As a top city for technology startups, Denver has taken the spirit of innovation and married it with another of the city's favorite passions: food. In the process, Denver's restaurateurs redefined fast-casual dining nationwide. Come try some favorite delicious, quick-serve restaurants in the places where they got their start.
THE DENVER ORIGINALS: FAST, FRESH, CASUAL
Burrito lovers will be familiar with Chipotle for its foil-wrapped, football-sized burritos. But where did Chipotle start? Steve Ells, who was trained at the Culinary Institute of America, founded Chipotle in Denver in 1993. He set out to create a quick-serve concept with integrity and was inspired by San Francisco's street tacos and burritos. Today, Chipotle continues to soar in popularity with customers who love the fresh, southwest flavors and the company's environmental ethos. Taste where it all started at the original location at 1644 E Evans Ave., near the University of Denver.
You've probably heard of Noodles & Company (and if you have kids, you have heard a lot about Noodles & Company). The now-famous, pasta-slinging restaurant chain started in Denver in 2005 after founder Aaron Kennedy ate at a Thai noodle shop, spurring the idea to create a fast casual noodle joint that would appeal to customers of all cultures. There are now more than 330 locations across the U.S., including a popular location on the 16th St. Mall.
Quiznos' rise to fame started in Denver, and really took off after Rick Schaden bought the sandwich-shop company in 1991. If you love your sub sandwich toasted, then you're probably one of the millions of customers that help make Quiznos the second-largest submarine sandwich shop chain in North America. The first location is located in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood at 1275 Grant Street.
Rick Schaden, alongside Tom Ryan, also had a hand in bringing a way-better burger to the marketplace, with the founding of Smashburger in 2007. Their idea was to use all-Angus beef and hand-smash and grill each burger to order. It worked, and customers now flock to over 250 locations. Get smashed at the LoDo location at 1515 Arapahoe St.
In 1996, craving a healthy alternative to fast-food chains, Larry Leith decided to pioneer a fast-casual restaurant and settled on Japanese cuisine for its lauded health benefits. Tokyo Joe's, with its freshly cooked rice bowls, sushi and noodle bowls were a hit from the start and remain so today at about 30 locations.
Hoping to prove that "fast" doesn't have to mean "fried," Marly Hodgson and Dan Long opened MAD Greens to address the dearth of fresh, fast and healthy fare in 2004. The menu includes paninis, wraps, soups and desserts, but the salads are the main event, whether topped with fresh fruit, crisp veggies, savory cheeses, sliced nuts or succulent meats. There are 13 Colorado locations, but if you're in Southeast Denver, reviewers love the location at 2073 S Colorado Blvd.
No fast-casual roundup would be complete without a shout out to our favorite slice. Beau Jo's, founded way back in 1973, has found a way to put a Colorado spin on the classic pizza with its signature Mountain Pies, piled high with toppings and cheese. The super-thick crust is served with a side of honey! Try the Denver location on University Hill, or if you're headed up I-70, stop into the flagship location in Idaho Springs.
FAST-CASUAL RESTAURANTS: ONES TO WATCH
Looking for a little lunch-time diversity? You could eat at Modmarket (hatched in nearby Boulder in 2009) every day for a week and enjoy a totally different eating experience: salad one day, a brick oven pizza the next, sandwiches, soups and homestyle entrées - plus lots of gluten-free options. Founded by two fitness fanatics, the eatery recently announced an ambitious plan to expand nationwide. Flying through DIA? Modmarket has not one but two concourse locations to grab a pre-flight meal.
Founded in Vail, Colorado, in 2006, Larkburger began as an offshoot of the ski town's popular Larkspur restaurant. The company now boasts 13 Colorado locations and is committed to "keeping it natural," from the ingredients in the burgers (all-natural Black Angus Beef) to the packaging (biodegradable) to the restaurants themselves (100 percent wind powered). Get your eco-friendly grub on at the Wash Park location at 340 East Alameda Avenue.
QUICK SERVE: NEW AND NEXT
A wholly original food concept is playing out at Avanti F & B in Denver's Lower Highlands neighborhood, which opened in 2015. A huge two-story warehouse has been converted to shelter a collection of shipping containers - each one a self-contained mini-restaurant. Diners can choose from the variety of cuisines, including a noodle joint, shwarma shop and a torta counter, and enjoy their meal in the communal dining area - complete with stunning views of downtown Denver. A perfect incubator for new flavors and chefs, we fully expect Avanti to set some trends in the national restaurant landscape.
Cleverly leveraging food-truck popularity to support a historic landmark, Civic Center Eats is a Tuesday and Thursday event held at downtown Denver's Civic Center Park all summer long. Enjoy music, shaded tables and great food, plus know that a portion of the proceeds benefit the Civic Center Conservancy, the nonprofit dedicated to restoring, enhancing and activating downtown Denver's historic Civic Center Park.
There's also The Big Wonderful, a seasonal outdoor market with food trucks, crafts, live music, an urban farm and a craft beer garden. And Finn's Manor will make its debut in fall 2015 with a 6,000-square-foot space served by a pod of rotating food trucks. A New Orleans-inspired bar will whip up handcrafted cocktails inside, while music and original street art provide entertainment.
Honor Society Handcrafted Eatery, which opened in July 2015 near Denver's renovated Union Station, aims to elevate the fast-casual dining experience with a chef-driven seasonal menu that features options like grilled Aspen Ridge flank steak, sustainable cedar-plank salmon, and local heirloom beet salad. Foodies call the concept "fast fine," and did we mention there's also a full bar with an experienced bartender serving up craft cocktails, beer and wine?
Pair dinner, drinks and a bevy of old-school games like bowling, billiards and shuffleboard, and you've got Punch Bowl Social. This popular South Broadway haunt combines dining and entertainment to the delight of Denverites, with dishes likes sweet cilantro wings, adobo-marinated mushroom tacos, and a sandwich called the Very Serious Grilled Cheese. The company started in Denver in 2012 and has since expanded to Detroit, Austin and Portland. Six more locations are in development, including a second Denver location in the former Stapleton Airport control tower.