For the last seven years, food editor Amanda Faison has curated 5280 Magazine’s 25 Best Restaurants list. This year’s installment, which was just released online, brings some serious shakeups, some surprises, and some choices that reveal where the Denver dining scene is and what its future holds. There are only four places that are different from last year, but the shuffle of the returning 21 is tremendous.
The biggest surprises come right at the top: The number one restaurant is Chinese-inspired Hop Alley, a second act from Tommy Lee of Uncle, which opened in December in RiNo. The second place goes to Basta, a Boulder restaurant with a difficult location, which chef Kelly Whitaker opened in 2010.
Before we get to the meat of the matter, here are some tidbits to give you perspective on the list:
- To be considered, restaurants have to have been open for six months or longer from the time the previous year's issue closes. That means open by mid-February.
- Unlike years past, there was no feature on Best New Restaurants this year, which may have shifted elements of this list.
- New this year: Hop Alley (and straight to #1), Bar Dough (#6), Sushi Ronin (#10), and Pizzeria Locale (#16, last time on the list in 2012 at #17).
- Who dropped off and where they were last year: Uncle (#25), Rioja (#23), Duo (#22), Cart Driver (#18).
- Most improved: The Plimoth (jumped from #20 to #8); Blackbelly Market (jumped from 24 to 15), Basta (jumped from #10 to #2).
- Biggest falls: The Populist (down to #19 from #5), Mizuna (down to #24 from #13), Barolo Grill (down to #23 from #12).
- Steadiest: Bittersweet (#21 both this year and last).
- On October 2, there is a party to honor those recognized on the list. Tickets for 5280 Dines are $75 and can be purchased online.
This is Faison's last year putting this list together, as she is departing from the magazine at the beginning of November after nearly two decades. We asked her to share her thoughts on how this list came together and what it says about our dining culture.
This is the seventh and last time you put together this list, which has become the most coveted ranking in dining in Denver. What is it all about? We've been doing some degree of restaurant roundup for years, but only started ranking seven years ago. This list is and always has been a snapshot in time, mostly because of the way the story comes together. I do a lot of reporting for this list, months worth of dining, basically starting in January, but the end result is still the sum of a finite number of dining experiences. It is the accumulation of my experiences as they relate to our dining culture weighed against two decades of institutional knowledge. If you look at the list in six months, nine months, would it hold? I think so, though restaurants may undulate up and down.
Where is Denver's dining scene now and where is it going? As we have seen in the last three or so years, we have moved toward more casual and relaxed dining. Going out to eat has increasingly become the main event of a night out. It has become an activity. That alone puts pressure on restaurants to deliver more. But it also changes the vibe that diners seek. Going out to eat is the new form of entertainment—and that means there has to be an element of fun.
As for where the dining scene is going, I think it is growing up. Chefs and restaurant owners are clarifying their visions. If you look at our number one pick, Hop Alley, and our number 25 pick, Bistro Barbès, they are two entirely different restaurants that share one thing: Incredibly clear viewpoints. They share the same seriousness about their mission and the same commitment to their identity. They know who they are and what they do and they are pursuing that with unwavering commitment. They have found the framework they work in; they have a very concise approach to their respective cuisines.
In years past, your personal pet peeves, the areas that you mentioned could use most improvement were service and dessert. Hop Alley's service style is very relaxed and there is no dessert whatsoever offered. What gives? I think the service at Hop Alley is exactly where it needs to be and what the current Denver diner craves. The interaction with the servers there is a conversational exchange, it's low-key, but well-informed, and thoughtful in a way where you feel like they are on your side and they want to guide you to the best experience. You come away with this extra bit of information and you feel good. When it comes to dessert, Hop Alley bucked the trend. They recognized that dessert was not their strength and chose to skip it. Initially it took me by surprise but that is one of the things I really respect about Tommy [Lee]: He is true to his vision and his strengths. Dessert itself has never been a reason to keep a place off the list or from being number one.
There is one restaurant that returned to the list: Pizzeria Locale. What brought it back? It is important to distinguish the original pizzeria in Boulder, next to Frasca, which is the restaurant that is included on this list from its more casual version that has multiple locations. The Boulder outpost has really upped its game this year. What I have seen, better than ever before was very inspired and interesting small plates. The pizza has always been fantastic and so has the service, which has that Bobby Stuckey DNA, but the shareable courses, which change seasonally, have really been creative, clean, and craveable.
There are five Boulder restaurants on your list, all in the top 16, two in the top 3. What does that mean in the greater context of the two geographically divided dining scenes? We have had many conversations about how Denver has eclipsed Boulder in the last few years and this list with its rankings is not exactly evidence that Denver is not still ahead. I think there is still more innovation in Denver, but Boulder continues to be a leader. It keeps pushing the simple, the clean and it does so at the highest level.
With Basta, Bar Dough, and Locale among the 25, are pizzerias a trend on this list? Not really. I don't put Basta in the pizza category. And really Bar Dough isn't merely a pizzeria either. Plus, my attraction to Locale is about the rest of the menu. All three serve very good pizza if that's what you are looking for but, for example, at Basta, I think the entire menu shines, and there are specific details that are executed with precision and focus. What is exciting about Kelly [Whitaker] is that he focuses on one element at a time, he tackles that and really masters it and only then he moves on. The individual parts of his menu are very thoughtful. At Bar Dough, just to have Max [MacKissock] back on the scene is thrilling. What you will find on the menu at this restaurant is the viewpoint of an innovative chef who combines flavors in unique ways that stretch far beyond the reach of pizza.
What about fine dining in the classic sense? Some of the staples we think about - Barolo and Mizuna- dropped significantly on the list and Rioja fell off completely. What does that say about your stance on the white tablecloth restaurants? As I mentioned earlier, Denver diners are looking for more relaxed and entertaining experiences. Dining out is no longer just a special occasion affair for a wedding anniversary or birthday. It is this shift that changes the paradigm of the special-occasion restaurant. It isn't that Barolo or Mizuna aren't polished; they just reflect a different kind of vibe that may not be where Denver is right now. They remain some of 25 best places to eat in this very crowded dining scene. Look back on past rankings and you'll see places rise, fall, and change every year. In all honesty, it would be easier to make this list either shorter or longer. Twenty five is both a big number and a small number and ranking outside of the top 10 has always been challenging.
What are the five best dishes you've had in the last year? An outrageous vegetable clafoutis at To The Wind, Beast & Bottle's lamb heart tartare, Hop Alley's steamed eggplant, the kampachi collar at Basta, and Blackbelly's smoked eggplant. I guess I have had a thing for eggplant...
Who is doing the best cocktails now among these 25? I absolutely love what used to be called the Dog (a smoked tea variation of the old fashioned) at Hop Alley. I think bar manager Kam Mataraci is super talented and I love his perspective. Likewise, Beast & Bottle's Jon Feuersanger is always one to watch. He's constantly tinkering and fine-tuning. And, finally, the Boulevardier at Bistro Barbès is spot-on. As the only cocktail on the menu, it needs to stand out—and it does.
What are you most excited about that didn't make the six month cutoff? I am super excited about Central Market, which just opened. And I am thrilled to have John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom back with Avelina. Departure, which opened in August, is an awesome addition to our dining scene, and Coperta, which may still be figuring a few things out, has tremendous potential. Looking forward, I am looking forward to Julep, a southern-inspired restaurant that will open next spring in RiNo, and Dio Mio. And can I just say I'm anxiously awaiting the reopening of Rosenberg's?
Here is the full list and the link to the full article:
1. Hop Alley
6. Bar Dough
8. The Plimoth
9. Beast & Bottle
10. Sushi Ronin
11. Work & Class
12. Oak at Fourteenth
14. Guard & Grace
16. Pizzeria Locale
17. To The Wind
18. Sushi Den
19. The Populist
20. Stoic & Genuine
22. Old Major
25. Bistro Barbès