When you visit The Mile High City, you'll find plenty of places conducive to sightseeing — historic landmarks, world-class museums, theaters and parks and terrific shopping — but it's likely that you'll leave dishing about Denver's glorious restaurants.
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 pushes 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.
Mint, located in the heart of downtown Denver, just off the 16th Street Mall, embodies the laid-back spirit of familiar Northern Indian cuisine: curries, tandoori chicken, samosas and vegetarian dishes that zigzag from roasted eggplant to spice-laced potatoes and cauliflower. Still, while most of the menu is traditional, the kitchen digs a little deeper, turning out goat in every guise, along with Chettinad curries from South India. The space, a siren song of bright red tablecloths and tufted banquettes, offset by mint green-accented walls, is cheery and warm, as is the service.
“It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing,” sang jazz icon Duke Ellington in 1931. He’d probably be singing the same tune if he stepped into Dazzle, a supper club in downtown Denver’s Theatre District that jazzes up the city’s music scene with local, regional and national vocalists and groups who know how to belt out Ellington, Ella and Louis with style. In addition to the performance spaces, there’s a counter that’s reserved for old vinyl, plus a sidewalk patio, a full bar and a large kitchen that dispenses a full slate of foodstuffs that range from seafood paella and sandwiches to pizzas and the venue’s famed macaroni and cheese.
With its fresh-baked breads, refined housemade pastas, hearty main dishes and sensational happy hour, Panzano, a Northern Italian restaurant attached to the Hotel Monaco, hits all the high marks. The open kitchen (snag a seat at the chef’s counter for a more personal experience) turns out lovely food that bursts with flavor and the comforting elements of nuanced Italian cooking. The relaxed but elegant setting gets a boost from the perimeter of large windows that yields views of the city skyline.
There’s no shortage of culinary enthusiasm on downtown Denver’s historic Larimer Square, where rollicking nightlife intersects with exhilarating restaurants like Rioja, a sultry set-dressed Spanish- and Mediterranean-inspired stunner that cemented the stardom of Jennifer Jasinski, a James Beard Foundation award-winner for Best Chef Southwest.
Excellent pizzas are on display at Osteria Marco, a commodious restaurant that showcases the wide-ranging talents of chef Frank Bonanno, whose menu parades creamy burrata, house-crafted bresaola and ciccioli and a terrific egg-crowned carbonara pizza specked with pancetta and Pecorino.
Troy Guard’s flagship restaurant, TAG, dabbles in innovative Asian-leaning dishes, which are often flecked with memorable little touches: a dusting of black lava salt on his burrata and edible flowers on his herb-punctuated risotto with apricots, lardo and chanterelle mushrooms.
Tamayo, a modern Mexican restaurant from celeb chef Richard Sandoval, is hailed for its creative adaptations of regional south-of-the-border cuisine, extensive tequila syllabus and high-design rooftop patio, a partially enclosed expanse that’s prime real estate for eyeballing those mesmerizing Colorado sunsets and the illuminated light display that blankets Larimer Square and the city skyline.
Elegant, enchanting and oh-so-romantic, Bistro Vendome, a French restaurant tucked away in a discreet courtyard just off Larimer Square, struts a splendid flower- and plant-flush patio, making it an ideal respite for starry nights and sun-smooched days. Don’t miss the bouillabaisse, steak frites or mussels and, for a sweet finale, the chocolate bouchons.
Despite its chain status, The Capital Grille, a longstanding Larimer Square steakhouse, evokes a genuine sense of personalization underscored by an appropriately posh atmosphere enriched with plush leather booths, gleaming dark woods, burnished accents and ambient lighting. Spend some time studying the extensive wine list—5,000 bottles strong—to seal the deal.
UNION STATION AND LOWER DOWNTOWN DENVER (LoDo)
Longtime locals still remember Lower Downtown (LoDo) as a scruffy ‘hood bereft of major player restaurants, but when Vesta—a high-decibel space with an eclectic but artfully conceived American menu—opened its doors 20 years ago, LoDo became a fashionable dining area for hipsters, the food cognoscenti and restaurant industry heavyweights.
The riveting neighborhood’s culinary gathering place is Denver Union Station, which underwent a glorious renovation in 2014, inspiring 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 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 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).
For a more casual 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 punctuated 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.
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 an open kitchen, ballyhoos a repertoire of charcuterie, lovely share plates (the stacked onion rings are mind-altering) and main dishes that zigzag from papparedelle 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
Nearby, ChoLon, a fashionable Pan-Asian restaurant from chef-owner Lon Symensma (Cho77 and Concourse), 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: wok-tossed Brussels sprouts mingling with ground pork and makrut lime leaves, for example. The kitchen is best known for its soup dumplings.
From its subtle nautical theme to its fiercely seasonal menu of sustainable seafood, Jax Fish House, a hub of energetic revelry, is a Denver favorite for slurping oysters, although the rest of the menu—crab legs, lobster, clam chowder, charred Spanish octopus and Alaskan halibut—is every bit as crowd-pleasing.
Shelves stacked with mason jars brimming with pickled vegetables and fruits, produce and herbs sprouting on the garden patio, an in-house butchery program and dry-aging room, mushrooms growing in an illuminated indoor terrarium, and a communal table constructed from recycled trees creates the landscape of Urban Farmer, a hip steakhouse inside the historic Oxford Hotel. The kitchen staff also maintains a rooftop bee colony, and the honey finds its way into salad dressings, butters, desserts and starters like foie gras. Shellfish towers, along with chicken, fish, lamb chops and pork chops, round out the food menu. The beverage scroll, bounded in a leather book, favors local beers, boozy cocktails and wines from the Pacific Northwest, including a lovely Angela Estate pinot noir produced specifically for the restaurant.
The tomahawk (for two) and the bone-in New York strip hold their own against any steak in The Mile High City at Citizen Rail, 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, yields 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. 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.
Renowned for its leafy, tree-shaded avenues, historic brick homes and sidewalk patios, the Uptown ‘hood features a diverse wheelhouse of restaurants. Sugar fiends flock to pastry chef extraordinaire Keegan Gerhard's D Bar Denver, a sweet shack that Gerhard, along with his wife, Lisa Bailey, opened in 2008. Gerhard, former host of Food Network Challenge, did time at some of the best restaurants in the country, including Chicago's Charlie Trotter's. Want to grab a bite before you dig into dessert? Stop into Steuben's for a helping of elevated comfort food, including deviled eggs, fried chicken and an excellent green chile cheeseburger. If you're up for a little competition, head next door to Ace Eat Serve for a game of table tennis and contemporary Asian contemplations like spicy pork ramen.
In 2013, chef-owner Paul Reilly, along with his sister, Aileen, unveiled Beast + Bottle, a quintessential neighborhood bistro. 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. No matter which dish you order, there’s a wonderful bottle of wine to pair with it; the cocktails are bewitching, too. Coperta, the duo’s follow-up to Beast + Bottle, showcases a menu stacked with fresh produce, house-made pastas, cheese and salumi plates, wood-fired meats and tempting cocktails and wines.
Cherry Creek is a hopping shopping mecca, but it's also a notable destination for its versatile dining scene. Football fanatics (and those who crave slabs of steer) congregate at Elway's, a wildly successful bastion of beef from current Denver Broncos general manager and former quarterback John Elway.
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 quarters, 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.
Smack-dab in the center of the Sixth Avenue corridor sits Barolo Grill, a northern Italian restaurant that romances couples with its atmospheric setting (complete with a flickering fireplace) and bewitchingly captivating dishes from chef Darrel Truett, who adds a dash of whimsy to his classic cooking style. If you happen to be in The Mile High City in November, don’t miss Barolo’s annual multi-course truffle dinner.
Looking for a great brunch spot to kick off a day of shopping? Swing by Social Fare, inside the JW Marriott, for bagels and lox, omelets, breakfast pizzas, Benedicts and bottomless mimosas.
RIVER NORTH ART DISTRICT (RINO)
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, a lively American restaurant with a near faultless wood-fired kitchen; 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; 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.
On the fevered stretch that’s Upper Larimer Street resides Il Posto, a sparkling Italian restaurant from Milan-born chef-owner Andrea Frizzi. The space—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. 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.
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.
Comfort of the Latin-American variety is the calling card of Work & Class, a refreshingly free-spirited restaurant 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.
Denver Central Market, a 12,000-square-foot gastohall, grandstands 10 culinary vendors dispensing everything from tuna poke and squid ink spaghetti to wood-fired pizzas, handcrafted 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 sprawling food hall 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.
Sleek and stylish looks, smashing cocktails, a thoughtful wine list and flavor-bombed Chinese dishes set Hop Alley—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.
For some of Denver's finest neighborhood dining, head straight to the urban enclave of Governor's Park/Capitol Hill, a bustling thoroughfare located just minutes from downtown.
Chef-owner Frank Bonanno received a hero's welcome from the culinary cognoscenti when he graced Denver with Mizuna, a charming French- restaurant fueled by passion, luxurious ingredients and polished flavors. Right around the corner from Mizuna, you'll find food aficionados jostling for seats at Luca, Bonanno’s upscale Italian restaurant. In this handsome space, patrons go giddy for the chef's upfront, vivacious pastas, like the white-truffled fusilli. Bones, another Bonanno concept, is noodle nirvana, its menu stamped with udon, soba and steaming bowls of ramen, including the wildly popular lobster, even more decadent when its crowned with a poached egg.
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. 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.
“Locally sourced and seasonally driven” is the creed of Potager, a farm-to-table restaurant with an exclamation point. Rustically furnished, intimate and ideal for romantic interludes, it has a menu that’s passionately devoted to locality, while its inspirations hail from here, there and everywhere. During the summer months, diners pack the patio, which doubles as chef-owner Teri Rippeto’s personal kitchen garden.
HIGHLAND AND LOHI
In the hip Highland and LoHi neighborhoods, you'll find restaurants like Sushi Ronin, a highbrow head-turner that turns sushi on its skull. Here, against a contemporary backdrop of artistic accents, custom-made furniture and a sultry backlit bar, chef Corey Baker dispenses first-rate fresh fish from the sushi bar (splurge on the seven-course tasting menu), plus miso-marinated black cod, broiled hamachi and shake collars and salted mackerel.
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 prolific restaurateur Justin 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. 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, another hit from 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. Built into the bones of an old auto mechanic’s garage, Root Down, yet another hip spot from Cucci, is heralded for its seasonal approach to cooking, daring flavor combinations that jive to a global beat, vintage-trendy atmosphere and bustling patio scene. The bar supplies inventive cocktails, among the best of which is the la Puebla sour concocted with mezcal, chile liqueur, lemon, aquafaba (chickpea brine) and toasted cinnamon.
Avanti Food & Beverage, a dynamic, bi-level food hall that occupies a former printing plant, shelters a collection of self-contained shipping containers, each of which is a mini restaurant. Diners can choose from a world-spanning variety of cuisines—everything from Venezuelan arepas to fresh-made pastas—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 two bars, including one on the altitude-high terrace.
Uncle, chef-owner Tommy Lee’s Asian noodle bar was a smash hit from the day it opened, and the lines out the door begin promptly at 5 p.m.—even on a weekday. Reservations aren’t accepted (your best bet is to arrive within 30 minutes of the opening tick), but your patience is rewarded with dazzling dishes that zigzag from pork belly bao and salmon crudo paired with a tamarind ponzu to duck ramen and chilled noodles mingling with chicken, apples, cashews and arugula.
By Lori Midson