Denver's Dining Hot Spots: There's a Table Waiting for You
By Christine Loomis
Denver Local Expert
No longer is Denver simply a western town. While the city is justifiably proud of its western heritage—and that can be seen in the eateries that focus on steaks and game—it's also a modern urban metropolis where locals, visitors, artists, professionals, sports enthusiasts, millennials, boomers and, yes, chefs, have come from across the country and the globe to be in the Mile High City, whether permanently or just for a short while. The restaurant scene reflects that diverse population with its far-flung origins and influences, and the truth is you can find any kind of food you want here now. There are a slew of great restaurants that have European and Mediterranean overtones, including Rioja and Bistro Vendome. Sushi Den sets the bar high for Asian-inspired eateries, and Fruition, Acorn and Table 6 bring American comfort food to new levels. Some restaurants, including Work & Class, are as much about creating community and a defined experience as creating excellent food, while others such as Old Major are embracing another hot restaurant trend—charcuterie. Best of all, every Denver neighborhood has a star eatery to try. We have looked at all that Denver has to offer and put together a list that shines a light on the city's expansive personality as well as its super-star chefs. Enjoy. Share. Savor.
Patrons line up for these authentic empanadas that come in a variety of forms, from savory to sweet. On a busy corner of South Broadway, Maria Empanada is an oasis of deliciousness and charm. In addition to the fabulous fresh baked empanadas, there are other pastries and desserts, and it's even possible to get a glass of wine or beer to go with your empanada, too. Nothing fancy here--the empanadas come in a basket that you take to the table yourself. The whole place opens up to the sidewalk and there are tables outside, though to be honest the constant traffic diminishes the appeal of sitting there. Nothing, however, diminishes the excellent empanadas and friendly ambience of the place. (303.934.2221)
Work & Class
Opened in early 2014, Work & Class is, as its name suggests, down to earth and deliberately reflective of the owners' own working-class roots. But that doesn't mean the food is lacking in creativity or interest. Red-chile braised pork and coriander-roasted Colorado lamb are among the meat offerings, while blue corn empanadas and halibut ceviche appear in the appetizers and salad section. For desserts, it may be hard to resist chocolate-banana tart, but there are other temptations, too. There are a ton of craft beers; a nice selection of wines by the bottle or glass; and, most impressively, an expansive list of whiskey, single malts, vodkas, tequilas and more, many of them from small-batch distillers including Leopold Brothers of Colorado. ((303) 292-0700)
The ambience is industrial chic with exposed bricks and pipes; the menu is contemporary creative with comfort-food overtones. Acorn is the offshoot of Boulder's highly acclaimed Oak at Fourteenth and one of the anchoring businesses at The Source, the warehouse-turned-retail-and-dining-outlet in Denver's River North arts district. Menus include selections such as kale and apple salad, crispy pork belly and wood-fired wild king salmon. Acorn is proof that almost anything can have a fried egg added to it, including fried chicken, shrimp and grits, the oak-grilled pork belly BLT and even the oak-grilled double cheeseburger (cardiologists, cover your eyes). In addition to lunch and dinner menus, Acorn offers a Mid-Day Menu, available every day between 2:30 and 5:30 p.m., the restaurant's version of a an all-afternoon happy hour with a few dishes and well-priced beer, wine, cocktails. ((720) 542-3721)
The focus at this Highlands-area eatery is on heritage-raised meats from Colorado farms. The restaurant does its own butchering and cures the meats in-house (you can see the charcuterie room from the dining area). While the emphasis is definitely on meals that meat lovers will enjoy, meat is not the only option. There are also seafood selections, including oysters, and veggies, so any group with diverse culinary preferences can come together in Old Major and enjoy a meal out. Two standouts on the menu: Hanger steak frites and fried chicken. Arrive early for the well-priced happy hour menu and you'll save a few bucks without sacrificing taste. The beer list is deep and eclectic, the cocktail menu decidedly creative. ((720) 420-0622)
Like its neighbor Fruition a couple of blocks away, Table 6 specializes in upscale comfort food. Its tagline, 'American comfort food with an eclectic, unconventional twist,' sums it up nicely. The menu changes daily but among the possibilities are such treats as braised lamb shank with edamame falafel and grape and mission fig salad, jerk pork belly, and duck confit with kimchee and brie crepe, beets, peaches and watercress. This is definitely a place for wine lovers; Table 6 won a 2015 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. The expansive list includes port and Champagne offerings. The space is cozy, rustic and casual, the perfect complement to divine comfort food and stellar service. Our best advice is to come hungry. Among other things, Table 6 is often lauded for its fabulous breads. (3038318800)
Tucked into a secluded breezeway off Larimer Square, intimate Bistro Vendome captures the essence of a Parisian bistro in its ambience and menu. Expect French classics (some rotating) such as cassoulet, duck confit, escargot, steak au poivre and variations of foie gras. There are fish, vegetable, pasta and chicken dishes as well. For brunch, try custard-dipped brioche, crepes or croissants with house-made jams, or on the savory side, quiche or Croque Vendome (ham and cheese sandwich) with pomme frites. The bar offers a stellar selection of French wines at varying price points, and the bartender--and other staff--are knowledgeable and helpful. On a warm summer evening, Bistro's patio is a sweet spot to linger over a meal. Check for specials, such as Thursday evening French Classics, Wednesday night's Tour de France exploring wine from different regions, and Mussels & Frites on Sunday nights. (303-825-3232)
One of South Pearl's best restaurants, Sushi Den has received numerous awards and accolades for its exceptional sushi. Fresh fish is flown in daily, which is apparent as soon as you bite into any fish dish. Sushi isn't the only thing on the menu, however. There's yakitori (grilled chicken), short ribs, Wagyu NY strip steak and even tofu steak. The Bento Box is fabulous option. Take time to pour over the extensive sake menu with its helpful number system denoting very sweet to very dry types. You'll see that the descriptions are similar to wine, and with a list this large, you're sure to find a sake that appeals. Reservations are a good idea but you have to do it by phone--no email reservations accepted. And if you arrive before 6 p.m., there will likely be no wait. (303-777-0826)
Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only, Mizuna offers an intimate dining experience and arguably one of Denver's most romantic restaurant experiences. At Mizuna, you will not find the loud clamor so popular in many restaurants today. There is a warm yet minimalist aesthetic at work here. A handful of conservatively appointed tables dot the cozy dining room; soft lighting and professional, unobtrusive service complete the elegant scene. The menu creatively combines unusual tastes and textures resulting in such mouthwatering offerings as pan-seared ostrich loin and grape-seed-oil-poached escolar, along with decadent plates including the lobster mac & cheese. Since seating is so limited, reservations are a must. (303-832-4778, 303-525-1702)
Chef Alex Seidel opened Fruition Restaurant in 2007. With its menu of upscale comfort food and a well-curated wine list, it was an instant success. It remains very popular, meaning reservations are a must. One thing that sets Fruition (and Seidel's other enterprises) apart is the chef's 10-acre farm where much of the restaurant's produce, cheese and meat products are grown, made and raised. While the term 'farm-to-table' fits, it's not a label Seidel embraces. What matters to him are the relationships involved, and Fruition Farms has been what he calls an education in understanding how to grow crops, make cheese and raise animals and how to harvest these foods. "Farm-to-table," Seidel says, "is all of those processes and understanding what goes into the relationship between producer and end user. This hands-on experience has helped us create a viable, long-lasting relationship between farm and restaurant." (3038311992)
Mediterranean influences inform the menu that includes extraordinary handmade pastas by Chef Jennifer Jasinski, who is also co-owner of the restaurant. The crispy sweet corn gnocchi is served with roasted chanterelle mushrooms, nasturtium and crescenza nage, while the saffron linguine comes with Italian lamb sausage, chanterelle mushrooms, kale and pecorino. Among the phenomenal starter offerings are a roasted beet salad and the Rioja "picnic" plate with artisan meats, warm pine-nut-crusted goat cheese, Gorgonzola, olives, fennel salad, orange confit and almonds. It was no surprise to anyone who has had the good fortune to dine at Rioja when Jasinski became the first Denver chef to win the coveted James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southwest award in 2013. Grab a seat on the patio if the weather is nice, and enjoy people watching as you sip a glass of wine. The impressive list features selections from Rioja, the Spanish wine region. (303-820-2282)
About Christine Loomis
Christine has written about every aspect of travel, from romance and adventure to family and wellness. She is also lucky to have had three major home states through the years: New York, Colorado and California. Today she divides time between the Denver and San Francisco areas. Christine loves shoe shopping and fishing; walking anywhere; horseback riding (she was on the equestrian team at the University of Oregon); and discovering menus that include small-batch whiskeys, craft beer and lesser-known wines. She would go anywhere in an RV and believes summer is best when it includes a rafting trip.
Read more about Christine Loomis here.