There has been a lot of conversation recently about the death of fine dining. And although that notion may have been exaggerated, we do agree with Bon Appétit restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton’s assertion that the national restaurant landscape is shifting toward a more casual environment. The same is true in the Denver-Boulder area. That’s not to say burger joints and pancake houses are usurping $300 dinners (see number one on our list). The transition is more genteel: More informal eateries are taking notes from white-tablecloth restaurants to offer service attuned to diners’ needs, carefully procured ingredients, and dishes that suggest fine dining without the sky-high prices or grandiosity. Look around you, Denver, and you’ll see a restaurant scene going through a thrilling evolution.

1 Frasca Food and Wine  (last year 1)
Ten years ago, Frasca Food and Wine opened its doors in Boulder and changed the Colorado dining scene forever. Co-owners executive chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey had the pedigree: tenure at Michelin-starred restaurants, experience at the French Laundry, and a nod (Stuckey) from the James Beard Foundation. But translating that proficiency into a graceful, unwavering, and wholly remarkable dining experience is another skill entirely. It’s that degree of talent and execution (without attitude, mind you) that keeps Frasca at the top of this list, year after year. The restaurant, and its focus on the cuisine of Friuli, Italy, always has been, and still is, a destination worthy of pulling in diners from around the country. A decade in, Frasca has never been better. 1738 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-6966,

2 Acorn (new to the list)
If you were to define a restaurant by its personality, Acorn would be the rowdy hipster with a grounded sensibility. The year-old eatery defies the rules in every way: Executive chef and co-owner Steven Redzikowski’s food is more fine dining than it is casual, and yet his dishes are delivered by jeans-clad servers against a backdrop of graffiti-covered walls. Blue-collar details such as chicharrónes (house-made, of course) accompany sophisticated ingredients like Ibérico ham. Fried pickles share menu space with house-made squid ink tagliarini. This mashup of informal and refined can be difficult to execute, but Acorn does it flawlessly, every day. We’re not the only ones noticing: In August, Bon Appétit named the year-old RiNo resident one of the 50 best new restaurants in the country. 3350 Brighton Blvd., 720-542-3721,

3 Cholon (last year 2)
To experience ChoLon is to see—and taste—a kitchen in constant motion. Executive chef and co-owner Lon Symensma’s flavors stay true to Southeast Asia’s quintessential hot, sour, salty, sweet, and herbaceous notes, but he continuously pushes the cuisine in new and wildly creative directions. Take a recent dish of grilled calamari, avocado, heirloom tomatoes, and lemongrass dressing. The simple combination hardly sounds like ChoLon—until you take a bite and the flavors and textures come together to reflect the region. This is classic Symensma: Every thought-out ingredient not only meshes with the next, but it’s also part of a modern story of a far-away place. At ChoLon, you’re guaranteed a dining experience that is surprising and delightful—and ever-evolving. 1555 Blake St., 303-353-5223,

4 Sushi Den (last year 3)
On Christmas Eve of this year, Sushi Den will celebrate 30 years in business. There have been a couple of locations and multiple renovations (plus the moving of sister restaurant Izakaya Den next door), but Toshi Kizaki has spent the last three decades honing the Platt Park icon into what it is today: a destination sushi spot. What most impresses us—in addition to the pristine seafood, of course—is that the Den can be successfully experienced in a variety of ways. You can dine with a group and order gargantuan platters of sashimi and nigiri; you can drop by solo for a bowl of duck udon at lunch; or you and a date can request seats at the sushi bar. Whenever possible, however, choose the latter option and hand the reins over to the chef behind the counter. Doing so virtually ensures you’ll discover the freshest, most unique selections of the night, and you’ll likely walk away having tried something entirely new. Wherever you sit, don’t miss the list of high-end sakes. 1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826,

5 Mizuna (last year 4)
There’s a reason Mizuna has become a Denver staple: Over the 13 years since the restaurant opened on Seventh Avenue, executive chef–owner Frank Bonanno and company have consistently tweaked and updated the French-inspired menu without ever compromising the near-flawless execution. On a late-summer visit, the smoky, rich roasted corn agnolotti appetizer was a standout, as were Mizuna’s surprisingly creative and refreshing cocktails. Despite its cumbersome name, the Prudence & Hammersmith—a sublime concoction consisting of London Dry Gin, watercress, ginger, and lime—was one of the more imaginative tipples we’ve ever sipped. Whereas many restaurants begin to feel stale after an extended run, Mizuna continues to function at 100 percent. 225 E. Seventh Ave., 303-832-4778,

6 Fruition Restaurant (last year 7)
It’s a busy time for chef Alex Seidel, whose attention is split between Fruition Restaurant and his newly opened Mercantile Dining & Provision in Union Station. (Not to mention his farm and dairy in Larkspur.) And yet Fruition, Seidel’s seven-year-old flagship, has never felt more focused. It could be that Seidel—with the help of a solid team, including the recently returned Aaron Foster as general manager—finally has the bandwidth to do what he does best: cook. We also suspect he is a master juggler of time, tasks, and places. Whatever it is, Fruition is spectacular in its current state. 1313 E. Sixth Ave., 303-831-1962,

7 The Plimoth (new to the list)
If there’s a restaurant on this list that embodies the dining scene’s changing landscape, it’s the Plimoth. Everything about this small eatery just north of City Park is thoughtful and matchless: the finessed service; the gorgeous, dark green wallpaper; the French-nuanced dishes; the wonderfully intimate space. But dishes top out at $20, much less than Denver’s higher-end spots. In less than a year, executive chef and owner Peter Ryan’s humble approach to running the 59-seat neighborhood restaurant has garnered many fans. Don’t forget to make reservations. 2335 e. 28th Ave., 303-297-1215,

8 Basta (new to the list)
When Basta in Boulder stripped “pizzeria” from its name two years ago, executive chef and owner Kelly Whitaker did not remove pizza from the restaurant’s offerings. Indeed, seven pies still anchor the menu and have since spawned Cart-Driver, a Denver outpost. What the slight reconcept did do was free up Whitaker to chase his original vision. Basta, which means “enough” in Italian, employs meticulous ingredients to create simple, seasonally rich cuisine. Refined but rustic dishes such as duck rillettes or a whole Colorado bass served on a thick wooden cutting board bear the mark of Whitaker’s training in Italy and Los Angeles—and they sing in a minimalist dining room warmed by the hearth of a wood-fired oven. 3601 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, 303-997-8775,

9 Colt & Gray (last year 16)
Last year, when Colt & Gray was in the midst of both a revamp and the opening of Ste. Ellie, its downstairs cocktail lounge, the restaurant sometimes felt off. Today, after those changes, Colt & Gray is the best it has ever been. The polished dining room feels less constrained than before, and executive chef and owner Nelson Perkins’ food is robust with flavor and technique. With the addition of Ste. Ellie, diners can have two distinct experiences without leaving the LoHi building that houses both establishments. Arrive early for drinks in the gorgeous, sexy lounge (enter through the door on Platte Street) before gliding up the stairs to dinner. 1553 Platte St., No. 120,

10 Bittersweet (last year 5)
Nearly four years after Bittersweet opened in Washington Park West, the restaurant remains a sleeper—even, inexplicably, during the summer when the spot’s abundant gardens create a paradise within the city. Those gardens are executive chef and co-owner Olav Peterson’s muse, and they provide a bounty that, with careful consideration, lasts all year long. Planning, in fact, is something you’re always aware of here. Never do Peterson’s dishes simply arrive; there’s always artistry. Gazpacho comes as a small tower of tomato and avocado topped with a seared scallop—and then a server carefully decants cucumber-jalapeño water into the bowl. It’s gorgeous. Similarly, a $9 mini crock of smoked mussels comes with polenta crisps stacked like Lincoln Logs. Skilled servers bridge the gap between Peterson’s fine cuisine and a relaxed, informal evening out. 500 E. Alameda Ave., 303-942-0320,

11 Oak at Fourteenth (last year 11)
What Oak does best, it does quietly. Casually mention you’re sharing a dish, and it shows up split for two and beautifully plated. A new, folded napkin arrives before you even realize you’ve dropped yours. Smart server inquiries lead to sound menu choices: Which spirits do you prefer? Are you in the mood for a lighter or more filling meal? This foundation—a feeling of genuinely being cared for—allows executive chef Steven Redzikowski’s New American dishes to speak loudly. On a recent evening, a branzino entrée was a shining example of the chef’s balance of flavors: There was smoke from the oak-fired oven, spice from the curried coconut sauce, and tang from a perfect amount of acid. Altogether, the service, Redzikowski’s food, and beverage director–owner Bryan Dayton’s smooth cocktails create an experience you’ll want to repeat. 1400 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-444-3622,

12 Luca (last year 8)
Frank Bonanno’s restaurant empire is nothing if not eclectic: From American comfort food at Lou’s and ramen at Bones to meaty sandwiches at Salt & Grinder, Denver’s most prolific chef can cross cuisines, mix up his repertoire, and try new things with ease. But we still love his old standbys—and you find them at Bonanno’s 11-year-old Italian bistro in Governors’ Park. At Luca, menu citadels like the white asparagus risotto (with braised pork cheek, shallots, and preserved lemon) remind even longtime fans why they return time and again. But as Luca undergoes a makeover—gone are the white tablecloths and the black-and-white server uniforms—we expect to see a move to simplicity and a Luca that is more approachable. We applaud the change so long as one of the most iconic dishes—the toasted almond cake with cinnamon caramel—is left untouched. 711 Grant St.,

13 Bistro Barbès (new to the list)
Tucked away in North Park Hill, the tiny Bistro Barbès feels like a best-kept secret only you and a choice few know about. This is a realm chef Jon Robbins is comfortable in. Though he came up through Mizuna’s kitchen, for years he ran Gypsy Kitchen, a pop-up supper club. Robbins’ cooking pays tribute to his years in the multicultural Parisian neighborhood of Barbès. His dishes—French in foundation—sing with the sultry spices of North Africa, Morocco, and Spain. The flavors are delicate and nuanced, which make an evening at the bistro full of excitement and adventure. 5021 E. 28th Ave., 720-398-8085,

14 The Populist (last year 12)
There’s much to love about the Populist, not the least of which is executive chef and co-owner Jonathan Power’s food. The agnolotti—sometimes filled with a purée of carrots, or beets, or the corn fungus called huitlacoche—is not to be missed for its tender bite. The of-the-moment, affordable menu always has surprises in store like salmon crudo with sea beans, yuzu gelée, and pickled Fresno chiles. Rely on the conversation-ready servers to fill in the menu’s esoteric descriptions. More than anything, however, we love that this restaurant takes risks: It opened in November 2012 on a then-desolate stretch of north Larimer Street; more than half of the seating is made up of communal tables; unusual ingredients such as jackfruit are menu fixtures; and when the patio is open, the dining space nearly doubles in size. The Populist is a perfectly atypical—and perfectly wonderful—restaurant in every way. 3163 Larimer St., 720-432-3163,

15 To the Wind Bistro (new to the list)
In other cities, there are dozens of restaurants where patrons stand in line for their dinners—State Bird Provisions in San Francisco is one; Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, is another. To the Wind, we predict, will become that restaurant in Denver. The space is tiny—just 19 seats, four of which are at the bar—and owners Royce Oliveira and Leanne Adamson don’t take reservations. But those are not drawbacks. To the Wind gently encourages you to slow down by doing away with the schedule. Carve out a little extra time for the evening (put your name on the wait list and grab a drink nearby), and then show up after the restaurant alerts you via cell phone that your table is ready. Chef Oliveira’s French-influenced, New American fare is equally spontaneous and casual, with favorite dishes rotating in and out on an almost daily basis. If ever you see the short-lived chicken and dumplings listed on the menu, try the Southern classic, which Oliveira remakes with the addition of steamed mussels. 3333 E. Colfax Ave., 303-316-3333,

16 Rioja (last year 18)
As Denver’s only James Beard Award–winning chef, great expectations follow Jennifer Jasinski, Rioja’s executive chef and co-owner. The stakes are especially high in 2014, as Denver’s dining scene continues to grow (40 restaurants opened in July alone) and Jasinski’s time is divided between Rioja, the newly opened Stoic & Genuine (18 on this list), Bistro Vendôme, and Euclid Hall. Updates to Rioja’s dining room’s decor and an on-point waitstaff buttress a menu that’s the strongest it’s been in years. Although some ingredients stray from the Mediterranean focus, we welcome the modern additions. Rioja is a Denver staple, and with its current direction, we imagine it’ll stay that way for years to come. 1431 Larimer St., 303-820-2282,

17 Lower48 Kitchen (new to the list)

Our favorite way to dine at Lower48 Kitchen is to sit at the chef’s counter and order from the “Each” menu—executive chef and co-owner Alex Figura’s answer to one- to two-bite plates. Order enough and these ever-changing tastes can add up to a light meal (and, at $2 to $5 apiece, can be a noncommittal way of exploring different flavors). A recent favorite—crispy chicken skin with leg confit, ranch, and hot sauce—illustrates what the restaurant is all about: a fresh look at the regional foods from the lower 48 states. Round out any meal with Figura’s always-outstanding salads and vegetable-focused dishes—and wine from the extensive list. 2020 Lawrence St., Unit A, 303-942-0262,

18 Stoic & Genuine (new to the list)
If Stoic & Genuine had opened earlier than July 9 (and had a bit more time to work out understandable service snafus), it likely would have climbed higher on this list. The slender, maritime-themed space features dune fencing and antiqued mirrors, and the vibe inside the restaurant is nothing short of exhilarating. A portion of that energy comes from being part of the reimagined Union Station, but the rest comes squarely from the kitchen, where executive chef Jennifer Jasinski and chef de cuisine Jorel Pierce work their magic. Order the ever-changing crudos, like the scallop with peaches and basil consommé, the impeccable oysters, the fried clams, or the beet-cured salmon sandwich. Or order it all. Stoic & Genuine is the latest restaurant to prove to skeptics around the country that seafood in landlocked Denver can be—and is—both pristine and innovative. 1701 Wynkoop St., 303-640-3474,

19 Barolo Grill (not ranked last year)
Last year Barolo Grill, a Denver icon, fell from this list, largely because the experience of dining there wasn’t keeping up with the rapidly transforming Mile High City food scene. In the year since, owner Blair Taylor and executive chef Darrel Truett have seriously stepped up their game. Service has always been a strong point here, with a waitstaff that’s steeped in knowledge of the Barolo region’s food, culture, and wine. In its current incarnation, Truett’s cuisine not only matches the fine-tuned staff, but also surpasses it. His Italian dishes skew modern without shunning tradition or going too far. For proof, order the roasted halibut with zucchini, yellow squash, sweet peppers, and spicy pomodoro sorbet: Green tomato brodo is poured tableside, and the sorbet gradually melts into the broth. The entrée is a complex interplay of temperatures and textures, evidence Truett has found a rhythm that pushes Barolo right back into the dining conversation. 3030 E. Sixth Ave., 303-393-1040,

20 Work & Class (new to the list)
Not everyone enjoys Work & Class. Some think it’s too loud and unscripted—which it is—but those are actually two of the things we like about it. What else do we love? The Ballpark restaurant owned by Delores Tronco and partner Tony Maciag pushes the boundaries of dining in Denver. Work & Class is intentionally unfussy. Order executive chef and partner Dana Rodriguez’s terrific roasted meats by the pound. Dishes are served on tin plates. Fried catfish is the sole fish entrée. The eatery is also situated inside shipping containers (which contributes to the din) and intends to strike a balance of fun, good food, and ease. Even at 20 on this list, Work & Class is one of the most exciting restaurants to open in 2014. 2500 Larimer St., Suite 101, 303-292-0700,

21 Old Major (last year 10)
When you’re first seated at Old Major, you’ll likely notice two things: the vast, gleaming open kitchen and the glassed-in charcuterie room. Both are justifiably impressive, and they give diners a sense that food here is taken seriously—very seriously. Taste the wares of executive chef and owner Justin Brunson’s in-house curing program by ordering the charcuterie plate, and then quiz your server for details about each cut. In fact, that’s a good rule by which to dine at Old Major: Ask questions. Dishes are gorgeous and presented with flourish, but rarely are they explained to the degree you’d expect from a chef so devoted to his craft. In Denver’s ever-expanding restaurant culture, this service discrepancy can mean the difference between a great dinner and a good one. Brunson is known for his dedication to heritage-raised Colorado pork (which he butchers in-house), but his lighter seafood-centric dishes often surpass the meatier ones. 3316 Tejon St., 720-420-0622,

22 Beast + Bottle (last year 13)
With every visit to Beast & Bottle, we marvel at what co-owners and siblings Paul and Aileen Reilly have done with the space. The restaurant is still compact, but the room feels more expansive and gracious than ever before. That speaks to the Reillys’ commitment to making the Uptown restaurant a polished neighborhood gathering point. And that it is: Reservations are sometimes full weeks out. No matter—the best way to experience Beast & Bottle is to dine at the bar. That’s where you gain extra insight into which dishes to order and find yourself privy to the stories that color the night’s specials. (It’s also where the service is most attentive.) At Beast & Bottle, it’s easy to fall madly in love with at least one dish on every visit—most recently for us, it was the pan-roasted lamb with farro, curry-pickled carrots, and lamb bacon–wrapped dates. 719 E. 17th Ave., 303-623-3223,

23 Potager (last year 6)
Few Denver waitstaffs work as seamlessly as the one at Potager. Servers are informed, gracious, and justifiably proud of the restaurant in which they work. That pride comes from more than just executive chef and co-owner Teri Rippeto’s food. Instead, it’s an all-out philosophy that permeates the Potager experience. Dine here to taste the height of the season; depending on the time of year, that can mean corn, tomatoes, and peaches or root vegetables, such as radishes and beets. But because seasonality is king here, there are evenings when the menu’s dishes feel a bit repetitive—sometimes a glass of wine and an appetizer work better than piecing together a three-course meal. Our favorite spot in the restaurant is the corner table by the floor-to-ceiling windows (and in the summer, an open door)—a perch that allows diners a generous view of one of the loveliest dining rooms in town. 1109 Ogden St., 303-832-5788,

24 Duo Restaurant (last year 19)
Duo is like your favorite pair of jeans. Rarely does the Highland eatery surprise you, but it always fits and leaves you feeling good. As the restaurant enters its ninth year, steadiness remains one of its best assets—especially considering co-owners Stefanie Bonin and Keith Arnold recently moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, where they’re opening a second Duo. Tyler Skrivanek (who is the executive chef at both locations) crafts menus loaded with fritters, house-made pasta, and sustainable meats—and everything speaks of the season and the land outside the airy restaurant’s exposed brick walls. 2413 W. 32nd Ave., 303-477-4141,

25 Tables (not ranked last year)
We fondly remember when Tables first opened in 2005 as a chef-inspired sandwich shop. The crowds were so large that chef-owners and husband-and-wife-team Amy Vitale and Dustin Barrett quickly reformatted both the Park Hill space and the menu (and did away with lunch). Four months ago, Tables completed yet another renovation. This one annexed two adjacent storefronts and massively expanded the restaurant. Yet the core of this cozy neighborhood gathering spot feels very much the same. The biggest difference comes in the size of the bar and the increased room between tables (now you can choose to eavesdrop; you’re not necessarily forced to). Tables’ food remains as consistent as ever. The tender sweetbreads and the entrées—served with seasonally appropriate sides—will never disappoint diners. Perhaps an ode to Tables’ days as a sandwich shop, the ever-creative burger-of-the-day option is worth a visit by itself. 2267 Kearney St., 303-388-0299,

This article was originally published in 5280 October 2014.
Amanda M. Faison
Amanda M. Faison
Freelance writer Amanda M. Faison spent 20 years at 5280 Magazine, 12 of those as Food Editor.