When you visit The Mile High City, you'll still 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.
What follows is a road map of Denver's top table, temples of gastronomy that you'll want to make note of.
Start your culinary rumblings in Larimer Square, where rollicking nightlife intersects with exhilarating restaurants like Rioja (1431 Larimer St.), a stylishly appointed Mediterranean-inspired dining den overseen by effusive chef-owner Jennifer Jasinski. Food-obsessed warriors nosh on accomplished dishes such as the cardamom-spiced Kurobuta pork belly, sashimi of tuna and tuna tartare, artichoke tortelloni and spice-rubbed Colorado lamb. Jasinski's high-minded devotion to unassailable ingredients and multifaceted flavors has elevated her to one of Denver's most revered chefs. Jasinski also presides over Bistro Vendome (1420 Larimer St.) a convivial Parisian-style bistro that attracts romancing habitués who cozy up to candlelit corners for escargot, foie gras, seaworthy heaps of mussels and classic steak frites. Spectacular Italian dishes are on display at Osteria Marco (1453 Larimer St.) a commodious Larimer Square basement establishment that exposes the high priest talents of cutting-edge kitchen magician Frank Bonanno, whose menu reaches culinary heights, starting with the creamy, housemade burrata and house-crafted bresaola and ciccioli and culminating with the egg-crowned carbonara pizza specked with pancetta and Pecorino or the Tuscan-rubbed bistecca with gorgonzola fonduta and potato gratin.
Once upon a time, Lower Downtown Denver, or LoDo, as it's dubbed by locals, was a scruffy ‘hood bereft of major player restaurants, but a decade ago, when Vesta Dipping Grill (1822 Blake St.) a high decibel space with an eclectic, but artfully conceived creative American menu courtesy of top toque Matt Selby, threw open its doors, LoDo became a fashionable dining area for hipsters, foodie snobs and restaurant industry loons. A few blocks away, in the Ballpark neighborhood, so named for its proximity to Coors Field, home turf to the Colorado Rockies baseball club, Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria (2129 Larimer St.) constructs beautiful Neapolitan pies made with Double-O-Caputo flour imported from Italy in a stunning space bedecked with enormous coal-fired ovens that glow crimson. The thin, blistered crusts are perfect, the ingredients used to top those pizzas, superb and owner Mark Dym excels with personalized service that doesn't miss a beat.
Sugar fiends, celebrity stalkers, Uptown cognoscenti and ardent followers of the weekly, top-rated Food Network Challenge are flocking to pastry extraordinaire Keegan Gerhard's D-Bar Desserts a lovely sweet shack that Gerhard, along with his wife, Lisa Bailey, opened in 2008. Gerhard, who joined the Food Network in 2001 and films many of the Challenge shows locally at High Noon Entertainment, did time at some of the best restaurants in the country, including Chicago's Charlie Trotter's. Note: D-Bar is currently moving to a new location in Uptown at the corner of E. 18th Ave. and Pennsylvania. The new, improved D-Bar will boast an expanded menu, more seating, a full bar and more of what has made the restaurant a favorite among Denver foodies.
Sushi Sasa (2401 15th St.), a streamlined, ultra-modern, urban-Zen space that rivals the kind of sleek Japanese hangout you'd encounter in New York's Soho, indoctrinates raw fish-goers who don't blink an eye at spending upwards of $100 for omakase, a multi-course selection from chef Wayne Conwell, who sliced and diced alongside Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Conwell's vibrant menu also touts an endless syllabus of soups, salads, sushi, sashimi and tempura dishes.
For 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 us with Mizuna (225 E. 7th Ave.), a charming New American restaurant fueled by passion, luxurious ingredients and polished flavors. When it comes to Bonanno's foie gras torchon, for instance, there is none better. Nor will you find a richer, more decadent lobster macaroni and cheese, folded with mascarpone, anywhere else in, well, the world. Right around the corner from Mizuna, you'll find Italian food aficionados jostling for seats at Luca D'Italia (711 Grant St.), another Bonanno restaurant. In this handsome space, patrons go giddy for the chef's upfront, vivacious pastas, like the white-truffled fusilli. Other dishes, such as the rabbit presented three ways - confit, grilled, and braised - reveal profoundly flavored, feather-tender meat. Bonanno continually draws accolades from local and national critics, and just this year, he was named a James Beard Foundation semi finalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category. No surprise, given the fact that this is a chef who cut his teeth at famed restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Restaurant Daniel, and the French Laundry. Bones (701 Grant St.) squished between Mizuna and Luca D'Italia is a hip, Asian-inspired noodle house that's crammed with gastronauts who can't get enough of Bonanno's ramen noodle bowl stocked with lobster, roasted bone marrow or pork belly tempura.
In the burgeoning Highland and Berkeley Park neighborhoods, Francophiles get their fix at Z Cuisine and Z Cuisine À Côté (2239 W. 30th Ave.), a snug bistro/wine bar with tapestry-topped wooden chairs, creaky hardwood floors, and countrified tables. The fantastic French fare, prepared by chef-owner Patrick De Pays, is all about parlaying his passion for top-quality ingredients into truehearted dishes such as the duck leg confit tumbling with frisee, white beans, and a tomato and mushroom pesto ragout or perfect crepes blanketed with veal sausage, sautéed apples, and crème fraiche. Devotees of John Broening clamor to Duo (2413 W. 32nd Ave.), a fetching food temple flanked by wide planked hardwoods, exposed brick, rusted steel accents and a bustling exhibition kitchen. Broening's fuss-free American creations tout seasonally-charged, market fresh ingredients and restorative flavors. To wit: rosemary-marinated and sausage-stuffed Colorado lamb loin surrounded by a drift of farro and baby artichoke pilaf. At Café Brazil (4408 Lowell Blvd.), a funky neighborhood hot spot, chef-owner Tony Zarlenga ministers to assertive palates, especially those with an affinity for hot Brazilian peppers, lime leaves, dende oil, coconut milk, and utterly fabulous creatures of the sea. Big, bold flavors wash up in the cazuela Colombiana, a tangle of large, tender prawns and ropes of chicken swaddled in a rich gorgonzola cheese sauce aromatic with the mellow sting of chilies.
Denver has a remarkably good ethnic food scene, with many of the area's best global joints clustered along Federal Boulevard, a stretch of asphalt that trumpets dozens of restaurants doling out everything from Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai cuisines to Mexican, New Mexican and Salvadoran specialties. For the best green chile, look no further than Jack-n-Grill (2524 Federal Blvd.), a rollicking New Mexican joint near Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The proprietors, Jack and Anna Martinez, hail from Albuquerque, and their bustling kitchen turns out piquant, flavor-packed foodstuffs like stacked enchiladas smothered with red or green chile and fresh corn scraped from the cob and doused with butter, hot sauce, chile powder, and fresh lime juice. The result is heaven in a cup. For flavor-bombed Vietnamese dishes, head to New Saigon (630 S. Federal Blvd.) arguably Denver's top Vietnamese haunt. The décor won't win any awards from America's next domestic diva, but that doesn't stop the hordes of in-the-know food-savants from lapping up steaming clay pots swelling with seafood, noodle bowls brimming with fresh vegetables and meats, and chowhound quality goi cuon - expertly assembled springs rolls popping like buttons with rice vermicelli, shrimp, shredded pork, and mint and cilantro leaves. Congregations of customers also squeeze through the doors of Star Kitchen (2917 W. Mississippi Ave. #5), Denver's best dim sum parlor, where the careening carts mounted with plates, baskets, metal steamers and trays of pork buns, spare ribs cloaked in a black bean sauce, shrimp, scallop or chive dumplings, fried taro cakes, leafy Chinese broccoli, congee and leeks with pork blood, whirl around the cavernous and wonderfully chaotic dining room with abandonment.
An intrepid eater, Colorado native and food writer Lori Midson is a frequent contributor to Westword, Colorado AvidGolfer, CITY and Denver magazines, the local editor of numerous Zagat Surveys and the Southwest regional editor at Gayot.com. Midson, who holds a master's degree from the University of Colorado's School of Journalism, has also written for myriad other publications including the Rocky Mountain News, Sunset magazine, 5280 magazine, Executive Travel, Mobil Travel Guide and EnCompass.