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Three decades ago, an entrepreneur named Steve Ells opened the first Chipotle Mexican Grill in Denver. The counter-service joint made its mark with California-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.

ILLEGAL PETE’S

When Illegal Pete’s opened its first Denver location, it amassed a fast and furious fan base with customers lining up in droves for the Mission-style Mexican burritos that first became popular in the Mission District of San Francisco in the 1960s. Since its inception, the local chain, which started in Boulder, has expanded throughout Colorado and into other cities, its fat burritos fit for college students and carpenters, accountants and airline pilots, snowboarders and skaters. The ingredients—shredded beef, grilled chicken, pork carnitas, beer-battered fish, grilled steak, vegetables, rice and pinto beans—are fresh, flavorful and rolled into white or wheat tortillas, the bulging torpedoes best cloaked with the joint’ pork-studded green chile and paired with a margarita. Bonus: The owner, a huge proponent of musicians, offers a Starving Artists program that feeds traveling bands for free.

Avanti Food & Beverage

Residing in Denver's LoHi neighborhood, this high-energy food hall occupies a former printing plant that now shelters a collection of self-contained shipping containers, each of which is a mini restaurant strutting an upscale, fast-casual model. Diners can choose from a world-spanning variety of cuisines—everything from French-inspired street food to wood-fired meats and Neapolitan pizzas—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 its 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 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.

The Denver Central Market

A veritable one-stop dining experience, this lively 12,000-square-foot gastohall, located in Denver’s hip River North Art District (RiNo), ballyhoos 10 fast-casual concepts 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 energetic 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-soaked, 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 soymilk broth, smoked broccoli, mushrooms, bok choy and yam noodles, is crowned with a soft-boiled egg, while the bánh mì tacos, slicked with edamame pâté, capitalize on the vibrant tastes of Vietnam. The café also serves weekend brunch and offers happy hour Tuesday through Sunday.

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 Platt 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 excellent.     

BriDer Rotisserie

From the crew behind Acorn at the Source and Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, comes BriDer, an elevated fast-casual follow-up in LoHi that swaggers 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 is especially notable), seasonal soups, small plates, rotisserie chicken, lamb and porchetta, plus a lofty breakfast menu that includes everything from a croque madame waffle to huevos rancheros. The beverage scroll, overseen by Dayton, focuses on craft beers, innovative cocktails and a handful of wines by the glass and bottle.  

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 occupies five addresses in the metro area, including one in Glendale, a short distance from downtown Denver. 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. 

Dio Mio

This superb RiNo temple to housemade pasta from chefs and co-owners Alex Figura and Spencer White follows the prototype fast-casual model insomuch that you’re responsible for procuring your own water bottle, grabbing your own cutlery and ordering your food at the counter. But while the bare essentials surroundings and do-it-yourself service model isn’t sexy, the pastas—handmade, vibrant and craftsmanlike—are profoundly divine. There is a magnificent cacio e pepe showered with sharp Parmesan cheese and cracked black pepper, a brisket and mushroom lasagna with nori pesto, squid ink fusilli flavored with blue crab and tomato-red curry and agnolotti filled with kale and salty ricotta. You will get your food quickly, but it’s worth savoring, and it’s also to your advantage to pair your pasta with a glass of bubbles and, for dessert, the apple and almond cake with aged balsamic.

Rosenberg’s Bagels

Plump, textural, double-fisted bagels with chewy interiors are the calling card of this Five Points shop that debuted in 2014 and has since added an offshoot inside Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace. The restaurants are nothing short of a madhouse at lunchtime, but the queue to the counter moves quickly, and the proofed, boiled and baked New York-style bagels, which owner and baker Joshua Pollack has perfected by reconfiguring his H20 to mimic New York tap water, can be tricked out with flavored cream cheeses and stacked with housemade gravlax and smoked salmon, house-cured pastrami and staples like a scrambled egg, cheese, Taylor ham and locally procured bacon. Fancy an old-fashioned egg cream? Rosenberg’s has those, too. And if you insist on dessert, grab a black-and-white-frosted cookie for a late-afternoon sugar high.

Birdcall

Fried chicken sandwiches rule the roost at this trio of yolk-hued quick-service joints owned by the group behind Homegrown Tap & Dough, Park Burger and Park and Co. The trio of locations—Five Points, Denver Union Station and Rosedale—sports streamlined menus that focus on crisp-fried, boldly-seasoned chicken breasts piled onto a toasted bun and splooshed with everything from buffalo sauce to buttermilk mayonnaise flecked with herbs, marinara sauce, bacon jam or sriracha aioli. Computerized touch-screen menu kiosks simplify the ordering process, and the piping hot chicken sandwiches, served on metal trays, come down the hatch quickly. Slender, salted fries, fresh salads and thick milkshakes round out the menu.

Poke City

Whip out your chopsticks to devour bowls of glistening raw fish at these colorful island-casual homages to Hawaiian-influenced poke bowls, heaping assemblages of spicy tuna, cubed salmon, ahi or yellowfin, rice or fresh greens and dozens of varied toppings, including avocado, onions, cilantro, tofu, crab salad, pickled ginger and seaweed. Top the bowls off with one of the spot’s sauces, the best of which is the house concoction with soy, mustard and sesame oil.  Every poke bowl is served with a small bowl of miso soup, and while there’s no liquor license, the housemade tropical teas and lemonades are terrific. Poke City has various locations across the city, one of which resides on the 16th Street Mall.

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. Located in Berkeley, the spot struts a chic décor bedecked with eye-catching art and a sassy color scheme, plus a wine and craft beer roster that pairs well with the vibrantly spiced food. 

Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery

There’s a trifecta of these fine-casual, chef-driven restaurant overseen by Clint Wangsnes, a talented kitchen magician who designed his 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 fast-casual 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, as well as outposts at Coors Field and Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre.

Tocabe, an American Indian Eatery

The brainbox of Ben Jacobs, a tribal member of the Osage Nation, Tocabe, a cornerstone of both the Berkeley and Greenwood Village neighborhoods, is a coolly designed counter-service restaurant 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 and Stapleton neighborhoods. All 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 that strive to streamline waiting 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 (but formidable) craft-beer roster, along with wines on tap.

Chipotle Mexican Grill

A pioneer of the fast-casual movement, Chiptole 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.

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 favors a healthy spin on Asian-fusion cuisine. Sporting two locations—Larimer Square and another inside downtown’s Republic Plaza—Bubu’s dining room is sleek with 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 housemade 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 focus on 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 a communal vibe that focuses on getting to know your neighbor.

Cart-Driver

Fans of wood-fired pizza flock to this superb micro pizzeria in RiNo 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. A new, second offshoot in Lower Highland (LoHi) is far larger than the flagship and boasts a bona fide bar to slurp oysters and sip bubbles.

Smashburger

You can’t have a conversation 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 outpost at 16th and Lawrence Streets.   

By Lori Midson