Denver has it rough when it comes to its image. Defined by many generalizations like “cow town,” our city has suffered a plethora of cliches. But after a decade of rapid expansion, Denver’s dining scene has become a powerful tool in shaking this tasteless persona. From James Beard Award Winners to Best New Chefs, the city’s top talent has shaped our new identity. Now, Denver is a vivacious culinary hotspot and people are flocking to get a piece of us. However, we haven’t gotten here overnight.
We’ve seen the emergence of hundreds of restaurants over the years. Many have failed, while others have flourished. But what sets a part these 10 chosen restaurants is that they didn’t just survive——they laid thick roots. Because whether it was giving young chefs their start or the cultivation a neighborhood, every restaurant you’ll see featured had a major role in developing the Denver dining scene we know today. Read on to find out why.
Words by Brittany Werges & Molly Martin.
Photography by Glenn Ross
When people describe the current Denver dining scene, there is always one term that sticks out: chef-driven. An expression used to characterize the hands-on approach of a chef, “chef-driven” might be a generalized phrase—but at Mizuna, it has always meant something special. Frank Bonanno, the mastermind behind Mizuna and 10 other Bonanno concepts, is a stickler for the details — even when no one was looking.
Back in 2001, when Bonanno opened the fine-dining establishment, everyone was talking about California Pizza Kitchen coming to town. Not many people were concerned about whether their produce was locally sourced or if their meats were house-cured. This didn’t stop Bonanno. With an intense dedication to quality and care, Bonanno was one of the very first to truly elevate how we think about food. For 10 years, Mizuna has been churning out monthly menus that are simple and precise. Today Mizuna still maintains its high standards while creating a lasting legacy by training some of the freshest talent in town. Mizuna, it seems, will not only continue to be one of our best restaurants, but an epicenter for great things to come.
In December 2008, when Justin Cucci opened Root Down in a rehabilitated 1950s gas station, the economy was tanking and its LoHi location could only have been described as “sleepy,” as Cucci has said himself. So how did it become one of the busiest and consistently praised restaurants in Denver? “We seemed to connect to people in Denver—not just in the neighborhood, which was all I was hoping for, but throughout the community. We seemed to be in the right place at the right time with the right people,” Cucci said.
Root Down has managed to capture the imagination and loyalty of Denver with globally-inspired fare that maintains a connection to Colorado through its use of locally-sourced ingredients. Just as the food helped popularize the still-booming localvore movement, the restaurant helped bring a new crowd to the Highlands, transforming the neighborhood from sleepy to slammed. As the neighborhood grew in popularity, more cutting-edge eateries opened their doors, including Cucci’s next endeavor, the quirky, street food-inspired Linger.
Head to either Root Down or Linger any weekend and you’ll be met with a steady crowd. As Cucci said, “We constantly try to challenge ourselves to look at a dish or food in a new light — all the while focusing on seasonality and local availability.” This willingness to change, grow and challenge themselves while still holding true to the root of the restaurant’s identity is what makes Root Down a steady favorite that never seems to lose its edgy excitement. “In the next 10 years,” Cucci said, “we can hopefully be doing more of the same, but nothing the same.” If Root Down can pull that off, the hungry Denver crowds will certainly be there to see it.
From continental breakfasts to menus solely catered to the appetites of businessmen, hotel restaurants don’t always have the best reputation. These establishments focus on reliability and familiarity and often forget the rest. Even a city’s best lodging can have lackluster dining that serves just the basics. But in Denver, we have an exception.
Panzano, located in the Art-Deco-inspired Hotel Monaco, has made a name for itself as one of Denver’s most respected restaurants. With major talent like Jennifer Jasinski and now Elise Wiggins coming from the kitchen, this hotel eatery is in a league of its own. And it intends to stay that way. With a knack for introducing new trends without even trying, Panzano has become known for a handful of exciting programs. From whole animal butchery to an excellent gluten-free menu, this restaurant is always on the up-and-coming. So if you’re always looking to be one step ahead and need a place to stay, head to Panzano.
Rioja’s influence is undeniable. For close to a decade, this centrally-located restaurant has won almost every award, been on all the “best of” lists and seen more features than any other restaurant in town. It even garnered yearlong coverage from the Rocky Mountain News during its construction. So how can one restaurant, in one of the toughest industries, create and maintain such buzz?
In comes Denver’s dream team, Chef Jennifer Jasinski and her business partner Beth Gruitch. These two remarkable ladies have a methodical system on how to keep a restaurant alive and busy. Their balance between attention to the front of the house mixed with a constantly evolving menu make them a fearsome duo. And what really makes them special is that it’s not just Denver noticing. In 2013, Jasinski was the first Denver chef to be named a James Beard Award winner. This accolade was not only a huge moment for Jasinski and her team, but was a monumental moment for Denver’s culinary world. Now when people see Denver, it’s not all cowhides and cowboy boots. It’s white chef coats.
Fine dining used to evoke images of white tablecloths and pricy porterhouses, especially in Denver. 10 years ago, if you asked someone off the street where to go for a nice meal, chances are their list was dominated by steakhouses.
Enter Troy Guard. In only the first five years, his original TAG in Larimer Square has brought international fusion with a dash of fun to fine dining. Guard has become one of Denver’s busiest chefs/restaurateurs as he’s opened an ever-growing list of new eateries that include TAG Burger Bar, Sugarmill and Guard and Grace.
Serving what he calls “continental social food” at the original TAG, Guard has managed to blend exotic and playful ingredients in an atmosphere that feels welcoming and playful rather than too uptight and elevated for the average Denver diner. But although the experience is relaxed, the execution of the dishes is consistently refined – even when those dishes involve Pop Rocks (as does the popular Flash Seared Hawaiian Kampachi).
Though the Asian influence is easy to spot in TAG’s offerings, particularly the raw selections, the influence that Guard and this restaurant has on Denver goes beyond the popularity of Asian fusion or the raw-food trend. TAG, with Guard at its helm, has helped push Denver’s palette beyond the expected, making us hungry for surprise and innovation.
It’s hard to ignore the influence of surrounding towns on Denver’s food scene. The city does not exist in a vacuum after all, and Boulder in particular has been widely regarded for its culinary accomplishments in the last 10 years. Celebrating a decade of dining this year, The Kitchen in Boulder expanded to Denver’s 16th Street Mall in 2012 and shows no signs of slowing down with the opening of its more casual inception, The Kitchen Next Door, in both Glendale and Union Station in 2014.
If there’s one word that captures the contribution of all of The Kitchen’s locations and concepts, it’s community. It is captured in the philosophy behind their menus and design, as well as through their nonprofit, The Kitchen Community, which builds interactive “Learning Gardens” in schools both locally and nationally.
For this restaurant, food is about more than what is on the plate. It’s about where that food came from, how it’s produced and, most importantly, it’s about the experience of enjoying that food with others and the connection that comes with sharing a meal. While The Kitchen’s cuisine is elevated and impeccably sourced, it’s also rustic and simply plated. Instead of focusing on extravagance, the ingredients themselves are showcased in an entirely accessible way.
Like the food, the restaurant’s locations reflect The Kitchen’s commitment to respect for community. “We love to breathe new life into the old buildings we select for The Kitchen,” said co-founder Hugo Matheson. “We love the aesthetic of the past — it brings back memories and represents a richer, deeper dining experience, ultimately completing the cycle of sustainability.”
Though terms like locally- sourced, sustainable and organic seem like trendy buzzwords today, The Kitchen has spent a decade giving those words true meaning and influence throughout the Front Range.
It’s been 20 years since Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar first opened in Boulder, propelling its chef/owner, Dave Query, into a two-decade-long journey to becoming one of Colorado’s most dominant restaurateurs. His Big Red F restaurant management company now runs nine popular Front Range restaurants including five Jax locations, Lola Mexican Fish House in Denver and Lafayette’s The Post Brewing Company. But it is Jax in particular that has changed the way we think about seafood in Denver.
Try telling someone that lives outside of Colorado that we get some of the freshest seafood in the country, and you’ll be met with nothing short of complete disbelief. But thanks in large part to Jax and its commitment to building relationships with fishmongers all over the country, the “coast-less communities,” of the Front Range do indeed have access to seafood that’s often been caught only the day before.
In addition to freshness, Jax also has a commitment to sustainability, ensuring that their partners and suppliers share their passion for respecting the world’s oceans and the bounty they offer. Jax is the first Colorado restaurant to be certified by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, a group that helps consumers become more educated about where the seafood they are eating comes from and how that affects the supply of the world’s oceans on a larger scale.
While we can’t wander down to the beach to catch the sunset over the waves, Query and Jax have ensured that Colorado diners can at least capture that feeling of ocean freshness on their plates.
When the Brothers Yasu and Toshi Kizaki introduced Sushi Den to a quiet corner of South Pearl 31 years ago, their goals were modest. Serving mainly teriyaki chicken and California rolls, they knew acquainting Denver to raw fish would not be easy. With no ocean in sight, the Kizaki brothers did the unthinkable. Going straight to the source, they began to fly their product directly from Nagahama Fish Market in Japan on a daily basis. Slowly, with patience and caution, the brothers introduced Denver to more and more traditional sushi, eventually debuting sashimi and nigiri on the menu.
“[It was] an education process,” Yasu Kizaki said. “Our customers have a relationship with us through our fish. It is this trust that keeps them coming back to Sushi Den again and again.”
With this bond, they were able to take Denver to the big leagues, introducing us to more exotic ingredients with a level of quality that eventually coaxed us out of our comfort zone. Today, this dedication to culture, trust and quality pushed the typical Denver diner to initially step outside the box. Within the last 10 years they haven’t slowed down their influence, either. With the creation of Den Farm, Sushi Den has managed to help maintain and progress Denver’s dedication to pure and high-quality ingredients. The Kizaki brothers were one of the first to prime us for the eclectic culinary scene that is before us now and we could never be more grateful.
Richard Sandoval is more than a restaurateur. He has built a global empire, opening more than 30 Latin American-influenced eateries all over the world, from New York City to Dubai and Serbia. Ten years ago, when Sandoval chose Denver for his Latin-Asian fusion concept, Zengo, he marked the official beginning of the city’s rise on the international culinary scene’s radar.
Before Sandoval entered the picture, Latin cuisine in Denver often meant green chili, big burritos and plates full of anything dripping in cheese. Though we still have a soft spot for the small local eateries dishing out greasy hangover-curing Mexican food, Zengo (and Tamayo soon after it) has elevated what Latin eating means in Colorado. Fresher, lighter and filled with ingredients that reflect a more global influence, Zengo has brought a whole new chapter to Latin eating in Denver that hasn’t slowed down since being featured in 303 Magazine’s first print issue a decade ago.
Denver has proven to be a go-to for Sandoval’s ever-expanding empire with the opening of Tamayo, La Sandia’s two Colorado locations and most recently his tequila library, La Biblioteca. Despite the fact that dining choices in Denver have expanded, Zengo has remained a staple, securing its name as a hot spot for bottomless brunches, date nights and happy hours.
Off 6th avenue sits the rather unassuming Fruition. Low ceilings, humble decor and color themes of burgundy and oak makes the place feel like a country living room. But after reading the menu, it’s easy to realize this place isn’t average. Every dish is overflowing with fresh and vibrant ingredients that are just as impressive to the eyes as it is to the palate. And there’s a reason for that.
Alex Seidel, named Food and Wine’s Best New Chef of 2010, doesn’t believe in store-bought. No, Seidel, for the last five years has been harvesting the majority of his fare from his own very own farm. Fruition farms, located in Larkspur, CO, takes the phrase ‘farm-to-table’ to a very literal level. Almost everything at Seidel’s restaurant, from the artisan crafted cheese, to the locally raised/butchered meats and the produce comes straight from this farm. Not only does this guy care about his ingredients and their quality, he wants to grow and nurture them. But he isn’t just about his restaurants, rather Fruition Farms is quickly becoming Denver’s very own cornucopia. People from all ends of Denver’s restaurant industry now visit Larkspur to learn, make and harvest .
“It’s been a real tool of education,” Seidel said. “Usually you are entrenched in the kitchen but everyone at Fruition gets a hands- on experience.” This attitude toward community education is exactly why Fruition, and the Denver dining scene, will continue to grow and become even more exciting than it is today. We all can’t wait to see what Seidel’s seeds will sprout next.