AOL PICK from our Editors
Denver may have grown out of a rough-and-tumble gold mining camp, but that was a long time ago. The town is growing a reputation for upscale cuisine and has attracted a handful of chefs with national credentials who ply their trade at fine dining venues and many of the best Denver restaurants, mostly downtown. There are also plenty of places to enjoy plain American and a rich variety of ethnic food that are agreeable to the stomach and easy on the wallet. Although “farm fresh” may not be the image you have of the Denver region, local chefs and restaurants have paired up to bring ultra-fresh, locally grown foods to the city’s tables. The downtown revival was sparked by a microbrewery and its popularity launched an avalanche of small brew-pubs. Whether you’re looking for white-tablecloth or just something tasty to keep you going, you’ll find quality choices. Here are our picks for the best Denver restaurants to help narrow your options.
Neighborhood: Capitol Hill Price: Expensive
While not everyone who comments on Yelp agrees, Mizuna must be doing something right! You’ll need to call at least a week in advance for a reservation at Frank Bonanno’s celebrated restaurant—the dining room is small, limiting the number of patrons—but in our book, any wait you must endure is worth it. Mizuna is one of the top Denver restaurants, and if you're looking to splurge for a night on your vacation this is a great place to do it. On any given night you’re likely to see locals, celebrities and fervent foodies happily enjoying their fare. The contemporary, eclectic menu changes, but mainstays like the Meyer Ranch beef strip loin served with chive potato soufflé and the pan-roasted ostrich keep us, and a lot of other diners, coming back. Be sure to leave room for dessert (we love the homemade goat cheese panna cotta, but you also can’t go wrong with the warm Valrhona chocolate cake with macademia nut brittle and malted ice cream).
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Neighborhood: LoDo (LowerDowntown) Price: Expensive
When Rioja chef and co-owner Jennifer Jasinski wanted to simplify her life, the California native moved to Denver. She put her skills—honed by a decade working with Wolfgang Puck and at a Michelin two-star in Paris—to work and soon gained a local following. That led to the opening of Rioja. Rioja is one of the best Denver restaurants for a romantic night out to end your trip. The menu is Mediterranean inspired, but driven by local and seasonal ingredients that Jasinski sources from local artisans. Just a sample from the appetizers displays her talent for offbeat combinations: Dungeness crab-jicama-avocado roulade, for example, are served drizzled with carrot cumin vinaigrette and tossed with roasted rainbow carrots. Don’t worry, there are plenty of less adventurous (but no less tasty) items on the menu, such as the grilled salmon served with hearts of palm or pan-roasted Alaska Halibut steak. Our favorite is the Colorado Lamb Two Ways, which includes a grilled T-bone plus house made lamb merguez sausage. Rioja is located on romantic Larimer Street, which is beautifully lit at night.
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Neighborhood: LoDo (LowerDowntown) Price: Expensive
It's fun to watch the chefs work their magic in the open kitchen at the Vesta Dipping Grill in LoDo. The décor of the historic former spice warehouse is industrial chic, with sculptural references to the six Vestal virgins of the ancient Roman religion and Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth. Chef (and Denver native) Matt Selby is known for his creativity and the small, trendy establishment showcases his talents. Diners choose from a large menu of grilled dishes—flat iron steak, tenderloin, chili-seared tuna, lamb, coconut-masala tofu—accented by a palette of unusual dipping sauces, such as coriander lemon preserve. Your taste buds are in for a treat.
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Neighborhood: Colfax Price: Moderate
Sometimes you just need to eat dessert first. At least, that's our opinion when you eat at the Phoenician Kabob. This Mediterranean eatery has a pastry chef worth his weight in gold. The baklava is perfect (not too sweet or sticky), and the triangle shabiyat is heavenly. When it comes to dinner, try the Sultan Combo, which includes favorites from gyros and falafel to baba ghanouj, tabbouleh and stuffed grape leaves. Pair that with a Lebanese red wine. If you're looking for wine, dessert and a show Phoenician Kabob is one of the best places to eat in Denver. Fridays and Saturdays are the best nights to visit, as the restaurant has talented belly dancers on hand to entertain. They might even get you up there dancing, too! The restaurant is located on East Colfax, one of Denver's most colorful neighborhoods. The area immediately around Phoenician Kabob
is safe, but there are parts of this strip where you're likely to see almost anything from women in short-shorts and pink go-go boots “waiting for the bus” to that calling card of gentrification, Starbucks.
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Neighborhood: LoDo (LowerDowntown) Price: Moderate
In Colorado, we love Mexican food, but Tamayo takes that love to new heights. This is modern fare with a hip Mexican twist, and, simply put, it is downright delicious: calamari crusted with chile ancho, shrimp tamales, grilled octopus salad, sugared braised short ribs served with chive mashed potatoes and a green bean and jalapeno salad. This is one of the best Denver restaurants for Mexican fare and surely not to be missed. The rooftop patio is a fun place to enjoy a leisurely dinner with friends, but the inside dining rooms are just as pleasant and comfortable. Check out the eye-catching tile bar, where the barmaids whip up tasty cocktails like the Mango Mojito. The dinner portions here are small, but will still fill you up. The pan roasted chicken breast with mole poblano (chilis and chocolate) is a winner.
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Neighborhood: Highlands Price: Moderate
Tucked away in a tiny historic home in the Highlands, Trattoria Stella—or Stella’s, as the locals call it—is a popular restaurant for date night. Perhaps it’s because of the romantic dining setting on the outdoor patio. Maybe it’s because of the tasty Italian cuisine made from fresh, local ingredients. It could even have something to do with a night out in the Highlands, Denver’s tree-lined urban village. Whatever it is, Stella’s is worth the trip from downtown. The small restaurant gets crowded, especially on weekends, but don’t let that stop you—that makes it better for people watching.
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Neighborhood: LoDo (LowerDowntown) Price: Budget
Pizza is always a hit, but it's even better when it's made Argentinean-style. Argentina is known for its steamy dance traditions and Italian (and Spanish, German, French and Portugese) immigrants. All of these cultures brought their culinary traditions with them, and the Carerra family—formerly of Buenos Aires—brought them to Denver. The pizzeria is family-run establishment and serves authentic pizza as exotic as the city that inspired it. The Buenos Aires pizza—ham, heart of palm, hard-boiled egg, mozzarella, roasted red peppers and Salsa Golf. Not your standard Pizza Margherita, but the combination is exceptional. The menu extends far beyond pizza, with a variety of empanadas (pastry pockets stuffed with beef, chicken, ham, or veggies), salads and nonpareil dishes such as figs wrapped in bacon served with barbecue sauce and fresh caprese. There’s also a nice selection of moderately priced Argentine wine. Don't forget to stop next door for some of their homemade gelato. Buenos Aires makes 24 different flavors, all with fresh ingredients—try the Dulce de Leche and Sambayon, both popular in Argentina.
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Neighborhood: Colfax Price: Budget
This may be the kitschiest restaurant you’ll ever go to, but it’s fun and that’s the big attraction. Denver kids celebrate at least one birthday at Casa Bonita—and for good reason. The restaurant is more about the entertainment than the cuisine. Kids love the 30-foot-tall waterfall, cliff divers, fire jugglers, mariachi bands and pirate cave. Trust us, you have to see this place to believe it. If you're traveling with the family this is one of the best places to eat in Denver. The food is not much to write home about, but it will fill you up. Go for one of the Deluxe Plates and you can eat as much as you want—or dare. But everyone's favorite dish is the sopapillas, sweet pillow-shaped Mexican pastries. You just bite off a little corner, pour some honey inside, and enjoy. Don't eat too many though—these things are addictive and you may end up finding that your jeans don’t fit quite right afterward. Be prepared to wait in line if you go on a summer evening. This place is popular with tourists and locals.
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Neighborhood: Highlands Price: Budget
Little Man Ice Cream is just for dessert, but it still makes the list of Denver’s best. First off, this is a place you can't miss—literally! The shop is shaped like a giant milk can—an homage to the old-fashioned establishments of the 1940s and 1950s. That old-timers theme is carried throughout the experience, from the staff's vintage uniforms and white paper hats to the music of yesteryear. That’s nice window dressing, but most people come for the ice cream, made from fresh, local ingredients. All the classic flavors can be found along with some unusual blends such as blueberry cinnamon sorbet and pumpkin chip ice cream. The top seller, which also happens to be our favorite, is the Mexican chocolate ice cream.
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Neighborhood: Central Business District Price: Budget
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At Sam's No.3, they say that people walk in the door as visitors but leave as regulars. That's because folks like the food and value at Sam's, and they keep coming back for more. This is a great place for breakfast (try the skillets, they're delicious), but Sam's No. 3 is best known for their 22 kinds of burritos and three different kinds of chili (including vegetarian). There are also Coney Island hot dogs, burgers, steak, meatloaf, fried chicken and a respectable selection of dinner-sized salads. It may take awhile to decide what to eat, because the menu is huge, so do yourself a favor and limit your choices to the burrito list. The restaurant has two locations: one in the town of Aurora and the other on Curtis Street in the heart of downtown Denver.
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