Denver's Best 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, Frasca and Coohill's. Sushi Den sets the bar high for Asian-inspired eateries, and there's a whole new focus in restaurants that are as much about creating community and a defined experience as creating excellent food. Both Session Kitchen and Work & Class fall into that category. 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.
10 Cuba Cuba
This cheery blue house doesn't look like a typical restaurant, and its intensely flavored cuisine and generously poured drinks don't make for typical dining. Come early to beat the ever-present crowds and grab a comfy chair on the pleasant stone patio if the weather permits (the patio is open six months of the year). Start with a pitcher of sinfully good mojitos while you peruse the menu, which offers a wide selection of dishes with Latin flavors and flare. The ceviche is fresh and inviting; empanadas, sandwiches and main courses such as camarones habanero (pan-roasted black tiger shrimp) provide heartier fare. (303-605-2822)
9 Old Major
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 there's a vegetarian three-course tasting menu, so any group with diverse culinary preferences can come together to Old Major and enjoy a meal out. Arrive early for the well-priced happy hour menu and you'll save a few bucks without sacrificing taste (consider the kimchi pork burger). ((720) 420-0622)
8 Work & Class
Finally 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. Stout-braised short ribs and coriander-roasted Colorado lamb are among the meat offerings, while blue corn empanadas and salmon fritters served with sweet plantains appear in the appetizers, soups and salad section--along with red-chile braised goat stew. For desserts, it may be hard to resist stuffed doughnuts & warm boozy eggnog, 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 whiskeys, single malts, vodkas, tequilas and more, many of them from small-batch distillers including Stranahan's of Colorado. ((303) 292-0700)
Billing itself as a lively urban bistro with rustic cuisine rooted in both American and Scandinavian traditions, Trillium is open and airy by design with an industrial-chic vibe. The restaurant brings a touch of the north to Denver's Ballpark neighborhood with such options as Nordic-inspired gazpacho, Scottish salmon and cherry-wood-smoked Lake Michigan walleye among the expansive smorgasbord offerings. Large plates include lamb shanks, steelhead trout, New York strip and an open ravioli of grilled blue prawns. What's the north without caviar? Trillium has both American and Russian sturgeon caviars served up with Swedish pancakes and traditional accompaniments to indulge in. ((303) 379-9759)
Located in LoDo, where many of Denver's trendy new American and more casual restaurants reside, Coohill's features a menu that is traditional French at heart but with many of the ingredients sourced from Colorado farmers and purveyors. Dishes include duck confit, snails, foie gras, pate and a truffled egg and brioche served with fiddlehead fern. There's steak, lamb duck, salmon, halibut and scallops, too. Of course, like any good French restaurant, Coohill's has desserts to die for so plan on indulging. There's a solid selection of cocktails, craft beers and wine, and the restaurant also offers a nice list of ports as well. (303-623-5700)
5 Session Kitchen
The owners of this South Pearl gem describe the culture of their restaurant as a casual, vibrant, east-meets-west environment enriched by local and international street art. That's what they wanted to create and they nailed it. The art inspiration includes the restaurant's different architectural areas and the artfully conceived menu items that are made to be shared. Most are, as the menu states, "globally inspired, locally sourced and seasonally influenced." Translation: You can't go wrong. There are small plates such as Brie cornbread and a charcuterie board of house-cured meats, while the salad list includes fried green tomatoes and Thai chicken nuggets. Among the heartier plates is a Chicago-style tart with Roquefort mornay, roasted chicken, pecans, spring greens and balsamic, and a seared rock fish with hazelnut gnocchi, ramps, mustard greens and vin blanc. The bar list is comprehensive and includes notable Colorado craft distillers and brews. ((720) 763-3387)
4 Sushi Den
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)
Frasca celebrates the flavors of a very specific region in Italy, Friuli, in the far northeast corner at the top of Italy's geographical boot. If you're imagining typical Italian food, you won't get it here. Frasca's cuisine is sophisticated and unusual, and the menu offers many memorable choices. A four-course meal isn't inexpensive, and you almost have to add a bottle of wine to go with it, so you may want to save Frasca for a really special occasion. Whether you do or not, you will not be disappointed with the food, which includes fish, meats and a variety of greens and vegetables. The menu changes seasonally but may include such interesting pasta courses as tagliolini with house-made ricotta, English pea, blood orange and mint, or spaghetti with Ingrid's peekytoe crab, jalapeño and wood sorrel. (303-442-6966)
Open for dinner only, Mizuna offers an intimate dining experience and arguably one of Denver's most romantic restaurant experiences for that reason. At Mizuna, you will not find the loud clamor that seems so popular in many restaurants today. There is a warm yet minimalist aesthetic at work here. A handful of conservatively appointed tables dot the intimate 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 lobster mac & cheese. Since seating is so limited, reservations are a must. (303-832-4778, 303-525-1702)
Mediterranean influences inform the menu that includes extraordinary handmade pastas by Chef Jennifer Jasinski, who is also co-owner of the restaurant. The cavatelli is served with black truffle chicken sausage, morel mushroom, peas and spring onions, while the beet gnocchi has strawberries, hon-shimeji mushrooms, walnuts, tarragon and horseradish-fromage blanc. 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.