Hottest Fast-Casual Restaurants in Denver

Get your poke, fried chicken and aebleskivers right here
January 2, 2018
by Ruth Tobias

In a city that’s knonwn as a hub of fast-casual innovation, there’s always a killer new counter joint around the corner. These eight wave-making, rave-drawing newcomers — all, with one close-enough exception, opening within the past year — are poised to earn their place in the pantheon alongside Denver’s most beloved standbys. (We're looking at you, Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, Maria Empanada, Biju’s Little Curry Shop, Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen, Olive & Finch, Zoe Ma Ma, Vital Root, Chop ShopTocabeBriderPizzeria Locale and Cart-Driver — just to name a few.) 

Why it made the list: When Jean-Philippe Failyau and Peter Newlin (Park Burger, Homegrown Tap & Dough) launched this all-day chicken shack in the old Tom’s Home Cookin’ space last summer, they made headlines as much for their business model and design as for their food, centered on custom-built smart kiosks for an almost entirely tech-driven service experience in a sunny, pop-industrial setting. But it’s all about the crispy, juicy bird for their instantly loyal fan base, which is only growing with the fall debut of a second branch in the Union Station Whole Foods Market and the anticipation surrounding a third near BU.

Must-order: Whether on a breakfast-only biscuit or a pickle-dotted bun, the Nashville Hot takes the top slot, followed closely by the Deluxe, topped with pepper jack, bacon, tomato, lettuce and herbed buttermilk mayo.

800 E. 26th Ave.; 720-361-2976

The Bindery
Why it made the list: As the trend toward hybrid fast-casual/fine-dining ventures takes off, Linda Hampsten Fox is showing everyone how it’s done at her LoHi debut. With the market humming along from sunup to sundown six days a week — offering counter service even after sit-down dinner service begins (until 7 PM) — the vibe of the spacious, airy dining room feels positively European. And the mood is only enhanced by the food: From housemade yogurt with coffee–pumpkin seed granola and ginger jam or confit turkey on a fresh-baked baguette with shaved Brussels sprouts and cranberry-port sauce to daily pastries like tri-pepper pane bianco (pictured) and pumpkin-sage financiers, the daytime provisions prove every bit as sophisticated as the evening plates.

Must-order: The brunch-only Dutch Baby with apples and pecans is a big hit, as is the slick lunchtime take on a Philly cheesesteak.

1817 Central St.; 303-993-2364

Why it made the list: 34 Degrees founder and first-time restaurateur Craig Lieberman is also perfecting the gourmet fast-casual model at this old RiNo bungalow turned snug, sleek eatery, where exec chef Duncan Holmes (ex Frasca Food and Wine) turns out daily pastries and breads from house-milled grains — including coffee cake, éclairs and English muffins — along with simple but elegant cafe fare from 8 AM to 4 PM. Come January, when the liquor license is in, he’ll launch evening service with a separate menu supplemented by an ever-changing array of small plates — think oysters, toasts and cheeses — displayed along the counter to create, according to Holmes, “a really lively environment to make dinnertime feel like dinnertime.” Imagine a Scandinavian coffee shop transforming into a Spanish tapas bar nightly, and you’ve got the picture.

Must-order: Until then, load up on aebleskivers (a cross between pancakes and donut holes) with ricotta and jam and the curried mackerel tartine (though maybe not together).

2845 Larimer St.; 303-954-0230

Pizzeria Lui
Why it made the list: Enthusiastic word about Zach Parini’s Lakewood pizza parlor just keeps spreading. Behind the low-key vibe is the ingenuity and meticulous craft of the pies themselves, wood-fired at 900 degrees for crusts that strike the perfect balance between chew and char and paired with a small but smart array of wine and beer. If one of the marks of a great food town is that the culinary wealth spreads well past just a few high-traffic, high-end neighborhoods, this is a harbinger of good things to come.

Must-order: All the pizzas are top-notch, but we’re especially enamored of Parini’s seasonal white pies topped with, say, sopressata, roasted green chiles and cherry tomatoes or butternut squash, bacon, sage and spicy honey.

5380 W. Mississippi Ave., Lakewood; 303-922-3202

Dio Mio Handmade Pasta
Why it made the list: This RiNo magnet for pastaphiles from self-styled “spaghetti monsters” Alex Figura and Spencer White opened just over a year ago to instant acclaim, including a spot on our list of 2016’s Most Important Openings, for proving that fine dining and counter service aren’t mutually exclusive. Both the menu and the drink list pack more intrigue onto one page than many 10 times its size, while the execution is exactly what you’d expect from one chef who just missed the age cutoff for our 30 Under 30 awards in 2014 and another who received the honor just this year.

Must-order: Signatures include the house-baked sourdough with prosciutto and burrata, the broccoli rabe in bagna cauda and the squid-ink spaghetti with pork belly and kimchi. But we’re always swayed by seasonal creations like kale fettuccine with clams and chorizo or gnocchi with pastrami, potatoes and horseradish sour cream.   

3264 Larimer St.; 303-562-1965

Kaya Kitchen
Why it made the list: Kaya toast with coconut jam and soy sauce–sprinkled poached eggs may be a staple in Singapore, but we wager most Denverites had never heard of it until Lon Symensma debuted his celebrated gourmet version at ChoLon some years back. Now, in simpler form, it’s a signature at his Southeast Asian street-food stall at Avanti Food & Beverage — which isn’t technically a restaurant yet but will, by next summer, move into a brick-and-mortar LoDo space to offer not only current items like "kimcheese" sandwiches and banh mi served French-dip style with pho for dunking, but new takes on papaya salad, dim sum, noodle soups and Vietnamese coffee, among other staples.

Must-order: Besides the Kaya toast (pictured), exec chef Ryan Gorby’s outrageous bacon-cheeseburger dumplings made our short list of must-try fall dishes. 

Just BE Kitchen
Why it made the list: While catering to Denver’s paleo and gluten-free hordes, this LoHi daytime charmer (pictured top) manages to make just about everyone feel at home with its nifty balance between vibrant, healthful cooking and soulful comfort food — from biscuits smothered in sausage or mushroom gravy with grilled onions (pictured above) and kale chips to the egg- and gremolata-topped veggie hash to the bone broth bar, Bullet coffee in flavors like butternut squash or maple-cinnamon and even sugar- and grain-free cocktails. As if that weren’t enough, the kitchen turns out fun specials such as brunchtime strata or curried cauliflower with candied walnuts and grapes.

Must-order: The breakfast burrito gets high marks, as does the grass-fed burger topped with mushroom pâté, vegan “Cheez Whiz” and more.

2364 15th St.; 303-284-6652

Turtle Boat
Why it made the list:
Amid the innumerable poke parlors opening this year, Jeremy Song’s Overland outlier stood out for its twin emphasis on responsible sourcing and mad creativity. Not only are the ingredients sustainable, organic and/or local whenever possible — from Colorado striped bass to Rebel Farms greens — but they’re downright unique, including a tofu alternative made in-house from ancient grains, as well as wasabi guacamole, vegan masago and “poi’tato” salad.

Must-order: We won’t tell you how to build your own poke bowl, but we will suggest you top it off with a sprinkle of the housemade furikake.

2231 S. Broadway; 720-248-9477

fried chicken
fast casual
health food
union station
five points
counter service
the bindery
quick casual
southeast asian food
just be kitchen
kaya kitchen
dio mio handmade pasta
turtle boat
pizzeria lui