12 Terrific $30 Dinners in Denver and Boulder

By Ruth Tobias  |  January 13, 2014
Credit: Ruth Tobias

If your wallet took a hit during the holidays, not to worry: there are plenty of places around town that can fill your belly without busting your budget. And we’re not talking about fast-food chains or hole-in-the-wall takeout spots. Setting ourselves a $30 limit to cover an appetizer, entree and dessert, we came up with a dozen restaurants we dig even when money’s not tight - all full-service and ambiance-blessed.

  • Credit: facebook.com/AmerigoDelicatus

    Amerigo Delicatus Restaurant & Market

    While Denver’s a bit short on midrange Italian eateries, Iain Chisholm’s arty Ballpark spot is a shining exception. The short, homey yet hand-crafted menu changes weekly, but neither the salads and soups nor the desserts break the $6 mark, and entrees hover around $15 - so really, the world here is your oyster (or braised beef rib over polenta, or ricotta gnudi with acorn squash).

    2449 Larimer St.; 303-862-9850

  • Credit: Rachel Nobrega


    It’s flanked by his fanciest flagships - Mizuna on one side and Luca d’Italia on the other - but Frank Bonanno’s snug Asian-fusion noodle bar on Capitol Hill, celebrating its fifth anniversary this week, lets you dabble in luxury without walloping your wallet. Take the appetizer that’s been our top pick since day one: luscious escargot potstickers in a garlicky, red-pepper-flecked butter sauce. Follow it with the funky pastrami-cured duck ramen (pictured), and you’ll still have the funds to slurp down the soft-serve ice cream du jour. 

    701 Grant St.; 303-860-2929

  • Bramble & Hare

    More casual but no less sophisticated than its next-door sibling, Black Cat, this farm-to-fork gastropub hits the mark with a daily changing three-course prix fixe that's so market-driven the kitchen may not even finalize it until just before service. Recent hits from the $29 menu have included a salad of roasted beets, walnuts and housemade ricotta with greens grown by chef-owner Eric Skokan; beef stew with goat-cheese dumplings; and a good old-fashioned banana split.  

    1970 13th St., Boulder; 303-444-9110

  • Buenos Aires Pizzeria

    It’s warm, it’s lively, it’s everything you’d picture an Argentine cafe to be - complete with pizza. Italian influence is strong throughout Argentina, and the menu of this easygoing Ballpark charmer reflects that history with pizzazz, not to mention a few native twists. Almost all of its 40 pies cost under $20, so you’ve got your pick, graced with such exotic toppings as chopped egg, palm hearts, asparagus, mint leaves and even orange slices and coconut, as well as more familiar combinations. You and a pal can kick off your adventure with a couple of textbook empanadas (we’re partial to the blue cheese and onion, but the kitchen turns out several other flavors), then bring it to a close by sharing a regular-sized cup of housemade dulce de leche or hazelnut gelato. You’ll both be stuffed for a song - namely some tango melody, in keeping with the parlor’s decorative motif.

    1307/1319 22nd St.; 303-296-6710

  • Credit: Christopher Cina

    ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro

    Yes, you can do Lon Symensma’s celebrated LoDo go-to on the relative cheap. Here’s how: begin with his signature, the sumptuous Singaporean street snack called kaya toast, made with coconut jam and egg. Move on to the duck “fried rice” that Symensma himself recently chose as his current favorite dish (pictured). And end with spiced donuts in a condensed-milk sauce with Vietnamese coffee ice cream. That’s 30 bucks for some of the most smartly conceived, elegantly presented eats in town.

    1555 Blake St., Suite 101; 303-353-5223

  • Cuba Cuba Cafe & Bar

    Winter stops short at the front door of this turquoise bungalow in the Golden Triangle, where the vibrant mood and food (and booze, and music) of the Caribbean hold sway. Festive vibe notwithstanding, the specialties here are so generous in size and robust in flavor that you could be ready to curl up and take a siesta halfway through dinner. But hang in there: while many appetizers clock in at under $4, you could start instead with a smaller side of crispy tostones (plantain chips), accompanied by spunky garlic mojo, to save a little room for the beyond-hearty picadillo a caballo, a beef-and-potato stew with tomatoes, raisins and olives over rice, topped by a fried egg, that comes with maduros, or fried sweet plantains. (Whew.) Classic tres leches cake wraps it all up in a rich, creamy bow.

    1173 Delaware St.; 303-605-2822

  • D Bar

    The “D” stands for dessert, obviously the specialty at Keegan Gerhard and Lisa Bailey’s pastel-hued, streamlined City Park West destination. But the duo and their crew also turn out some seriously savory plates, like the fried zucchini with garlic aioli and the pizza salad sandwich: two large, chewy, pesto-smeared slices of crust folded around goat cheese, mozzarella and crisp greens. Meanwhile, the selection of sweets is changing as we speak - the new menu debuts today - but our favorite, the three-layer chocolate cake with your choice of vanilla or chocolate shake, is forever.

    1475 E. 17th Ave.; 303-861-4710

  • El Chingon Mexican Bistro

    This already-rockin’ modern Mexican arrival in Berkeley just announced on Facebook that executive chefs David Lopez and his grandmother Gloria will be switching up their seasonal menu soon - so we suggest heading in pronto to make sure you don’t miss such soulful stuff as the papas, basically home fries smothered in zingy pork green chile and Oaxacan queso fresco, and the pollo borracho - beer-braised chicken with rice, wild mushrooms and killer salsa. You can top it all off with a dreamy horchata cheesecake. (Come for happy hour and you can get the potatoes for $5, leaving you just enough bones for a beer too.) 

    4326 Tennyson St.; 303-248-3641

  • Credit: Euclid Hall

    Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen

    Lots of restaurateurs jumped on the gastropub bandwagon a few years back, but few took its reigns with the verve of Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch. With the talented Jorel Pierce at its helm, the LoDo haunt has remained one of the hottest spots in the 'hood for good reason: the menu’s forward-thinking, fun and affordable to boot. Pierce’s famous pad Thai pig ears (pictured) are a must, as is the Reuben-influenced brat burger. And pastry chef Eric Dale’s light-hearted sweets, like the deconstructed car-bomb float with Guinness ice cream, a whiskey-caramel shot and Baileys chocolate seltzer, are always a treat.

    1317 14th St.; 303-595-4255

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Il Pastaio

    By day, this adorably cheery little shopping-plaza outlet doles out lasagna and baked rigatoni with myriad sides from its deli case. By night, it becomes a full-service Italian restaurant serving up hearty red-sauce classics accompanied by a vibrant array of housemade pastas, which are also available à la carte - everything from gnocchi with pesto and pollo alla Francese to our favorites, eggplant Parmesan and the plump sausage or spinach-ricotta ravioli in tomato-cream sauce. Round out the meal with an antipasto of, say, polenta in gorgonzola sauce, plus the kitchen’s own tiramisu or imported cannoli for dessert, and let the feelings of comfort and contentment this place always arouses wash over you.

    3075B Arapahoe Ave., Boulder; 303-447-9572

  • Credit: Ruth Tobias

    Phoenician Kabob

    Tucked away behind a curtained Park Hill storefront, this cozy Lebanese fixture has it all: fresh-baked breads and pastries, traditional coffee service, even a full bar. And $30 will get you quite a lot of it. Start with the luscious yet powerful garlic dip, accompanied by piping-hot loaves of pita, or za’atar flatbread. Move on to kebabs, shawarma platters or the vegetarian combo (pictured), with stuffed grape leaves that clearly come from the kitchen, not a can; you can also score a kafta-kebab or fried-eggplant sandwich for under $10. And for dessert, there’s all manner of phyllo-dough sweets and cookies. Granted, you may not have the stomach space for them, but you’ll have the cash.

    5709 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-355-7213

  • Spuntino

    Of the many lovely surprises that John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom’s Italian-inspired gift box of a cafe in LoHi spills forth, reasonable price tags are the kicker. On the way to Lozada-Hissom’s famous desserts, such as warm orange olive-oil cake with pistachio gelato or the signature chocolate-caramel tart with brown-butter gelato, you might start with bruschetta (say, artichoke-mascarpone with olive tapenade) and move on to a seasonal pasta like ricotta cavatelli with housemade sausage and cannellini. Or you could sample the salumi for starters (including duck-liver mousse) and go light at the end with a just a cup of gelato. The point is, even at a place with a reputation like Spuntino’s, you have options.

    2639 W. 32nd Ave.; 303-433-0949