Local Favorites in The Mile High City
From James Beard Award-winning luminaries Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, owners of Frasca Food and Wine — Boulder’s lauded Northern Italian temple of gastronomy — comes Tavernetta, a regional Italian restaurant based at the boot of the Kimpton Hotel Born Denver, prime real estate that overlooks the train platform of Denver Union Station. The superb menu from Frasca alum Ian Wortham reaches deep into salumi, cheese, antipasti, sensationally prepared fish and meat plates and breathtaking pastas that seesaw between lamb ragù with rigatoni and saffron-intensive bucatini enrichened with uni butter and trout roe. The classy space, graced with a fireplace lounge, a trio of patios, a centerpiece open kitchen and pasta station that buzzes with activity and walls mounted with Slim Aarons portrait photographs showcasing Italians on ritzy holidays, suggests a lost world of wine-soaked lunches and dinners and sojourns to fantastical faraway places.
Alon Shaya’s dazzling Denver restaurant, situated inside The Source Hotel's culinary marketplace in the River North Art District (RiNo), has racked up an avalanche of accolades, all of them hard-earned and well deserved. His modern ode to Israeli cooking is composed, confident and pure, his flavors precise and pronounced. Pita bread, for instance, sounds deceptively simple, but the charred pillows of puffed dough that emerge from the wood-fired oven, are remarkable. So, too, is the hummus with lamb ragù, the smoky baba ghanoush, the vibrant Moroccan carrot salad and the impossibly crisp eggplant, the spheres crested with herb-specked goat cheese and tomato sauce. The space, befitting the food, is light, airy and modern, its fixtures and furnishings a mix of communal tables, a long, L-shaped bar overlooking the open kitchen, art and drinkware inspired by Shaya’s grandmother and floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Denver skyline and mountain peaks. Like everything else here, the wines, many of which are from regions that are often overlooked (think Hungry, Greece and Israel), merit praise.
There may not be a more passionate restaurateur than Dave Query who ignited — and demystified — Denver’s seafood scene with the opening of this oceanic restaurant and oyster bar in LoDo that has since spawned offshoots across Colorado and beyond. From its rambunctiously energetic vibe, offset by a subtle nautical theme, to its fiercely seasonal menu of sustainable seafood sourced from passionate purveyors, it’s a fin-tastic favorite for slurping pristine oysters, although the rest of the menu—towering seafood platters, plump king crab legs, fresh lobster, creamy clam chowder, spaghetti tangling with fresh clams and Alaskan halibut—is every bit as crowd-pleasing, as are the spirit-forward cocktails and compelling wines and craft beers, many of which are brewed at The Post, a Lafayette-based fried-chicken restaurant and brewery also owned by Query.
Chef, owner, culinary instructor and sojourner Linda Hampsten Fox oversees this dazzling LoHi market, bakery and restaurant that looks as though it could have been transported from Manhattan. By day, the high-ceilinged, sun-streaked dining room, awash in a minimalist white and black color palette, functions as an on-the-go stopgap for caffeine-jolted java drinks, housemade pastries, breakfast bites, sundries and sandwiches, while the ambitious dinner menu is a globetrotting homage to Fox’s culinary jaunts around the world. Slide a stool up the chef’s counter, where the air is fragrant from the wood-burning grill in the exhibition kitchen and sip a lovely herbaceous cocktail while enjoying statement plates of smoked rabbit pie punctuated with pecans, the Spanish octopus tostado and risotto kissed with the scents of green chile.
Caroline Glover, Denver’s most recent James Beard Foundation award winner, vacillated before unleashing her beloved small-plates restaurant in the sprawling Stanley Marketplace in Aurora. But since its debut, the petite nirvana of culinary excellence has knocked the socks off just about everyone who's set foot inside the plant-filled space puddled with sunshine. Named one of Bon Appetit’s “Best New Restaurants of 2017,” Annette embodies everything you could possibly want from a dining experience: an elevated casual vibe, fresh ingredients that are never manipulated, full-throttled flavor combinations (beef tongue with pickled carrot relish; pork schnitzel drizzled with adobo vinaigrette; pork tenderloin and tetra squash), a wood-burning grill that permeates the air with perfumed smoke and a small but enormously satisfying wine scroll. Glover also grows many of her ingredients on a plot at a nearby community farm, which means every dish is steeped in seasonality. The cocktails are heavenly, too. In a neighborhood starved for style, substance and honest, reflective cooking, Annette is a gem.
Kitchen magician Alex Seidel, a 2010 Food & Wine magazine “Best New Chef” and 2018 James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Southwest, unleashed a head turner in Denver Union Station when he opened Mercantile in 2014 with an artisan market, barista station, chef’s counter, two patios, sky-reaching ceilings, a spice treasury and enviable wine library. Think of Mercantile as a culinary museum: a hallway of jarred spices, dried fruits, nuts and legumes that double as pantry items for the kitchen intersect with burlap-topped canning jars full of things pickled and preserved. The market’s charcuterie and cheeses are bait for rediscovering why we love pig parts and duck parts and anything that you can smear on a crusty sourdough loaf of bread, while dinner plates like the bucatini carbonara showcase Seidel’s mastery of pasta. And if you’re jonesing for an incredible burger, this is the magnum opus.
On the stretch that’s upper Larimer Street in the River North Art District (RiNo), you’ll find Il Posto, an Italian restaurant from Milan-born chef-owner Andrea Frizzi. All glitz, glamor and swagger, Il Posto turns out a daily-changing menu of up-to-the-moment dishes that defer to seasonal ingredients; skilled risottos mingling with everything from mushrooms and truffle oil to celery leaf and sprigs of fresh rosemary; finessed fish dishes; and 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. From start to finish, Frizzi delivers a nuanced experience, the kind that pairs remarkably well with a bottle of Barolo or Brunello from the show-stopping wine wall.
River North Art District (RiNo) locals are spoiled rotten by the terrific combination of culinary concepts at this high-spirited food-and-drink emporium grandstanding eleven ace vendors, including Vero Italian, Culture Meat & Cheese, Tammen’s Fish Market and Temper Chocolate and Confections. If you crave caffeine, swing by Crema Bodega for a pick-me-up cappuccino, and when the clock rings in cocktail hour, snag a seat at the bar at Curio for a boozy Manhattan, negroni or boulevardier. The 14,000-square-foot space also highlights brilliantly graffitied outdoor picnic tables painted by local artists. If you’re flying in or out of Denver International Airport, look for the market’s second (and smaller) outpost on the A Concourse.
Chef and restaurateur Troy Guard has been blazing culinary trails in Denver for more than a decade, and while his first trail of restaurants spotlighted modern Asian cuisine, Guard and Grace bucks bok choy for beef — scarlet slabs of well-marbled flesh served in testosterone-restrained surrounds offset by a handsome bar, spacious chef’s counter and elevated, crescent-shaped booths stretched throughout the dining room, its windows overlooking the downtown Denver skyline. The menu is a grand ecosystem of land and sea: beef tartare, glistening oysters, crab legs and lobsters; and grill-etched steaks, including Wagyu and grass-fed, dribbling with juice. A towering, glass-enclosed wine cellar displays upwards of 4,000 bottles, many of which are also available by the glass.
Rioja, a celebrated modern Mediterranean and Spanish restaurant, cemented the stardom of James Beard Foundation best chef winner Jennifer Jasinski, whose exuberant restaurant, complete with a transparent kitchen, copper-topped bar and chef’s counter, transformed Larimer Square into a bona fide dining destination that’s universally worshipped for its polished aesthetics, season-intensive dishes, plate artistry, hand-crafted pastas (the artichoke, goat cheese and white truffle tortelloni is exemplary), extensive brunch menu and thoughtful pastry program (including a fantastic house-baked breadbasket). It’s a cult favorite of local and national celebrities, the food cognoscenti and just about everyone else who appreciates true culinary artisanship coupled with imaginative cocktails and a meaningful, well-edited and adventurous wine album that spotlights bottles from Spain and Portugal. Dually jaunty and formal — depending upon the occasion — Rioja remains one of the top restaurants in the city.
Comfort foods of the Latin-American culinary cannon is the calling card of Work & Class, a refreshingly free-spirited restaurant in the River North Art District (RiNo) from two-time 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 red wine-braised short ribs, green coriander-roasted Colorado lamb and rotisserie chicken, all of which should be paired with a side dish: chickpea croquettes, fried sweet plantains or the smoked Gouda macaroni and cheese. There’s nothing particularly fancy about Rodriguez’s cooking but sitting at the chef’s counter and indulging in the vanilla bean panna cotta or the caramel-glazed and ice cream-topped chocolate brownie, is all the luxury you need.
In Larimer Square, dart through what’s called the “Kettle Arcade” where you’ll find Bistro Vendome, a Parisian sanctuary that evokes enchantment at every turn, whether it’s inside the endearing dining room where knees knock and lips lock across the small tables or on the beguiling courtyard patio potted with blooms. The soul-soothing menu is equally magnetic, beckoning diners with escargot gratiné, voluptuous mussels floating in an herb-and-garlic broth and duck confit with fingerling potatoes, English peas and glistening kumquat glaze. The affordable and romancing wine list — complete with bubbles — keeps the conversation flowing.
Low-key, cozy and downright alluring, Table 6, a popular bistro in Alamo Placita, basks in captivating warmth and tender intimacy — both inside and on the captivating patio. The menu, galvanized by the seasons, is illustrated with starters like the tarragon-scented grilled quail with smoked mushroom bread pudding and artichoke conserve. Main dishes seesaw from lemon-ricotta ravioli dressed with local greens and mushrooms to the thyme-braised lamb shank matched with butter beans, olive relish and crumbled feta, a dish that deftly redefines American comfort food. The deeply diverse, esoteric and accomplished wine list is so gloriously curated that you may want to ask the sommelier if he’s taking investors.
La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal
Pozole is the name of the game at this festive Five Points experience steered by chef/owner Jose Avila, who grew up in Mexico City and — lucky for us — brought his culinary culture to The Mile High City. His pozole, of which there are five variations, is plumped with nixtamalized housemade hominy sidekicked with the requisite companions: cabbage, thin-sliced radishes, lettuce, lime wedges and potent white onions and, if you wish, avocado and chicharrons. The soft-lit pozoleria — the only one if its kind in Denver — pays homage to Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, with skulls and murals on the bricked walls, and the bar has a terrific cocktail program, most notably the madre facka with poblano agave, tequila, mezcal and a clever garnish composed of a lacy skeleton leaf procured from guava trees.