This is the time of year when I agonize, scrutinize, analyze and subsequently compile my annual “Best Restaurants in Denver” list. There is an insurmountable bumper crop of worthy contenders to consider in Denver and surrounding areas such as Boulder. So I tackled the arduous task and the end result was a full two weeks worth of fine dining in the Denver metro area.
In the case of my “Best in Chow” list, I settled on 14 restaurants (I decided to fill two weeks because I had to stop somewhere) in the Denver area and beyond, divided into categories to suit every mood and occasion, all of them sprinkled with insider tips. These are the restaurants that I would go to, happily, greedily and hungrily, even if my job didn’t require it.
Steuben’s, 523 E. 17 th Ave., Denver; 303-830-1001; www.steubens.com
Why: Wonderfully retro food without fuss, clever cocktails, nostalgic desserts and a groovy atmosphere all add up to a terrific neighborhood spot that deserves its overwhelming popularity.
What: A rib-sticking menu culled from all of our favorite childhood food fantasies.
Who: Comfort food enthusiasts in and around the Uptown ’hood and everyone else hankering for god-this-is-good, humble sustenance.
Whine: Love the fact there’s a free parking lot; hate that it’s always full and the spots are barely big enough for a bicycle.
Root Down, 1600 W. 33rd Ave. Denver; 303-993-4200 www.rootdowndenver.com
Why: This funky venue serves local organic foods whenever possible as well as carefully chosen biodynamic wines and seriously creative cocktails. The restaurant space is a fashionably renovated old auto garage in the one of Denver’s most up and coming neighborhoods, LoHi.
What: Seasonal, sophisticated cuisine prepared following Chef Justin Cucci’s “field to fork” vision for contemporary and conscientious cuisine.
Who: Root Down’s off-the-beaten-path location means only the most in-the-know foodies have found this hot spot.
Whine: It is not easy to find, yet reservations are highly recommended because without them you can count on a terrible wait followed by a terrible table.
Superstar Asian, 2200 W. Alameda Ave. #5, Denver; 303-727-9889
Why: It’s cheaper than a flight to Shanghai, and the extraordinarily fresh dim sum is far better than anything you’ll ever eat in First Class.
What: Careening carts, vein-popping waits and complete and utter chaos on the weekends, which is exactly what you’d expect from a proper dim sum palace. If you don’t want all of that, head here on a weekday.
Who: Feasts of families, adventurous couples and dim sum lovers from around the region surrendering to whatever dumpling, bun, foot or Chinese delicacy is paraded before them.
Whine: The idiots who refuse to waitlist their names and instead head straight to a table during the peak weekend lunch rush.
Virgilio’s Pizzeria Napoletana, 10025 W. San Juan Way, Littleton; 303-972-1011; www.virgiliospizzeria.com
Why: The excellent old-school, New York-style pizzas buck gourmet tendencies for pure, unadulterated cheese-laden, pepperoni propped pies. In other words, they’re the real thing.
What: Gratitude-inducing, hand-crafted pizzas that should come with the motto: “in crust we trust.”
Who: Families in the neighborhood, little league sports teams, and in-the-know pizza purists that come from miles around to stuff their pieholes.
Whine: Every time I go, the kitchen has exhausted their supply of the spinach pinwheels. Don’t they have a stash somewhere for beggars?
Deluxe, 30 S. Broadway, Denver; 303-722-1550
Why: This dimly lit, sultry and sleek South Broadway restaurant is everything a neighborhood spot should be, thanks to a friendly staff and the flawless cooking talents of chef-owner Dylan Moore.
What: Throwback California cuisine from the ’80s that somehow manages to stay up-to-the-minute modern.
Who: Sophisticated couples sitting side-by-side in the black banquettes and bona fide foodophiles jonesing for space at the chef’s counter, which is prime real estate for anyone fascinated by a professional kitchen.
Whine: It’s closed on Sunday and Monday, and the kitchen closes far too early for a restaurant that could easily get a posse of late-night noshers.
Frasca Food & Wine, 1738 Pearl St., Boulder; 303-442-6966; www.frascafoodandwine.com
Why: The unassailable, fresh local ingredients get kingly treatment at what is arguably the best restaurant in the Denver-Boulder area — and maybe the state.
What: Smashing Italian cuisine from the Friuli region, presented in ways that make you unapologetically swoon. This is a case where too much is never enough.
Who: The culinary cognoscenti, anyone and everyone who can snag a reservation and savvy walk-in diners who know that the best time to come is on weekdays when the doors open at 5:30 p.m. or after 9 p.m., when the bustle begins to slightly diminish.
Whine: After one dinner here, your expectations for everywhere else will double. Talk about a cruel irony.
Mizuna, 225 E. 7th Ave., Denver; 303- 832-4778; www.mizunadenver.com
Why: Even if you have to hold out for a reservation, a seat at star chef-owner Frank Bonanno’s butter-hued boutique of gastronomy is so worth the wait.
What: A kitchen that traverses the globe for inspiration, an inspired, ever-changing menu that never fails to impress, and remarkable ingredients that are analyzed, scrutinized and hand-picked by one of the city’s most discriminating chefs.
Who: Neighborhood residents, devoted out-of-towners, celebrities and fervent foodniks.
Whine: I wish there were more wines available by the glass.
Rioja, 1431 Larimer St., Denver; 303-820-2282;www.riojadenver.com
Why: Incredible success, both local and national, a coveted Larimer Square location and a legion of followers haven’t sullied the seemingly unending culinary talents of chef and co-owner Jennifer Jasinski.
What: Mediterranean-inspired dishes bolstered by high-end ingredients, passion and contemporary nuances that aren’t overreaching.
Who: A devoted posse of locals, tourists gripping the critic’s reviews and anyone else who is a hard-core foodophile.
Whine: There’s no valet parking on Sunday and Monday nights.
Z Cuisine, 2239 W. 30th Ave., Denver; 303-477-1111; www.zcuisineonline.com
Why: It’s the quintessential beauty and the bistro, a wholesome and simple, pocketbook-sized food temple overseen by Frenchman Patrick DuPays, a terrific chef that treats his ingredients like Crown Jewels.
What: A culinary Xanadu for both Francophiles and wine connoisseurs.
Who: Sophisticated habitués that long for classic French cooking.
Whine: The waits are agonizing, especially when there’s absolutely no wiggle room in the tiny dining room. Thank goodness an expansion into the space next door is in the works.
Sushi Sasa, 2401 15th St., Denver; 303-433-7272; www.sushisasadenver.com
Why: It lacks the altitude-high attitude of Sushi Den and the menu deftly mixes the gastronomic idioms of Japan with the patois of other culinary world kingdoms.
What: An outstanding menu of raw fish that’s artfully arranged, faultlessly fresh, flawlessly sliced and diced, and full of surprises.
Who: Intrepid omakase acolytes who know that chef-owner Wayne Conwell’s clever, new-agey concoctions are always bold, beautiful and brilliant.
Whine: The absence of signage. For the record, it’s kitty-corner from My Brother’s Bar.
Pupusas Sabor Hispano, 4457 N. Broadway, Boulder; 303-444-1729
Why: A legion of taquerias tout their tacos, but no one else in the state makes fiddlehead fern pupusas.
What: A fantastic Mexican/Salvadoran menu that will make you want to return again and again and again.
Who: A hip Boulder bunch that’s willing to step off Pearl Street to get the real deal.
Whine: The salsas are extraordinary, but you have to dart your way through the lengthy line to get to them, and once you’ve bumped every butt in the place, you then have to contend with the tinny lids that slip and slide off the metal containers.
Sahara, 9636 E. Arapahoe Rd., Greenwood Village; 303-790-4707; www.moroccanfooddenver.com
Why: The cuisine may be ancient, but the kitchen’s lively treatment of ingredients, spices and exotic tastes somehow feels very new.
What: A Middle Eastern menu touting flavors so fresh and assertive that you don’t mind eating the same old tabbouleh, hummus and baba ghanouj for the umpteenth time.
Who: Mid-East feast fans, couples, business types and large families.
Whine: The pita bread, while passable, would be so much better if the kitchen made its own.
Summit at the Broadmoor, 19 Lake Circle, Colorado Springs; 719-577-5773; www.broadmoor.com/summit/
Why: An eye-poppingly sumptuous décor, graciously warm service, a savvy sommelier and matching wine list, and when the kitchen is on, food that’s first order.
What: An informal American menu that never intimidates.
Who: Wine-lovers, design aficionados, sojourners and business types.
Whine: Even if you have a reservation, and the dining room appears half-full, you may be asked to bide your time at the bar for longer than what seems necessary.
Russet’s, 225 Main St., Carbondale; 970-963-3036; www.russets.net
Why: It’s a restaurant worthy of Aspen rent without the Prada price tags.
What: A down-to-earth mountain menu brightened with tastes from around the globe.
Who: A solid fan base of town regulars, gastronomers on their way to Aspen and Aspenites looking for a change of scenery.
Whine: Some of the servers aren’t of age to serve wine, which means you may wait…and wait…and wait for your bottle of vino.
Lori Midson, Colorado AvidGolfer’s restaurant critic (www.coloradoavidgolfer.com), makes a career out of wining and dining her away around Denver, where she lives, a city ripe with culinary surprises. She is a frequent contributor to Sunset and CITY, the local editor of numerous Zagat Surveys, and the Denver dining writer for AOL CityGuide. Midson, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism, has also written for other publications including 5280 magazine, Executive Travel and EnCompass.