I had almost forgotten the enchantment of dining out at a sit-down, lean-back restaurant. It had been more than 16 months; plenty of time to shoulder-shrug away the little delights of eating out as frivolous, considering the miasma of global pestilence. But the romance of it all wooed me the moment I sat down. There was a paper menu with a quirky font. A candle flickered in a glass bowl. A server with hipster-chic glasses presented me with a cocktail that was almost too pretty to drink. My dinner date, an old friend, looked at me and very simply said, “This is really nice.”

It was nice. But it was also a reminder of what we’ve lost and the tenuous position in which we still find ourselves. Across the state, more than 4,000 restaurant industry jobs have disappeared since the start of the pandemic, and according to the Colorado Restaurant Association, more than 25 percent of local eating and drinking establishments are in danger of closing in the next six months. With that in mind, food editor Patricia Kaowthumrong made a savvy call. She decided that, for the second year in a row, 5280 would not publish “Denver’s Best Restaurants,” our normally annual list of the city’s top 25 eateries. Not only did she believe it would be unfair to critique restaurants during these tumultuous times, but she also wanted to bring attention to a larger slice of the dining scene. “By focusing on the amazing dishes restaurants are serving,” Kaowthumrong says, “we were able to highlight 45 places that are delivering everything from tasty bites on a stick to perfectly al dente noodles.”

As I savored my drink at that dinner this past summer, I realized those small pleasures are not inconsequential. They are valuable gifts, because they epitomize how this critical industry serves Coloradans: by providing memorable and flavorful cultural experiences. With a vaccine in your arm, I suggest you use “The Best 45 Dishes To Eat Right Now!” to help you remember the joy of dining out in Denver.