Eat like a Denver local

Unsung restaurants are loved by Denver residents and restaurateurs

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We recently stopped by Washington Park, City Park, and Civic Center Eats to ask visitors about their favorite hole-in-the-wall and local restaurants. Rather than ask for suggestions on famous restaurants, we asked for their favorite unsung restaurants. Whether it’s a place down the block, or a one-of-a-kind concept across the city, locals appreciated the staples that have served new and longtime Denverites. 

In these interviews with locals, we realized it was often the experience at these local restaurants that kept them coming back. While good food may have drawn them through the door, it was the relationships they developed with owners, chefs and staff that kept them coming back time and time again.

When talking about local restaurants, it’s hard to forget the local restaurateurs who create them. With their insight into the industry, and years of experience, we wondered about their favorite places to eat. The restaurateurs listed below have each contributed to the Denver food scene in new and unique ways — and have found their own unsung spots that treat them like locals.

Locals

Randy Crupper has lived in and out of Washington Park since he was a teenager. Crupper shared that he appreciates the uniqueness of local places in contrast to the experience of eating at large chains. Crupper mentioned both The Washington Park Grille and Reivers Bar and Grill as some of his favorites. 

Reivers Bar and Grill has been located on South Gaylord Street since it opened in 1977. It is known for serving dinner and drinks in the restaurant’s homey interior and lively outside patio.

“I’ve been hanging out there since I was a teenager,” Crupper said of the Washington Park Grille. Crupper shared that he often enjoys a beer at the bar while he waits for his takeout. The Grille is one of Washington Park’s staples known for being an Italian grill with a contemporary American twist.

“The homey kind of places never get old,” Crupper said.

At Civic Center Eats, a large gathering of food trucks downtown in the center of Civic Center Park, Diane Herron, a Westminster resident, shared her favorite spot to eat when she’s in the city. Proto’s Pizza, a locally owned restaurant chain with locations in and outside of Denver. Herron specifically likes the location on 15th street in the Lower Highlands neighborhood. 

“It’s different and fun and friendly,” Herron said. Herron shared that Proto’s Pizza, in addition to other local restaurants, help local neighborhoods and adds to their unique charm. “They’re locals. It helps the community, it helps the economy.”

While waiting for her friend at Civic Center Eats, Madyson Schmida, a resident of the Speer neighborhood, shared her favorite restaurants for an authentic dining experience. Schmida has been exploring the Denver food scene with friends through monthly dinners at a new local restaurant each month. 

“I like authenticity. I like things that are more unique and original,” Schmida said.

El Taco De Mexico, located in the Santa Fe Arts District and one of Schmids go-to local spots, has been serving authentic Mexican food since it opened in 1985. 

Additionally, Schmida mentioned the Candlelight Tavern, a neighborhood tavern that offers food, bar games and an open-arm attitude from their staff and regulars. “They have a really great cheeseburger basket. It’s one of my favorites,” Schmida said. 

At Civic Center Eats, Roger Letzig of Aurora and Jon Knepp of Arvada shared their favorite spots that they always go to when they are downtown for work. When eating in Denver, they said they look for restaurants that offer variety.

“Otherwise you just get stuck in a rut,” Letzig said. 

One of the spots they like to visit is D’Corazon,a locally owned restaurant on Blake Street in the Lower Downtown neighborhood. The traditional Mexican restaurant is known for its traditional cuisine in a modern updated locale. With the restaurant’s tagline reading “Best Mexican food in LoDo… Period,” it’s clear that D’Corazon means business. 

“It’s just an amazing place for carnitas,” Knepp said of D’Corazon.

Five on Black, a Brazilian grill, has become one of Letzig’s favorites. Just as Letzig looks for variety, Five on Black delivers with a menu that aims to serve something new in healthy and tasty ways. 

“You’re dealing with somebody who lives in the same place that you do,” Letzig added. Restaurateurs living in Denver have created restaurant experiences and food that caters to the palettes of their customers. These local restaurants know “what it means to be a Denverite.” 

Restaurateurs

“You can expect to see the same friendly faces cooking and serving your food on every visit,” Josh Wolkon said of Curtis Park’s La Pasadita Inn. Located in central Denver, where Uptown meets Five Points, La Pasadita Inn was described by Wolkon as “hidden in plain sight.”

For Wolkon, the top-notch fajitas were the reason he first stepped into the restaurant, and the burritos, green chile and salsa have always kept him coming back.

“A great and authentic Uptown family-owned Mexican spot,” Wolkon said.

As the owner of Secret Sauce Food & Beverage — which includes Ace, Vesta, Steuben’s Uptown and Steuben’s Arvada Wolkons is familiar with the Denver food scene. As a veteran of the scene, opening his first restaurant when he was 25, Wolkon knows what makes local restaurants different from chains.

“Neighborhood restaurants become more than just a restaurant. They engrain themselves in the fabric of the community,” Wolkon said, adding that local restaurants and their staff have a genuine approach and passion for what they do. “You can usually count on your neighborhood joint to be open during a snowstorm or have a bartender work as a personal therapist to the community.”

Some of Wolkon’s other favorites include Domo, Melita’s, and Guido’s Pizza.

Andrea Frizzi is owner and chef of Il Posto, Vero Boulder and Vero located inside Denver Central Market.

“There are two restaurants that I love the most in this city – Sushi Sasa and Table Six,” Frizzi said.

“For Sushi Sasa, I feel like the sushi counter is my own little hole in the wall,” Frizzi said. He describes the dining experience at Sushi Sasa as intimate and friendly. His favorites are the Monkfish Liver and the Salmon Tartare roll. “I’ve made friends with the owners and employees, and they’ve become like family to me.”

Another of Frizzi’s favorites is Table Six, known for American comfort food in the Congress Park neighborhood.

“The duck there is one of my favorite dishes, and also they execute their pasta dishes so well – and you know I’m a tough judge when it comes to pasta,” Frizzi said.

Additionally, Frizzi shared that Table Six feels like the American version of his restaurant in the River North neighborhood, Il Posto. This has made it feel a little homier every time he goes.

“My culinary style is all about the complicated simplicity of food, wine and life,” Frizzi said.

Jeff Osaka is owner and chef of Osaka Ramen, Sushi-Rama, 12@Madison and the newly reopened Empire Restaurant & Lounge in Louisville.

“My family and I love to go to Superstar,” Osaka said. Superstar is located in Athmar Park, a local restaurant serving Asian cuisine.

Osaka praised Superstar for its extensive menu and consistency.

“They’re great for Dim Sum or when we usually go, for Sunday dinner … and anything we order is very tasty and consistent,” Osaka said.

Osaka’s restaurants focus on family-friendly dining experiences with the four locations of Sushi-Rama, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, being the favorite of parents and children alike. Osaka Ramen is his take on a traditional ramen shop with heavy influences from the Japanese comfort food he grew up eating. Dishes like “My Wife’s Donuts” and others on the menu are a nod to his family members.

Osaka’s 12@Madiosn restaurant, located in the Congress Park neighborhood, offers diners a changing monthly menu and globally inspired cuisine.

“12@Madison is a take on an earlier concept that used to be in the Ballpark Neighborhood, Twelve Restaurant … When we moved to the Congress Park Neighborhood, we took the same approach with food but now offer it in a small plate format,” Osaka said of his restaurant. “This gives you the ability to sample more things, and literally taste your way around the world!”

Frank Bonanno is the chef behind Bonanno Concepts, which includes Denver Milk Market, Vesper Lounge, Luca and Mizuna. Bonanno is also the host of Rocky mountain PBS’s Chef Driven, a local program offering a glimpse into the culinary world.

For Bonanno, there are many hole-in-the-wall spots that he loves in Denver.

“I would say for my Mexican fix, El Taco de México, that is my go-to place,” Bonanno said, adding that the restaurant used to serve out of a trailer. It now has a brick-and-mortar location that seats about 20 people. “I’ll go get 12 smothered chile rellenos burritos.”

Additionally, Bonanno mentioned Mr. Luckys, a sandwich shop, known for its gourmet sub sandwiches, and Don’s Lounge, for drinks after work. As a longtime restaurateur of the Denver area, Bonanno said local restaurants serve good food and a better atmosphere.

“I would say in Denver, New Saigon…It’s a real hole in the wall,” Bonanno said. “Their Vietnamese food is some of the best that I’ve ever had. Not a lot of people seem to know about it or go to it — if you blink you’ll miss it when you drive by.”

With Bonanno’s insight into the food scene, we asked what local restaurants mean to him.

“I think Mr. Luckys and Don’s, they are where we work so it’s super easy to get to and I really believe that’s the way that dining is going,” he said. “It’s really all about neighborhoods.”

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