In a year sodden with eye-rolling, head-shaking, hair-pulling economic news, it’s no wonder restaurants worried about weathering the financial storm. Sadly, several metro area food temples succumbed to the agony of defeat, but for every restaurant that closed, a new one opened.
Some of Denver’s best chefs – Duo’s John Broening, for example – expanded their empires and dropped prices (perhaps the only upshot to the recession), and diners have slowly started returning to the restaurant table, realizing that there’s nothing like a great meal out with friends to make us forget… oh, never mind.
Among our favorite restaurants this year is a burger joint (Park Burger) and a noodle house (Bones), both of which have been going gangbusters since the day their doors opened.
Of course, there’s always an early front-runner to such success, and for that look no further than Olivéa, where the seasoned team of restaurateurs and chefs from Duo – John Broening, Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin – have, once again, brought urbanized neighborhood dining to a cosmopolitan storefront space with an irresistible verve, profoundly good service and a seamless kitchen.
Olivéa, 719 E. 17th Ave., Denver, CO 80203; olivearestaurant.com; 303-861-5050. Open 5 to 10 p.m. nightly and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Saturday and Sunday brunch
Bewitching beginnings: Where to start? At the beginning, I suppose, with the charcuterie, a board of all my favorite things: duck liver mousse with pickled onions and a dollop of fig compote; nubbins of lamb sausage with minted yogurt; blushing smoked duck breast, sliced and glazed with sherry and honey; boudin blanc or French white sausage, with mustard and jamón serrano with manchego and membrillo.
More favorites: The roasted baby beet salad with pistachios, goat cheese and arugula; flat bread with potatoes, fresh rosemary and soft onions; house-made prosciutto tortellini bobbing in a steaming bowl of savory brodo or prawns in a chorizo and amontillado sherry broth.
Pour house: It’s the season for fruity roses, and the Le Prieure de Montezargues Tavel rose, with its bright garnet hue and notes of strawberries and melon, is perfect for sipping, as are the artfully composed cocktails, such as the aptly named Ophelia comprised of Tanqueray gin, rosemary, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and soda.
Pastry delights: She stays out of the spotlight, but pastry chef (and Broening’s wife) Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, who was recently named one of the top five pastry chefs in America by Gayot.com, turns out sensational desserts that make you sigh and go weak in the knees. The fresh ricotta torte with citrus confit and fig-orange gelato will move you to tears.
Get happy: From 5 to 7 p.m., Sunday through Friday, Olivéa offers a prologue to dinner with $5 appetizers, inclusive of salads, flat breads and charcuterie, plus the full wine-by-the-glass roster for $5 per (generous) pour.
The best of the rest
TAG, 1441 Larimer St., Denver, CO 80202; 303-996-9985; tag-restaurant.com. Dinner: from 5 p.m. nightly
Why we love it: The two-tiered, glam restaurant, whose initials are those of exec chef Troy Guard (and the name of his bulldog), brought a terrific chef back into the forefront in a prime location, smack-dab in Larimer Square, to prepare and present playful food for a captive audience hungry for irresistible fun.
Don’t miss: Roasted bone marrow paired with a kumquat-pineapple marinade or the flaky roasted halibut, pooled in a richly flavored lobster sambal nage, and trotted out with fingerling potato salad.
Best for: A dalliance with a hot dateor when you’re perfectly happy enjoying your own company at the upstairs bar.
Bones, 701 Grant St., Denver, CO 80203; 303-860-2929; bonesdenver.com. Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner: from 5 p.m. nightly.
Why we love it: It’s a noodle lab, an audaciously, ridiculously-delicious noodle bar that turns out glorious bowls of slurp from an open kitchen of chefs, including owner Frank Bonanno, who just keeps bettering the Mile High City’s restaurant scene with some of the best food in town. Bonus: The web site is one of the kookiest (and coolest) of any restaurant, here, there or anywhere.
Don’t miss: Steamed suckling pig buns, fried shoshito peppers or the poached lobster ramen.
Best for: A food nerds’ night out or voyeurs who like dissecting kitchen action from the chef’s counter.
Farro, 8230 S. Holly St., Centennial, CO 80122; 303-694-5432; farrorestaurant.com. Dinner: Sunday, 4:30 to 8 p.m.; Monday-Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 4:30 to 9:00 p.m.
Why we love it: Matthew Franklin, formerly of the Wine Experience Café and, before, that, 240 Union, has relocated his wide-reaching talent to the south suburbs, where he’s already gained a cult following for his terrific Italian (mostly) food that’s complemented by a really nice staff that dotes on kids. The restaurant also boasts a tidy, but well-crafted wine list that smiles on your wallet.
Don’t miss: Tuscan lasagna, balsamic-glazed pork loin and boneless half chicken with mashers.
Best for: Families who want to enjoy a nice night out with other well-behaved families.
Park Burger, 1890 S. Pearl St., Denver, CO 80210; 720-242-9951; parkburger.com. Open daily: Sunday-Thursday , 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Why we love it: When you choose to eat a burger from the same restaurant three times in one week and there, right alongside you, is a tide of others doing the exact same thing, it’s a movement. You can say it’s just a burger – go ahead, say it – but to do a burger right, every single time, is a technical wonderment and Park Burger is doing just that which, in my book, is certifiable cause for praise and “hallelujahs.”
Don’t miss: The croque burger topped with Swiss and a slice of ham and crowned with a yolky fried egg; the hand-cut fries – both French and sweet potato — and the luscious milkshakes. (My favorite is the orange creamsicle.)
Best for: Burger snobs and their followers.
Lori Midson, restaurant critic for Colorado Avid Golfer (coloradoavidgolfer.com), lives in Denver and writes for a variety of publications.