave your name at Sushi Den’s hostess stand and head to Ten Qoo, Izakaya Den’s spectacular upstairs bar and cocktail lounge. On warm evenings, the retractable roof is open to the elements (in fact, “Ten Qoo” means “open sky” in Japanese), and the buzz of the modern, highly designed space is palpable. When your table opens at Sushi Den, pay the tab and head one door down for a feast of jewel-like nigiri and sashimi. Bonus: Don’t want to wait? Go for lunch, when the same impeccable fish grace the menu. 1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826,

Mizuna (last year 6)
Eleven years after Frank Bonanno opened Mizuna, some diners might wonder why the lobster macaroni and cheese remains on the menu. After all, Mizuna is known for its innovation. But this was Bonanno’s first signature dish in his first restaurant, and it propelled him onto the Denver scene—and even now, the trifecta of briny lobster, smooth mascarpone, and tender pasta is superb. Today, many years and many restaurants later, the starter can be used as a metaphor for Bonanno’s culinary leanings. The dish signifies decadence, refinement, balance, and ultimately, steadiness—all characteristics present in Bonanno’s ever-expanding empire. And so the lobster macaroni and cheese lives on, alongside more ambitious dishes such as the octopus à la plancha, with its impossibly tender octopus and smoky tomato broth, and an ethereal veal tenderloin draped over a complex onion sauce. Elegant service and a wine-by-the-glass program that surpasses others in terms of interest, breadth, and price will round out the near-perfect evening. 225 E. Seventh Ave., 303-832-4778,

Bittersweet (last year 11) 
A year ago, chef Olav Peterson seemed to suffer from ingredient overload; at times his stunning presentations teetered on flavor imbalance from too many elements. This year, however, Peterson has reverted back to the simplicity that has always been his strength. Dishes such as the duck breast arrive crowned with coins of watermelon radish (sliced just thickly enough to impart delicate crunch) and cherries, which are halved and served in a sauce thickened with the meat’s jus. In a halibut dish, the fish’s delicate sweetness remains the focal point even against plush Meyer lemon gnocchi, brown butter, and a burst of red grapes. Peterson is justifiably proud of where Bittersweet sits today, two and a half years into its run. He credits his staff—many of whom have joined since January—for demanding excellence. One of those new additions is pastry chef Kris Padalino, whose exacting talent (order the terrariumlike dessert Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) has elevated a dessert program that was already one of the best in the city. 500 E. Alameda Ave., 303-942-0320,

Potager (last year 19)
Chef-owner Teri Rippeto subscribes to the ideal that food is only as good as the ingredients themselves. It’s such a basic premise, and yet when Rippeto opened Potager in 1997, she was considered a pioneer in the Denver dining scene. Depending on the season, you will taste the sunniest of summer tomatoes or the earthiest of winter turnips in Rippeto’s dishes. There’s much to be said about leaving an ingredient alone and allowing its natural flavors to bloom, but there have been times in the past when Rippeto had too light a hand. Last year, her attention seemed focused on the top half of the menu. Starters were, without exception, seasoned beautifully and carefully conceived. The entrées, however, did not receive the same consideration. That oversight has since been corrected—and beautifully so. Portions are generous and curated but not overly meticulous. Seasoning is spot-on. Free-flowing service from one of the city’s best teams follows suit. And there’s something about the classically urban space that never ceases to pull you in and make you feel like you’re in the know. 1109 Ogden St., 303-832-5788,

Fruition Restaurant (last year 5) 
When Alex Seidel hired Stephanie Caraway, one of Food & Wine’s 2010 sommeliers of the year, he was making a statement. Fruition’s beverage program has never been its strength: The wine list accomplishes what it needs to but without aplomb—which is troublesome for a restaurant that regularly receives national attention. (For that matter, there’s little cocktail fluency either, which is a black mark in today’s drink-crazed culture.) The expectation is that Caraway will infuse the tiny space with a bottle selection worthy of Seidel’s thoughtful cooking. His best dishes are those that reflect his working farm and dairy in Larkspur. Less successful are those that don’t hew to Seidel’s typical subtlety, such as a corn dog–inspired, sausage-stuffed squash blossom. After a trying time for Seidel—he parted ways with co-owner Paul Attardi in December—the addition of Caraway signifies not only a new beginning but also a turning point. This partnership will also be on display at Seidel’s forthcoming restaurant at Union Station. 1313 E. Sixth Ave., 303-831-1962,

8 Luca D’Italia (last year 4)
The experience of dining at Luca plays out in chef-owner Frank Bonanno’s elegant Italian dishes, which contain just enough rusticity to not feel overstated. For several years, the kitchen was entrusted to chef de cuisine Hunter Pritchett, who ably melded his talent with Bonanno’s vision. When Pritchett left in January to take a job in Los Angeles, pasta chef Eric Cimino replaced him. Luca’s pastas remain as light and flawless as ever, but other areas of the menu need more precision: Some items are too salty; others could benefit from a bit more seasoning. A recent Arctic char dish, however, displayed Cimino’s sense of balance. The crispy-skinned fish arrived with beautifully cooked artichokes, cannellini and fava beans, and summer squash. One last note: The restrooms of a restaurant such as Luca need to be as expertly executed as the rest of the experience. An overhaul is long overdue. 711 Grant St., 303-832-6600,

Fuel Café (last year 20)
When Bob Blair opened Fuel Café in the heart of the undiscovered TAXI development in late 2007, he did so with a “build it and they will come” mantra. As the restaurant nears its sixth birthday, Fuel has legions of fans who often have to wait for tables. Blair and his kitchen team, executive chef Nate Hamel and pastry chef Justin Hofmann, have turned this once best-kept secret of a restaurant into a dining staple. Dishes such as labor-intensive octopus salami show the crew’s reach, while Fuel’s sweet spot is firmly rooted in the fresh flavors of the season: A butter leaf salad with paper-thin radishes and crispy shallots sounds basic, but nubs of goat cheese—rolled in charred leek ash the color of midnight and plated on sweet pea purée—make the dish artful, exciting, and balanced. Likewise, the chicken frites lighten the traditional French staple (steak and fries) to fit the warm weather. A year ago, Fuel faltered, and dishes were inconsistent from one to the next. Today, however, the restaurant is turning out one exquisite dish after another. 3455 Ringsby Court, #105, 303-296-4642,

10 Old Major (new to the list)
Luckily for Denver diners, the seafood charcuterie that once graced the menu at Wild Catch lives on at Old Major, chef-owner Justin Brunson’s new venture. This might seem a strange dish to call out on a menu that leans on pork (indeed, Brunson named the restaurant after the pig in Animal Farm), but the assortment of shrimp, mussels, and whitefish demonstrates Brunson’s deft hand with more delicate ingredients. Order that and the Nose-to-Tail (an all-pork dish featuring an array of house-butchered cuts, such as pig ears, confit ribs, pork loin, belly, and ham) to sample the breadth of the menu. The in-the-now vibe is as much a reason to visit Old Major as the food—especially the bar, which is separate from the dining room. Designed to look like an urban barn (with deep red walls, high, joisted ceilings, and tractor filters as light fixtures), the highlight of the restaurant remains the gleaming $250,000 kitchen. 3316 Tejon St., 720-420-0622,

11 Oak at Fourteenth (last year 21)
How do you take an oddly shaped, asymmetrical space and make it feel generous and inviting? You embrace Oak at Fourteenth’s technique of contrasting elegant grays with planks of polished oak. You line the back wall with a long bar top that invites you to sip a drink or settle in for a meal. And, most important, you allow the floor-to-ceiling windows to flood the dining room with light. The kitchen does its job by sending out refined dishes touched with oak-wood smoke, which imparts the best of comfort food in each bite. Take chef Steven Redzikowski’s wood oven–roasted beef bones, slick with marrow jam and balanced with tangy anchovy chimichurri and a bright herb salad. Or the charred-scallion mustard sauce that nudges a bacon-wrapped pork loin into the fine-dining category. This is food that’s not meant to be serious (crispy fried pickles with green goddess aïoli), and yet the dishes are so perfectly conceived that they become significant. Bonus: Don’t miss Acorn, Oak at Fourteenth’s Denver offshoot, which recently opened at the Source. 1400 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-444-3622,

12 The Populist (new to the list)
The Populist is so effortlessly cool that it could have its own soundtrack. The first cut would be the ragged guitar riffs of “Pots and Pans” by indie rock band the Kills. The smoky lyrics are perfectly attuned for sidling up to the bar and ordering a cocktail—make that a variation on a classic, such as an Old Fashioned with Scotch instead of rye whiskey. From there (cue Beck) settle into one of the community tables and order a collection of chef Jonathan Power’s dishes to share. Glasses clink as the earthy beet agnolotti arrives with a paintbrush swatch of magenta stretched across the stark white plate. A roasted carrot dish follows suit with tangy cilantro-carrottop pesto and a tile of pepita brickle that you’ll fight over. Every dinner at the Populist unfolds in the same easy way: to the tune of the neighborhood vibe (song: “Ragtime” by Neko Case) that pulls in the artsy RiNo crowd. The only moments of discord come at the end of the meal—desserts aren’t as strong as Power’s savory dishes. The check more than makes up for it, though: The Populist’s prices are so reasonable, you’ll likely think there’s some mistake. 3163 Larimer St., 720-432-3163,

13 Beast & Bottle (new to the list)
In January, when Paul and Aileen Reilly announced they were opening Beast + Bottle in Uptown, they immediately declared that the restaurant would not be Encore reincarnated. Instead, the siblings intended to elevate the late-eatery’s best elements. Mission accomplished. Given the Reillys’ penchant for brunch, it’s no surprise that the menu is rife with exalted staples: The burger touts lamb belly; a pork shoulder tostada with charred tomatillos and queso panela replaces huevos rancheros; and the hotcake shows up with dried cherries, pistachios, and lemon curd. But to simply view B+B as a midday spot is to ignore the restaurant’s best asset: dinner. Squeeze into the space, and find it jammed with neighbors sipping wine and fawning over dishes from the tight menu. A dozen or so small plates round out the options—including a don’t-miss vegetable (pea, corn, etc.) soufflé that gracefully demonstrates the Reillys’ innovation and finesse. 719 E. 17th Ave., 303-623-3223,

14 Cafe Aion (last year 8)
Walk inside Boulder’s Cafe Aion, and you want to stay a while. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, request a spot near the bank of windows or pull up a seat at the bar and relax into the rhythms of chef Dakota Soifer’s small plates menu. This is food that’s designed for sharing, and Spanish influences are woven through the dishes and their presentations on earthenware platters. Fried cauliflower daubed with toasted cumin, saffron yogurt, and a squeeze of lemon; grilled sardines with lentils, snap peas, and radishes; braised pork shoulder with wheat berries and orange gremolata—the rustic flavors coax you into a satisfied, tranquil state. Even so, there is such a thing as pacing that’s too relaxed. For a restaurant of this caliber, cocktails should arrive promptly and servers shouldn’t disappear. 1235 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder, 303-993-8131,

15 Twelve Restaurant (last year 15)
Most restaurants change their menus with some regularity: Some switch out dishes daily or weekly to reflect prime ingredients; others overhaul the entire lineup every month, which is the philosophy to which Twelve’s chef-owner Jeff Osaka subscribes. The caveat, of course, is that if you fall in love with a dish—such as July’s grilled cauliflower “steak” with pearl pasta and green curry and coconut milk—it’s gone within a matter of weeks. This mantra of constant reinvention strips any tedium or boredom from Osaka’s kitchen and keeps Twelve’s dishes relevant and on-trend. The trade-off is that sometimes there’s not enough time between menu changes to perfect every dish. A recent example is the needlessly overwrought duck and goat cheese rillettes starter that resulted in disappointing, muted flavors. One element that is flawless: A dining room that provides a graceful and unencumbered experience. 2233 Larimer St., 303-293-0287,

16 Colt & Gray (last year 9)
Service—which can be spotty at so many Denver restaurants—is never an issue at Colt & Gray. Barman Kevin Burke turns out some of the city’s most carefully crafted cocktails, and a seasoned and personable waitstaff attends to the dining room. The front-of-the-house star is headwaiter and sommelier Adam Condit, who carefully listens to preferences, offers suggestions, and gently guides you to the best possible experience. But even with Condit’s watchful eye in the dining room, the dishes coming from chef-owner Nelson Perkins’ kitchen just don’t measure up as they have in the past. Of late, each dish seems to offer both a high point and a flaw: the Burrata, bedecked by stunning heirloom tomatoes, needed salt; the frisée’s crispy poached egg was oozy perfection over woefully overdressed greens; the roasted corn agnolotti sung of cozy, cold-weather food on a sizzling August evening. Perkins’ other projects—a bar named Ste. Ellie and a salumeria called Viande Colorado Charcuterie—might make one wonder whether Colt & Gray is getting the attention it needs. With a bit of TLC, however, we’re sure the restaurant will bounce back to its old—and nearly perfect—self. 1553 Platte St., 303-477-1447,

17 Table 6 (last year 13)
Four years ago, 5280 published this ranked listing of the area’s best restaurants for the first time. The cover of that issue featured a kitchen scene from Table 6; at the center of that image stood sous chef Carrie Shores rolling pasta dough. Just recently, Shores was promoted to executive chef when Scott Parker left to open Breckenridge-Wynkoop’s Session Kitchen in Platt Park, and although no transition is easy, it was time for a change. Over the years, the clarity of Parker’s crisp, if sometimes overly playful, menus had waned, leaving some dishes—like an underwhelming lamb collar—to adversely affect the overall experience. Shores’ strength comes from having a keen understanding of Table 6’s core values: This is a restaurant that attracts both neighbors and destination diners, but it never takes itself too seriously. Shores, coupled with the aptitude of ever-effusive owner and sommelier Aaron Forman, will surely guide the restaurant to a good place. 609 Corona St., 303-831-8800,

18 Rioja (19 in 2011) 
Chef Jennifer Jasinski has been transforming the Denver restaurant scene since she arrived in 2000 to man the burners at Panzano. Some 13 years later, not only does the Wolfgang Puck disciple co-own Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, and Euclid Hall with business partner Beth Gruitch, but she was also the first-ever Denver chef to win the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southwest and competed on this season’s Bravo Top Chef Masters. So why, you might ask, does Rioja land at 18 on this list? Jasinski is a fabulously talented chef whose powerful cuisine strikes feminine notes with judicious use of bright, sunny citrus and soft herbal notes. Rioja’s service—managed by Gruitch—is perceptive, generous, and on-point. The big problems are the dated decor and misguided cocktail program, both of which are glaring in light of the skill and talent on display at Rioja. A dining room facelift and the expulsion of overly sweet drinks served in wine glasses with long straws would go a long way toward showcasing Rioja’s considerable strengths. 1431 Larimer St.,

19 Duo Restaurant (last year 22)
Skipping over Duo’s vegetarian offerings is nothing short of a missed opportunity. This is, in fact, precisely what the restaurant touts: farm-fresh, as local as possible, and in season. If you can’t detect clean summery flavors or homey autumnal notes in the food you’re eating, then the kitchen hasn’t done its job. A recent meal revealed that executive chef Tyler Skrivanek (who took over from John Broening in February) revels in Duo’s mission. Skrivanek’s been cooking at Duo for seven years, and he’s clearly acquired Broening’s light touch and allegiance to quality. This steadiness transfers beyond vegetables to Duo’s meat and fish dishes—and especially to the merguez lamb meatballs, in which delicate flavorings, local white bean salad, and charred green onion pistou keep the dish light. Eight years after opening, Duo still admirably serves the Highland neighborhood that grew up around it. 2413 W. 32nd Ave., 303-477-4141,

 20 Il Posto (last year 12)
There are few restaurants that embrace the four seasons as heartily as Il Posto. But it’s not only the food at this Italian restaurant; it’s also the space that morphs right along with the changes in the weather. On warm evenings, the garage doors that face 17th Avenue come up for a feeling that is positively alfresco. In the winter, the nearly all-white space takes on a snug, come-in-from-the-cold vibe in which tables pack together, the homey scent of slow-braised meats perfumes the air, and wine glasses cradle Italian reds. To keep current and inspired, Il Posto’s menu changes constantly. Unfortunately, the same swings can also be found in seasoning—sometimes there’s too much, sometimes there’s not enough. The same goes for the service. With a chef-owner as driven as Andrea Frizzi, there’s no excuse for dishes that leave the kitchen lacking his telltale precision. Likewise, Frizzi embodies effusive Italian hospitality, and it’s a shame when his servers don’t always share the same enthusiasm. 2011 E. 17th Ave., 303-394-0100,

21 TAG Raw Bar (last year 14) 
If there’s a restaurant on this list that truly pulses with urban energy, it’s TAG Raw Bar—but only if you sit in the main (original) dining space. There, tangerine orange barstools line the gleaming white counter and wooden tables. Just feet away in the adjacent space, however, the vibrant colors darken and feel detached. The same goes for the service. When you’re front and center on a barstool, the bartender and chefs (who may also be your servers) are attentive and chatty. When you’re tucked to the side, the service can be sluggish and distracted. But no matter where you sit, the food is bright, fresh, and innovative in a way that few chefs manage as well as Troy Guard. There’s kangaroo loin tartare with peach mustard and rice crackers, and kampachi sashimi marinated in orange soda and plated with citrus. Guard has always pushed the boundaries of Asian cuisine; now, if only he could reconcile the dividing lines inside Raw Bar’s tiny space. 1423 Larimer St., Suite #010, 303-996-2685,

22 Linger (last year 10)
When Linger exploded onto the scene in 2011, it was the “it” restaurant: Linger had an in-the-now vibe, a gorgeous crowd, and an exhilarating global menu. Two-plus years on, OpenTable suggests that Justin Cucci’s restaurant is as busy as ever, but go on the early end of the evening, and you’ll find the dining room and bar half-full. This is both a blessing and a curse: Vacant tables mean efficient, attentive service and no wait for cocktails. It also means the vast space can feel a little too empty, almost devoid of the buzz that first defined it. The menus, however, pull the experience back together—no matter what time of the day you’re there. Fewer new items rotate through the kitchen (though brunch has been added), but the available dishes are virtually seamless. The exception: Food served in the bar, and especially during happy hour, doesn’t offer the same degree of finesse. Those sloppy dishes, sadly, sell the otherwise steadfast restaurant short. 2030 W. 30th Ave., 303-993-3120,

23 Trillium (last year 16)
If Trillium, Ryan Leinonen’s Scandinavian-influenced American bistro, feels like part of a passing fad, consider this: Although bold-name restaurants such as René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen brought Nordic cuisine into the dining lexicon in a serious way of late, Leinonen is less about trends and more about exploring his own personal roots. He grew up in Michigan, learned to cook under his Finnish grandmother, and later married a Swede. In other words, Leinonen’s cooking is a unique representation of his background. His food bears the clean and bold Nordic stamp, just as it comforts diners in a traditional American fashion. Scandinavian ingredients such as rye, cloudberries, fresh dill, and horseradish are scattered about the menu, but they mingle with standbys such as a grilled pork chop, foie gras, pickled shrimp, and New York strip. Taken as a whole, Leinonen’s dishes offer a sense of discovery that is both worldly and grounded. 2134 Larimer St., 303-379-9759,

24 Euclid Hall (new to the list)
There’s something easy—a sense that you can’t go wrong—at Euclid Hall. You settle into a booth, unfold the paper menu, and study the extensive beer list. The vast selection is geared toward the seasoned drinker (ask about the rotating taps), and enthusiasts appreciate that Euclid isn’t focused solely on Colorado brews. Make a choice, then work backward and pair your beer with chef-owner Jennifer Jasinski and chef de cuisine Jorel Pierce’s polished pub fare. A perfect combination might include a sampler platter of house-cranked sausages and an order of the tangy pickled vegetables, but there’s also the ever-popular roasted cauliflower salad with shishito peppers; the wild mushroom poutine (gravy, fries, and cheese curds); and the knockout brat burger served on a salty, chewy pretzel bun. This is not light eating, but what Euclid offers in terms of a jovial, communal vibe and nuanced dishes goes a long way in offsetting the calorie bonanza. 1317 14th St., 303-595-4255,

25 Spuntino (new to the list)
When owners John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom temporarily closed Spuntino several months ago for a remodel, they banished the dessert case to the back. This was not because Lozada-Hissom (a four-time James Beard Foundation–nominated pastry chef) had a change of heart, but instead because so many diners couldn’t see the restaurant that existed beyond the gelato and sweets selections. That meant a terrific neighborhood bistro was getting lost in the shuffle. Now, with a newfangled interior of rustic wood, elegant wallpaper, and a bar that runs the length of the narrow space, Spuntino’s seasonal cuisine sits front and center. The result has been a steady increase in dinner business—momentum bolstered by a new beverage program. Executive chef Nick Ames’ menus come across as fresh, inspired (the risotto made with quinoa and farro—called “quinotto”­—stirred with fresh herbs, and topped with a shaved root salad is just one example), and approachable. Spuntino also offers a tremendous value with entrées ringing in at no more than $18. When the restaurant figures out a more capable hood system, there will be few places that can match its gathering force. 2639 W. 32nd Ave.,