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.
Swanky, boldly artistic and punctuated with a pair of stilettos at every turn, STK Denver, a chophouse from The ONE Group, a hospitality company with a portfolio of international restaurants, is turning heads in downtown with its thumping nightlife zeal, complete with pulsating music courtesy of a nightly DJ and a focal point bar frequented by local celebrities, mostly of the athlete persuasion. Chef William Tuggle spearheads the kitchen, which dispenses a wide variety of inventive salads, towering tiers of shellfish, traditional steakhouse side dishes and slabs of steer that run the gamut from filets to a hulking dry-aged porterhouse, all of which can be crowned with an optional sauce, including béarnaise and chimichurri.
THE PIG & THE SPROUT
Squatting behind Denver Union Station in a new urbanized neighborhood development, the Pig & the Sprout is the grown-up sibling of the Berkshire, restaurateur Andy Ganick’s pork-centric spot in Stapleton. But while the Pig & the Sprout is much livelier, larger, more polished and significantly boozier than its brethren, the common denominator remains the same: going whole hog via a hearty menu that encompasses pork cheek tacos, pork schnitzel, pork chops, pork gumbo and pork rolls. Still, there’s more than that to the playful roster than just pig. Tuck into the carrot hummus with pepitas and “funyun” chips, burgers in every guise, a French dip that eschews roast beef for soft tofu and smoked brisket paired with collard greens and parsnip puree. The bi-level space also boasts an indoor-outdoor bar and mezzanine-level lounge for imbibing a build-your-own mule, a craft beer from an impressively deep list or a glass of wine.
On the fevered stretch that’s Upper Larimer Street resides Il Posto, a sparkling new Italian restaurant in the River North Art District (RiNo) from Milan-born chef-owner Andrea Frizzi, who previously built a loyal following in Uptown with the original Il Posto. The 2.0 version—all glitz, glamor and swagger—turns out a daily-changing menu of up-to-the-moment pastas that defer to seasonal ingredients; skilled risottos mingling with everything from squash and sage to pancetta and corn; beautifully finessed fish dishes; and smoked Muscovy duck accompanied by all manner of vegetables, including fava beans, chanterelle mushrooms and parsley root. Ask locals about the restaurant’s pièce de résistance, and you’ll get a unified answer: the herb-laced beef-tallow candle, the fat of which pools on the plate, resulting in a seductive puddle that adds a glorious luster to the slices of crusty bread that are served alongside. From start to finish, Frizzi unleashes wonderfully nuanced food, the kind that pairs remarkably well with a bottle of Barolo or Brunello from the show-stopping wine wall.
ORTA VEZ CANTINA
From the owners of the Tavern, Soiled Dove Underground and Cowboy Lounge, this downtown Mexican restaurant and cantina on the 16th Street Mall struts a visually stimulating color palette, textured walls muraled with whimsical Day of the Dead art, hanging star light fixtures and sunken loungey booths surrounding artistic tables, one of which is a lettered conversation piece that spells “LOVE.” And the built-for-sharing menu of modern Mexican dishes, coupled with traditional Tex-Mex classics, exhibits a genuine love of Mexican foodstuffs, while the tequila and mezcal collection—more than 200 bottles—proves that the bar team is more than a little enamored with the agave plant. To drive the point home, there’s even a mezcal lounge on the mezzanine level, which peers over the lively downstairs bar and dining room.
KACHINA SOUTHWESTERN GRILL
This same-name sibling of the original Kachina Southwestern Grill—a staple in the Westminster suburb—anchors the new Maven Hotel on Denver’s Dairy Block, a mixed-use development in Lower Downtown (LoDo) that’s poised to become a flourishing culinary destination. The Denver outpost, which also lays claim to a separate cocktail lounge called Poka Lola Social Club (the swanky, retro-romantic ambience calls for your cocktail-hour finest), is atmospheric with a large neon-hued wall-length mural of a woman parading feathered earrings and sunglasses reflecting a dessert sunset. The main dining room, a mix of adobo accents, marble tables and orange and turquoise banquettes that pay homage to the colors rooted in the Southwest, is the perfect foil for the food, a creative (but not overreaching) cannon of tamales, empanadas, chicken, beef and seafood dishes, New Mexican posole and green chile and the restaurant’s signature Navajo tacos.
A joint venture from culinary power couple John Broening and Yasmin Lozanda-Hissom, Avelina, a sophisticated stunner in the heart of Lower Downtown (LoDo), turns out captivating New American cooking from an open kitchen that peers over a beautifully designed dining room. Broening’s repertoire of dishes—think housemade charcuterie, wood-oven roasted fish, handcrafted pastas and a slew of shareable dishes—is bolstered by pastry chef Lozanda-Hissom’s exquisite desserts (don’t miss her citrus-studded olive oil cake) and an up-to-the-moment bar program that crafts innovative cocktails.
Holding court in the heart of Cherry Creek, just east of the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, Matsuhisa Denver, chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa’s world-renowned Japanese-Peruvian restaurant, delivers a swanky, high-end experience that mirrors the chef’s Vail and Aspen outposts. The riveting space, bedecked with reclaimed teak, stone and tile, provides a gorgeous backdrop for a post-work cocktail gathering in the lounge, or eyeball a stool at the sushi bar and splurge on the omakase, a multi-course tasting menu designed by a masterful crew of chefs whose plate artistry is second to none.
STANLEY BEER HALL
One of 50 tenants occupying square footage in the newly developed Stanley Marketplace—a 100,000-square-foot food-and-drink emporium in Aurora—Stanley Beer Hall is an urbanized, industrialized space that trumpets more than 70 world-spanning craft beers, a menu of beer-friendly small plates, plus a terrific double-fisted double cheeseburger. The food syllabus, the handiwork of chef Theo Adley, also features sandwiches, roasted buttermilk chicken, mussels steamed in a lemongrass and cider broth and a crispy pork shank plate for two. The most coveted seats are at the chef’s counter, which overlooks the action in the bustling open kitchen.
DENVER CENTRAL MARKET
A veritable one-stop dining experience, this lively 12,000-square-foot gastohall, located in the hip River North Art District (RiNo), ballyhoos 10 stands vending everything from tuna poke and squid ink spaghetti to wood-fire pizzas, hand-crafted chocolates, pastries and Italian beef sandwiches. Complete with an ice cream shop, java joint, butcher shop, fish counter and bar that pours progressive cocktails, the Denver Central Market fulfills every food and drink obsession. Each of the vendors has its own seating area, but the communal dining space—the market’s focal point—is where everyone seems to congregate; there’s a big-screen TV, too, that showcases sporting events.
DEPARTURE RESTAURANT + LOUNGE
A joint collaboration between Peter Karpinksi, co-founder of Sage Restaurant Group, and culinary director Gregory Gourdet, a finalist on Bravo’s Top Chef, the sleek and sexy Departure Restaurant + Lounge, which comes via Portland, Ore., is turning up the heat in Cherry Creek with its polished Pan-Asian cuisine. Gourdet’s menu, which traverses through China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, proffers modern culinary creations (think Vietnamese duck curry, whole striped bass with green mango and stone-grilled Wagyu sirloin), coupled with a dizzyingly diverse representation of dim sum, plus two tasting menus that take diners on a glorious romp through Departure’s signature dishes. The quarters—beautifully designed with an air travel motif—also lay claim to a sprawling rooftop bar with city-spanning views.
Chef Troy Guard, whose restaurant portfolio is the equivalent of a small kingdom, is renowned for his playful spins on Asian cuisine, and at Mister Tuna—the nickname of his father—the spirited menu dances to an eclectic Asian-fusion beat. Against an industrial-hip backdrop of sociable lounges, an open kitchen, garage-door windows and a gold-and-black color palette, Guard and his kitchen crew discharge a culinary canon of small plates, the hits of which include king crab with brown butter and black lava salt, Vietnamese-style kampachi and a Thai-inspired carrot agnolotti. The diver scallops, paired with root vegetable hash, housemade guanciale and kimchi, unleash bold flavors, while sweet finales like the chocolate brownie with mascarpone mousse, macerated cherries and candied nuts, deliver surpassing pleasure.
Occupying a small storefront on Tennyson Street in the trendy Berkeley neighborhood, Vital Root, a fast-casual breakfast, lunch and dinner spot from prolific restaurateur Justin Cucci (Linger, Root Down and Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox), features fresh-squeezed juices and an amazing selection of flavor-bombed plant-focused dishes that go beyond the norm. The herbs are grown onsite, and you can choose from three different kinds of drinking water: cold, ambient and sparkling. The Japanese-inspired miso ramen, made with soy milk broth, smoked broccoli, mushrooms, bok choy and yam noodles, is crowned with a soft-boiled egg, while the bánh mì tacos capitalize on the vibrant tastes of Vietnam. The café also struts wine, beer and cocktails, plus happy hour Tuesday through Sunday.
Beers, bratwurst and bocce ball—you'll find those and more at Rhein Haus, a behemoth, 14,000-square-foot Bavarian-inspired beer hall and restaurant in Lower Downtown (LoDo) that’s handsomely decorated with polished brown wood, flickering hearths and Alpine trappings. Enjoy a round of German or Belgian brews at one of the three bars, battle for supremacy on one of four indoor bocce courts, or pull up a chair in front of the hand-carved mahogany fireplace and nosh on housemade sausages, pretzels, schnitzel and strudel.
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; Caffe Figurati, a roastery concept from the founder of Commonwealth Coffee Roasters; 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.