When people meet me for the first time and find out what I do, they generally ask one of two questions: “What’s your favorite country?” or “What’s your favorite restaurant?”
Travel is a topic I could talk about all day (and in case you’re curious, the answer currently is 1. Thailand 2. Turkey 3. Patagonia 4. Israel). For some reason, though, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” really irks me. Colorado has thousands of restaurants. Chicago has more than 7,000. With numbers like that, I don’t know how anyone could possibly have just one favorite. Food depends on mood. Sometimes you crave Mexican. Sometimes you want something quick and easy. Sometimes, you want trendy, other times you want to run out for a bite in sweatpants.
If you ask me that and I give you a blank stare, it’s not because I’m not a real foodie. Trust me, I eat out plenty. And it’s not because I haven’t thought about it. In fact, I’ve put way too much thought into it. I’m happy to give you direction if you give me some criteria for what you’re looking for (ie. a casual restaurant, a date-night spot, an Instagram gem, an Asian hole in the wall). But if you’d just generally like to know some of my reliable staples, here’s a non-exhaustive list I will add to as I find places deemed worthy. And without further ado the best places to eat in Denver, Boulder, Chicago and beyond:
So Hot Right Now – Tavernetta
Within a week of opening, a kitchen fire shuttered Tavernetta for months, but that was only a sign of how hot this restaurant was destined to be. A new Italian outpost from the James Beard Award winning team behind Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, everything is incredible from the sensuously rich black truffle sunchokes to the light as air urchin and langoustine crudo that I will continue to dream about. And that pasta…
Farm to Table Goodness – Mercantile
Voted Best Restaurant in Denver 2015, Mercantile is always reliable (and always busy so make a reservation). It’s a good example of Denver’s farm-to-table small plate movement in the revamped Union Station, which is one of the hottest areas in town. It’s right next to Terminal Bar, which is great for pre-or-post drinks and be sure to save room for Little Man Ice Cream or boozy shakes from Milkbox (also in Union Station), which is one of my biggest restaurant scene hacks because the line at actual Little Man is ridiculous. Be sure to go at dinner time when there’s sit-down service because it’s just a grab-and-go counter at lunchtime.
Fusion Confusion – TAG
Troy Guard is hands-down my favorite chef in Denver. He likes putting pop rocks in everything from drinks at Chingones (but they got rid of my favorite thing on the menu, the kale fundido, so I haven’t been back in awhile…) to hamachi at TAG, which is yes, sushi with pop rocks. It sounds strange, but it’s sensory experience he calls “continental social food.” The menu also includes approachable small plates like kobe sliders and duck. Now I know what you’re thinking, I don’t trust many places that are billed as “international” or cross-genre either, but the man knows what he’s doing. It’s located in Larimer Square, which is the cutesy historic district that’s great for date night (think strings of lights everywhere).
Famous Chefs – Acorn
The Source burst on the scene a couple years ago as a hip warehouse conversion full of graffiti and grit turned local market that’s representative of the greater food hall trend around the country (Avanti is Denver’s other big one, which has a great rooftop). Anyhoo, one of the Source’s two flagship restaurants, Acorn, is damn delicious. Also small plates (sensing a trend yet?), I have dreams about those creamy shrimp and grits and rich meatballs. They are owned by the folks behind Oak on Fourteenth, one of the best restaurants in Boulder, and recently opened fast-casual Highlands concept Brider, which awesomely delivers all the way to Cap Hill.
Oldie But Goodie – Cuba Cuba
Cuba Cuba’s been around for awhile yet still remains a bit under the radar and yet never goes out of style. For the best pitcher drinks in Denver, let me introduce you to the deliciousness that is jalapeno mango sangria. Wash down the chimichurri skirt steak with a side of fried plantains, and it’s smiles all around. Set in a pair of conjoined baby blue houses, the ambiance is as adorable as the food is craveable.
Trendy Brunch – Sassafras
Your down home brunch, Sassafras is a whole bunch of calories, but your sweet Southern grandma wouldn’t have it any other way. Literally everything on the menu sounds good from a whole section of grits to fancy benedicts with Cajun leanings. Pair it with an adult milkshakes, and you’re in for a solid start to the day. Be prepared to wait upwards of an hour, but it’s worth it.
Ethnic Brunch – Lena (Peruvian)
Lena is one of those restaurants that should be busier than it is, but I’ll never complain about no wait at brunch. They opened my eyes to a number of new dishes, the standout being rabanada, a Brazilian-style French toast crusted in plantain chips and cocoa powder you can wash down with bottomless guava, blood orange and passion fruit mimosas. Duh.
Authentic Japanese – Domo
Domo makes me happy simply for how random it is. Hidden off the side of the highway, their Japanese gardens and karate studio/museum are unreal and crazy cool. Some people go for ramen, but I prefer their Wanko Sushi menu, which allows you to choose from either three or five sashimi dishes prepared in various ways plus seven side dishes (similar to the banchan that come with Korean BBQ).
Fast Casual – Olive & Finch
Fast casual restaurants are super trendy in the Mile High right now, but Mary Nguyen was the OG. Her first spot in Uptown did so well she opened a second, even bigger location in Cherry Creek. Must-eat menu items include the D.F. for breakfast (with arguably the best chimichurri sauces in Denver) and the Bun Me for lunch. You really couldn’t go wrong with one of the flatbreads either though… basically it’s a quick bite you won’t feel guilty about.
Other Denver Notables:
Food Halls – AVANTI Food & Beverage
$2 Build Your Own Bloodies – The Hornet
Wings – Fire on the Mountain
Fancy Sushi – Sushi Den, Uchi, or Izakaya Ronin
Poke Bowl – Sushi Cup (Korean/Japanese/Hawaiian fusion) or Ohana (traditional Hawaiian)
Fancy Thai – Alloy Thai
Legit, Non-Heavy Italian – Bar Dough
Street Thai – Thai Monkey Club
Fancy Chinese – Hop Alley
Dim Sum – Star Kitchen
Fancy Vietnamese – Cho 77
Street Vietnamese – Literally any pho spot on Federal
Ramen – Bones, Uncle
Crazy Fusion – Asian Cajun
Street Tacos – Tacos, Tequila Whiskey (formerly Pinche)
Korean BBQ – Seoul Korean B.B.Q. & Sushi (Aurora)
Food Trucks – Jozi’s Kitchen (South African) and Pierogi Factory
Sandwiches – Heidi’s Deli
Oysters & Rose on Tap – Cart & Driver
Late Night Happy Hour – $1 Oysters at Angelo’s
Thin Crust Pizza – Marco’s Coal Fired
Deep Dish Pizza – Crush
Best Deal – $30 Hibachi for Two at Mount Fuji on Sunday/Monday (and an endless squirt of sake in yo’ mouth) and $32 all-you-can-eat conveyor belt sushi and hot pot from Rolls by Chubby Cattle
Best Rooftop – El Five
Quirkiest – Linger (eatuary aka a former mortuary)
Speakeasy – Williams & Graham (you walk through a bookcase!)
Fun Sushi – Sushi Zanmai
A staple since college, Sushi Zanmai does not only have the freshest fish in Boulder, but it’s also the most lively as the sushi chefs spontaneously bust out guitars under a disco ball. If you have a group of six or more, you can sit on the tatami mats on the floor, which make for excellent leverage to sake bomb the night away.
Authentic Italian – Il Pastaio
A strip mall gem, you won’t find any better Italian than the FOB stuff here. Owned by a husband and wife duo, come for the pasta dinner (lunch is buffet-style), and order any shape noodle with the plain tomato-basil sauce. When done correctly, sometimes basic really is better.
Hole-in-the-Wall Asian – A Cup of Peace
A totally random tea shop with a few Korean specialties, this is one of my favorite hidden gem lunch spots. The organic bi-bim-bop is served over purplish seven grain rice, which truly allows you to embrace your inner Boulderite.
Splurge Meal – Flagstaff House
Craft Cocktails – Bitter Bar or Emmerson (their menu is a graphic novel)
A Fun Night Out – Bohemian Biergarten
Sandwiches – Half Fast
Trendsetter – Tanta
One of the coolest chef’s tables in town, Peruvian Tanta makes you wonder how Chicago gets such fresh fish being that it’s a landlocked state. Their ceviche is to die for, but the Pisco Sours aren’t anything to sneeze at either.
Authentic Korean BBQ – Cho Sun Oak
If you’ve never had Korean barbecue, take someone who knows what they’re doing because Cho Sun Oak doesn’t like to waste their time with newbies. Always packed with locals, they turn tables fast and frantically. This is some of the best bulgogi you’ll find anywhere and they do all the cooking for you, so you won’t have to stress about overcooking the meat.
Good for Groups – Gyu-Kaku
Great for groups, Gyu-Kaku is an interesting hibachi-Korean BBQ hybrid with the bonus of s’mores for dessert. You’ll delight in ordering packages like the “Meat Lover’s Special” and cooking up your own dishes on a tabletop flame. The green tea soju is especially thirst-quenching. Update: they finally opened a Denver outpost!
Taco Me Loco – Takito Kitchen
Wicker Park has a lot of taco competition, but Takito Kitchen does not disappoint. A bit more upscale than some of the grab-and-go spots like Big Star and Antique Taco, Takito differentiates itself on incredible service. Their spicy salsa sampler is always a crowd pleaser.
Pitas – Taste of Lebanon
Mexican Sandys – Cemitas Puebla
Fancy Mex – Topolobampo
Bucket List Dining – Next Restaurant
Best Brunch – Bongo Room
Chicago Staple – Portillo’s
Duck Dinner – Sun Wah BBQ
Top Chef Restaurant – Duck Duck Goat
Lox and Bagels – NYC Bagel Deli
Pho – Tank Noodle
Instagrammable Dish – Yuzu Chicago
Franchises (in Multiple States)
All Day Happy Hour – Postino
Healthy and Delicious – True Foods Kitchen
Legit Deep Dish – Patxi’s
Street Tacos – Torchy’s
I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot here, but feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.