The Thrillist Awards: Denver's Best New Food & Drink of 2015
How many restaurants and bars do you think opened in Denver this year? We'd say three or four a week, but getting that right might just be harder than when we tried to guess the number of jellybeans in a 20 gallon drum at our 3rd grade school carnival. From a groundbreaking gourmet food court to an Art Deco-era supper club, these 25 really stood out from the rest and proved themselves as the best -- and yes, that absolutely includes best new brewery.
Best new barbecue
Denver's low-and-slow smokehouse scene suddenly soared high and fast this year. But one pitmaster in particular really made us sit up and take notice (before lying back down in a groaning food coma): Coy Webb. Be it his signature lamb and bison cuts, daily specials such as luscious rib tips, or the brisket that's in his Texan blood (and on this insane sandwich), he's the guy we'd give our blue ribbon to. In fact, we just did.
Best new bar food
Remember playing old arcade games in your dad’s basement, listening to Bad Brains and Hüsker Dü mixtapes, and sneaking swigs from the bottle of applejack in the wet bar? Welcome back. Only this time your dad is none other than bartender extraordinaire Sean Kenyon, and he's keeping the party going with bulletproof fried-chicken thighs, chili fries, and onion rings whose crunch is even louder than the playlist.
Best new beer bar
If we picked any place other than the one with 40 taps you can pull yourself -- like Ninkasi coffee milk stout, New Belgium blackberry barleywine, or Eddyline black lager -- we'd be pulling your tap. Uhh, wait. Leg. The pub grub's not half-bad either.
Best new bistro
This low-key, low-lit little white-cloth rendezvous is whipping up some of the most accomplished dishes we've had all year. The only reason not to come here is you'll be forced to use corny adjectives like "scrumptious" or "delectable," because they're the only ones that fully convey the truth.
Best new breakfast
How. Many times. Do we need. To say it. OK, then, once more with feeling -- go get you some all-organic chorizo-green chile breakfast burritos, bacon fried rice, or confit-duck congee to wash down with a Vietnamese iced coffee right now.
Best new burger
Iron-rich and a little gamey, ostrich packs a surprising punch. But the patty's just the lead jab in a flurry of ingredients that makes Ophelia's signature Brothel Burger such a knockout. Miso-glazed bacon, caramelized onions splashed with ponzu, pickled daikon and carrot, and gochujang-spiked barbecue sauce all deliver sweet-salty, fermented blows that the pretzel bun softens just enough to keep you coming back for more. Innumerable burgers are delicious; this one's also memorable.
Best new chef to watch
Hear us now and believe us later: in the most inauspicious of downtown venues (the former La Fondue), a chef with a humble soul but an impressive résumé that includes Rioja and Root Down is quietly sticking every landing. Head-turners so far include the house-made burrata with walnut pesto and house-made pretzel bread, seared scallops atop zucchini cakes, and pistachio-studded avocado-lime pie.
By contrast, you'll never forget you're in the thick of the post-millennium at this den of cool, which is simultaneously edgy and suave. There isn't an ingredient the bartenders here won't experiment with, be it hip-to-be-square Blue Curaçao and cream Sherry or future fads like cilantro syrup and Douglas fir eau de vie. Meanwhile, smart wines and killer snacks make Fausto the complete package. (Remember ABC: Always Be ordering Crudo.)
Best new coffeehouse
And by "coffeehouse," we mean "bar." The crew at this sunny, vintage-meets-industrial gathering spot gives you every opportunity to spike your bean juice with booze and vice-versa from sunup to way past sundown: think bourbon pour overs, mixed flights, and cocktails featuring housemade coffee bitters or gommes. Of course, you can also eat your way to caffeination and/or inebriation, thanks to a kitchen that turns out dishes like espresso-rubbed roast beef sandwiches, beer-infused Welsh rarebit, and donuts with coffee ice cream and whiskey caramel.
Best new comeback
When the pizzeria that baker Seth Rubin used to work out of sent him packing at the end of last year, we were sad, because who else was going to make us biscuits flavored with everything from spiced lentils and cornbread stuffing to cheddar-apple pie and local brews? (Yes, we could try to do it ourselves. But no.) But now we're happy, because he's back in a kitchen of his very own, rustling up Chapel Hill-style fried-chicken sandwiches, biscuit cinnamon rolls, and Friday specials infused with, say, Bull & Bush Ghoul Fuel or Renegade Redacted IPA (among other brews you might find on our list of 12 Denver Beers You Need to Drink Before You Die).
Best new date-night spot
Except for maybe actual tightrope-walking, there's no tougher balancing act than picking the right place for a first date. It should be buzzing and lively yet cozy and intimate and neither too expensive nor too cheap; the menu should promise shared adventure without undue risk. The Kizaki brothers' rustic-chic izakaya checks all those boxes neatly. Let the sake flow, keep the lobster wontons and Wagyu skewers coming, and relax -- the hard part's over.
Best new deli
Rabbit rillettes. Scrapple. Finocchino. Pork-green chile head cheese. If we did nothing but list the cold cuts the founders of this cheery salumeria make in-house, we'll have done our job in convincing you it's the real deal. But because we like you personally, we're gonna go ahead and add on the sly that they also make sandwiches, soups, salads, and sides to make you wish even more food categories started with "S." The Reuben-inspired bison pastrami on rye is mwah.
Best new brewery
A jazz-themed taproom in the former Welton Street DMV run by a trio of Great Divide alums: now that's Five Points! But as neighborhood-oriented as this April arrival may be, it's already making waves throughout and beyond the city. Though we'll go ahead and call beers like the tart cherry-rosewater sour Pure Funk and saffron-spiced Tripel Risotto Milanese strokes of genius, you don't have to take it from us; ask the GABF judges who awarded Spangalang's Belgian-style session ale Sugarfoot a gold right out of the shoot -- or the local experts who are participating in our upcoming survey of 2015 brewery openings. Better stay tuned.
Best new dive bar
Not only does the barbecue run a damn close second to Roaming Buffalo's -- get a load of that hardcore, custom-built smoker out back -- but the old-school vibe of the century-old Croatian/Slovenian meeting lodge-turned-tavern (with its wood-paneled walls, quaint bric-a-brac like Japanese lacquerware and faux sarcophagi, and chill live-music lineup) makes it feel exactly like the place your grandparents probably first hooked up (sorry for the imagery).
Best new desserts
As the leading keeper of the molecular-gastronomy flame in these parts, Ian Kleinman would have been well within his rights to open some kind of haute temple to avant-garde cuisine that cost and confused us all dearly. Instead he brought us this steampunky dessert lab, where you're greeted with a free(zing!) bag of chocolate-cinnamon nitro popcorn while you wait for your exploding whipped-cream sundae, Lemonhead-candy space foam, or coconut sorbet with pomegranate bubbles. It might feel like just so much kung-fu treachery if the tricks weren't also mouthwatering treats -- but they are.
Best new gastropub
There were 21 slots on our list of Denver's Best Restaurants Right Now. If there had been only five -- maybe even three -- this total outlier would have made the cut. That's how striking the kitchen's manic creativity and ability to execute has proven. It's a paradigm shift: if you never thought to yourself, "Boy, I could really go for some fried-tripe poutine in foie gras gravy or a lamb's-head flatbread or turnip four ways tonight" before, you will after a meal here.
Best new hangout
With its eye-popping, brain-numbing line-up of house-infused shots, bartender's calls, and single-batch punches as well as seasonal libations, Finn's is easily among Denver's best new cocktail bars. With 16 ever-rotating taps emphasizing geeky finds from Belgium, France, or Ooooklahoma, Finn’s is also among Denver's best new beer bars, oh, and they offer a sprawling patio that doubles as a food-truck pod.
Best new happy hour
It's not the longest. It's not the cheapest. But what with $1 sake shots and $3 sake bombs (among other drink specials), plus $2 off small plates like garlicky fried frog's legs, intricate red-chili dumplings, and bao with fried chicken or pork belly, damned if happy hour at Lon Symensma's ace Asian Fusion haunt isn't the coolest.
Best new late-night munchies
Carbon Beverage Cafe (address and info) and Habit Doughnut Dispensary (address and info)
Central Platte Valley
Because if you're gonna build a cafe and donut shop on the twin pillars of hip-hop and weed culture, you sure as hell had better be serving up the likes of Wu Tang Tots with hemp ketchup, Faux McMuffins with caramelized Spam, clove-caramel brioche doughnuts topped with candy cigarettes, and "the best pizza in a cup ever" (Google it) through the wee hours.
Best new lunch
If seven different vendors hawking everything from arepas to udon bowls plus two full bars with 20 taps plus one instant legend of a deck overlooking downtown doesn't equal a noontime no-brainer to you, then you need to check your math.
Best new nightclub
This supper club is classy. Not, like, Trump-casino classy, but like, get-all-dolled-up-with-your-dame-and-come-beat-your-feet-to-the-tunes-of-a-hepcat-jazz-combo-circa-1940 kind of classy. A soak-up-the-Art-Deco-aura-over-flutes-of-bubbly-and-oysters-with-caviar kind of classy. You know, the old-school stuff.
Best new trattoria
Winning as the pies from the gorgeous imported oven at Bar Dough may be, Denver's inundated with good pizza. What makes this slick, casually contemporary Italian newcomer special is pretty much everything else. From the revelatory insalata brassica with pecorino and pumpkin seeds in brown butter to chicken liver fettunta and hand-extruded bigoli, Max MacKissock is showing everyone in town what "sprezzatura" means. (It means effortless panache, OK?) The bar is on point, too, featuring classic aperitivi, a breezy Boot-spanning wine selection, and all the great beer you'd expect from a sibling of Highland Tap & Burger.
Best new pizza
Hey, the Motor City invented the automobile. That it might also engineer one hell of a pizza shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Run by a championship-winning pizzaiolo, this little slice of Highlands Square showcases Detroit-style pies in all their lasagna-esque, crunchy cheese-crusted, sweet pepperoni-peppered, gut-busting glory. In addition to local booze, you can even get a Motown beer or soda to wash it all down. Climate change being what it is, Michigan wine may not be far behind. (We're actually not joking).
Best new sandwich
Maybe we're jumping the gun a little here: Justin Brunson only just launched his weekday lunch pop-up in the bar at Old Major. But if falling in love at first bite with a pile of fried chicken, jambon, Swiss cheese, and mayo on a soft sesame bun is wrong, we don't want to be right. Nor can we help adoring its saucy Korean cousin with kimchi. Guess we're just helpless romantics when it comes to chicken sandwiches and canned beer.