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In the mid-’90s, an entrepreneur named Steve Ells opened the nation’s first Chipotle Mexican Grill in Denver. The counter-service joint made its mark with Mission-style burritos—and along the way became a paradigm of the fast-casual model, a concept that has since swept the country. 

But fast and casual is a far cry from the greasy drive-thru food of yesteryear. Instead, it’s the marriage of high-quality, chef-driven menus and counter service that’s designed to respect the time-pressed patron who wants something significantly better than nacho cheese draped over stale chips.

The Mile High City’s fast-casual movement has exploded in recent years, yielding everything from sensational Neapolitan pizzas crested with fresh clams to exotic game sausages squiggled with cream cheese and scaled with onions steeped in Coca-Cola. Take a (quick) bite out of these excellent fast-casual restaurants in Denver, and you’ll see why The Mile High City is the indisputable incubator of one of the nation’s hottest dining trends.

Avanti Food & Beverage

Residing in Denver's Lower Highland neighborhood, Avanti Food & Beverage, a high-energy food hall that occupies a former printing plant, shelters a collection of self-contained shipping containers, each of which is a mini restaurant with a fast-casual model. Diners can choose from a world-spanning variety of cuisines—everything from Venezuelan arepas to sushi—and enjoy their meal in the communal first-floor dining area, or on the riveting rooftop deck, which offers sweeping views of the downtown Denver skyline. Along with restaurants, Avanti also lays claim to several cocktail bars, including one on the altitude-high terrace.

Modern Market

The original Boulder location of this farm-to-table fast-casual spot has spawned multiple siblings, including outposts on the 16th Street Mall and at Denver international Airport. Specializing in seasonal ingredients served every which way—surfacing thin-crusted pizzas, immersed in salads, stuffed in sandwiches, swirled in soups and on breakfast plates—Modern Market deftly bridges the gap between quick food and craveable quality, while simultaneously keeping dietary restrictions front and center. Here, paleo, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and carnivorous appetites intersect, making it the ideal place to satisfy every food preference.

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 fast-casual concepts 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.

Vital Root

Occupying a small storefront on Tennyson Street in the trendy Berkeley neighborhood, Vital Root, a fast-casual breakfast, lunch and dinner spot from creative visionary Justin Cucci (Linger, Root Down and Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox), features fresh-squeezed juices and an innovative parade 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.

Biju’s Little Curry Shop

There’s pedestrian curry in a hurry, and then there’s Biju’s Little Curry Shop, where the Indian curries—made fast and on the fly—are bowls of refined beauty. And although chef and owner Biju Thomas remains faithful to the familiar flavors of South India, he’s unapologetic about tweaking traditional dishes or lobbing ingredients into unpredictable roles. Whether it’s the coconut curry chicken with crushed papadams, herbed yogurt and sautéed cabbage, or the masala beef topped with a shower of shredded coconut, this is fast-casual Indian at its finest. There are two locations—River North and Berkeley—both of which sport chic decors bedecked with artistic graffiti and a sassy color scheme, plus wine and craft beer rosters that pair well with the vibrantly spiced food. 

Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery

There are two locations—one in Park Hill, the other in Lowry—of this fine-casual, chef-driven restaurant that’s overseen by Clint Wangsnes, a talented kitchen magician who designed both Chop Shop menus to minimize the length of mealtime while maximizing his terrific food repertoire to ensure that tots, parents and everyone in between will be happy with their order. Grilled steak and chicken, macaroni and cheese, crispy-fried tofu and chicken fingers round out the kids’ board, while adults indulge in the union of slow-cooked short ribs and grilled baby carrots, the delicious French dip or fried rice with shrimp and duck confit. It’s familiar food prepared with finesse, especially when you consider the French onion soup, a bowlful of slow-cooked bliss. 

Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs

From the super-cool industrial vibe to the tricked-out sausages squiggled with cream cheese and topped with onions caramelized in Coca-Cola, Biker Jim’s, situated near Coors Field in the Ballpark ‘hood, embodies just about everything you could want in a restaurant that aims to appease time-pressed eaters. Exotic game meats (think rattlesnake, reindeer and wild boar) are the primary allure, but there’s also an all-beef dog, an award-winning vegan dog and a terrific cheeseburger, not to mention a solid craft-beer lineup. The buzzing joint, owned by Jim Pittenger—Colorado’s undisputed sausage czar—offers indoor and outdoor seating, and there’s a second mobile cart location on the 16th Street Mall.

Tocabe, an American Indian Eatery

The brainbox of Ben Jacobs, a tribal member of the Osage Nation, Tocabe, a cornerstone of the Berkeley neighborhood, is a coolly designed counter-service restaurant (a second outpost resides in Greenwood Village) that offers innovative takes on American Indian cuisine. Its signature fry bread—puffed fried dough—is a delicious canvas for fillings like ground beef or shredded bison, grilled chicken, or vegan beans—and if you want those same ingredients folded in a taco, tossed in a salad or punctuating your nachos, the kitchen obliges. Toppings include roasted green chiles and sweet corn, while finishing sauces range from maple vinaigrette to sour cream and ancho chipotle. Behold, too, the meaty bison ribs, cured for 24 hours, braised in bison stock and glazed with a barbecue sauce sweetened with berries. 

Pizzeria Locale

Keep your eye on the pie at these highbrow Neapolitan pizza emporiums with locations in the Highland and Speer neighborhoods. Both are offshoots of the original Pizzeria Locale in Boulder, and while the Boulder prototype is a full-service restaurant, the Denver branches are counter service models geared toward those short on time. The blistered, pliant and thin-crusted pies (the mais pizza, topped with mozzarella, crème fraiche, corn, garlic and ham, is the star of the show) emerge from the state-of-the-art wood-fired oven in mere minutes, ensuring that you still have time to indulge in the pizzeria’s decadent butterscotch budino. Should you need further enticement, there’s a small (bur formidable) craft-beer roster, along with wines on tap.

Larkburger

A homegrown chain that got its start in the Vail Valley, Larkburger, with multiple locations throughout the metro area, including downtown Denver, is a fast-casual enterprise that turns out excellent burgers unburdened by the uneasiness of second-rate ingredients. The concept, thoughtfully conceived to limit environmental waste (utensils are made out of potatoes, electricity is powered by wind energy and recycled wood dominates the walls), redefines the run-of-the-mill burger by featuring Black Angus beef, elevated toppings, including truffled mushrooms and tomatoes grown in Colorado – and all of the ingredients are preservative- and additive-free. Pair your burger with side of the addictive fries dusted with grated Parmesan ad black truffle sea salt.

Chipotle Mexican Grill

A pioneer of the fast-casual movement, Chipotle Mexican Grill—born and bred in Colorado—ballyhoos dozens of locations throughout The Mile High City, including several that dot the streets of downtown. The prolific chain’s claim to fame is its bulging burritos busting at the seams with cilantro-studded rice, beans, meats (think chorizo, barbacoa, steak, carnitas or chicken) and add-ons like guacamole, sour cream, fajita vegetables, cheese and salsas that zigzag from a roasted corn number to a spicy red chile and tomatillo concoction. Soft corn or flour tacos, crisp-shelled tacos, naked burritos sans the tortilla and Mexican-inspired salads round out the menu. If you want to see where it all started, check out the original location at 1644 East Evans Avenue, near the University of Denver campus.

Brider

From the crew behind Acorn at the Source and Oak at Fourteenth, in Boulder, comes Brider, an elevated fast-casual follow-up that struts an all-day menu centered around rotisserie cooking and a communal environment that’s airy, contemporary and vibrantly outfitted with bright green chairs, reclaimed oak tables and a patio overlooking bustling Platte Street. The restaurant, commanded by culinary heavyweights Steven Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton, proffers a terrific New American-French syllabus of hearty salads, spectacular sandwiches (the Wagyu beef French dip, especially, is notable), seasonal soups, small plates, rotisserie chicken, lamb and porchetta, plus a lofty breakfast menu that includes everything from a croque madamme waffle to huevos rancheros. The beverage roster, overseen by Dayton, ballyhoos craft beers, clever cocktails and a handful of wines by the glass and bottle.  

Bubu

Troy Guard is one of Denver’s most prolific chefs and restaurateurs, as evidenced by his ever-expanding portfolio of hits, including Bubu, a fast-casual, build-your-own-bowl concept that features a healthy spin on Asian-fusion cuisine. Sporting two locations—Larimer Square and another inside downtown’s Republic Plaza—Bubu features modern aesthetics and whimsical art, plus chef counters that peer over the open kitchens where the kitchen quickly assembles beautiful pyramids of vegetables, rice, herbs, seeds, cooked meats or raw sushi-grade fish, all tossed with innovative dressings that seesaw from carrot mustard to green goddess.

Olive & Finch Eatery and Bakery

Boasting zip codes in the Uptown and Cherry Creek neighborhoods, Olive & Finch, a polished fast-casual concept from chef and restaurateur Mary Nguyen, offers breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner menus that feature the obligatory pastries (muffins, tarts, banana bread and biscuits), along with dishes like egg scrambles, seasonal salads, two-fisted sandwiches and dinner plates dressed with roasted chicken, pan-seared steak, pan-roasted salmon and braised pork paired with polenta. There are plenty of other reasons to come here, too: fresh-squeezed juices, fantastic coffee drinks, a full slate of alcoholic libations and an energetic vibe that focuses on community interaction.

Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria

Visually inspiring Havana Street art, a kaleidoscopic color scheme and a buzzy atmosphere lend a lot of character to Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria, which sports four outposts in the metro area, including one in Glendale, a short distance from the city center. The fast-casual menu hinges on a vast array of Caribbean-inspired sandwiches: toasted rolls bracketing layers of vegetables, zesty sauces and spreads and a choice of pork, steak, chicken or fish, all of which should be matched with a side of sweet plantains or the Cuban fries. Meat-based plates eschew bread for heaps of fragrant black beans and rice, although bread reappears in the spongy tres leches cake topped with whipped cream. To drink? A mojito, naturally. 

Cart-Driver

Fans of wood-fired pizza flock to this superb micro pizzeria that’s as long on flavor as it is short on space—all 640 square feet of it. The pizzas, ordered at the counter, are flawless, their yeasty, black-etched crusts, smeared with a long-simmered tomato sauce and studded with impeccable ingredients: smoked ricotta, royal trumpet mushrooms, fresh ham and Biellese pepperoni. Be forewarned: All of the pizzas make resistance futile, perhaps none more so than the fresh clam pie with pancetta, roasted garlic and Pecorino. You could just stick with the pizzas at Cart-Driver and be deliriously happy, but you should probably order the glistening oysters, a charcuterie plate and a batched Manhattan to experience ultimate euphoria.

Smashburger

You can’t talk about Denver’s fast-casual monopoly without a shout-out to Smashburger, a Denver-based chain that was founded in 2007 by Rick Schaden and Tom Ryan, visionaries who insisted on—and succeeded in—bringing a way-better burger to the marketplace. The patties, made of Angus beef, are seasoned with a proprietary blend of spices, hand-smashed, griddled to order and served on custom-baked rolls smeared with smash sauce comprised of mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice and pickles. It’s a formula that works, and customers now flock to over 370 worldwide locations. In Denver, get smashed at the 16th Street Mall location: 1201 16th Street. 

Honor Society Handcrafted Eatery

Honor Society Handcrafted Eatery, situated just behind Denver Union Station, elevates the fast-casual model to a fine-casual dining experience, thanks to a seasonal American menu that features healthy proteins and market-fresh ingredients. Options like grilled Aspen Ridge flank steak, sustainable cedar-plank salmon and local heirloom beet salad are complemented by an ensemble of feel-good breakfast dishes and housemade pizzas, all of which are available with a gluten-free crust. There's also a full bar pouring craft cocktails, locally brewed beer and wines on tap.

Civic Center EATS

Cleverly leveraging the city’s food-truck popularity to support a historic landmark, Civic Center EATS is a summertime culinary bonanza that unfolds every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at downtown Denver's historic Civic Center Park. Patrons enjoy live music and multicultural foodstuffs from dozens of trucks and carts, and there’s plenty of shaded tables and lawn space to linger. Bonus: A portion of the proceeds benefits the Civic Center Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring, enhancing and advocating Civic Center Park. The revelry expands to spring, fall and winter during Civic Center NOSH & POSH, a collection of food and fashion trucks that appear from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on the second Thursday of every month from November through April.

 

By Lori Midson