What’s your favorite restaurant? I’m often asked that question—and find it nearly impossible to answer—since I became food editor for 5280 about two years ago. I have so many favorites, from our preferred date night spots to the best places to go with my young son to where I like to grab a drink and a bite with friends. After all, there are seemingly countless places to dine in Colorado, even for someone who goes out to eat at least four (ahem, seven-plus!) times every week.

So when it comes to choosing the 25 Best Restaurants in the metro area and beyond, there have to be parameters. I mean, I adore super-casual spots like El Taco de Mexico and Blue Pan Pizza and Little Chengdu, but this particular list—the 25 best—is reserved for the local restaurants that I’d put up against any James Beard award-winner in New York City, Austin, or Los Angeles.

Food editor Denise Mickelsen (photo by Jennifer Olson Photography)

The team at 5280 trusts my opinion, which is based on a formal culinary education, restaurant experience (as a server and a cook), and 15 years in food media. In fact, the 25 Best Restaurants list is solely my opinion, reflecting a moment in time—a year, to be exact—during which I’ve tasted hundreds of dishes, watched national trends, and carefully observed our local dining scene’s evolution.

Here’s my methodology:

  • Restaurants have to be open by May 15 to be considered for the list, which is published in the October issue.
  • This year, there were 72 restaurants under consideration, compiled from new openings, past list winners, and places that consistently do a wonderful job.
  • Any Front Range restaurant is eligible, but with so many places to consider (see above) focusing on Boulder, metro Denver, and Aurora made sense this year. (That said, I’ve had a few incredible experiences—at Bin 707 Foodbar in Grand Junction and the sadly soon-to-close Cloverdale in Steamboat Springs, to name just two—that may tip the scales toward including all of Colorado at some point; check back in 2019.) I’m aware that Boulder is not Denver, but seeing as it recently took me 35 minutes to drive to the former and 40 minutes to drive from Congress Park to LoHi, I consider the distance to be a wash.
  • There is no connection between ad/sales/marketing and editorial content at 5280. In fact, I don’t know which Colorado businesses have purchased ads until each issue is laid out, fact checked, and a few days away from the printer; my stories are due months earlier.
  • I dine anonymously and pay for everything I consume; if my table is sent any freebies, I add the relevant amount on top of the bill and tip on the overall total.
  • If I am recognized and the service morphs from standard to excellent, I send a colleague back to the restaurant, without me, to gauge how they are treated.
  • After each meal, I take notes about the experience so I won’t forget any details.
  • I rank each dining experience on food/drink, service, and atmosphere, assigning each aspect a score on a 10-point scale.

So, it’s all math, then? Not entirely. The numbers get me most of the way to deciding the top 25; gut feeling does the rest. I add up the entire experience of what it was like to spend time in that restaurant, with that staff, eating and drinking those things. The best I can sum it up is this: The 25 Best Restaurant list details the places I love the most right now, the places where I would send a visiting food pro from a major culinary city or take my best friend.

Amidst dire labor shortages and intense competition, Colorado restaurants are struggling; knowing how hard our culinary community works and the challenges they face on a daily basis, I loathe having to pass such definitive judgement. But my job, which I take seriously, is to fairly and objectively tell 5280 readers where I think they’ll have the most rewarding dining experiences in the year to come.

I hope you’ll let me know what you think, whether you like this year’s list or disagree with my picks. Most especially, shoot me a note if you know of a restaurant that I should consider for 2019. You can reach me at dining@5280.com or on Instagram (@DeniseMickelsen). Happy eating!

Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s former food editor. She oversaw all of 5280’s food-related coverage from October 2016 to March 2021.