Each year, 5280 Magazine's food editor Amanda Faison is tasked with selecting and ranking the top 25 restaurants in Denver. With the dining scene experiencing more restaurant openings than ever before, the process has become even more difficult. As the October issue of the magazine hit the newsstands, Faison reveals how she goes about creating the list, notable dishes and cocktails, and what she's looking forward to in the future.
Will you describe the general process of selecting the top 25 restaurants? Well, I pay attention all year to what's happening in the dining scene. For about four months or so, March to July—really the end of June, I work specifically on the list. This year, I was behind, so I was still doing research in August, which actually was a benefit for many. Generally, by the time the end of March rolls around, I've pretty much narrowed the list down to, give or take, about 60 restaurants. Every restaurant that was on last year's list is on that long list—I know I'm going back to those. Then I look at who dropped off last year, and go back to those restaurants as well, and then in addition to those, there are all the new restaurants. Or even if they're not new, just places that I'm hearing a lot about or I've had great meals at over the year, those figure into that top 60 to 65 restaurants. It's a lot of dining, a lot of research, a lot of notes. As time gets closer and closer to making the actual list and ranking them, I'm dining constantly, say four, five nights a week.
Do you visit one restaurant each night you go out? Sometimes I go to two. Sometimes I do two dinners, which I don't like doing because I don't think it's fair. Obviously, you're not going to be as hungry for the second dinner. So I do it as little as I can, but I have done two in one night for this issue.
How many times do you visit each restaurant? It depends. Any time we review a place, we visit a minimum of three times and up to seven times. But for this, I don't have a hard, fast rule. I go to every place at least once, but really it's more like two to three, sometimes four. I mean, I think I went to Stoic & Genuine five times, and one of the reasons for that was because Stoic & Genuine was so new, and normally they wouldn't have been considered for the cut-off.
What is the cut-off date? I look at when I cut off last year, and kinda go year to year. Last year, I think it was July 18. But this year, because I was behind, I was dining into August. Because of that, I was able to dine at Stoic & Genuine enough and feel good enough about the restaurant and where it's going to put it on the list.
Why and how does a restaurant qualify? For me, it's the whole package. It's obviously the food, service, and ambience. But really, it's the value. It's one of the biggest things I consider. I want to leave a restaurant thinking two things: One, I want to want to come back. You know, I immediately want to go tell someone about it or make my next reservation. I want that feeling of excitement. And then secondly, the value. I want to feel like I got my money's worth and I can get my money's worth at Work & Class or I can get my money's worth at Frasca. You know, there's very different sides of the spectrum, but I definitely think there's a sense of value at all the places on the list.
What was the hardest part about compiling the list this year? The sheer volume of restaurants, definitely. So many I had to go back to and so many new ones. It was more complicated than normal because of that and with the upcoming cookbook, my time was more divided than normal. Those two things were big factors.
How did the cookbook impact the process? There's only so many hours in a day, you know? And the crunch time on the cookbook was the same time as the story, or somewhat. There was a huge crunch time on the front end to do recipe testing and get all of that done. And then the crunch time for more preparing, to get it sent off to the art department and start working on layout...that all coincided with top 25 restaurants. It was all just a crescendo of craziness.
How many restaurants are in the book? It's 118 recipes. Some restaurants have two recipes because they might have a savory or dessert, and a cocktail. I don't have any overlap in restaurants in the appetizers, entrees, sides, or desserts category. It's only with cocktails.
When is the book coming out and where can people get it? October 15. You can preorder online right now on our website.
What are some of the trends one can glean from this year's 25 best restaurants list? This list is the most exciting one that we've done since we started. That is because of the shift in Denver's dining scene and the growth. It's not just that there are new spots, it's that there are so many high-quality spots that are doing things differently. I mean look at what Acorn is doing, look at Work & Class, and the Plimoth, To the Wind. It's this very accessible dining. Accessible or casual doesn't mean you're just eating burgers. The whole scene is experiencing this shift to more casual, and I love that. I think it's more fun to go out. It's more relaxed. Many people enjoy their food more when they're not worried about the white tablecloth and the snooty service. I just love the feel of going out right now.
Frasca has been number one five years in a row. Can anybody beat it? Every year I go thinking that maybe this will be the year where Frasca isn't number one. And every year it just can't be beat. I had two dinners specifically in preparation for this list there. And one of them in particular was just unbelievable. Truly, one of the best dining experiences I had in a year but longer than that. It was just a special, perfect night and that's what I kept going back to. They just do things so well and they do it on a level that has zero attitude and I think that's what's amazing about Frasca. You have this beautiful food and it's expensive with white tablecloths but it doesn't ever feel affected. And I love that.
What are some dishes that stood out at these 25 best restaurants? One of them was the Chicken and Dumplings at To the Wind. It's not on the menu anymore. It had mussels in it, so it wasn't the chicken and dumplings you think of your grandma making - comfort food with a little twist. At Acorn, the thing that's coming to mind is the carrot salad. The roasted carrot salad: I think it's fantastic. I love it. It's so good. It was added to the menu I think on the day I finished my research. The fish that I had at Basta...it was the salmon; it is different than the picture that's in the magazine. It comes on a cutting board, and I've since gone back and you get different fish, kinda whatever is available that day. Mine was this unbelievably beautiful cooked piece of salmon. For me, it kinda distilled down exactly what Basta is doing, and what they are focusing now that they dropped the pizzeria part of their name.
Who is doing awesome desserts from the places on your list now? Honestly, I think that the dessert programs are somewhat lacking in Denver. I like Stoic & Genuine's desserts; they're really good. Everything has kind of a fun play on it; they're kinda comfort food, but a little elevated. I like Lower48 too, I like how they bring some savory elements into their dessert. I don't think every time it works, but sometimes it does. In general, I find desserts are a bit sloppy these days. That bums me out because I love dessert and it's your last bite, your last impression of a restaurant.
What about the best cocktail you've had in the last year? This restaurant didn't land on the list, but I love the Don Draper at Root Down. I think it's a really great cocktail, and it's actually in the cookbook too. It's a citrus-infused whiskey and simple syrup and bitters. It's really simple. I also loved Old Major's—I think it was 6 Degrees of Cedar Rapids—which I actually is in the cookbook too. It's also a rye whiskey. I think I'm really into rye whiskey right now. It has cardamaro too, and I love cardamaro. Mizuna, they have one called the Prudence and Hammersmith. The cocktail has watercress muddled into it; it's unusual and creative. I don't think that many people think of Mizuna as having an innovative cocktail bar, so that was really fun and surprising.
What upcoming restaurants are you excited for? I am really excited to check out Sarto's and just see how that all comes together. The space is so cool and I've always liked Brian Laird's food. I'm also excited for Blackbelly. I'm ready for Hosea Rosenberg to have a place. Two moreL Lon Symensma's new place, Cho77, and along those lines, Osaka Ramen, just 'cause—like the rest of the world—I'm totally crazy about ramen!