West African food, East African food, West Highland neighborhood restaurants and Chinese dumpling kitchens in Aurora: The Denver area has welcomed a diverse spread of new dining options in 2019. These, we think, are the best.
And what an exciting time to be summing up the newcomers to Denver’s dining scene.
No longer do we focus on male chefs, white chefs and food traditions within those demographic groups — there’s much more diversity to Denver’s recent spate of new restaurants. When putting together these lists, we take into account how employees are treated, how food is sourced and how much of an impact these businesses make, even when their physical spaces are no bigger than a counter or a windowsill.
Without further ado, here are the 10 best new restaurants of the year.
Jacaranda, Rosetta Hall, Boulder
Jacaranda isn’t the only West African restaurant to open around Denver this year (see also: African Grill’s second location in Lakewood), but it is the one helmed by a first-time restaurateur who I hope will open his own brick-and-mortar in Boulder, Denver or anywhere within a short drive.
Modou Jaiteh is originally from Gambia but has experience cooking in New York and New Orleans before moving West. Now he’s brought all those influences to Boulder’s Rosetta Hall, where, as Jaiteh puts it, he’s exploring the African diaspora in the American South. You’ll see the overlap in his blue corn Jonny cakes, the black-eyed pea yaji fried rice and domoda peanut butter stew with Boulder lamb and jasmine rice. Get there early for lunch to try the latter; just a few months after opening at the food hall, Jaiteh’s already selling out.
1109 Walnut St., Boulder, 720-323-5509, rosettahall.com/chefs/jacaranda
Bruto, Free Market at Dairy Block, LoDo
A public service announcement: Anyone visiting Denver’s Dairy Block and stopping for lunch in the food hall Milk Market is doing it wrong. Ok, that’s a strong warning, but I do feel that just beyond the food hall, on the other side of the alleyway, is the real treat that many diners, visiting or otherwise, are still missing out on.
Bruto is a Scandinavian-designed and sunlit corner at Free Market, a slightly less hectic side of the bustling square-block complex, where you can shop at boutique stores while sipping on cava spritzes. For sustenance, find fresh and hot sourdough bread, crunchy salads and satisfying entrees like Japanese okonomiyaki (savory pancake) and smoked chicken and rice. The owners of this nondescript counter are also James Beard Award nominees — for Best Chef Southwest and Outstanding Pastry Chef 2019. They even grow their own grains and mill them in-house. And all this in a shopping center of sorts. Why not?
1801 Blake St., Denver, 720-325-2195, brutodenver.com
Mango House, Aurora
With so many food halls still somehow opening across the metro area, this one in Aurora is a refreshing change of pace. Strip away all the trendy crap and craft cocktails and you have the whole-hearted operation that is Mango House. It’s a collection of six international food stalls inside a complex that directs its business efforts toward resettled refugees.
Just a few tables for dining are scattered in front of the stalls. But some of the restaurants also work with food delivery services during the day. The offerings right now consist of Urban Burma, ODAA Ethiopian, Jasmine Syrian Food, Golden Sky Sushi, Ayny’s East African Eats and Nepali Mountain Kitchen. Their hours can be hard to pin down, but take your pick when you arrive — whatever’s open is worth a try. Urban Burma is the only restaurant of its kind in Denver, and Jasmine Syrian’s kitchen puts out some of the best falafel and baba ghanoush I’ve had.
10180 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora, 303-900-8639, 1532galena.com
American Elm, West Highland
Finding a new neighborhood gem of a restaurant and bar has to be one of life’s greatest pleasures, and American Elm, which sits along 38th Avenue in West Highland, is just that. It combines the serious cooking chops of chef Brent Turnipseede (formerly of downtown steakhouse Guard and Grace) with Jesse Torres’ top-shelf bar skills (he was previously at Poka Lola and Tavernetta).
When the restaurant opened over the summer, the bar and dining room flowed onto a side yard that flanked a century-old elm tree, and the whole thing felt very much like home to me. Options for eating and drinking here include happy hour, dinner and brunch, and be sure to try them all. Turnipseede reinvigorates classic evening dishes from seared scallops to steak frites, and his brunch dips into the South with addictive deviled egg toast and shrimp and grits.
4132 W. 38th Ave., Denver, 720-749-3186, amelm.com
Le French, Denver Tech Center
Many — so many, too many — French restaurants opened around Denver this year. But Le French is a standout for a number of reasons. 1. Sisters Aminata and Rougui Dia came together for it to open their first combined cooking project in the States. 2. They chose south Denver, rather than trending dining neighborhoods near downtown, for the all-day bakery and bistro. 3. Rougui came to Denver from Paris, where she worked as a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant. 4. Their food reflects both French and Senegalese cooking traditions, with boeuf bourguignon and gniiri (a peanut, black-eyed pea and mushroom creamed cornmeal) among current options. Should I continue?
5. The pristine dining room can be a romantic dinner destination or a family brunch stop. 6. The bakery churns out fresh, flaky croissants and other pastries daily. 7. In the afternoons, there’s a carted tea service with small plates. 8. By night, the space transforms into a dessert bar with after-dinner wines and French cocktails. I could go on.
4901 S. Newport St. at Belleview Station, 720-710-8963, lefrenchdenver.com
Uncle Zoe’s Chinese Kitchen, Aurora
I’m not going to compare soup dumplings to rainbows and children’s laughter, because, come on, that wouldn’t be fair to rainbows and children’s laughter. But a bamboo basket full of pleated, pork and ginger broth-filled little purses of dough is a beautiful thing, and the best I’ve had in a long time are at Uncle Zoe’s.
As if perfect soup dumplings aren’t enough, Zoe’s excels at a variety of Chinese dishes, both familiar and unfamiliar. In the latter camp were the revelatory rou bing, or as I call them, sandwich-meets-eggroll-meets-hand-pie-pockets-of-deliciousness. The thin, beautifully-crisp discs of pastry are crammed full of juicy, savory fillings like shrimp with pork and beef with celery, which also put rainbows and children’s laughter to shame. Sorry rainbows and children’s laugher; if only we could eat you. – Allyson Reedy
12203 E. Iliff Ave., Aurora, 303-755-8518; unclezoe.com
Sunday Vinyl, Union Station, LoDo
The newest of this bunch, Sunday Vinyl just opened behind Union Station as a hybrid wine bar, vinyl listening room and pan-European dinner restaurant. Already, it has to be the coolest thing to come this way in at least the last 12 months. Vinyl bars aren’t exactly new in Denver (see the quirky and lovable Pon Pon bar on Walnut Street), but they haven’t been presented quite like this before.
Every table at Sunday Vinyl faces a window onto the train platform and is also positioned just so for the state-of-the-art sound system, which plays a progression of international beats — from Paris to Rio — all curated by Denver’s own indie record club Vinyl Me, Please. The food, wine and (very small) cocktail selection come from the pros behind Tavernetta, Frasca and Pizzeria Locale. Those teams won a James Beard Award earlier this year for their hospitality. Now they’re pairing that same attention to detail with a front-row music experience that’s sure to go far.
1803 16th St., 720-738-1803, sundayvinyl.getbento.com
Misfit Snackbar, Middleman bar, East Colfax
A restaurant that gained a cult following while open, closed because of construction, then reincarnated in a much different form and inside an existing bar isn’t the easiest concept to latch onto for these best-of-list purposes. But the offerings at Misfit Snackbar — a mere walk-up window inside the Colfax bar Middleman — are so good and so exciting in terms of “bar food.”
Only eight dishes are currently on chef Bo Porytko’s menu, and two of those are flavors of popcorn. He’ll be changing this list often, but while they’re around, try the country-fried short rib sandwich and tahini-roasted cauliflower pita pocket. And just trust me and order both popcorns, too, in curry and pepperoni pizza flavors. They’re the perfect gateway snacks into Porytko’s culinary imagination: misfit, maybe, but perfectly at home in this new post.
3401 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, middlemanbar.com
Somebody People, South Broadway
Walking into this restaurant at the base of an apartment complex on South Broadway is a bit of a shock. When I first arrived for a Sunday set dinner menu ($25), I was greeted by servers in white sneakers and perfectly askew overalls, looking like quite cheerful models set against the room’s powder pink and baby blue backdrop.
Once my eyes adjusted, I found that I rather liked this place and its vibe and its food. A lot. Husband and wife owners Sam and Tricia Maher bring their Australian easiness to this first Denver restaurant, even while putting forth some very strong beliefs. They serve only plant-based foods and biodynamic and natural wines, for example, and they don’t like to waste with throw-away restaurant staples like to-go boxes; they kindly ask that you bring your own. The Mahers’ genuine hospitality makes it all work. And $25 for a healthful, filling and multi-course Sunday dinner of charred broccolini, beet salad, grilled mushrooms and more is hard to beat.
1165 S. Broadway, Denver, 720-502-5681, somebodypeople.com
Owlbear Barbecue, RiNo
Even with so many former Texans around here, it’s not easy to find shining examples of Central Texas-style barbecue, a still-trending culinary subgenre known for its dedication to perfect smoked brisket and an outright disdain for “ruining” beautiful meat with sauce. Luckily for Texpats such as myself, this year brought us a new joint so good, it’s as consistently great as — and maybe even better than — some of Texas’ biggest barbecue heavy-hitters.
Owlbear owner and pitmaster Karl Fallenius has a bonafide Texas barbecue pedigree, having worked at the famed Franklin Barbecue in Austin, and it shows in these impeccable smoked meats and indulgent sides like mac and cheese made with bechamel sauce. Unlike many barbecue joints, Owlbear meticulously sources its meat from sustainable, ethical producers, which makes the finished product that much tastier. Take some friends and build a damn-near perfect platter with Owlbear’s juicy brisket, pulled pork and ribs, and if there’s pork belly on the menu during your visit, you’d be a fool not to order it, too. – Beth Rankin
2826 Larimer St, Denver, 720-667-1181, owlbearbbq.com