Denver's Most Important Restaurant Openings of 2017

Here are the biggest hits in a year of nonstop action
December 8, 2017
by Ruth Tobias

By any measure, 2017 has been an extraordinary year for the Denver/Boulder dining scene. It's not just a matter of growth, however unprecedented: It's a matter of caliber and vision. No longer merely responding to trends, Mile High chefs and restaurateurs are now setting them. They're not only asking the right questions — what does this city really need? what can I bring to the table that isn't already there? — but answering them in intelligent and gutsy ways. In fact, the fruits of their labor have been so abundant that, for the first time ever, we've included an addendum for honorable mentions. But it's these 14 restaurants that are, in our view, the most likely to make an impact and reshape the landscape as we know it, reverberating far beyond the initial buzz.

Arriving in 2004 to become a national media darling with two James Beard Awards to its name, Boulder’s Frasca Food and Wine is arguably the most celebrated restaurant in all of Colorado, never mind the Front Range. By now, owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson could open a phone book and make news. So it stands to reason that, after all these years, they’d cause a feeding frenzy with the launch of their follow-up on the historic grounds of Union Station in mid-September. Though they also operate fast-casual franchise Pizzeria Locale, Tavernetta is their first-ever upscale venture in Denver, and it’s the Italian destination we’ve been waiting for down to the last detail — handmade pastas, world-class wines, virtuoso service, fabulous Slim Aarons originals on the walls and all. That we had to wait all over again after a kitchen fire in the first week of business caused a two-month closure for renovations has only heightened the clamor.

Must-order: The champagne selection is bonkers — a bottle of bubbly with chef Ian Wortham's brilliant roast chicken for two is the way to go, at least on your first visit. 

1889 16th St.; 720-605-1889

El Five
A bit of kitsch, a touch of the bizarre, a jolt of erotica and depths of mystique: Edible Beats’ Justin Cucci doesn’t so much open restaurants as create experiences for all five senses, built on electric atmosphere and wildly eclectic cuisine. His fifth outing is no exception — in fact, this Pan-Mediterranean tapas bar on the penthouse level of a LoHi building may just top them all. With its glitzy, sultry decor, mesmerizing skyline views and small plates as well as cocktails redolent of far-flung locales — za’atar and saffron, preserved lemons and mulberries, Iranian honey vinegar and Turkish coffee bitters — it raised the bar for date night sky-high the day it opened.

Must-order: Greatest hits so far include the seafood meze, the vegetarian green-sofrito paella and, above all, the matzo ball soup dumplings, paired with something — anything — out of a porrón.

2930 Umatilla St.; 303-524-9193

At long, long last, James Beard Award–winning chef Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch have opened the doors to their Spanish-Portuguese gastroteka, thereby filling (along with El Five) a tapas void we've been bemoaning for years — in the exalted setting of Union Station, no less. With exec chef–partner Adam Branz, they're introducing Denverites to the difference between pintxos and petiscos, offering classics like ajo blanco (cold garlic-almond soup with grapes) and creations like cured trout with olive-orange salad and potato chips, along with gin tonics (without the ampersand, per Spanish tradition), sherries and so much more. Ultreia has been among the top three most-anticipated openings of 2017 since the year began — and now that it's here, this city won't be looking back.
Must-order: Besides the aforementioned trout, we're swooning over the cedar-plank mushrooms with black-garlic espuma, the spice-rubbed pork ribs, the tuna conserva bocadillo (a type of sandwich) and the mighty pollo piri piri, pictured. 

1701 Wynkoop St.; 303-534-1970

Heart, soul and humility tend to be undervalued when it comes to nods from the media. Not this time. Since it opened at the Stanley Marketplace in February, Caroline Glover’s gracious New American debut ​has been drawing unanimous raves from both local and national devotees (it was named one of only 50 finalists nationwide in Bon Appétit’s annual list of Best New Restaurants). What sets it apart? At the risk of sounding corny, we think it’s happiness. Self-assured as Glover’s style of cooking may be — by turns rustic and elegant, playful and smart — it’s her and her staff’s personal, joyful approach to everything they do that feels like a radical departure from the old, rigid standards of fine dining.

Must-order: Glover has garnered steady raves for her octopus patatas bravas, grilled tongue-and-marrow toast and whole roasted fish with seasonal garnishes (pictured).

2501 Dallas St. #108, Aurora; 720-710-9975

Punch Bowl Social Stapleton
Opening in 2012, the flagship Punch Bowl Social on Broadway was a groundbreaker. Founder Robert Thompson’s model for an all-in-one “gastro-diner,” bar and entertainment venue complete with bowling lanes, karaoke rooms and a video arcade not only won him numerous industry awards for innovation but spawned a multi-city franchise in culinary partnership with celebrity chef Hugh Acheson. The new branch is built on the same model, with one key difference — it occupies the landmark control tower of the old Stapleton International Airport. While preserving and celebrating a piece of Denver history via its mid-mod design with a subtle travel motif, it also expands on the brand with a 14,000-sq.-ft. outdoor area boasting stadium seating, a beer garden, a faux wading pool, a bocce ball court and much more. It’s rare that a sequel is as game-changing as the original; this one succeeds.

Must-order: Signatures aplenty dominate the menu, such as the pimiento cheese with Pullman toast and the Knockoff burger. But if you're craving a change of pace, try the awesome new pot roast with sweet potatoes and zingy Sriracha-peanut fries — paired with punch, of course.

3120 N. Uinta St.; 720-500-3788

Señor Bear
Is anyone presenting more stunning plates than chef Blake Edmunds right now? Brilliant colors, sculptural arrangements, cool stoneware: It’s all a sign of the care with which he cooks, balancing bold and delicate flavors in ways that almost shouldn’t work but do, especially when paired with cocktails that let their spirits shine on guests getting to know the likes of pisco and mezcal. As the sibling of smash success Bar Dough, this Pan-Latin hot spot in LoHi had a lot to live up to. That Max MacKissock and Juan Padro gave their protégé-turned-partner Edmunds the room to do it his way epitomizes the forward-thinking thrust of the Denver dining scene, in our view, and points toward its future as a true food town, which tends to be filled with sturdy industry-family trees.

Must-order: Much as we love every single ever-changing thing on the mariscos section of the menu, the El Pollo Bronco has emerged as an early crowd favorite (seems to be a big year for large-format chicken dishes). Follow it up with the light-as-air churros. (And more pisco!)

3301 Tejon St.; 720-572-5997

Sensational as her cooking was at Panzano in the Hotel Monaco, we always did wonder what a firecracker like chef Elise Wiggins would do with a place of her own. Finding out has been a thrill. In a Stapleton space as bright and energetic as she is, Wiggins and her team (including talented exec sous-chef Zurisadai Resendiz) are turning out exuberant seasonal wood-fired pizzas, fresh pastas, salumi, chops and other plates that reveal her intimate understanding of Italian cuisine on the one hand and her irrepressible creativity on the other. Looks like an instant classic to us.

Must-order: If you still haven't tried the focaccia di Recco, what's taking so long? How about the baked pasticcio with meatballs (pictured)? Throw in the pizza topped with biroldo while you're at it — and be sure to ask about the featured wine samples, poured by the ounce.  

10195 E. 29th Dr. #110; 303-645-3779

Concourse Restaurant Moderne
The opening of ChoLon in 2010 arguably marked a watershed for the Denver dining scene as we know it today: As a New York transplant, chef-owner Lon Symensma was among the first already-established outsiders to go all in on what pioneers like Jennifer Jasinski, Frank Bonanno and Alex Seidel were building here, upping the ante with his contemporary Asian flagship. Now he, too, is a pillar of the local community, and he’s raising the stakes all over again by bringing neo–Haute Cuisine and big-city glam to what seemed a few short months ago like the hinterlands, aka Stapleton — with the help of another pedigreed New Yorker, Luke Bergman, as his exec chef–partner. Bergman, for his part, is proving that combinations like Wagyu tataki with smoked-egg mayo, bison Bolognese with dark chocolate, and affogato with stracciatella gelato can play in Peoria (or the local equivalent thereof). Here’s to recognizing that Denver's more than an overgrown Downtown.

Must-order: Round out that tataki with the seasonal free-form lasagna. Or live on the light side via charred Humboldt calamari and celery-root soup with apple-maple foam and spiced cashew brittle. Or, who are we kidding, get the burger with foie sauce.

10195 E. 29th Drive; 720-550-6934

Chef Michael Gibney turned his experience in the kitchens of NYC into memoir gold with the acclaimed Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line. Pastry chef Jeb Breakell’s résumé likewise makes for a thrilling read (Per Se, Atera, Eleven Madison Park). Bar manager Nancy Kwon was a star on the Los Angeles drinking scene. And now they’re all part of the A-team, recruited by partner Ben Kaplan, that runs this self-styled, all-day “neo-bistro” in Boulder — which is something special down to the last detail, from the whimsical objets d’art in the foyer to the lavish cocktail booklet to the deceptive simplicity of a daytime bite like toast made with house-baked bread, housemade fresh cheese and preserves of house-fermented berries (foraged when possible). Elaborate dinner plates, such as the whole roasted gourd or the malted barley pavlova, make for conversation pieces no less than the stunning central chandelier. Pearl Street needed some shaking up, and Emmerson has officially put it on notice.

Must-order: In addition to the dishes mentioned above, the bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich with Cholula ketchup has become a fast favorite, as has the luscious beef rib carpaccio with oysters, Brie and bubu arare. 

1600 Pearl St. #100, Boulder; 303-953-9852

From anyone else, a cozy New Mexican kitchen off the tourists’ beaten path in Boulder probably wouldn’t make headlines. In chef-owner Hosea Rosenberg’s hands, it naturally does. For one thing, as we noted in our opening report, Santo brings the onetime Top Chef winner’s career full circle as the ode to his birthplace he was already pondering before his highly acclaimed flagship across town, Blackbelly, took off — while eye-opening dishes such as the braised wild boar empanadas and apple–green chile pie with cheddar crust reveal the extent to which his roots have grown and flourished. For another thing, the line that formed down the sidewalk on opening day said it all: right place, right time, right cuisine — especially now that a growing interest in native foods and indigenous traditions is turning industry heads back toward the Southwest.

Must-order: The queso fundido (pictured) and the smoked-corn soup knock our socks off, but please don't skip dessert — given the chance, we'd polish off an entire piñon tart for dinner, wash it down with a flight of drinking chocolate and call it a night. 

1265 Alpine Drive, Boulder; 303-442-6100

Hearth & Dram, Citizen Rail, Urban Farmer and Quality Italian
In years past, the arrival of any one of these outsized, glamorous and ambitious hotel-based meat palaces would have been major news. That we landed all four in a single year is nothing short of monumental. And though each one has made a splash of its own, it’s their collective opening that best illustrates how, in 2017, Denver finally hit the big time, importing established talents who want in on the home-grown action.

Must-order: To name just a few — Hearth & Dram’s steamed Hawaiian roll with garlic butter, crab beignets and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with celeriac; Citizen Rail’s lamb tartare and oxtail with rice grits; Urban Farmer’s sweetbreads, Marsala mushrooms, steak tasting and butterscotch pudding; Quality Italian’s chicken-Parm “pizza” for two and porterhouse agnolotti

Hearth & Dram: 1801 Wewatta St., 303-623-0979; Citizen Rail: 1899 16th St., 303-323-0017; Urban Farmer: 1659 Wazee St., 303-262-6070; Quality Italian: 241 Columbine St., 303-532-8888

Honorable mentions
The array of top contenders for this list was downright dizzying. French 75 and Atelier by Radex: classic bistros from two beloved pioneers, Frank Bonanno and Radek Cerny. Hashtag and FNG: a de rigueur breakfast joint and comfort-food kitchen from empire-builder Troy Guard. Wayward and Izakaya Ronin: respective follow-ups to the much-missed (and soon-to-reopen) The Way Back and the smash hit Sushi Ronin, both of which made last year's list. The Bindery: an ambitious market, bakery and eatery run by dark horse Linda Hampsten Fox, whose compelling vision could make her a rising star. Hickory & Ash, marking pioneer Kevin Taylor's return to the local scene and his son's debut. Finally, a quick shout-out to four bars that are changing the way we think about drinks: Kendra Anderson's slinky hot spot Bar Helix, craft distillery–meets-lounge The Family Jones, 20th-floor rooftop beauty 54thirty and art deco stunner Poka Lola Social Club.

hugh acheson
jennifer jasinski
robert thompson
lachlan mackinnon-patterson
bobby stuckey
italian food
spanish food
small plates
latin food
lon symensma
union station
hosea rosenberg
justin cucci
stanley marketplace
max mackissock
mediterranean food
elise wiggins
caroline glover
el five
punch bowl social
senor bear
michael gibney
nancy kwon
kendra anderson
bar helix
new mexican food
jeb breakell