In Japan, izakayas are pubs where cheap drinks are paired with no-nonsense nibbles such as yakitori or sashimi. Although several self-proclaimed izakayas have opened on the Front Range in the past year, they stray from the traditional model by offering larger, more refined portions of Japanese or pan-Asian fare. Here’s why they’re still worthy of the label—and your patronage.

Read more: The Best Japanese Fare in Denver, According to a Tokyo-Born Food Historian

1. Kawa Ni

Chef Bill Taibe’s experiences eating in the izakayas of Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo on a trip to Japan inspired him to open one, called Kawa Ni, in Westport, Connecticut, in 2014. Then, as a new Denver resident, he debuted a second location in LoHi in late 2023. Both spots, furnished with potted plants and framed Japanese posters and artwork, have long wooden bars and high-top tables that beckon revelers to knock back a sake bomb or linger over a spirit-forward cocktail. The libations play well with plates of cold sesame noodles, rice cakes with shiso chicken meatballs, and other inventive bites. 1900 W. 32nd Ave.

Pair: The smooth, shochu-infused Sensei Negroni with the shaved broccoli miso goma, in which shreds of the veggie are tossed in a dressing seasoned with mirin, miso, and honey; drizzled with chile crunch; and served with thin slices of ham.

2. Leezakaya

People dining at Leezakaya
Leezakaya’s dining room. Photo by Sarah Banks

There’s no drink more emblematic of izakayas than sake, and you’ll find more than 30 versions of the Japanese rice wine at Leezakaya, an upscale take on the pub concept from JW Lee, the restaurateur behind Tofu Story and Mono Mono Korean Fried Chicken. The sleek Aurora eatery carries both bargain bottles and premium junmai daiginjo—top-grade sake distinguished by the use of highly polished rice grains and the lack of added distilled alcohol—which you can peruse along with a lengthy menu of sushi, fried and grilled appetizers, and noodles. Dine omakase-style if you’re having trouble deciding. 2710 S. Havana St., Aurora

Pair: The 10-piece veggie tempura and a more filling plate, such as the mentaiko (pollack roe) creamy pasta or the served-on-the-bone prime rib, with a bottle of Kiku-Masamune Kinushiro nigori, a slightly sweet sake with notes of honeydew.

Various chicken skewers at Shin Yuu, paired with TK sake
Yakitori at Shin Yuu Izakaya. Photo by Sarah Banks

3. Shin Yuu Izakaya

Business partners Haili Xu and chef Edgar Carzarez named their cozy restaurant “shin yuu,” which translates to “best friend” in Japanese, in hopes that it would become a gathering place for the Louisville community. Carzarez—who has more than 20 years of experience working in Denver Japanese restaurants, including Highland’s Tokio—curated the no-frills eatery’s menu. He specializes in izakaya-style bites such as charcoal-charred yakitori; plates of salmon, tuna, and yellowtail sashimi; and chicken kara age. 917 Front St., Ste. 100, Louisville

Pair: An assortment of skewers (we like the classic chicken thigh and wings, which come lacquered in a sweet-salty sauce) with a glass of Ginza Suzume shochu, a smooth, barley-based distilled spirit with subtle notes of toasted vanilla.

This article was originally published in 5280 May 2024.
Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan is 5280’s associate food editor, writing and editing for the print magazine and Follow his dining/cooking Instagram @ethans_pan.
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to oversee all of the magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.