Denver is a hub for chef-owned, neighborhood restaurants that always impress. These Denver restaurants show off the city’s most cutting-edge and up-and-coming culinary talent, not to mention the abundance of local products in the nearby area. Denver diners will be wowed by these upscale, epicurean eateries, and the city’s recently progressive food scene in general.
HOT NEW SPOTS
BECKON | CALL
Chef Duncan Holmes is behind what is arguably Denver’s most intimate — and inspiring — River North dining room, Beckon. Clocking in at just 18 seats, the stylish, nighttime-only, petite kin of Call, a lovely daytime hang that was named one of America’s Best New Restaurants by Bon Appétit magazine, is the kind of tiny hideaway that results in huge culinary epiphanies. Fueled by the cooking techniques of Scandinavia, America and Europe, Holmes and his team wow guests from their open kitchen, turning out a succession of seductive, season-inspired small plates that zigzag from pork collar with black truffles to breaded oysters crowned with caviar. It’s a luxurious, finessed and sublime symphony of perfection that unfolds at a U-shaped bar, in full view of the cooking artistry that doubles as theater. The exquisite experience, which includes optional wine, beer and cider pairings for an additional cost, is by prepaid online reservation only.
JOVANINA'S BROKEN ITALIAN
Bedecked with a stickered white Vespa scooter that poses as a host stand, pulleys and gears suspended from the ceiling, flickering candelabras, exposed brick walls and antique relics that honor the building’s past as a cigar factory, this eclectic Italian destination in Lower Downtown (LoDo) is the handiwork of spouses and co-owners Jake and Jennifer Linzinmeir, seasoned restaurateurs that have brought an exceptional warmth to the city’s dining scene. The menu, a romantically rustic collection of seriously delicious dishes, favors wood-fired steaks, chops and vegetables, fresh seafood, housemade pastas and thin-crusted pizzas, charred and bubbling spheres topped with ingredients that pay homage to seasonal shifts. The menu also touts large dishes — wood-fired lamb chops, for example — that are intended for two. The $45 Sunday suppers, spirited experiences that involve a four-course tasting menu, plus unlimited pours of chianti, are among the city’s most jovial communal dinner events.
A passionate ode to sandwich nirvana in the heart of the Golden Triangle, this superb deli is a giant gulp of euphoria. The beautiful space, overseen by Potager alumni Luke Hendricks and Anthony Lygizos, pulsates with vibrant energy, in part because of an infallibly warm and authentic staff that’s mastered hospitality in spades. Prepare to be fed before you order; the counter crew offers samples of this (curried potato salad), that (egg salad) and the other (pasta salad) and encourages you to unabashedly abandon your diet. Leven draws in all sorts — politicians, curators from the nearby Denver Art Museum, hipsters, students and sandwich geeks — for too many reasons to mention, but suffice it to say that the pastrami Reuben, sky-scraped with house-cured pastrami, Russian dressing, picked red cabbage and melted Jarlsberg cheese on toasted rye, holds its own against any Reuben in the city. There’s complimentary sparkling water, a full bar with groovy cocktails and esoteric wines, a terrific ginger shrub and, for a sweet finale, chocolate, tahini and malted milk brownies.
CHOOK CHARCOAL CHICKEN
If you have no idea how to raise chickens, you could just wing it. Then again, raising chickens isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. What to do? Grab a few friends that like to feast on fowl and head to this fast-casual Washington Park restaurant where fire-roasted birds rule the roost. A collaboration between Adam Schlegel (co-founder of Snooze), Alex Seidel (Mercantile Dining & Provision and Fruition) and Denver cocktail and bar guru Randy Layman, the modern restaurant, whose name is Australian lingo for chicken, is a far cluck from fast food. Here, in an open kitchen, the chickens, procured from Amish chicken farmers, are brined and cooked on rotisserie grills, their glistening golden skin and tender flesh served quartered, halved or whole, stacked between slices of bread for sandwiches and sliders, or tossed into salads and stews. If you’re still feeling peckish, the chocolate pudding is delicious.
RUN FOR THE ROSES
To get to this Victorian-era, underground cocktail den, you have to know where to look — and despite the name, its location is nowhere near any thoroughbreds. Meander along the alley of Dairy Block, a mixed-use retail, restaurant and hotel hotspot, slip through an unexceptional door and descend downward in an elevator, the doors of which open to a hallway that leads you to a cozy and sophisticated hideaway for kings and queens and everyone in between. The cocktails, priced at $13, are all listed on black-and-white, floral-designed playing cards, and the entire 52-card deck is devoted to classics with innovative twists. A small but formidable snack menu struts a late-night breakfast sandwich stacked with housemade spam, ketchup, cheddar and a yolk-spilling fried egg. There’s dessert, as well, including a built-for-two banana split.
Broadway Market, a collection of tantalizing open-concept restaurant stalls, plus a chocolatier, coffeehouse, bar and a self-serve beer wall, provides discoveries for every culinary persuasion in a contemporary, art-filled communal space. Serving foodstuffs from some of the city’s most acclaimed chefs and restaurateurs, the food emporium, perched on a busy stretch of South Broadway in the Golden Triangle, boasts nine restaurants. Get a taste of Argentina at Maria Empanada, or peruse a menu of authentically Mexican tacos, quesadillas, gorditas, fresh sides and housemade salsas at Al Chile. Guests can nosh on New York-style pizza from a wood-fired oven at Purgatory Pizza. Misaki on Broadway dishes up sushi, inspiring rolls, poke bowls and karaage — Japanese-style fried chicken. The warm chocolate chip cookies from Miette Et Chocolat are so good that you’ll want to get two. Mondo Mini offers a curated selection of sandwiches, salads, soups, cheese and charcuterie boards, fresh pasta dishes and grab-and-go deli items. On cold days, you can't beat slurping up a bowl of ramen at Tora Ramen, or turn up the heat at Republik of Chiken, which specializes in Korean-inspired sandwiches and sides. Along with a centerpiece bar with cocktails and wine, there’s a smartly designed pour-your-own beer wall with more than two dozen craft brews. If you want to shop in between sips and nibbles, peruse the market’s small boutiques, which sell everything from jewelry to offbeat gifts.
The visionary behind Safta is Israeli-born Alon Shaya, who opened his magnificent River North Art District (RiNo) restaurant after a stint in New Orleans, where he quickly rose to the top of that city’s dining pyramid, racking up a duo of James Beard Foundation awards. Shaya’s Denver restaurant, situated inside The Source, has also resulted in an avalanche of accolades, all of them hard-earned and well deserved. His modern ode to Israeli cooking is composed, confident and pure, his flavors precise and pronounced. Pita bread, for instance, sounds deceptively simple, but the puffed and charred pita that emerges from the wood-fired oven at Safta? It’s euphoric. So, too, is the hummus with lamb ragu, the baba ghanoush, the vibrant Moroccan carrot salad and the impossibly crisp eggplant, the spheres crested with herb-specked goat cheese and tomato sauce. The space, befitting the food, is light, airy and modern, its fixtures and furnishings a mix of communal tables, a long bar overlooking the open kitchen, art and drinkware inspired by Shaya’s grandmother and floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Denver skyline and mountain peaks. Like everything else here, the wines, many of which are from regions that are often overlooked (think Hungry, Greece and Israel), merit praise.
DENVER LOCALS' FAVORITES
From James Beard Award-winning luminaries Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, owners of Frasca Food and Wine — Boulder’s lauded Northern Italian temple of gastronomy — comes Tavernetta, a regional Italian restaurant based at the boot of the Kimpton Hotel Born, prime real estate that overlooks the platform of Denver Union Station. The menu, created by Frasca alum Ian Wortham, reaches deep into salumi, cheese, antipasti, housemade pastas and sensationally prepared fish and meat plates that seesaw between a breaded Berkshire pork chop to branzino with fennel, escarole and olives. The refined space, complete with a fireplace lounge, a trio of patios, a centerpiece open kitchen and pasta station that buzzes with activity and walls mounted with Slim Aarons portrait photographs showcasing Italians on ritzy holidays, suggests a lost world of wine-soaked lunches and dinners and sojourns to fantastical faraway places.
JAX FISH HOUSE
Founder Dave Query ignited Denver’s seafood scene with the opening of this oceanic restaurant and oyster bar in LoDo that has since spawned offshoots across Colorado and beyond. From its rambunctiously energetic vibe, offset by a subtle nautical theme, to its fiercely seasonal menu of sustainable seafood sourced from passionate purveyors, it’s a fan favorite for slurping pristine oysters, although the rest of the menu — crab legs, lobster, clam chowder, charred Spanish octopus and Alaskan halibut — is every bit as crowd-pleasing, as are the spirit-forward cocktails and compelling wines and craft beers.
THE FAMILY JONES SPIRIT HOUSE
A collaborative project from some of the biggest names in the city’s culinary landscape — including restaurateur Justin Cucci — this Lower Highland (LoHi) distillery, tasting room and restaurant is a bombshell of beautification. The tasting room, bedecked with purple-surfaced stools, plush old glory blue banquettes, concrete block walls mounted with pots flush with juniper, soaring windows and a sunken bar, is perched the below the mezzanine, which showcases a skylight-illuminated copper still. There’s a hybrid bar/kitchen — the team calls it “bitchen” — that dispenses innovative small plates. The three-cheese fondue, pooled in a hollowed-out pumpkin and paired with skewers, is a playful culinary fashion statement from chef Tom Dotson, whose food is offset by a superb cocktail scroll that favors botanicals and housemade spirits and liqueurs.
Chef, owner, culinary instructor and sojourner Linda Hampsten Fox oversees this dazzling LoHi market, bakery and restaurant that looks as though it could have been transported from Manhattan. By day, the high-ceilinged, sun-streaked dining room, awash in a minimalist white and black color palette, functions as an on-the-go stopgap for caffeine-jolted java drinks, housemade pastries, breakfast bites, sundries and sandwiches, while the ambitious dinner menu is a globetrotting homage to Fox’s culinary jaunts around the world. Slide a stool up the chef’s counter, where the air is fragrant from the wood-burning grill in the exhibition kitchen, and tuck into plates of charred octopus, braised beef cheeks, lamb osso buco, rabbit rarebit and hen coq au vin.
The tomahawk (for two) and the bone-in New York strip hold their own against any steak in The Mile High City. Citizen Rail is a meat-intensive stunner tucked behind Denver Union Station just adjacent to the new Kimpton Hotel Born Denver. A timeless, art-deco design scheme, reminiscent of a railcar, peacocks polished metal accents and mirrors that mimic the scenery from the window seats of a train, while the open kitchen is aromatic with the scent of smoldering ash from the wood-stoked grill. A visible dry-aging cave showcases cuts of beef, charcuterie and chops, and the menu, the workmanship of chef Christian Graves, a San Diego transplant, is stamped with “Butcher Shop” favorites: lamb chops, a bison filet, venison chops, a pork porterhouse, grilled swordfish, hamachi collar and plenty of beef, all broken down in house by a designated butcher. Plant-based foods shine, too, most notably in starters like the Persian cucumber salad and in side dishes of cauliflower and blue cheese gratin, braised root vegetables and wood-roasted mushrooms.
Chef-owner Caroline Glover, a 2022 James Beard Foundation best chef winner, thought twice before opening her lovely small-plates restaurant in the sprawling Stanley Marketplace in Aurora. But since its debut, the petite nirvana of culinary excellence has knocked the socks off just about everyone who's set foot inside the plant-filled space puddled with sunshine. Named one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants of 2017, Annette embodies everything you could possibly want from a dining experience: an elevated casual vibe, seasonal ingredients that are never manipulated, faultless flavor combinations, a wood-burning grill that permeates the air with perfumed smoke and a small but enormously satisfying wine scroll. The cocktails are heavenly, too.
HEARTH & DRAM
As Denver Union Station has developed, so has its demand for restaurants and bars, and Hearth & Dram, a gorgeously appointed watering hole and restaurant just behind Union Station, at the boot of Hotel Indigo , wraps you in its warm embrace. The lofty space, anchored by a showpiece kitchen commanded by executive chef Jeff Wall, ballyhoos a repertoire of charcuterie, share plates (the stacked onion rings are mind-altering) and main dishes that zigzag from pappardelle with morels and ramp confit to a grill-etched bone-in ribeye for two. Art sculptures and a sweep of leather and plaid accents dominate the windowed dining room, while the sensational whiskey collection — hence the “dram” part of the equation — draws a swanky cocktail crowd to the bar.
Leave it to restaurateur and design genius Justin Cucci (Linger, Vital Root, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox and Root Down) to erect a brilliantly designed, head-turning restaurant with equally jaw-dropping skyline views from its LoHi balcony. An elevator whisks you up to the fifth floor of El Five, where Mediterranean tapas and creative cocktails timed for the seasons intersect. And while both the food and libations are noteworthy, we wouldn’t fault Cucci if he charged an entrance fee just for the opportunity to behold the bright lights of the big city from the sky-high rooftop, which, at the moment, eclipses all others.
On the RiNo stretch of upper Larimer Street resides Il Posto, an Italian restaurant from Milan-born chef-owner Andrea Frizzi. All glitz, glamor and swagger, Il Posto 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.
DENVER CENTRAL MARKET
A veritable one-stop dining experience, this lively 12,000-square-foot gastrohall, located in the hip River North Art District (RiNo), ballyhoos 10 stands vending everything from tuna poke and squid ink spaghetti to wood-fired 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.
GUARD AND GRACE
Chef Troy Guard has been blazing culinary trails in Denver for more than a decade, and while the majority of his restaurants focus on Pan-Asian cuisine, Guard and Grace bucks bok choy for beef — crimson slabs of flesh served in testosterone-restrained surrounds offset by a beautifully appointed bar and lounge, a chef’s counter that peers over the expansive exhibition kitchen and elevated, crescent-shaped booths that overlook the dining room walled with floor-to-ceiling windows. The kitchen hits all the right buttons: delectable starters, including oak-fried octopus; a raw bar glistening with oysters, crab legs and lobsters; and grill-etched steaks dribbling with juice. A towering, glass-enclosed cellar displays upwards of 4,000 bottles of wine, many of which are also available by the glass.
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.
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 potstickers 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.
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 and Le Roux) walks the wok and talks the talk. Reserve a seat at the chef’s counter to witness Symensma’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.
For New American cuisine with a distinctive French flair, there may be 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 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.
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 Pigtrain Coffee Co.for a jolt of caffeine 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. For their second act at Union Station, Jasinski and Gruitch celebrate the foods of Spain and Portugal at Ultreia , a snug, sunlit gastroteka that takes diners on a culinary sojourn through Iberia — a journey that’s elevated by a terrific bar program that dives into Basque ciders, fortified wines, sherry, port and gin tonics, by which they’re known in Spain. 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 Next Door American Eatery, 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.
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, LoHi's 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 empanadas with cilantro-lime crema, pickled cactus and tomatillo chutney.
BEAST + BOTTLE
In 2013, chef-owner Paul Reilly, along with his sister, Aileen, unveiled Beast + Bottle, a quintessential neighborhood bistro perched on one of Denver’s most populated restaurant rows. Reilly’s cooking, an ode to locality, seasonality and global flavors, has earned him a spate of well-deserved accolades, while the enchanting farmhouse setting — largely synchronized with the food emerging from the partially open kitchen — is an object of adoration for romanticizing couples. The restaurant, which also serves weekend brunch, is centered around share plates, standouts of which include lamb tartare with smoked cauliflower and green harissa, a cured meat board propped with terrines, cheese and pickles, and the flatbread paved with Gorgonzola, guanciale and baby arugula. You could graze on the small plates all evening long, but then you might miss the sigh-inducing pappardelle with lamb shoulder ragù, ricotta and Meyer lemon oil. No matter what dish you order, there’s a wonderful bottle of wine to pair with it; the cocktails are bewitching, too.
This long-standing Parisian haunt from Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch (Rioja and Stoic & Genuine) evokes romance at every turn, whether it’s inside the captivating, soft-lit dining room or on the enticing courtyard patio flush with flowers. The menu, courtesy of chef de cuisine Adam Branz, is equally alluring, beckoning diners with escargot, voluptuous mussels floating in an herb-and-garlic broth and bouillabaisse bobbing with seafood, shaved fennel and chorizo. The budget-friendly wine list is exemplary, too, and on Monday evenings, couples would do well to take advantage of Monday Movie Nights, when a French flick — some focused on French food — paired with a three-course dinner, is just $55 per person.
No matter where you’re from, the Vietnamese food from this Federal Boulevard stalwart will transport you to an exotic wonderland of fragrant herbs and full-throttled flavors. The menu, a voluminous read, goes on for pages, making it difficult to make a decision. And because it’s nearly always full, servers might rush you through the process, so we’ll make it easy for you: Go for the Saigon Special, a mammoth plate of egg rolls, grilled pork, soft-shell crab, a forest of greens and herbs and rice paper; dip the rice papers into the container of hot water, shake off the excess, wrap everything inside the rolls and dunk them in the nuoc cham, a spicy Vietnamese dipping sauce.
EL TACO DE MEXICO
"For truly amazing flavors, El Taco de Mexico is a must," wrote Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern, who visited the iconic Art District on Santa Fe taco joint during a stopover in The Mile High City. El Taco de Mexico, he went on, is "Denver's quintessential taqueria," unleashing the "best menudo and tacos in the city." Locals wholeheartedly agree with that declaration, lining up morning, noon and night for the al pastor tacos specked with onions and cilantro, the chile relleno burrito smothered with a mind-blowingly good green chile and the menudo, Mexico’s antidote for hangovers. Make no mistake: It’s a dive with a yellow Formica counter and tattered booths, but it’s also the most beloved taqueria in town. And the fiery salsa is legendary.
Sleek and stylish looks, smashing cocktails, a thoughtful wine list and flavor-bombed dishes set this regional Chinese restaurant in RiNo — named for Denver’s original Chinatown — apart from the rest of the pack. Owned by Tommy Lee, the chef-proprietor of Uncle, it’s the kind of place that could be too trendy, but the food lives up to the hype thanks to showstoppers like the Shanghai rice cakes, beef chow fun and Beijing duck rolls. Reservations are only accepted for parties of six or more, but there are often seats at the community table, the epicenter of all the action.
To travel through the dishes that define Cafe Brazil, a sensationally charming South American restaurant from Mauricio Zorrilla and Tony and Marla Zarlenga, is to drift into a land of gypsy chiles and vibrant spices, fresh herbs and sweet plantains, passion fruit and prawns, swollen scallops and bacalhau, all beautifully harmonized in heartfelt ways that explain why the Berkeley neighborhood restaurant has such a loyal following. Against a backdrop of color and whimsy, high energy and contagious laughter, shots of rum and caipirinhas, diners socialize over plates of seafood Copacabana, a medley of shrimp and scallops in a lush coconut milk sauce and the moqueca de peixe, an irresistible stew stained sunset with dende oil and liberally enhanced with scallops, shrimp and Portuguese bacalhau. Don’t miss the adjacent rum bar, an energizing hangout that swaggers the best rum collection — and rum cocktails — in the city.
By Lori Midson