The single greatest thing about Denver’s thriving culinary scene is its dynamic visionaries, risk-takers and virtuosos—the chefs and restaurateurs who push the envelope, dare to be different and embrace an ever-changing food landscape. And these top Denver restaurants, in particular, reflect the city’s remarkable diversity, allegiance to local farmers, ranchers and growers and relentless passion for raising the culinary bar. From sensational shrines to sushi to innovative food halls, modern Asian triumphs to exalted New American restaurants, there's never been a better time to take a bite out of The Mile High City.
Table 6, a citified Capitol Hill bistro popular with neighborhood denizens, canoodling couples, tourists, food geeks and wine enthusiasts, basks in warmth and tender intimacy. The menu, galvanized by the seasons, is illustrated with starters like roasted chicken sliders draped in mushroom gravy and tater tots matched with fried crimini mushrooms and chives. Main dishes zigzag from duck confit plated with glazed yams and pearl onions to grilled pork paired with cheddar fondue and frites, a dish that deftly redefines American comfort food. Sunday brunch, a convivial outing that features a DJ spinning tunes, amasses crowds that feast on French toast, pork belly and doughnuts and a terrific croque-monsieur.
Rioja, a celebrated Mediterranean and Spanish restaurant, cemented the stardom of James Beard Foundation best chef winner Jennifer Jasinski, whose stunning restaurant, complete with a transparent kitchen and chef’s counter, transformed Larimer Square into a bona fide dining destination. Renowned for its pristinely fresh ingredients, season-intensive dishes, plate artistry, hand-crafted pastas, extensive brunch menu and thoughtful pastry program (including a fantastic house-baked bread basket), Rioja is a favorite of local and national celebrities, the food cognoscenti and just about everyone else who appreciates true artisanship coupled with an approachable wine program and imaginative cocktails.
A joint venture between cocktail scholar Bryan Dayton and reticent celebrity chef Steven Redzikowski, Acorn—one of several restaurants located inside The Source, a food hall in the River North Art District (RiNo)—is nothing if not a source of culinary inspiration. Redzikowski's expressively dynamic wood-fire cooking demonstrates focus, technique and precision. Whether it’s the roasted chicken for two, crispy Icelandic cod, shrimp and grits or the grilled ribeye, a fan of sliced scarlet beef mated with crisped potatoes and brown butter, the kitchen crew unleashes simple food done extraordinarily well. A deeply satisfying wine, beer and cocktail roster—including several mocktails—just adds to the allure.
It’s no surprise that TAG, a Larimer Square hit from chef/restaurateur Troy Guard, is one of the most coveted dinner reservations in The Mile High City. The menu, inspired by Guard’s Hawaiian roots, is a dazzling (and whimsical) manifest to the flavors of Asia: seafood pot stickers with Korean soy vinaigrette; flash-seared hamachi tricked out with pop rocks; a trio of sushi rolls; and Guard’s signature miso black cod brightened with edamame beans, artichokes, leeks and yuzu. The omakase, a parade of inspiring marvels from the kitchen, is the best way to experience everything that this stylish spot has to offer.
Euclid Hall, a rollicking two-story gastropub squatting on the edge of Larimer Square, is as skillful with its Thai-inspired pig ears as it is with its stellar beer cocktails. Pudgy house-made sausages and poutines—fresh-cut fries sheeted with cheese curds and maybe duck confit or carnitas—emerge from the open kitchen, which also dispenses cured and smoked duck drumsticks, lamb tartare and chicken and waffles. The pig ears, slicked with a tamarind-chile sauce and showered with scallions, peanuts, mint, cilantro and bits of egg, is all that you could ask for in a twist on pad Thai, while the lineup of craft beers, of which there are dozens, warrants multiple trips to the bar.
ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro
With a confident, artistic hand in the kitchen and another on the cocktail shaker, this fashionable Pan-Asian restaurant and lounge from chef-owner Lon Symensma (he also owns Cho77) walks the wok and talks the talk. Reserve a seat at the chef’s counter to witness Cholon’s culinary wizardry, which often involves airborne flames, the result of wok-tossed Brussels sprouts mingling with ground pork and makrut lime leaves. The kitchen is best known for its soup dumplings—pinched pouches of dough jiggling with juice, sweet onions and Gruyere cheese that erupt like a volcano when they pass through your lips. Other spirited dishes, such as the impossibly tender octopus straddling a jumble of Chinese sausage, potatoes and pickled grapes, are unrepentantly delicious.
The swatch of 32nd Avenue that traverses through the Highland neighborhood has long been known for its culinary prowess—and Duo, a beloved stalwart, is no exception. Whether you pop into the quaint quarters for weekend brunch, happy hour, dinner or late-night dessert at the bar, guests are uniformly enamored of the rustically charming farmhouse space. They’re smitten with the food, too, much of it locally sourced and seasonal. Bites might yield gnocchi with arugula-pistachio pesto and sunchokes; a radicchio salad tussling with pancetta and topped with a fried egg; or a bison strip steak paired with kohlrabi gratin and broccolini. Colorado craft beers and lovely cocktails augment the eclectic wine list, which favors small producers.
For New American cuisine with a distinctive French flair, there is no restaurant more treasured than Mizuna, chef-owner Frank Bonanno's endearing flagship restaurant in Capitol Hill. Blissfully romantic, cozy and unpretentiously graceful, the floor is overseen by an incredibly knowledgeable staff who are more than adept at pairing wines with beautifully presented dishes like pan-seared ostrich, Burgundian risotto with truffled black trumpet mushrooms and the decadent macaroni and cheese, creamy with mascarpone and punctuated with succulent bites of butter-poached lobster. Bonanno’s $90 tasting menu, which can also be matched with wines, is a splurge that’s worth swelling the balance on your credit card.
Work & Class
Comfort of the Latin-American variety is the calling card of Work & Class, a refreshingly free-spirited restaurant in the River North Art District (RiNo) from James Beard Foundation best chef nominee Dana Rodriguez, whose soulful cooking more than lives up to its ballyhooed billing. Driven by the motto, "a square meal, a stiff drink, and a fair price," the diminutive restaurant, which commands waits from the moment the doors open, proffers gratifying plates of cochinita pibil (red chile-braised pork), roasted goat and rotisserie chicken, all of which should be paired with a side dish: sweet potato and bacon hash, fried sweet plantains or the Wisconsin cheddar macaroni and cheese. There’s nothing particularly fancy about Rodriguez’s cooking, but sitting at the chef’s counter and indulging in the maple cheesecake or butterscotch pudding is all the luxury you need.
It doesn't get more classically Colorado than Elway's, named for John Elway, the former Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos quarterback. With three locations spanning the city—inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the heart of downtown, another outpost in the Cherry Creek neighborhood and a third satellite at Denver International Airport—the sexy steakhouse is surf and turf nirvana. Expect everything from prime-grade blocks of beef and Colorado rack of lamb to oysters on the half shell and roasted Rocky Mountain trout. The lounges are full of revelry, and if you don’t have a hefty expense account, the abbreviated bar menu includes cheeseburger sliders and a cured meat-and-cheese board that won’t crush your wallet.
Denver Union Station
While Denver Union Station is The Mile High City’s main transportation hub, a glorious renovation in 2014 inspired high expectations from foodniks and barflies who waited with bated breath for the unveiling of the historic train depot’s culinary offerings; they weren’t disappointed. Morning travelers hit up Acme Delicatessen for biscuits and bagels and Snooze for the profoundly delicious pineapple upside-down pancakes, while Stoic & Genuine, a restaurant from chef Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch, trumpets nuanced seafood and fish creations that rival its coastal counterparts. Mercantile Dining & Provision, a lovely New American restaurant from Alex Seidel (Fruition) features a barista counter and market that sells hand-crafted jams, spreads and pickled vegetables, along with sandwiches and terrific cheeses (many of which are produced at Seidel’s local creamery). Book a dinner reservation in the gorgeous dining room to fawn over Seidel’s beef tartare, pan-roasted foie gras and crowd-pleasing paella. For a more leisurely dining experience, head to The Kitchen Next Door, a community pub that offers post-work escapism at the bar and a kitchen that doles out dishes flush with ingredients sourced from local purveyors. If you have a lust for libations, flash back to the golden age of swanky bars at The Cooper Lounge, perched on the mezzanine overlooking the 100-year-old great hall, or commune in the historic ticketing office that’s now the Terminal Bar, a festive space that pours Colorado craft brews, cocktails and wine.
The River North Art District (RiNo) is arguably the city’s most dynamic neighborhood, thanks in large part to urban developers Mickey and Kyle Zeppelin, a father-and-son team who, in 2013, opened The Source, an epicenter for food pilgrims, the cocktail contingent and craft beer geeks. The 26,000-square-foot indoor market, residing in an 1880s ironworks building, houses Comida, a Mexican cantina; Acorn, an American restaurant whose kitchen is quarterbacked by star chef Steven Redzikowski; Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe, a full-fledged butchery that focuses on cuts of beef sourced from sustainably raised whole animals; Crooked Stave, a brewery specializing in Belgian sour beers; Babettes, a French-inspired bread bakery; Boxcar Coffee Roasters, where the jolts of java put chain coffee to shame; Mondo Market, a specialty cheese, spice and sandwich spot; The Proper Pour, a lovely wine, beer and spirits shop; and RiNo Yacht Club, a limelight cocktail lounge, complete with communal seating, that’s the food hall’s focal point.
Josh and Jennifer Wolkon, the husband-and-wife team behind Vesta, aim to keep things innovative and interesting at their sultry nighttime destination in Lower Downtown (LoDo), a long-standing beacon of New American cuisine with world-reaching influences. The dim-lit, loft-like space—a cube of copper accents, antiqued mirrors, hardwood floors, curved booths and exposed brick—is simultaneously romantic and lively, making it an ideal restaurant for drinks and a cheese plate with a gaggle of girlfriends or a hot date over cocktails and cioppino, a saffron-scented broth bobbing with lobster, clams, mussels, shrimp and sea bass. Cocktail-friendly starters, including charred baby octopus with nubs of housemade chorizo, preserved lemons and cannellini beans, represent the kitchen’s global-leaning strengths, while the glorious charcuterie plate, an assemblage of pâté and house-cured meats, exemplifies the kitchen’s allegiance to laborious mastery.
Outfitted with a retro bar illuminated with Lite-Bright bulbs, psychedelic wallpaper that channels the 1960s and a throbbing rooftop deck that sports an Airstream trailer and sweeping panoramas of the city, Linger, an “eatuary” from Justin Cucci, is one The Mile High City’s liveliest hot spots—which says a lot considering that the pulsating restaurant occupies a former mortuary. Still, while the death motif subtly (and humorously) pervades the bi-level space, the menu, a culinary romp through multiple countries, elevates your spirits. It’s a built-for-sharing document that meanders through Asia and South Asia (Thai fried rice, pork belly bao and Korean barbecue tacos); Africa and the Middle East (lamb kabobs and falafel lettuce wraps); the Caribbean (Jamaican jerk-seasoned prawns); and America. If you’re adventurous, don’t miss the cricket empandas with cilantro-lime crema, pickled cactus and tomatillo chutney.