Denver's 10 Most Influential Restaurant Empires

The Mile High City's biggest culinary moguls
February 29, 2016
by Lori Midson

For a long time, local chefs and restaurateurs marched to the beat of a one-tune restaurant. But over the years, they've expanded their culinary domains to include at least of trio of eateries. (And, in some cases, a portfolio in the double digits.) These 10 ambitious Denver-Boulder chefs and restaurateurs, in particular, are the moguls that define trends, raise the bar and build empires.

Troy Guard

Block by block, 'hood by 'hood, Troy Guard is one of the Mile High City's most entrepreneurial chefs and restaurateurs, and he's definitely one of the culinary head-turners to watch in 2016. Beginning with TAG, his playful flagship restaurant on Larimer Square, Guard's empire has grown to encompass Sugarmill, two branches of Los Chingones, a duo of TAG Burger Bars and Bubu restaurants and Guard and Grace, a top-drawer steakhouse. And that's just the start of his domination.

In addition to a third Los Chingones, Guard's rollicking ode to Mexican cuisine, and an unnamed breakfast concept slated for the newly constructed Eastbridge Town Center, he's opening Mr. Tuna in INDUSTRY, a shared workspace office development in RiNo. Mr. Tuna, the nickname of Guard's father, is a "personal ode to all the things I love," he says, revealing that the 115-seat, 3,500-sq.-ft. space is all about "highlighting what we feel is the best of American dining, coupled with touches from all over the globe and the best of Colorado."

Lon Symensma

When Lon Symensma, former exec chef of New York's Buddakan, moved to Denver in 2010 to open ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro as a culinary homage to his travels throughout Southeast Asia, he brought with him an infectious magnetism that's evident in both his food and personality. Since the launch of ChoLon, the superbly talented chef has opened Cho77 and taken over the culinary operations at Union Station — including food service at the Cooper Lounge and Terminal Bar.

By late summer, he'll add Concourse to his repertoire. The 3,000-sq.-ft., 100-seat New American restaurant will serve light breakfasts (think egg dishes, pastries, coffee and fresh-squeezed juices), lunch (soups, salads and sandwiches) and an "elevated dinner menu that that's going to knock your socks off." His chef de cuisine/partner Luke Bergman, a disciple of Colicchio & Sons, The Modern and Aureole (New York) and 1826 (Miami), will oversee the menu.

Justin Brunson

Justin Brunson, exec chef of Old Major and Masterpiece Deli, which now has two Denver locations, is surging ahead with several new projects this year. Along with Culture Meat & Cheese, a retail shop and restaurant opening in RiNo's forthcoming Central Market, he's also gearing up to unveil Masterpiece Kitchen, a "grown-up Masterpiece Deli," says Brunson, that's slated to open in the Hangar 2 development on March 7. But unlike Masterpiece Deli, Masterpiece Kitchen, a partnership between Brunson and Larimer Associates, the real estate development company that transformed the former Lowry Air Force Base into a lively neighborhood hub, is a full-service upscale American grill/sandwich-focused concept that's poised to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. "Masterpiece Kitchen is the vision we always had for Masterpiece Deli, but until now, we didn't have the space to make that vision a reality," notes Brunson, adding that the 110-seat, 2,600-sq.-ft. space plans to offer classics from Masterpiece Deli along with several new dishes. The kitchen will be quarterbacked by chef de cuisine Ben Shapiro, who started as a cook at Masterpiece Deli and worked his way up the ladder.

Justin Cucci

Following the successes of LoHi's Linger and two Root Down locations (one in LoHi, the other at DIA), Justin Cucci –– perhaps the most ingenuous restaurateur in Denver –– opened Ophelia's Electric Soapbox last year, giving Denverites a simultaneously glamorous and seedy gastro-brothel/live music venue housed in an old Victorian landmark that once showcased peep shows. And he's on track to open two more restaurants this year: an unnamed Spanish/Mediterranean/Middle Eastern eatery within spitting distance of Linger, as well as Vital Root, a casual venture in the Berkeley neighborhood dedicated to what Cucci calls affordable "fast slow food." He's even considering adding a healthy 99-cent meal to rival fast-food chains.  

Jennifer Jasinski

Jennifer Jasinski, who began conjuring up Mediterranean magic in 2004 when she opened Rioja, her flagship restaurant in Larimer Square, now oversees three additional sensations with her business partner Beth Gruitch: Bistro Vendome, Euclid Hall and Stoic & Genuine, a swanky fish house that opened in 2014 in Denver's historic Union Station. A 2016 James Beard Foundation semifinalist in the Outstanding Chef category (she won the Beard Foundation's Best Chef Southwest award in 2013), Jasinski, who also competed on Top Chef Masters, hasn't announced any forthcoming restaurants, but that's not to say she doesn't have plenty of irons in the fire; her schedule is packed with events and appearances, and we're betting that she's got another restaurant up her sleeve.

Dave Query

Chef and restaurateur Dave Query rose to culinary prominence more than 20 years ago when he unleashed his first Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar in Boulder. Since then, Big Red F, Query's ever-expanding restaurant group, has opened four more Jax locations, including one in Kansas City. He also owns Centro, Zolo Grill, Lola Mexican Fish House, the West End Tavern, Post Brewing Brewing Company and GoodBird Kitchen, a terrific homage to fried chicken that opened just a few months ago in Longmont and is poised to become a front-runner in the elevated fast-casual scene.

Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson

A casual conversation between two then-strangers –– restaurateur Kimbal Musk and chef Hugo Matheson –– on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall quickly morphed into a friendship and, eventually, a business relationship behind eight restaurants: seven in Colorado and one in Chicago. The restaurants –– The Kitchen, The Kitchen Next Door and The Kitchen Upstairs –– personify a "center of conversation and connection." They've got three locations opening in Memphis, and a fifth outpost of The Kitchen is opening this summer in Cherry Creek. “The moment we opened in Denver, guests have been asking us to bring The Kitchen to Cherry Creek. It’s a wonderful community and one of the hearts of Denver,” says Musk. “We can't wait to be a part of the neighborhood.” And their expanding empire doesn't end there: a fourth Kitchen Next Door is taking up residence in the Eastbridge Town Center.

Frank Bonanno

It's impossible to emphasize the indelible mark that chef and restaurateur Frank Bonanno has made on the Mile High dining scene. From the lovely Mizuna, his flagship restaurant in Capitol Hill, to Salt & Grinder, his excellent deli, to Bones, his lively Asian noodle bar, Bonanno has created a portfolio of 10 impressive restaurants and bars. On the horizon: French 75, a two-tiered, 85-seat, 2,400-sq.-ft. Parisian brasserie opening in the heart of Downtown on the ground level of City Center. You'll have to wait until end of year to experience what he has in store, but diners can expect classic French cuisine in the style of New York's Balthazar. Bonanno also plans to open a second Osteria Marco, his Larimer Square shrine to pizza and salumi, in Tres Santos, a surfing town in Mexico.

Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson

Twelve years ago, co-owners Bobby Stuckey (also the restaurant's master somm) and exec chef Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson opened Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder; the nation took notice. Their ode to Friulian cuisine, served in casually elegant surrounds, has amassed dozens of awards. In 2011, they opened Pizzeria Locale and, in the years since, two more locations (both are fast-casual spots) have emerged in Denver –– and there's a fourth branch in Kansas City and a forthcoming one in Cincinnati. Now they've set their sights on a new, still unnamed, 125-seat Italian restaurant that's scheduled to open in December at the A Block at Union Station development, located on the 16th Street Mall, between Wewatta and Wynkoop Streets. "The new restaurant will offer accessible dining for neighbors and visitors alike, and the experience will fall somewhere between Frasca and Pizzeria Locale Boulder,” says Patterson.

Christopher Sargent

A Mile High City transplant since 2010, Christopher Sargent opened Brazen in 2014. The accolades were fast and furious, and after unleashing Telegraph Neighborhood Bistro & Bar the following year, it, too, generated praise. Tapping the talents of Brian Wilson, a 2015 Denver Zagat 30 Under 30 honoree, to spearhead the kitchen, Sargent now has another project in the works. He plans to open Kindred — a 2,000-sq.-ft. American craft kitchen emphasizing wood-fired cooking, charcuterie and pickling — in Sunnyside in the spring.

troy guard
justin brunson
jennifer jasinski
dave query
frank bonanno
lachlan mackinnon-patterson
bobby stuckey
restaurant empires
james beard awards
hugo matheson
kimbal musk
justin cucci
christopher sargent