Let’s make your next dinner reservation easy.
There are plenty of great chefs in Colorado, but the ones on this list are slashing expectations and cooking what they themselves want to eat, whether that’s whole-animal barbacoas cooked in an underground oven; comfort food that makes you do a double take to see if your grandmother’s in the kitchen; or playful snacks that make you never want to go back to classic bar food again.
So, if you’re looking for a chef-driven restaurant where the wizards behind the curtain are just as genuine as the food they put on the plate, look no further. Here are seven chefs to watch.
Caroline Glover of Annette Scratch to Table
Caroline Glover won a James Beard award for Best Chef in the Mountain Region in June, but the owner of Annette said her proudest moment in the past few years was when her team quickly pivoted during the pandemic and reopened as a takeout-only restaurant just a day after they were forced to close for on-site dining because of social-distancing restrictions.
Annette, which opened in the Stanley Marketplace in 2017, is known for its elevated, made-from-scratch comfort food, like chicken liver pâté and sardines with a baguette. Some of its most popular dishes are the grilled beef tongue with bone marrow toast, as well as the Annette burger, which Glover begrudgingly added to the menu after multiple requests. It features wagyu beef, chow chow sauce, roasted garlic aioli, cheddar and sour pickles on a homemade English muffin.
“My style of cooking is very simple,” Glover said. “I think food can be presented in all different types of ways, and the way I like to do it is keep the ingredients as minimally touched as possible and really rely on good product, salt and acid. A lot of it is instinctual for me, relying on what I grew up eating and what I learned working on farms.”
Glover, 36, studied at The Culinary Institute of America before working at The Spotted Pig in Manhattan for two years. After feeling burned out by the big city, she went to work on farms in Pennsylvania and Vermont.
Glover and her husband, Nelson, have been (and continue to be) part of the daily operations at Annette since day one, which she said helps her and her employees stay consistent with her original vision. Although she has her hands full with her first child on the way, Glover said she’d eventually like to open another Annette location or sister restaurant.
2501 Dallas St., #108, Aurora; annettescratchtotable.com
Ty Leon of Restaurant Olivia
Ty Leon’s motto is to never stop learning, so every year since he opened Restaurant Olivia in Denver in 2020, he has taken his staff overseas for inspiration and education. Two years ago, they visited Greece, and last year they went to France. In 2024, they’re headed to Tuscany.
“We never want anyone to get bored here,” Leon said. “I myself go to Italy two to three times a year, again to just learn and taste new food.”
Restaurant Olivia is a pasta restaurant, “not an Italian restaurant,” Leon said. He doesn’t want to be limited by what they can turn into pasta. For example, the chef de cuisine recently made butter chicken ravioli after a trip to London. Popular dishes include the French onion soup ravioli and the lobster spaghetti with black truffle.
Leon went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Denver before moving to California, where he worked at Michelin-star restaurant Plumed Horse in Saratoga. But he missed Colorado, so he moved back to Denver and helped Frank Bonanno open Mizuna, where he met his business partners Austin Carson and Heather Morrison. They then went on to open Bistro Georgette, a traditional French food stall, in Avanti, before moving on to Restaurant Olivia.
In between the two restaurants, Leon decided he wanted to learn from other chefs around the nation, so he spent six weeks staging at Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore., a month at Lilia in Brooklyn, and a month at Flour + Water in San Francisco.
“Like I said, I never want to stop learning as a restaurant owner,” Leon said.
Restaurant Olivia is now expanding into a space next door and will also begin selling homemade pasta. Eventually, Leon said he’d like to open an authentic pasta shop as well as a pizza and gelato concept.
290 S. Downing St., Denver; oliviadenver.com
Anna and Anthony Nguyen of Sap Sua
Anna and Anthony Nguyen are getting ready to open their first restaurant, but they’ve already made a name for themselves among local foodies, thanks to a series of pop-ups.
Sap Sua, which they plan to open on East Colfax Avenue next spring, is an ode to Anthony’s experience as a first-generation Vietnamese American. The menu will include family recipes with a twist, like his mother’s charred cabbage dish served over egg yolk sauce and seasoned with fish sauce and Thai chilis over rice, or a grilled pork shoulder steak.
“What we do is more a reflection of Anthony’s experience than his parents’,” Anna said. “If you’ve ever had traditional Vietnamese food cooked by a grandma, it’s so good, but I don’t know if we could do it justice, so what we’re really doing is food that feels nostalgic and hopefully strikes a chord with people, but it’s also very heavily influenced by our time in Los Angeles.”
The Nguyens met while attending culinary school in California (and got married at City Park, just two blocks from Sap Sua.) After working in Los Angeles for six years at award-winning restaurants Animal and Osteria Mozza, the Nguyens moved to Longmont, Anna’s hometown, at the start of the pandemic. That’s when they started working to open Sap Sua.
The Nguyens hope to mentor new chefs who join them at Sap Sua, much like other chefs mentored them at Animal and Osteria Mozza.
2550 E. Colfax Ave., Denver; sapsua.com
Lillian and Tim Lu of Noisette
At Noisette, every granular detail matters, from the chic and bright ambiance in the dining room to the meticulous sauce-making and precise baking technique employed in the kitchen.
That’s how things work when you spend four years dreaming about your perfect restaurant.
“We look at every little detail from the moment you’re on the sidewalk looking in,” Lillian said. “We want the whole experience to be one of beauty and delicious food, with the ambience and service just right. We work hard at not only decorating but also training our staff to make sure that the guest experience is the best we can offer.”
“We don’t compromise on ingredients, either,” Tim added.
Noisette, which opened in August, is a classic French restaurant and bakery that clearly reflects the skills the Lus learned at the French Culinary Institute (now called The International Culinary Center) in New York. The couple happened to be attending at the same time, but Tim went at night and Lillian went during the day. They eventually met while working at Ai Fiori in New York, and moved to Denver to be closer to family in 2018.
Tim handles the savory side of the business while Lillian is a wizard in the bakery. She said the most popular bakery item has been the ham and cheese croissant, which she makes with French Isigny butter, Parisian ham and Comté cheese. Her desserts are almost too lovely to eat, like the Tarte Tropezienne, a brioche bun topped with pearl sugar and filled with vanilla bean cream.
The ultimate test for a French restaurant is the duck, and Tim has nailed it. He serves a Magret de Canard, a classic French dish with duck breast, duck and foie jus and confit potato, Noisette’s most popular dish. And if you want to feel like you’re at a Parisian cafe, sample the escargot wrapped in potato choux pastry.
Eventually, the Lus would like to open a wine bar with a small menu. (Tim is in the process of getting his sommelier certification). And Lillian would like to get a commissary kitchen to wholesale her bakery items.
3254 Navajo St., Denver; noisettedenver.com
Anthony Lopiccolo of Goed Zuur
When he opened Goed Zuur in 2017, Anthony Lopiccolo assumed his customers would be more interested in beer than food.
Maybe the sour and wild ales, which Goed Zuur specializes in, brought those customers to the table, but Lopiccolo’s meat and cheese boards, as well as his sandwiches — like roast beef on a baguette with caramelized onion crème fraîche, gremolata, pickled horseradish, roasted peppers and Colorado cheddar — cut through the tangy pours and kept them coming back.
“Cooking is all highly emotional to me,” Lopiccolo said. “It’s not about being the best, but I feel not just a love for the food but a real love for the experience of going out and dining. Some of the best meals you ever have burn an image into your memory, even if it’s just some diner. Maybe it was someone who worked there or an event that reminds you of the place. I can’t even recount the number of Michelin-star restaurants I’ve eaten at, and I can’t tell you two things about what I ate.”
Lopiccolo closed down Goed Zuur for the month of October to expand the kitchen and focus on what people love the most about the restaurant: his passion for the food. Now, he’s offering a Chef’s Tasting Counter, a reservation-only experience Thursday through Saturday with an $85 five-course menu, including dishes reminiscent of Lopiccolo’s life, like his grandmother’s artichoke recipe that he ate as a child. There’s also a sour beer pairing and, on Sundays, stop by for some ramen and live jazz.
2801 Welton St., Denver; goedzuur.com
Bo Porytko of Misfit Snack Bar
Bo Porytko has never been shy to let people know who he is through his food.
So, Misfit Snack Bar is a fitting name for his playful concept within a concept. Misfit, located inside the Middleman bar, flips classic boozy fare on its head with a menu that rotates as often as Porytko gets bored (“which is a lot,” he said). There’s a blooming onion okonomiyaki, a shrimp scampi croquette with roasted garlic compound butter in the center, and a green chile lasagna. There’s also a classic burger that should be on everyone’s burger bucket list.
“I don’t take myself too seriously,” Porytko said. “I like to be playful and take chances with my food.”
Before starting Misfit in 2019, Porytko owned Rebel Restaurant, an eclectic RiNo spot with a rotating menu, with his longtime friend Dan Lasiy. But they closed up shop in 2018 when ongoing construction decimated the restaurant’s business, Porytko said.
Porytko will be paying homage to his Ukrainian heritage with a new restaurant, Molotov Kitschen + Cocktails, which should open on East Colfax in January. All four of his grandparents emigrated from Ukraine to the United States after World War II. Molotov’s menu will be based on traditional cuisine from Ukraine, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland and Georgia. He plans to serve an elk Sauerbraten, braised duck and sour cherry borscht, patychky (Ukrainian meat on a stick) and rabbit in a clay pot. There also will be a tasting counter.
“Dan, the previous co-owner of Rebel, and I are both Ukrainian, and we would use whole animals at our restaurant, which came from our upbringing with our Ukrainian grandparents,” Porytko said. “They’d feed us liver, blood sausages, kidneys and hearts when we were little, before we knew to be afraid of those things. Admittedly, at some age you get grossed out by it, but then it becomes nostalgic. So, I want a chance to get a taste of that nostalgia again.”
Misfit Snack Bar: 3401 E. Colfax Ave., Denver; misfitsnackbar.com; Molotov Kitschen and Cocktail: 3333 E. Colfax Ave., Denver; molotovdenver.com
La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal’s Chef Jose Avila
On Sunday mornings, you can find Jose Avila in a small parking lot behind the RISE Westwood building in southwest Denver, where he has built an underground oven to cook whole-animal barbacoas overnight.
The Sunday-only offering, known as El Borrego Negro (which means black sheep) opens up at 9 a.m. Avila said he usually sells out 30 minutes later with customers lining up around the block an hour before.
“After the James Beard nomination, things changed,” Avila said. “It got crazy, and now people bring their chairs and coffee to wait until we open. My brain is saying I need to make another oven and expand, but my heart doesn’t want to change the same humble feeling it has. I’m not doing it for money.”
The Mexico City native was nominated for the same James Beard award that Annette’s Caroline Glover received this year. His Ballpark restaurant, La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal, which he opened in 2021, was also named one of Bon Appétit’s 50 best new restaurants in 2022 .The Denver Post recognized it as the best new restaurant of 2021 as well.
Both El Borrego Negro and La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal are tributes to Avila’s childhood in Mexico, where his family ran food carts. La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal is his way to dive deeper into traditional Mexican fare with five different types of pozole that come with heaping portions of pork or chicken and are topped with fresh garnishes of lettuce, cabbage, chile salsas and radish and onions. He also serves street-style tacos and margaritas (go on a Wednesday to get both for $5).
“I love that it doesn’t matter how you look like or what you’re wearing, it just matters how I make you feel with something I create,” Avila said. “At the end of the day, food is the focus. Taco stands in Mexico City are on the street, but when you’re there and eating that food, it’s not about the nice place, which is what we want to do at La Diabla, and why we don’t even have a sign.”
El Borrego Negro: 3738 Morrison Road, Denver; La Diabla: 2233 Larimer St., Denver; ladiabladenver.com
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