The Year in Denver Dining: 2014's Hottest Restaurants, Trends and More

From upscale fast-casual to the rise of the food hall
December 15, 2014
by Lori Midson

2014 was a banner year for Denver's culinary scene, with nearly 300 new restaurant openings, an invasion of marketplaces and culinary halls, a hipper breed of fast-casual feasting and more. As 2014 draws to a close, let's take a moment to look back at the city's most monumental moments. What are your predictions for 2015? Let us know in the comments. 

The Hottest New Restaurants

From long-anticipated newcomers like Brazen, Stoic & Genuine and Sarto's (pictured), chef Brian Laird's Italian in Jefferson Park, to the pizza-driven Cart-Driver, it was one of the best years in history for big-name chefs.

Prolific restaurant mogul Troy Guard expanded his growing empire with Sunnyside Burger Bar, Bubu and Guard and Grace, a downtown steakhouse stunner; Alex Seidel, proprietor and chef of Fruition, cemented his star chef status with Mercantile Dining & Provision; restaurateur Robert Thompson added Argyll Whisky Beer to his burgeoning repertoire; and Top Chef winner Hosea Rosenberg finally opened his long awaited Boulder project, Blackbelly Market

Food Network star Keegan Gerhard, along with his wife Lisa Bailey, relocated D Bar, a dinner, dessert and drink emporium, to Uptown; and former Napa Valley restaurateur Frank Jolley brought Gozo, a Spanish-Italian playground, to Baker, unleashing the city's most sought-after porchetta and uncorking a wine list that showcases the owner's deep knowledge of vino.

Surprising Closings

Twelve (pictured), chef Jeff Osaka's spot in in the Ballpark 'hood, an area that's now abundant with notable restaurants, unexpectedly closed late this summer after a six-year run that earned him a 2014 James Beard semifinalist nomination for Best Chef Southwest. The good news is that Osaka is on the hunt to reopen it in a new location. (Disclaimer: The author of this post provides communications consulting to Jeff Osaka.)

Robert Thompson, the restaurateur behind Argyll Whisky Beer and Punch Bowl Social, locked the doors to Le Grand Bistro and Oyster Bar in May, while prolific chef and restaurateur Frank Bonanno left a significant void in the south suburbs when he shuttered Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria. And Corner House, which opened with highly acclaimed chef Matt Selby at the helm (he's now the exec at Central Bistro & Bar), surprisingly went dark in June. The upside: Thompson is unveiling Griffin, a German beer hall and garden, in RiNo early next year, while Osaka is working on numerous projects, including a new restaurant called Osaka Ramen, also opening in RiNo.

The Year of the Ampersand

Remember the days when restaurants were named after their founders or famous chefs, or when one syllable was sufficient? The days when "and" was the predictable conjunction between "X" and "Y"? Yeah, well, all that changed this year when Denver restaurants suddenly — some would say inexplicably — jumped on the ampersand bandwagon. To wit: Olive & Finch, Mary Nguyen's spot in Uptown; Stoic & Genuine (pictured), Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch's seafood sanctum in Union Station; Mercantile Dining & Provision, Alex Seidel's newcomer, also in Union Station; Salt & Grinder, Frank Bonanno's sandwich shop in Highland; Work & Class (quite possibly the best new restaurant of the year); and, most recently, Block & Larder, a modern meat house in Berkeley from the brothers who own Freshcraft.

Union Station Became a Powerhouse of Dining and Drinking

Union Station, Denver's remarkably restored historic train depot, which underwent a $54 million renovation and opened in July, houses the Crawford Hotel, several retail shops, plus 10 restaurants and watering holes, making it the year's hottest new emporium for eating and drinking. The 120-year-old grand dame houses seafood show-stopper Stoic & Genuine; an outpost of Snooze, where the lines for breakfast can stretch for hours; a branch of the Kitchen Next Door; Acme Burger & Brat Corporation, whose Niman Ranch burgers and locally made sausages can be matched with a cocktail or beer at the Terminal Bar; the Cooper Lounge, a strikingly dignified mezzanine-level hideaway that makes you feel like you're riding in first class; PigTrain Coffee (awesome java); Milkbox Ice Creamery, an adorable parlor that scoops up Little Man Ice Cream; and the grab-and-go Fresh eXchange.

Turning Japanese

The Mile High City has always strutted a formidable Asian food scene, but this year, Japanese cuisine saw an upswing, with several noteworthy rookies debuting throughout Denver, including Tokio, (pictured), a contemporary Japanese dining den that opened in Prospect (an enclave near Coors Field) serving sushi, charcoaled meats and fevered bowls of ramen. Kobe An Shabu Shabu brought hot pots to LoHi in July, while Tengu, which emerged just last week in RiNo, is bowling out ramen in a sleek noodle house setting that also lays claim to a subterranean tavern. And by early spring of 2015, Osaka Ramen and Cho77, a Southeast Asian eatery from Lon Symensma, chef and co-owner of ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro, will join the mix. (Disclaimer: The author of this post provides communications consulting to Jeff Osaka.)

The Rise of Food Halls and Marketplaces 

In 2013, The Source, an indoor marketplace with restaurants, a wine store, cheese emporium, bread shop, butchery and coffee roaster, made its mark in RiNo, trailblazing the way for other chefs and entrepreneurs to bite off a piece of Denver's culinary climate. TheBigWonderful, (pictured), an urbanized flea market, planted roots this summer, parading eats and drinks from local restaurants, food trucks and artisans in a massive outdoor setting; it'll be back in full force next spring. In Aurora, a new $9 million,100,000-sq.-.ft., food-centric development project on the northeast corner of East Mississippi Avenue and South Peoria Street, features the 57,000-sq.-ft. Pacific Ocean Marketplace, along with a half-dozen newly opened — or forthcoming — restaurants, including a Thai spot, a ramen shop, a Chinese joint, a Korean BBQ haunt and Kim Ba, a Vietnamese restaurant that opened just a few weeks ago.

Construction is underway on Avanti Food & Beverage, a "collective eatery" in LoHi that's slated to open in the spring of 2015. Billed as a "culinary think tank for chefs to create gourmet small plates at affordable prices," the industrialized shipping-container project, complete with a sprawling rooftop patio that overlooks the city skyline, will house seven self-contained restaurants, as well as two bars pouring wine, beer and cocktails.

And in the summer of 2015, local real estate developer Ken Wolf and chef Jeff Osaka plan to unveil The Market at the H.H. Tammen Building, a 12,000-sq.-ft. food hall at 2669 Larimer Street, which will lay claim to 13 vendors, including a rotisserie, deli, salumi and cheese shop, retail fish market, ice cream parlor, wine bar and butchery. (Disclaimer: The author of this post provides communications consulting to Jeff Osaka.)

Two Little Restaurants that Made the Biggest Noise

2014 was the year of the tiny but mighty restaurant. Proving that size doesn't matter, the 52-seat Work & Class, whose kitchen is commanded by chef Dana Rodriguez, a prodigy of Jennifer Jasinski, turns out exciting plates that, even months later, are still the talk of the town. And despite the diminutive quarters, Rodriguez and her partners, Delores Tronco and Tony Maciag, are insistent on delivering a larger-than-life dining experience. Waits are inevitable, but the warm and welcoming vibe is so big-hearted that no one seems to mind the cluster of bodies. The same can be said for the 21-seat To the Wind Bistro, which opened quietly in March and quickly rose in popularity once more and more diners tasted chef Royce Oliveira's savory plates and his pastry-chef wife Leanne Adamson's dazzling desserts.

The Juice Bar Boom

Juice bars are no longer just for the health-obsessed. In fact, they're popping up all over Denver, and some restaurants are even getting in on the trend by incorporating fresh-pressed juices into cocktails and more. From the juices at Olive & Finch (pictured) to the organic nectars at Raw Roots Juice Bar & Cafe (the spot also offers individually tailored cleanses and detoxes) and Denver Roots Juice & Joe, a kiosk in Washington Park that shares a patio with Homegrown Tap & Dough, the juice craze is growing like weeds.

Cauliflower is King

In 2014, kale and Brussels sprouts took a backseat to cauliflower, the cruciferous veggie of the moment. Restaurants are making the most of the trendy veggie, serving it every which way. The roasted florets star in a salad with spinach, almonds and pecorino at Duo (pictured), while The Plimoth, Peter Ryan's terrific nook in City Park, serves a cauliflower and turnip gratinée with mornay and wild mushrooms. Biker Jim's, now with a second brick-and-mortar in Highlands Ranch, unleashes oven-roasted cauliflower glazed with tahini paste, brown sugar and soy sauce, and Atticus satisfies the craving with its cauliflower steak blackened with patches of char.

Fast-Casual Goes Upscale

Over the last year, the movement toward more informal dining has surged, but Denver chefs are upping the tried-and-true formula by designing spaces and menus that inject upscale elements. Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery, a polished newcomer spearheaded by ex-Zengo exec chef Clint Wangsnes, incorporates sous-vide cooking in its hit roster of dishes (the French onion soup is also a show-stopper); Biju's Little Curry House (pictured), which opened last week in RiNo, serves its bowls of excellent curry in a super-cool space that features graffiti-chalked walls, a copper-surfaced community table and sleek banquettes and tables that wouldn't be out of place in a fine-dining restaurant.

Frank Bonanno introduced his first fast-casual restaurant, Salt & Grinder, earlier this year in Highland, turning out glorious Jersey-style sandwiches in quarters outfitted with antique cabinetry and a wooden library ladder. And at the newest Pizzeria Locale, located on the same block, and Cart-Driver, in RiNo, brilliant Neapolitan-style pizzas emerge from showpiece ovens in spaces where service is fast but the food is anything but casual.

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