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.
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. Prost
DENVER LOCALS' FAVORITES
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. 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 two bars, including one on the altitude-high terrace.
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.
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; Boxcar Coffee Roasters, where the jolts of java put chain coffee to shame; 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.
Built into the bones of an old auto mechanic’s garage, Root Down, another hip eatery from prolific restaurateur Justin Cucci (Linger, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, Vital Root), is renowned for its seasonal approach to cooking, daring flavor combinations that jive to a global beat, vintage-trendy atmosphere and bustling patio scene. The mushroom tart with goat cheese, caramelized onions, duck confit and Champagne-pear compote is an ambrosial precursor to the Colorado lamb rack, pooled in vindaloo jus and mated with roasted squash, baby carrots and sundried tomato couscous. 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.
From the owners of Crema Coffee House, The Populist, a hipster-chic River North Art District(RiNo) restaurant reflective of refined New American cuisine, telegraphs triumphant dishes that bounce from duck liver mousse and maple-glazed Brussels sprouts to cider-braised pork cheeks and root vegetable gratin. The seven-course tasting menu for two—an unbeatable $80 bargain—is more than worthwhile, as are the optional wine pairings, a parade of short pours from an eclectic list that favors small producers. The metropolitan space, complete with a community table, small bar and bustling patio, fills up on the early side and doesn’t stop humming with conversation until the lights go dark. Most of the seats are reserved for walk-ins, but a limited number of reservations are available for parties of up to eight.
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 mater what dish you order, there’s a wonderful bottle of wine to pair with it; the cocktails are bewitching, too.