During a year splashed with hundreds of new restaurant openings, it's no wonder that the Denver dining landscape made us dizzy. So many restaurants, so little time. Still, these 10 spots –– everything from an opus to seafood to a bona fide food hall –– separated themselves from the pack with their rhapsodic cooking, inspiring visions and propensity for creativity. These 10 destinations, which we've ranked, made an indelible mark on our culinary climate and are dictating the wave of Denver's gastronomic future.
It took nearly two years to take root, but Avanti Food & Beverage, an eclectic collection of start-up restaurants housed in shipping containers occupying a decades-old, repurposed two-level warehouse, is, without question, the biggest hit of the year. The space, designed as a culinary think tank for visionary chefs to test their concepts and craft innovative dishes at casual prices, houses seven distinctly different chef-driven restaurant incubators: Brava! Pizzeria Della Strada; Bixo Mexiterrean Bites; Poco Torteria; Quero Arepas; Souk Shawarma; Farmer Girl; and Mijo. In addition, there are two communal dining areas and cocktail-centric bars, plus a stunning rooftop patio with panoramic views of the city skyline and Coors Field. If you're one of the few who hasn't witnessed everything it has to offer, think about celebrating New Year's Eve here. All of the restaurants are serving their standard menus, along with small plates, plus there's a complimentary champagne toast and you can watch the Downtown fireworks display from the rooftop bar. Admission is free, but if you want to splurge, take advantage of the $70 VIP package, which includes unlimited wine, beer and well drinks.
Must-order: Paella from Bixo, pollo albondigas from Poco and the bacon pops from Brava!
3200 Pecos St.; 720-269-4778
2. Bar Dough
In the summer of 2012, Max MacKissock, then the executive chef of The Squeaky Bean, departed that kitchen armed with a personal mission: open his own restaurant. And in late October, he, along with Juan and Katie Padró, owners of Highland Tap and Burger (and the forthcoming Tap and Burger at Sloan's Lake), unveiled Bar Dough, a 65-seat Italian restaurant, pizza joint and bar that, while approachable, beautifully showcases MacKissock's impressive culinary pedigree while paying homage to his East Coast, Italian-rooted upbringing. He also assembled a stellar kitchen staff of industry heavyweights, including Blake Edmunds, who worked with MacKissock at The Squeaky Bean; Joshua Prater, formerly of Euclid Hall; Kona Bobek, most recently of Old Major; and Matthew Murphy, who comes to Bar Dough from Rioja. It's a super-talented team that's turning out some of the best food in Denver –– food that's complemented by a stellar beverage program from bar czar Steve Gallic.
Must-order: Scampi (pictured), Commendatore pizza and the garlic squid
2227 W. 32nd Ave.; 720-668-8506
This wonderfully eclectic American haunt in RiNo from New Jersey transplants and chefs Bo Porytko and Dan Lasiy features an ambitious ever-changing board of jaw-dropping small plates and main dishes, including green curried snails, blackened frogs' legs and a whole pig's head prominently displayed on a silver platter. It's all unleashed in a smashing dining room bedecked with ornate tinned walls, handcrafted community tables and a striking copper-topped bar that pours everything from craft beer to clever cocktails focused on housemade shrubs.
Must-order: Roasted pig's head, fried oysters and the snails with green curry
3763 Wynkoop St.; 303-297-3902
Yes, his presentations are gorgeous. But while plate artistry is one of chef Lon Symensma's signature calling cards, so, too, is his top-notch cooking, a combination of unassailable technique, imagination and harmonious flavors. The restaurant, a homage to Asian street food, is the product of Symensma and chef de cuisine Ryan Gorby's extensive research; the duo spent weeks eating their way through the food stalls of Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, and the result of their sojourns translates to multicultural dishes that spectacularly showcase the nuances of Southeast Asian cuisine.
Must-order: Thai chicken curry, Burmese pork curry and the crispy frogs' legs
42 S. Broadway; 720-638-8179
5. Bar Fausto
It's not easy making culinary magic in a kitchen absent of essentials –– a hood, for example –– but chef de cuisine Jared Brant, who cooked at Mizuna, Satchel's, Bones and the Populist, is doing exactly that at Bar Fausto. He and his talented staff crank out their handiwork from behind the transparency of the bar, utilizing little more than a retro slicer from the 1940s, sharp knives and a convection oven to wow guests with a tightly edited menu of salumi (most of it sourced from Salumeria Biellese in New York) and cheese boards, daily changing East and West Coast oysters, sandwiches served on French ficelle bread and seasonal salads, including an arugula, fennel, beet, pistachio and chèvre number glossed with a balsamic vinaigrette. After an evening here with a few fantastic cocktails, you'll appreciate all of its virtues.
Must-order: Salumi board, trout crudo and squash bruschetta with brown butter sage and ricotta
3126 Larimer St.; 720-445-9691
Restaurateur Justin Cucci (Linger, Root Down) is a design genius — and Ophelia's is arguably his most bewitching endeavor. The multilevel interior, a collaboration between Cucci, a manic collector of all things cool, and BOSS Architecture, a local architectural firm, showcases weathered brick walls lined with posters of pin-up girls, dangling gold spheres hanging from the ceiling, a downstairs bar flanked by 4,000 Jägermeister bottles, vintage movie-theater wallpaper, crushed-velvet seating and a boudoir feel throughout every turn. Occupying an 1894-era Victorian brownstone that formerly housed a brothel, it's an atmosphere of seduction that's matched by a menu of delicious indulgences. To wit: octopus a la plancha, mussels in a beer-and-curry broth and a flatbread topped with quail eggs, spinach, bacon, fried Brussels sprouts and butternut squash alfredo.
Must-order: Belgian mussels with jalapeño-cheddar bread, roasted beet and curried cauliflower salad and the hummus
1215 20th St.; 303-993-8023
A huge arch over Washington Avenue reads "Howdy Folks! Welcome to Golden.” It's the kind of antiquated signage that suggests you're entering the confines of a small town devoid of notable restaurants. And for the most part, Golden isn't exactly a restaurant gold mine, but Abejas (which means “bees” in Spanish), a restaurant from two industry heavyweights, including chef Nicholas Ames, is significantly elevating the hamlet's culinary landscape. The farm-focused menu is firmly rooted in seasonality; there's an on-site butchering program; the dining room gives off a cool neighborhood vibe; and the esoteric wine list is simply terrific. In a nutshell, it's a small-town restaurant with big-city appeal.
Must-order: Pig trotter and green bean terrine, duck breast and the lamb shank
807 13th St., Golden; 303-952-9745
Polished but not pretentious, this Cherry Creek seafood venture from the team behind Humboldt Farm, Fish and Wine is a lively spot that showboats pristinely fresh fish and seafood, including a dazzling raw bar. And it's probably the best place in Denver to educate yourself in oyster geography, tuck into a killer lobster roll and revel in those fist-size marvels known as stuffies, clams and scallops mixed with bread crumbs, charred corn and linguica sausage, then stuffed back into their mammoth shells. Those alone are worth the price of admission.
Must-order: Clam chowder, lobster roll and the stuffies
2625 E. Second Ave.; 303-333-2462
While it took some time for this groovy cafe and coffeehouse to catch the buzz it deserves, it's now a foodie destination for anyone searching for a dining experience that, while informal and unfussy, features intoxicating breakfast and lunch glories that are as alluring as the space. Between the fantastic congee with chicken confit, salted ginger, chile oil and a poached egg, the breakfast burrito liberally stuffed with bacon or housemade sausage and smothered with green chile and the duck-fat-fried chicken wings, this is a markedly unique neighborhood charmer that should be on everyone's must-go list.
Must-order: Congee, bacon fried rice and the chicken wings
1420 W. 18th Ave.; 303-954-0877
Before Denver became a nationally recognized hotbed of dining, there was Sean Kelly, a celebrated chef who, in the late 1990s, opened Aubergine Cafe, a small restaurant — now Frank Bonanno's Mizuna — that generated an avalanche of accolades. Kelly, repeatedly named Denver's best chef, would go on to christen the city with two more restaurants: Clair de Lune followed by Somethin' Else, both of which earned him additional bragging rights. After a few more passes through other kitchens, Kelly sort of fell off the radar, but he returned to the scene just over a month ago with a comfortable and engaging neighborhood haunt that's full of potential.
Must-order: Polenta, onion and chèvre tart and the potted salmon
2230 Oneida St.; 720-542-9035