The Denver dining climate is definitely on the upswing, and while we're thrilled with the onslaught of new restaurants, not all culinary neighborhoods are created equal. Here's our take on five popular restaurant neighborhoods and whether they're heating up, holding steady or cooling off.
Talk about a culinary gold mine! The development of the River North Art District, aka RiNo, has come full circle thanks in large part to father-and-son visionaries Mickey and Kyle Zeppelin who, in 2013, graced Denver with The Source, the city's first urbanized European-inspired food hall, now the culinary heartbeat of a prospering stamping ground for food enthusiasts, cocktail cohorts and beer geeks. Here, in this burgeoning 'hood, there's a cuisine for every craving: progressive Mexican at Comida and Los Chingones, remarkably good New American food at Acorn and the Populist, Latin American–inspired eats from the perpetually packed Work & Class, Denver's best pizza from Cart-Driver; innovative Indian dishes from Biju's Little Curry Shop; and creative cookery from Rebel.
And then there's the unassailable craft-beer scene that includes Crooked Stave at the Source, Ratio Beerworks and River North Brewery plus notable newcomers like the Barrel Bar, an intimate taproom that's the first phase of a forthcoming five-acre destination beer campus from Great Divide Brewing Co., and First Draft, a restaurant and beer lover's nirvana that features a state-of-the-art self-service, 40-tap pour-your-own-beer system showcasing rare, geeky brews alongside more familiar labels and a few wines and ciders.
Over the past few months, RiNo has also unleashed Finn's Manor, an eclectic New Orleans–influenced cocktail-and-tea lounge that lays claim to an outdoor food-truck bazaar, and Bar Fausto, a super-cool cocktail emporium from Jonathan Power (The Populist and Crema Coffee House) and Koan Goedman (Huckleberry Roasters).
On the horizon: Hop Alley, a new Chinese restaurant and bar from Tommy Lee, the chef-owner of Uncle; Bierstadt Lagerhaus, a cidery and German-inspired brewery; and Sushi-Rama, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant from Jeff Osaka, who owns Osaka Ramen, with locations in RiNo and Cherry Creek.
Status: Heating Up
For decades, tony Cherry Creek was a booming restaurant metropolis, but it faltered on the food front a few years ago when several of its best restaurants shuttered. Now? It's (sort of) experiencing a second coming with new independent restaurants, including seafood stunner Blue Island Oyster Bar and Osaka Ramen joining favorites like Elway's, Harman's Eat and Drink (pictured), Machete, Second Home Kitchen + Bar and the venerable Cherry Cricket.
And by the end of the year, Del Frisco's Grille and 801 Chophouse will join the fray. Still, while the sophisticated enclave pulsates with energy during the day, the vibe is still a bit sleepy at night, and even though a few additional new restaurants (SOL Cocina and a second outpost of Thirsty Lion Gastropub and Grill) are slated to open in early-to-mid 2016, they, like Del Frisco's Grill and 801 Chophouse, are chains, which doesn't exactly thrill us, especially given the number of big-name local restaurant operators who could truly make Cherry Creek a dining destination that's as notable as its luxury residences, polished boutiques and fashionable clientele.
That said, we're excited about the forthcoming Cherry Creek branch of Matsuhisa, the eponymous Japanese restaurant from world-renowned chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.
Status: Holding Steady
Uptown and City Park West — the restaurant row that stretches along 17th Avenue, just east of Downtown — is a hotbed of activity, although the influx of new restaurants is waning. Steuben's and Ace, Josh and Jen Wolkon's restaurants, are still going strong, as is D Bar, Watercourse Foods, Humboldt Farm, Fish & Wine, Olive and Finch, Il Posto, Patxi's, the iconic Avenue Grill and Beast + Bottle (pictured), the lovely farmhouse-inspired restaurant from sister-and-brother team Paul and Aileen Reilly.
And, in fact, the duo has experienced so much success with Beast + Bottle that they're opening a new, still unnamed restaurant in the former Centennial Tavern at Jonesy's space on the western edge of Uptown. Look for that restaurant to come to fruition in early 2016.
Status: Holding Steady
There was a time, not that long ago, when opening a restaurant in LoHi was the last thing a chef would want, but, oh, how that neighborhood has changed. Z Cuisine, a quaint French restaurant with a fiercely loyal fan base, was one of the first restaurants to realize the neighborhood's potential, as did Highland Tap and Burger and Lola. And over the past several years, the enclave has exploded with splashy debuts: Old Major, Justin Brunson's terrific ode to nose-to-tail cooking (he owns sandwich kingpin Masterpiece Deli too, also in LoHi); Root Down and Linger, Justin Cucci's wildly successful restaurants; Williams & Graham, Sean Kenyon's nationally acclaimed cocktail den; Uncle, Tommy Lee's insatiably popular Asian-fusion restaurant; and Central Bistro and Bar, whose kitchen is quarterbacked by star chef Matt Selby. This last year, in particular, has brought even more depth and diversity to the hamlet with the debuts of Avanti Food and Beverage, a collective food hall with seven self-contained restaurants (and the best view of the city skyline from the rooftop patio) and Occidental Bar (main photo up top), the newest entry from Kenyon.
More good news: on Monday, October 26, chef Max MacKissock, along with Juan Padro, owner of Highland Tap and Burger, will open the highly anticipated Bar Dough, a bar-driven Italian restaurant, whose centerpiece is a Mario Acunto wood-fired oven imported from Italy. Expect a menu featuring a dedicated salumi board, a section devoted to innovative salads, spiedini (skewered wood-fired meats and vegetables), several pastas available by the half and full portion and six to eight pizzas, including an East Coast surf clam pizza.
Status: Heating Up
What was once a bona fide restaurant destination of smashing hits is now becoming mundane and static. Japanese stalwart Sushi Den and its newer sibling, Izakaya Den, are still the top restaurants on the block, and Ototo, the third restaurant from the same owners, recently reopened after years of dormancy. But we've seen an awful of concepts fail, including the bold and brash Session Kitchen, the long-standing Pearl Street Grill and India's Pearl, an excellent Indian restaurant that went far and above the predictable chicken tikka masala. Kaos Pizzeria and Uno Mas, a taqueria, are both good bets for casual dining, as is Park Burger, but future concepts — a predictably mediocre outpost of the Tavern and a Mexican restaurant called Que Bueno, slated for the Session Kitchen space, that has ties to a concept at Denver International Airport — aren't enough to jumpstart a neighborhood that's been in decline for some time.
Status: Cooling Off