Blowout or Budget: A High-Low Guide to Denver Dining

How to splurge or save while digging into Denver's most crave-worthy dishes, from sushi to steak
February 17, 2014
by Ruth Tobias

Denver is, quite simply, one of the most habitable cities in the United States. The sunny, rugged landscape is grand, the craft beer flows, the casual attitude means anything goes, and the cost of living's great relative to that of the coasts. In dining terms, all that means is that we just don't do fancy much, and it's hard to spend more than $200 on even the most extravagant meal. But if you're bent on a spree, here are some classic ways to pull it off and some alternatives for those who aren't feeling so flush. 

Tasting Menus

Blowout: Mizuna
Mizuna doesn’t do the most elaborate tasting in town - that honor goes to Restaurant Kevin Taylor for its $250 wine-paired 12 courser, which requires 24 hours’ advance notice. But Frank Bonanno’s enduring Capitol Hill flagship comes close with its eight-course offering ($95 without wine pairings, $165 with). And since the entire kitchen crew collaborates on the off-menu, market-driven New American feast, giving you a chance to experience what they do on an intimate level, it’s our top pick for an all-evening splurge.  

225 E. Seventh Ave.; 303-832-4778

Budget: Frasca Food and Wine
The words “Frasca” and “budget” rarely appear in the same sentence, but wallet-watchers know Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson’s suave Friulian gem in Boulder is the place to be on Monday nights, when (barring special events) the kitchen whips up an ever-changing four-course menu for just $50. Starting with an antipasto followed by a primo piatto, secondo piatto and dessert, it’s a steal by most measures, featuring dishes like porcini gnocchi with king-trumpet mushrooms, celeriac and Castelmagno cheese, or roast pork loin over polenta in a soffritto vinaigrette.

1738 Pearl St., Boulder; 303-442-6966


Blowout: Sushi Sasa
From flying-fish carpaccio with fresh mozzarella and strawberries in blond soy-truffle sauce (pictured) to rich-as-custard miso black cod, omakase at Wayne Conwell’s glossy Japanese go-to at the edge of LoHi is always a beautifully presented treat, priced at $60, $80 or $100 per person. Dishes arrive at a measured pace from both the sushi bar and the kitchen, giving you plenty of time to savor and sip that sake slowly.

2401 15th St.; 303-433-7272

Budget: Land of Sushi
We admit that we’re skeptical of Japanese joints that offer deals like buck-a-piece sushi: they’re usually too good to be true (or rather, too good to taste good). But this snug, casual strip-mall hideaway serves up chef’s-choice nigiri for a buck a pop nightly, and it’s the real deal. Granted, you won’t get maki like the excellent poke roll (pictured) for that price, but you’ll save enough to throw in an order or two.
2412 E. Arapahoe Rd., Centennial; 303-779-0608


Blowout: Flagstaff House Restaurant
After 42 years, the Monette family’s glitzy New American fixture overlooking the lights of Boulder remains a special-occasion favorite. And though it’s not a chophouse per se, it serves what’s surely among the most luxurious steak dishes in Colorado: true Kuroge Japanese Wagyu New York strip. Weighing in at $34 per ounce and commanding a 3-oz. minimum, it’s pan-seared rare and presented with a black-truffle sauce poured tableside. The pictured portion is 4 ozs., so that’s a $136 plate of beef right there; at that point, you might as well go all the way and throw in a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from a cellar that's thousands of bottles deep.

1138 Flagstaff Rd., Boulder; 303-442-4640

Budget: Charlie Brown's Bar & Grill
There are plenty of dives in Denver that dish up whopping cuts of red meat to crowds of longtime loyalists (Columbine Steak House, for instance). But for our money, this legendary Capitol Hill lounge can't be beat. Boasting a piano for sing-alongs and one of the city's last smoking patios, it offers a huge menu of American, Mexican and Greek staples - including fine chops that average about $20 and come with all the fixings. We suggest the baked potato, accompanied by a caddy with more butter, sour cream and bacon bits than you'd need for 10 lbs. of spuds. 

980 Grant St.; 303-860-1655


Blowout: TAG Burger Bar
Troy Guard’s funky Congress Park tavern opened well over a year ago, and still no one’s managed to outdo his Andrew Jackson burger - a $20 topping combo of house-cured pork belly, fried chicken skin, a sunny-side-up egg, Brie, chipotle aïoli, avocado, tomato and, you guessed it, shaved black truffles. Depending on your choice of patty, the tab could run you as much as $30 (for bison) or as “little” as $27 (for Angus beef).

1222 Madison St.; 303-736-2260

Budget: The Cherry Cricket
We could try to pick something less obvious, but why? The Cricket’s a Cherry Creek institution for a reason. Even with à la carte toppings like fried eggs, green chiles, or (if you must) peanut butter and raspberry jam, an 8-oz. burger will still cost you 10 bucks or less. And the rollicking saloon atmosphere is free.

2641 E. Second Ave.; 303-322-7666


Blowout: Barolo Grill
Housemade pastas at Blair Taylor’s swank Northern Italian longtimer in Congress Park hover around the $20 mark - hardly unheard of by big-city standards. But in a down-to-earth town like Denver, that’s still pretty steep, especially if you add shaved black truffles for another $20. Then again, lusciousness like chef Darrel Truett’s veal-stuffed agnolotti del plin in sage jus (pictured) is well worth the premium.

3030 E. Sixth Ave.; 303-393-1040

Budget: DiFranco’s
Meanwhile, the mostly hand-rolled pastas at Ryan DiFranco’s deli-style Golden Triangle nook rarely top $11. They’re simple, homey and served with very little ceremony, but they hit the spot when hunger takes precedence over low-lit ambiance.

955 Lincoln St. Unit D; 720-253-1244


Blowout: Fruition Restaurant
Lots of chefs source their food from local farmers, but only a few grow produce or practice animal husbandry themselves. One of them is Alex Seidel. Frankly, the average three-course meal for two at his renowned New American retreat in Country Club isn’t all that expensive compared to its counterparts in New York or San Francisco: about $100, excluding drinks. And yet every bite is gorgeously composed and reliably delicious.

1313 E. Sixth Ave.; 303-831-1962

Budget: Bramble & Hare
Like Seidel, Eric Skokan also runs his own farm to produce as much of the food as possible for his Boulder flagship, Black Cat Bistro, and this warm, rustic gastropub next door. Both are superb, but Bramble & Hare is decidedly cheaper, with standard tabs of $30 or less (again excluding drinks). And while the menu's always changing based on ingredient availability, dishes like the Mulefoot rib over pork-skin noodles in Sichuan jus will linger in your mind long after they’ve disappeared.

1970 13th St.; 303-444-9110

Old-School Bars

Blowout: Churchill
Amid an impending sale, there's still no place for fat cats to blow big bucks quite like the historic Brown Palace Hotel. In its plush, crimson-and-gold-toned tavern, you can easily drop $100 on just a couple of drinks, an appetizer or two, and maybe a cigar - or more if you're a Cognac connoisseur. But for the opportunity to experience up close how the barons of industry live, it's worth the chunk of change now and then.

321 17th St.; 303-297-3111

Budget: PS Lounge 
Tiny, dark and crammed with wacky bric-a-brac, this City Park fixture earns its cult fame with throwback generosity, pouring shots on the house and handing out roses to its female patrons. Of course, even the drinks you pay for are cheap; better still, you can order thin-crust pizza from Enzo's End next door to soak up the alcohol. Classic.

3416 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-320-1200

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