Just like the city itself, Denver’s restaurant landscape is quickly growing and improving. You can still find a cowboy-style meal that’s heavy on the beef (and plenty of Rocky Mountain oysters if you know where to look), but a young and diverse crop of chefs is keeping the options from getting stale.
“With the population boom came more restaurants, which pushed every chef and concept to change, innovate, and create with passion to be the best and win over customers,” chef Joseph Lewis of Rhein Haus and Wally’s Wisconsin Tavern said. “Any time of day, or day of the week, there is always a spot for a great meal.”
Increasingly, those meals are listed on constantly changing menus that rotate with what’s seasonally available.
“I feel that the growing community has blossomed with the advancement of our local growing scene, urban farms, and farmers markets,” executive chef Nick Kayser of Vesta said. “We have always been a top producer of beef and lamb, and with the roundness of the farming community, I feel ingredient-driven cuisine, focusing on our hyper-local ingredients is really starting to shape the dining scene here in Denver.”
To get a better sense of how to see Denver through the eyes of a chef, we got in touch with nine of the city’s best. Our experts include Lewis, Kayser, executive chef and partner Chris Royster of Flagstaff House Restaurant, executive chef Adam Vero of Hearth & Dram, executive chef and owner Mary Nguyen of Olive & Finch, executive chef Thach Tran of Ace Eat Serve, executive chef Duncan Holmes of Beckon | Call, executive chef and partner Ryan Talor of Hickory & Ash and Masa, and chef Ivan Ceballos of Que Bueno Suerte!
This is how to eat all that Denver has to offer just like the city’s top chefs do.
The types of food that Denver does best
“Denver excels at authentic, real Mexican food,” Nguyen said. “I’m thinking old school, like the Blue Bonnet, Hacienda Colorado, and Benny’s. I travel to NYC and can’t get real Mexican food there — they just don’t make green chile the way we do, don’t smother literally everything with cheese and Pueblo chilies, and you can’t grab tamales from street-side carts and vendors everywhere in the city.”
Nguyen isn’t alone in her thinking. “Denver is a hot spot for all styles of food, but our Latin food scene is where it’s at,” Lewis said. “From small mom-and-pop spots all the way to D’Corazon, from traditional to innovated takes on the classics, the flavor and experience are always great.”
“Denver’s known for our ranching heritage, so it’s no surprise that we excel at butchery, sausage making, and charcuterie,” Vero said. “Also, a bit of an outlier, but we have the most amazing wood-fired pizza in Denver. Something about the altitude and dry climate combines to make incredible pizzas.”
If you’d asked the same question a decade ago, things would’ve been different. Things are much more seasonal these days. “Because of our city’s altitude and terrain, it’s a challenge to cook and eat locally year-round, but it’s so important when it comes to quality,” Royster said. “And we have lots of very talented chefs who take those efforts seriously and incorporate menu changes and creation of dishes based around what’s available locally, and not the other way around. That hasn’t always been the case, but I’m glad to see us moving in that direction.”
Where to eat when you only have an hour or two
“Places like Denver Central Market or Avanti Food and Beverage offer multiple options to choose from and they have a full bar to grab a cocktail, beer, or glass of wine while you’re there,” Royster said. “If it’s just a sandwich I really want, I like Rye Society. Their sandwiches bring me back the delis in NYC that I miss and love.”
Being short on time is an everyday struggle just as much for chefs as for everyone else. “I like the food halls and markets,” Tran said. “Denver Market and Broadway Market are my top two. I can grab coffee, snacks, lunch or dinner, a cocktail, and then chat it up with some industry friends.”
Ceballos listed Uno Mas Taqueria and Chook Charcoal Chicken for quick-bite options, and if a fast lunch is what you’re looking for, Lewis suggested Freshcraft for the meatloaf sandwich. Pizza is a classic go-to in a rush, and Taylor put Marco’s Coal Fired Pizza and White Pie at the top of the options to try. Then again, it’s hard to beat a solid sandwich you can walk with.
“Lou’s Italian Specialties in RiNo is totally where it’s at in Denver,” Kayser said. “East Coast sandwiches and antipasta salads that complement perfectly is the best lunch you can grab with an available hour in the day.”
Vero agreed with the Lou’s Italian selection as well (especially the one with roast beef, giardiniera, provolone and au jus), along with the Chicago-style hotdogs from Mile High Vienna Stand, the banh mi from New Saigon, and the bagel from Rosenberg’s (“exactly the bagel I’m looking for the morning after a long night out,” Vero said).
Where chefs eat on their day off
For a day full of eating and drinking, Taylor suggested staples like the Spanish restaurant Ultreia, diner food at Sam’s No. 3, American food at Avelina, sushi from Sushi Sasa, and Latin-inspired food from Lena.
“My favorite is Pete’s Cafe off 88th and Washington,” Lewis said. “They have a rustic, old-timey diner feel, but the service is always great and the food delicious, especially the green chili.”
“I’m at Bar Dough quite a bit on my days off,” Vesta said. “I love seeing what Chef Carrie Baird is doing with her rotating menu items, like her fancy toasts and pasta specials. I love the bar scene and their wine list rocks.”
There’s never a bad time to visit, but spring and fall win out for foodies.
Denver’s 300 days of sunshine and mix of both summer and winter outdoor activities make it a destination year-round. For food lovers, though, it’s hard to beat the fall. “The weather is cooling down a bit and the change between summer to fall ingredients is in full swing,” Royster said. “This gives the chefs in the area some of the most creative possibilities (think peaches, apples, melons, etc. — Colorado has some of the best).”
That said, Slow Food Nations is held in July, and few food festivals can beat that. Not to mention the summer months’ produce. Come around the last harvest of the year, though, and you’ll be treated to the best of both worlds, plus plenty of beer festivals.
Whatever you do, make a trip to Federal Boulevard.
As a fan of Vietnamese food, Nguyen suggested Pho Lee. “Federal Boulevard is where you’ll find all the best, authentic places in town, and I think the team at Pho Le does a really great job with their dishes, in particular capturing the nuances of regional Vietnamese culture and cuisine,” Nguyen said. “I especially like the bun bo hue — you have to try it!”
The stretch has more than just quality Vietnamese food.
“Everyone knows that S. Federal houses the most authentic, incredible hidden-gem Asian restaurants (Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese) and hands-down my favorite is Lao Wang,” Vero said. “It’s an amazing mom-and-pop spot with the best, most authentic pot stickers and soup dumplings in the city. After a long day in the kitchen or on a rare free evening, you can count on finding [Hearth and Dram chef de cuisine Jeff Hickman and I] there. I also love Yabby Hut, a Viet-Cajun — yes, there is such a thing — style shellfish boil spot.”
On your next visit, these are the chefs to keep an eye out for.
“The chef in Denver that we should expect lots of great things coming this year is chef Anna Walter at Super Mega Bien,” Tran said. “She has a very unique and modern cooking style of Latino and Asian cuisine that is mind-blowing. She’s dedicated herself to her style of food and staying true to her flavors. Her roasted duck pekin — China/Latin America with chipotle-honey glaze served with housemade flour gorditas — is just amazing.”
Tran himself is someone to watch as well. “His food is stunning,” Vesta sais. “Amazing flavors and presentation, and his impact of the menu at Ace has brought back the food culture of Vietnamese-inspired cuisine to the Uptown Neighborhood of Denver, CO.”
Annette’s Caroline Glover is making an impression by staying independent, Holmes said, adding, “She’s fighting the good fight by being independent and I think we’ll continue to see her at the top of the lists.”
Along with his chef de cuisine Jeff Hickman, Vero has his eyes on Bo Porytko at Rebel Restaurant, Geoff Cox at Hop Alley, and Korey Sims at Aurum in Breckenridge. Taylor suggested frequenting Julep for Kyle Foster and Señor Bear for Blake Edmunds. Ceballos suggested watching Dana Rodriguez from Super Mega Bien and Work & Class, along with Efren Velazques of El Cazo and Tony Zarlenga of Cafe Brazil.