The 18 Most Important Restaurants in Denver

Courtesy of Guard and Grace
Courtesy of Guard and Grace

Denver's most important eateries aren't necessarily its oldest restaurants, or the city's best new restaurants, or even its best: They're the restaurants that the Denver dining scene just wouldn’t be the Denver dining scene without. So if you need a little schooling on what makes Mile High eats unique, consider these 18 places your classrooms and hit the books... err, menus (?) already.

Courtesy of Adam Larkey Photography

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Acorn</a></h2>

<em>RiNo</em><br />
As the fine-dining anchor of groundbreaking marketplace and instant tourist attraction The Source, this OAK at fourteenth sibling bears the heavy duty of representing local cuisine to hordes of visiting gourmets. Owners Steve Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton have been doing a bang-up job of it since day one, racking up major accolades with their brand of easy sophistication.

Courtesy of Barolo Grill

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Barolo Grill</a></h2>

<em>Country Club</em><br />
For more than two decades, this Northern Italian haunt has stood as a bastion of deep-pocket dining, the place where Cherry Creek couples celebrate windfall gains with bottles of 1997 Barbaresco from the vast cellar and extra shaved truffles on their house-made pasta. If that sounds old-school, here’s the secret to its staying power: it’s only as old-school as you want it to be. Barolo Grill has outlasted the very few rivals it’s faced on the special-occasion front by updating its elegant menu constantly, and now that longtime wine director Ryan Fletter is taking the reins, its future looks even futurier.

Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs</a></h2>

<em>Ballpark</em><br />
If you’re asking yourself how an overgrown hot dog stand could really be all that important, then you probably haven’t read <a href="…; target="_blank">this</a>. Or <a href="…; target="_blank">this</a>. Or <a href="http://…; target="_blank">this</a>. Or noticed how, after all the national media attention he’s received over the years, owner Jim Pittenger has emerged as the coolest culinary ambassador a city could have. Oh, and you probably haven’t actually eaten here.

Ruth Tobias/Thrillist

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Cart-Driver</a></h2>

<em>RiNo</em><br />
The phrase “hole in the wall” has a whole new cachet. Considering that we’re a) in the midst of a quick-casual renaissance (more about that in a sec) and b) at the dawn of the tiny-house movement, Kelly Whitaker and Andrew Birkholz’s 640sqft pizzeria looks a lot like the restaurant of the future to us.

Multiple locations
Duh. Steve Ells’ socially conscious burrito chain is kind of a big deal around here... and by “here” we mean everywhere. But especially here. Because in case you didn’t know, Chipotle not only started in Denver but inspired the launch of several other homegrown fast-casual enterprises (Noodles & Company, Smashburger) that together are revolutionizing the fast-food industry. And now Ells has partnered with the James Beard Award-winning owners of Frasca Food & Wine (aka the most important restaurant in Boulder, if not all of Colorado) to turn Pizzeria Locale into the next phenomenal deal.

Courtesy of Guard and Grace

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Guard &amp; Grace</a></h2>

<em>Downtown</em><br />
Leave it to Troy Guard to prove that Denver’s not a cowtown anymore by opening a steakhouse. That’s not a paradox, it’s a testament to just how well this place was built for the postmillennial generation, shattering the stereotype of the stuffy beef barn once and for all.

Courtesy of Big Red F.

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Jax Fish House &amp; Oyster Bar</a></h2>

<em>LoDo</em><br />
Like Vesta Dipping Grill (see below), this Denver sequel to a Boulder blockbuster helped transform LoDo from a skid row to a must-go when it opened in 1996. Like Sushi Den (again, see below), it showed the doubters that seafood in the mountains wasn’t, uh, a fish out of water. And now, almost 20 years later, Jax is still a clam-baking, wave-making hit, complete with three more siblings and a seal of approval (the first in Colorado) from Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Also: <a href="…; target="_blank">a happy hour that just won’t quit</a>.

Courtesy of June Cochran Photography

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Linger</a></h2>

<em>Northwest</em><br />
Though Root Down came first and <a href="…; target="_blank">Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox still has that new hot-spot smell</a>, it’s Justin Cucci’s middle child that really symbolizes Denver dining in all its breezy audacity: we guarantee this is the liveliest hangout ever to occupy an old mortuary. Meanwhile, the globe-spanning small-plates menu has helped broaden locals’ perspective on cuisines we don’t see much of out here: think Moroccan b’stilla and Southern Indian masala dosa.

Ruth Tobias/Thrillist

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Lower48 Kitchen</a></h2>

<em>Ballpark</em><br />
We named it one of <a href="…; target="_blank">the city’s most underappreciated restaurants</a>. We called it <a href="…; target="_blank">last meal-worthy</a>. We’re not sure how else to spell it out for you, so we’ll drop some names: both managing partner Mario Nocifera and chef-partner Alex Figura have world-class résumés that include stints with the likes of Michael Mina and Dan Barber, yet they chose to open a restaurant here, and it’s a stealth bomb of impeccable service and cutting-edge cuisine to explode all your casual expectations for Colorado dining. Are we finally clear?

Courtesy of Union Station

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Mercantile dining &amp; provision</a></h2>

<em>LoDo</em><br />
Name (and acclaim) notwithstanding, Fruition is to Mercantile what <em>Reservoir Dogs</em> is to <em>Pulp Fiction</em>: a great bellwether. Though Alex Seidel’s contemporary neighborhood bistro (and the farm that followed) helped put Denver on the map, his all-day destination in Union Station reflects a whole other level of ambition. Whether it’s tasting flights at the coffee counter, house-made meats and cheeses in the market, or a multi-course blowout from chef-partner Matt Vawter’s seasonal dinner menu, this place has raised the bar so high that it may well remain out of reach for years to come.

Courtesy of Rachel Nobrega

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Mizuna</a></h2>

<em>Capitol Hill</em><br />
Of course, it was Frank Bonanno who taught the aforementioned Seidel at least some of what he knows, as he has countless other now-acclaimed chefs in town. And he did it right here in the kitchen of his contemporary French fine-dining flagship -- even while he himself was still learning the ropes of restaurant ownership. Which means that, at 14 years old, Mizuna has turned out to be both a finishing school for rising culinary stars and the foundation of an empire that today spans 10 eateries and bars. That it’s as good as it ever was is just gravy (or, in this case, mother sauce).

Ruth Tobias/Thrillist

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Old Major</a></h2>

<em>LoHi</em><br />
Justin Brunson -- who also once worked for Bonanno -- was hardly the first chef in town to talk the farm-to-fork, nose-to-tail talk when he opened this pork-centric powerhouse in 2013. But he was the only one who also happened to own a bacon company (as well as Masterpiece Deli) and to have built a meat-curing facility right into his dining room. That level of commitment to the DIY ethic helped mark a turning point in the perception of what Denver was all about, and Old Major has lived up to expectations since. Here’s hoping that won’t change as Brunson adds the soon-to-open Honor Society Handcrafted Eatery to his stable.

Potager Restaurant

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Potager</a></h2>

<em>Capitol Hill</em><br />
You know who was already walking the local, seasonal, ethicurean walk not only before it was cool in Denver, but before it was cool just about anywhere? Teri Rippeto. Her New American menu has long included shout-outs to local purveyors; daily specials have long revolved around market finds. And the dining room’s farmhouse-in-the-city chic feels timeless. In short, this place is evergreen in more ways than one.

Courtesy of Jennifer Olson

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Rioja</a></h2>

<em>Larimer Square</em><br />
Though Jennifer Jasinski had already made a name for herself as Panzano’s Wolfgang Puck-trained chef by 2004, it wasn’t until she and partner Beth Gruitch opened this modern Mediterranean eatery that Denverites really began to see that name of hers in lights. With its suave decor and smart, refined yet vibrant menu, it became an instant classic, paving the way for Jasinski’s <em>Top Chef Masters</em> run and James Beard Award in 2013 as well as for three more splashy venues. And after all that, Rioja’s still on the short list of places to shut the mouths of smack-talking food snobs from out of town.

Courtesy of Union Station

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Snooze</a></h2>

<em>Multiple locations</em><br />
Funny, the idea of a brunch joint that features funky pancake flavors and loaded Bloodies in mod-retro digs doesn’t sound all that radical. Who knew it would prove so irresistible that the Ballpark original would spawn a regional franchise? Well, founders Adam and Jon Schlegel, that’s who. And anyone who’s ever tried to get into any location after 7am on a weekend. Turns out the world really needs pulled pork Benedicts with green chile hollandaise.

Ruth Tobias/Thrillist

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Sushi Den</a></h2>

<em>Platt Park</em><br />
First, the Kizaki brothers convinced skeptics that premium seafood from Japan doesn’t stop being premium seafood from Japan just because it’s served in Colorado rather than California. Second, they’ve shown that respect for tradition and meticulous technique trump novelty and flash: the wait for a seat at their Old South Pearl flagship is as long today as it was 30 years ago, even now that Izakaya Den next door essentially functions as a spillover dining room as much as a hotspot in its own right. Third, their kitchen has acted as a launchpad for other area restaurateurs, including Tokio’s Miki Hashimoto and Sushi Sasa’s Wayne Conwell. In short, any Denver dining tale that doesn't mention Yasu and Toshi would smell, you know, pretty fishy.

Courtesy of Vesta Dipping Grill

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Vesta Dipping Grill</a></h2>

<em>LoDo</em><br />
When it launched in a still-sketchy downtown nearly 20 years ago, Josh and Jen Wolkon’s flagship eatery was the place to be: at once electric and intimate, thanks to both a sweeping, soaring, sexy space and a cool menu that revolved around myriad sauces for mixing, matching, and sharing. Now the neighborhood’s packed with places to be, but the fact that Vesta is still among them attests to the foresight of the owners (who went on to score a trifecta with Steuben’s and Ace Eat Serve).

Ruth Tobias/Thrillist

<h2><a href="; target="_blank">Work &amp; Class</a></h2>

<em>RiNo</em><br />
“A square meal, a stiff drink, and a fair price”: that was how, back in early 2014, three Jasinski protégés undersold their debut venture, modestly promising to serve comfort food with Mexican and Southern influences alongside unfussy cocktails. Then they went and shocked us all by not just over-delivering but downright capturing the zeitgeist in a cheerfully repurposed old shipping container, where Dana Rodriguez gets all the hearts and stars she’s long deserved for her rootsy, gutsy cooking.<br />
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