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On April 15, 1955, restaurateur Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald’s, adding “Golden Arches” to the global lexicon and forever changing the way Americans eat. But man can’t live on stacked burgers and greasy french fries alone. In 1993, Denver-born Chipotle created the now often-imitated fast-casual model, in which flavors and ingredients are better, but the food is still delivered quickly.
Twenty-plus years later, we’re still crazy for Chipotle (annual revenue rang in at more than $4 billion in 2014), but we’re also more concerned about where ingredients come from. And we’re still in a big hurry. Enter fast-fine dining—the love child of fast food and fine dining. The next step in the evolution toward healthier, tastier, but still fairly fast food, fast-fine eateries serve sophisticated, high-quality eats without the formality (or price) of traditional sit-down restaurants. The concept isn’t just a boon for diners; it’s a moneymaker for chefs. “These restaurants, with their fairly limited menus and generally lower food costs, are usually much more profitable than fine-dining restaurants,” says Bret Thorn, senior food and beverage editor of Nation’s Restaurant News. Fast-fine eateries require less labor and overhead (bye-bye, crystal and china), and serve many more customers than sit-down restaurants. Get in on Denver’s high-low dining at these three spots (and look for one more in February: Vital Root on Tennyson Street, from Linger and Root Down founder Justin Cucci). —Allyson Reedy
The concept: This sleek downtown eatery’s locally sourced, chef-driven menu includes rustic dishes, such as cedar-plank salmon and roasted cauliflower with vindaloo spices, usually reserved for more upscale restaurants.
Average per-plate price: $11
Typical order-to-delivery time: 2 to 5 minutes; longer for pizzas
Must-try meal: Braised short ribs with mashed sweet potatoes
The concept: The Frasca Food and Wine team joined forces with Chipotle to streamline the pizza experience. Diners make their way down the line and top wood-fired pies with ingredients like cotto ham and Castelvetrano olives.
Average per-plate price: $7
Typical order-to-delivery time: 3 to 4 minutes
Must-try meal: Bianca pizza with mozzarella, sausage, broccolini, garlic, and chile flakes
The concept: A walk-up counter serves a seasonally changing menu of rotisserie-cooked meats and veggies from Steve Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton, the duo behind Acorn and Oak at Fourteenth.
Average per-plate price: $11.50
Typical order-to-delivery time: 6 to 8 minutes
Must-try meal: Rotisserie-roasted chicken banh mi sandwich with Vietnamese pickled vegetables and house-made pâté
1644 Platte St.