Little Finch

1490 16th Street Mall
The Draw: An all-day cafe with a wide assortment of tasty breakfast dishes and pastries
The Drawback: Lackluster cocktails and entrées make evenings less appealing
Noise Level: Typically minimal
Don’t Miss: Flaky almond croissant, fruit-topped cheesecake, s’mores brownie

Much like the appetites of Colorado diners, Mary Nguyen’s preferences have changed since the early 2000s. That’s why, in 2013, the chef-restaurateur switched from cooking Asian food to offering cafe cuisine at Olive & Finch, which debuted a spinoff concept called Little Finch on the 16th Street Mall in January. “I would say my career has just evolved, as have my tastes,” Nguyen says. “I’m gonna take a leap and say that Denver has also evolved.”

If you’ve been a mile-high resident for more than a hot minute, you likely remember Uptown’s Parallel Seventeen, where the Centennial State native served gussied-up versions of Vietnamese specialties, and Englewood’s Street Kitchen Asian Bistro, its suburban counterpart. The eateries—which opened in 2005 and 2011, respectively, when high-end Asian cuisine wasn’t common in town—moved the local food scene forward. Around the same time, though, an influx of culinary talent opened other pioneering full-service restaurants, such as ChoLon and Fruition. It was then that Nguyen identified what we needed before we knew we needed it: something quick, easy, and delicious.

Nguyen relied on the French techniques she learned from Vietnamese cooking to launch Olive & Finch in Uptown. The popularity of the spot’s pastries and breakfast and lunch fare led Nguyen to add a Cherry Creek outpost in 2017 and a central bake shop that supplies her cafes.

Chef-owner Mary Nguyen. Photo by Sarah Banks

Little Finch diverges from Olive & Finch in that the downtown spot is intended to be an all-day destination where patrons can linger over craft coffee in the a.m. and enjoy alcoholic beverages by evening. The cozy fireplace in the corner, the thoughtfully assembled drink and condiment station, and the carafes of water all encourage you to stick around for a while in the sunny corner space with lots of windows at the intersection of Blake and 16th streets.

Morning is my favorite time to visit, because Nguyen’s pastry case overflows with rolls, muffins, croissants, and quiches. The cinnamon roll, more flaky than gooey, is made with so much butter and sugar that, at first, I thought there was a layer of caramel tucked under the frosting. Instead, it’s just all that good stuff bubbling up and browning in the oven. The almond croissant is similarly decadent and super moist, thanks to a dip in simple syrup and a frangipane (sweet-almond-flavored custard) filling, and the chocolate version is topped with shards of 65 percent dark chocolate. The heavenly kouign-amann, a buttery, sugar-crusted cake, is flecked with rosemary and flattened with a brûléed finish.

If you can pull yourself away from the baked goodies, the saucer-size quiche Lorraine is everything the custardy French tart should be. Soft and savory, the Gruyère gives it a nutty bite, while the Black Forest ham and applewood bacon deliver the requisite saltiness. The Intelligentsia coffees—a cult-favorite, Chicago-based brand—are another morning option, with the staff pointing me toward the cajeta latte and the iced honey and lavender shaken espresso. While I got a bit of the tang and richness of the cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) in the former, I would have appreciated a stronger coffee flavor that went beyond a basic latte, and I wanted more sweet and floral notes to come through in the latter.

Little Finch after dark was less successful for me. While the cocktails come in gorgeous hues, they don’t compete well with the boozy sippers at nearby Run for the Roses or at Hell or High Water Tiki. My Havana Nights, a tequila, passionfruit, and chile blend, needed a stir and wasn’t at all fiery. The refreshing pineapple, turmeric, and ginger Monsoon Rain mocktail had much more kick.

Nguyen’s quiche Lorraine pairs well with a glass of wine any time of day. Photo by Sarah Banks

The dinner menu tops out at a refreshing $15 and offers salads, soups, flatbreads, sandwiches, and a few rotating entrées. Everything is made at the central Olive & Finch bake shop and then warmed up to order at the restaurant, which sounds a little reheated-TV-dinner-ish but doesn’t taste that way. Our table favorite was the margherita flatbread, which had a cracker-crisp crust around the edges with a nice chew in the center. The tomato slices, basil flakes, and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses were fresh and unfussy. I wasn’t in love with the boeuf bourguignon, though, and wanted to taste more zip from the red wine. The beef chunks were big and tender, but without that acidity, the dish was far too bland.

Unsurprisingly, Nguyen’s desserts delivered. The sugar-bottomed and berry-topped cheesecake was wonderfully creamy, and the giant s’mores brownie, a super-dense, fudgy confection crowned with a toasty marshmallow, was better than any campfire creation I’ve ever made.

Back in the day, I was confused about why Nguyen, who did so much for elevating Asian food in Denver, would instead focus on a bakery/cafe at Olive & Finch and, now, at Little Finch. But people—and cities—change. If the evolution of Nguyen’s palate yields more laminated-dough-based treats, I can’t wait to savor what’s next.

New Kids on the Block

Van Leeuwen slings stacked cones in Larimer Square. Photo by Sarah Banks

The pandemic, concerns about crime, and a massive renovation project on the 16th Street Mall are among the challenges downtown Denver businesses have faced in the past few years. But recently, several new restaurants and cafes, like Little Finch, have emerged, re-energizing the heart of the city with everything from fancy fish to cheap pizza. Here’s where you can taste the revival.

Sofia’s Roman Pizza doesn’t just serve hearty slices of rustic, square pie; it serves them at the bargain price of $3.50 to $4.50 per slice and has $5 beers, $6 wines, and $10 Negronis during happy hour. An airy, counter-service, downtown restaurant where you can fill up on quality food for under $15? Check, please. 1530 16th Street Mall

In February, Iowa-based 801 Restaurant Group brought its upscale seafood concept, 801 Fish, to the corner of 17th and Curtis streets. The menu covers most anything you want to eat from the ocean—oysters, uni, tuna, scallops, and more—and it all makes the journey from ocean to table within about 36 hours. 999 17th St.

New York City–based Van Leeuwen deemed Denver ready for its…let’s just say unique ice cream flavors—such as Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Grey Poupon—this past September. That’s when the company turned the freezers on in Larimer Square, home to its second Colorado scoop shop (the first is in Boulder). While the offbeat offerings get most of the buzz, it’s the more traditional Honeycomb and Sicilian Pistachio that fans melt for. 1459 Larimer St.

This article was originally published in 5280 June 2023.
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy is a freelance writer and ice cream fanatic living in Broomfield.