If Denver’s dining scene is finally on the national radar, it’s thanks in part to the movers and shakers behind the year’s biggest openings, who are taking risks in ways we couldn’t have imagined a few short years ago, in neighborhoods we’d barely heard of. At this rate, who knows — come 2017, we could very well land at the tip-top of the U.S. culinary charts. (With a little help, perhaps, from our friends in Boulder: Shout-out to Arcana and River and Woods for vigorously shaking up a town that needed a jolt this year.)
The Denver Central Market
At just a few months old, this RiNo food hall's already garnering national accolades — as well it should, being a true feat of culinary engineering. Developer Ken Wolf and chef-partner Jeff Osaka managed to assemble a dream team of vendors that includes Culture Meat and Cheese, run by Old Major's Justin Brunson; SK Provisions, a rotisserie from Sean Kelly of Desmond Bar and Grill; Vero, a pizzeria from Il Posto's Andrea Frizzi; Bistro Barbès chef-owner Jon Robbins' chocolate jewel box Temper; and so much more to keep the crowds coming all day long.
Must-order: Vero's Massimeno pizza, Culture's meat cone, Izzio's egg-and-brioche bowl and a cocktail at Curio, to name a few
Departure Restaurant + Lounge
We gave up on Cherry Creek as a dining hub long ago: It was simply too posh to be hip. But the arrival of celeb chef Gregory Gourdet may well mark a turning point for the neighborhood. Splashy, flashy and totally sexy, his modern Asian smash hit at the Halcyon challenges the country-club set to spice things up with fiery tiger-shrimp skewers and wild bulgogi burgers, vinegar sodas flavored with celery or turmeric and mezcal-spiked Thai basil micheladas. Meanwhile, its rooftop lounge, Departure Elevated, turns power players into party people just like that.
Must-order: In addition to the aforementioned, the crispy lamb cakes and the citrus mousse
249 Columbine St.; 720-772-5020
The return of culinary power couple John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom was bound to cause waves, but the impact of this instant LoDo destination has so far been downright seismic. It’s not just that the food — worldly yet warm, equal parts elegant and rustic — is as superb as expected (and likely to launch sous-chef Bradley Yard as a rising star), but the suave, convivial vibe and genteel service also impress. In short, the sheer polish Avelina showed on day one may have raised the bar for Denver openings permanently.
Must-order: The cauliflower flatbread (pictured), the charred octopus and any dessert
1550 17th St.; 720-904-6711
Long a desert for midrange, trattoria-style Italian food, Denver’s finally getting the cucina it deserves — not least because our best chefs are leading the charge, including Beast + Bottle’s Paul C. Reilly. By highlighting traditional dishes like carciofi alla giudea (pictured), cacio e pepe and tartufo, his sophomore venture with sister-partner Aileen Reilly is actually helping to offer something necessary: the thorough grounding in regional Italian cuisine that any well-rounded food town should have.
Must-order: Spuzzulia (antipasti) and the panino alla pizzaiola (lunch only)
400 E. 20th Ave.; 720-749-4666
Dio Mio Handmade Pasta
Denver hasn’t seen anything quite like this Italian place either, but it goes to show just how innovative the city’s become on the fast-casual front. Alex Figura stole our hearts as the exec chef of the much-missed Lower48; Spencer White, in turn, was the sous-chef who caught Figura’s eye while working at The Populist — and now the two are killing it as partners at this RiNo shop, preparing fresh pastas and antipasti as inspired as any you’d encounter in a fine-dining setting. They’ve even hired a sommelier to handle the wine selection. Now that’s forward-thinking for a counter joint.
Must-order: Mozzarella in carozza and mint fazzoletti (pictured)
3264 Larimer St.; 303-562-1965
The significance of Nobu Matsuhisa’s arrival in Denver should be self-explanatory: It’s exhibit A in the case for the city’s own arrival on the national scene. And it was a long time coming, according to partner and director of operations Todd Clark, who says that after years of requests for down-mountain expansion by their customers in Aspen and Vail, the Cherry Creek development was finally “the right place at the right time.” If you’ve ever dined on the likes of uni, ankimo and soft-shell crab amid its serene yet seductive surroundings, you know it sure feels that way.
Must-order: Besides the obvious, rock-shrimp tempura and tataki
98 Steele St.; 303-329-6628
The Way Back
Despite the name, this West Highland haunt has moved to the forefront of local hospitality in record time. Food & Wine praised partner Chad Michael George as one of the top mixologists of 2016, but he’s been the first to nudge the spotlight from the bar toward the kitchen, which turns out polished yet edgy New American plates that go far beyond the snacks at your typical cocktail lounge. (Frankly, we suspect there’s more than one big name in the making back there.)
Must-order: The signature potatoes and, when available, crespelle (plus a drink or two, of course)
4132 W. 38th Ave.; 720-728-8156
After years of slow growth on the sushi front, 2016 yielded some serious Japanese seafood spots — this LoHi gem being, along with Matsuhisa, chief among them. Corey Baker’s a versatile talent: As a chef, he can do traditional and pristine, or he can do creative and ornate. As your host behind the counter, he can modulate between discreet and sociable. And as an owner, he can apparently train his staff to do the same. When even our neighborhood sushi joints are operating at such a high level, you know this city has hit its culinary stride.
Must-order: If not omakase, the zensai and the usuzukuri
2930 Umatilla St.; 303-955-8741
By now, Troy Guard’s restaurant group runs like a well-oiled machine, each new outlet slicker than the last. This RiNo lodestone for the bold and beautiful is no exception — and yet it’s the deeply personal story that makes it so exciting. The quirky moniker honors his father (it’s a nickname), while an eye-catching mural on the back wall depicts his mother. And the menu reads like a sort of culinary biography, revealing Guard’s Hawaiian upbringing, his flair for East-West cooking and his eye for trends too. A crackerjack team helps tell the tale, including Adam Vero in the kitchen and Michael Cerretani behind the bar.
Must-order: The king crab and anything with lamb
3033 Brighton Blvd.; 303-831-8862
Fish N Beer
So much buzz for such a tiny hive, but it's well warranted. If taco kingpin Kevin Morrison and ex Elway's steakhouse chef Aniedra Nichols seem an unlikely pair to tackle RiNo's first seafood shack, rest assured they're doing the right thing in the right place at the right time: Fish N Beer feels like the last piece of a puzzle that reveals a dining neighborhood at its peak. After all, once you've got jarred tonnato and buffalo blowfish tails, what else could you possibly need?
Must-order: The fish charcuterie platter and (surprise!) the mushroom steak
3510 Larimer St.; 303-248-3497
12 @ Madison
His work at the original Twelve established Jeff Osaka as one of Denver’s foremost chefs, earning him a Beard nomination. But he closed it in 2014 to concentrate on other projects — and his work ever since at Osaka Ramen, Sushi-Rama and The Denver Central Market has established him no less firmly as one of our most tireless entrepreneurs. Either way, he’s a heavy-hitter, so the long-promised reboot of 12 is a big deal for the city and a coup for the Congress Park neighborhood in particular, which got 10 times hotter the second it opened just last week.
Must-order: Veal sweetbreads (pictured)
1160 Madison St.; 720-216-0190
Que Bueno Suerte!
A stunning renovation of an already fabulous space. A dynamic duo — exec chef Vicente Sosa and consulting chef Dana Rodriguez — to oversee the kitchen, offering up vibrant modern Mexican plates like rib-eye empanadas with avocado mousse and pheasant pibil in epazote–black bean sauce (pictured); and a bar built to serve as a late-night stomping ground. This is the hot new blood Old South Pearl has needed for some time.
Must-order: Besides the pheasant, the Yucatan-style tamale and a piña colada
1518 South Pearl St.; 720-642-7322
Because the vendors are independently owned, this aviation factory turned dining-and-retail hall will actually be opening, bit by bit, for months to come. But with the lights now on at Cheluna Brewing, Comida Cantina (pictured) and the Stanley Beer Hall, we’d be remiss to exclude one of the most ambitious projects — think of it as an alternative mall with one hell of a food court — this city may ever see.
Must-order: Beer Hall chef Theo Adley's fried chicken, Cheluna's Coco-Xoco and Comida's griddled tacos
2501 Dallas St., Aurora; 720-370-3358