When it comes to good food, Denver used to be a bit of a secret. In case you haven’t heard, Denver has become one of the country’s hot food scenes. It’s nearly impossible to list all of Denver’s finest, but here are some of who helped put Colorado on the culinary map. And, for the sake of fairness, these top Denver chefs are listed alphabetically, not by ranking.
Mizuna, Luca D’Italia, Osteria Marco,
Bones, Green Russell, Wednesday’s Pie, Lou’s Food Bar
711 Grant St
Denver, CO 80203
For executive chef Frank Bonanno, food is more than something on a plate; it’s a calling. Bonanno, who grew up in New Jersey, was inspired by big-city influences like New York and comfort foods prepared by his Sicilian grandmother. College bought him to Denver and Mel’s Bar and Grill opened doors for him to train at the French Laundry in California and Gramercy Tavern in New York. This set the standard for the start of Denver’s prized reputation as a food city. While Mizuna is Bonanno’s place to spotlight his French culinary skills, it’s Luca D’Italia and Osteria Marco (named after his oldest and youngest sons) that reveal his passion and upbringing on Italian food. The menu changes every few weeks, but the freshly-made pastas, antipasti and anything with seafood are always a good choice. The latest openings, Bones, Green Russell, Wednesday’s Pie and Lou’s, are food musings that don’t fit into the borders of Mizuna and Luca—Asian noodles, cocktails pies and comfort French cuisine—but all speak highly of Bonanno’s contribution to Denver’s love for fine food.
891 14th St
Denver, CO 80202
Chef Jensen Cummings makes great food, but even more so, he loves his work. And that is what comes through in his cooking. Jensen got his start here in Denver working for Kevin Taylor, where Taylor’s hands-off approach allowed Jensen to streamline his craft. Now that he is running the show at Row 14 with owner David Schneider, Cumming’s boyish charm and creative enthusiasm exudes from every dish. For instance, the sweet, spicy combination of housemade hoisin sauce and carrot puree with fork tender Niman Ranch pork cheek and fried quail egg is the best you’ll find for a humble cut of meat. Another touch that isn’t often seen is authenticity; this overused word has weight at Row 14. Row 14 makes its own sriracha, fermented black garlic and even smokes its own pastrami on cherry wood for a not-to-miss lunch sandwich. Schnieder and Cummings are also very committed to buying from as many local farms as possible and they even have the dirt to prove it. On the way to bathrooms are framed samples of the dirt from various sourced farms to remind staff and guests about where the food comes from. Now that is truly authentic.
Rioja, Bistro Vendome, Euclid Hall
1431 Larimer St
Denver, CO 80203
Early in her career, Wolfgang Puck in California mentored executive chef Jennifer Jasinski, but Denver won her heart. She was often here doing work for the Anschutz Center and in time, she decided to change her address. She was the Executive Chef at Panzano for several years and then Jasinski opened Rioja in 2004. She and her general manager, Beth Gruitch, purchased Bistro Vendome in 2006 and in 2010 opened Euclid Hall, a sausage and beer emporium. Rioja’s Mediterranean fare and Jasinski’s talent was recognized by James Beard in 2010 and 2012 for dishes like artichoke tortellini — goat cheese and artichoke mousse stuffed pasta with artichoke broth, truffle essence and queso de mano cheese. Jasinski’s menu changes weekly and daily depending on what ignites her culinary fire.
Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben’s
1822 Blake St
Denver, CO 80202
Denver-native executive chef Matt Selby made his mother proud when he turned his love of food into a career. Selby tells stories of cooking for his family as a teenager because his single, working mother needed the help. He could have gone anywhere to hone his craft, but this is home. Selby earned his tattoos at the Rattlesnake Grill and later joined Vesta Dipping Grill as its founding chef. Vesta Dipping Grill was one of the first restaurants in LoDo thanks to Vesta’s founder and brainchild Josh Wolken. And after these 15 years, it’s still thriving, a testament to the talent. Selby has a way of lifting flavors to their fullest at Vesta with grilled meats and seafood and hundreds of dipping sauces. At Steuben’s, Selby gets comfortable with upscale, diner fare. For something new, check out Steuben’s Picnics on the Patio, a communal table with family-style meals. In the near future, after your meal, you’ll be able to head next door to Ace, a new apothecary/ping pong-themed bar opening up under twin brothers Randy and Ryan Layman. Selby will be bringing is culinary skills to Ace, which will be offering its patrons an eclectic mix of Asian cuisine in an atmosphere reminiscent of a Chinatown apothecary. Selby is also Check Steuben’s Facebook for details.
ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro
1555 Blake St
Denver, CO 80202
Executive chef Lon Symensma has a resume that makes other chefs cry in their onions. Symensma has worked with culinary masters like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz, and sharpened his craft at New York’s Buddakan. But he chose Denver and we are lucky to have him. He opened his first venture, ChoLon, with long-time friends Jim Deters and Alicia Pokoik Deters. ChoLon has become a Denver culinary hang out for Asian-inspired small plates and inventive cocktails. The onion-soup dumplings with gruyere are insanely good and the Kaya toast with coconut jam and egg cloud is nothing short of heavenly. ChoLon is for sharing, so bring a group of friends who don’t mind passing plates.
Related: Denver’s Top Pancakes
909 17th St
Denver, CO 80202
Executive chef Elise Wiggins is loved as much for her work in the kitchen as outside the doors of Panzano. She is quick to offer her talents for Denver nonprofits and always has time to give back to the community. This southern Louisiana-born chef is flush with new ideas at Panzano. Just when you think you’ve tried everything Italian food has to offer, she springs a delightful new flavor on guests. One of the standouts is the carbonara piadina — house-cured pancetta and roasted tomatoes over flatbread with two smiling sunny-side-up eggs. The pastas are always a must. They change frequently on the menu, but the gnocchi dumplings are soft and rich and the tagliatelle is an Italian classic that is seldom done well in this country, except in Wiggins’ kitchen. The staff at Panzano is always gracious, kind and puts the guests ahead of anything else.
Kimberly Lord Stewart is a food author and journalist for CBS Denver local, Organic Food Reporter for Examiner.com, and the Food, Wine and Spirits editor for Denver Life magazine. Her book, “Eating Between the Lines” tells readers about the truth and myths of food labeling. Stewart is the recipient of two Association of Food Journalist awards for food news reporting and the Jessie Neal Business Journalism award. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.