Denver's Culinary Trendsetters Weigh in on the City's Food Scene in 2015

A baker's half-dozen of Denver's brightest food and drink stars give Confluence Denver their local picks for sushi, suds and date-night splurges, as well as their most anticipated restaurant, brewery and bar openings for the year to come.
Over the past few years, Denver's food and drink scenes have grown exponentially. From breweries to ramen joints, 2015 has plenty in store for diners looking for something new. We asked some of the city's trendsetters and tastemakers about their take on the local scene, their favorite spots to nosh and imbibe, who they're watching and what they're excited for this year.

Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch are the duo behind four of Denver's most successful restaurants: Rioja, Bistro Vendome, Euclid Hall and Stoic & Genuine.

For a splurge, both Jasinski and Gruitch like to go out for foods they don't make in their own kitchens. Sushi Sasa is a favorite for both ladies. "Any time oysters and a raw bar are on the menu, you'll find me there," says Gruitch.

Many of Denver's up-and-coming chefs cut their chops in one of Jasinski's kitchens. So who is she watching now? "Jorel Pierce -- but since he works for me I will give you another one: Paul Reilly, Beast + Bottle."

As for new restaurants opening in 2015, Gruitch is anticipating Jeff Osaka's Osaka Ramen the most. "There are a lot of ramen restaurants opening and I really want them to blow my socks off," she says. "I think Osaka's place will be legit."

Brian Dunn opened Great Divide Brewing Company at 22nd and Arapahoe streets in 1994, long before either the concept or the area were trendy. Brian Dunn opened Great Divide Brewing at 22nd and Arapahoe streets in 1994.

One of Dunn's favorite new breweries in Denver is Mockery Brewing, which opened in RiNo last fall. He thinks new restaurants Biju's Little Curry Shop and Work & Class are both doing a great job. "I also think Los Chingones is really good," says Dunn.

Naturally, Dunn goes to all the new brewery openings in Denver. If he had to pick one 2015 opening that he was anticipating the most? "The new German one, Bierstadt Lagerhaus," says Dunn. "I'm looking forward to going there."

Dana Rodriguez, executive chef and co-owner of Work & Class in North Larimer, honed her skills at the restaurants of Jasinski and Gruitch, where Jasinski became Rodriguez's mentor. "She's the one that pushed me to learn more," says Rodriguez, whose career has paralleled the growth of Denver's dining scene.

Rodriguez thinks the positive collaboration among chefs and industry people here have a lot to do with Denver's food scene evolution and also sees the scene coming of age.  "I think at one point everyone was [going] in the same direction of fine dining," she notes, "and I think now everybody's going to turn a bit more to casual and simplicity and really good quality food." Rodriguez sees this emphasis on quality helping the larger Colorado economy -- when chefs support more local food producers and farmers, everyone benefits.

She knows from experience that the next up-and-coming chefs will be the ones who are the chefs de cuisine at the big restaurants now. Adam Branz, her former sous chef at Bistro Vendome, is one of her picks for a rising star.

When Rodriguez goes out for a meal in Denver, she enjoys Sushi Sasa, Tables and The Populist. Her guilty pleasure? "I love Lao Wang Noodle House on Federal. It's my favorite place, I go one or two times a month."  Rodriguez says she's going to be among the first in line for both Osaka Ramen and Sushi-Rama this year.

Eric Gutknecht, CEO and owner of Continental Sausage, is a Denver food producer committed to quality. Like Rodriguez, he thinks Denver's -- and Colorado's -- commitment to artisan products and local ingredients is one of the driving forces behind the recent surge in restaurant and bar openings.

When Gutknecht goes out for a splurge, he goes to Humboldt, Cholon or Lena, a Latin American restaurant that opened last year on South Broadway. "It's a must for a date," he says of Lena.

Troy Guard's growing restaurant empire includes TAG, TAG Burger Bar, Bubu, Los Chingones, Sugarmill and Guard & Grace.Troy Guard's growing restaurant empire includes TAG, TAG Burger Bar, Bubu, Los Chingones, Sugarmill and Guard & Grace. He thinks the local, independent aspect makes Denver's food and drink scene great. "I think it's an exciting place to be right now, Denver's really growing, the community of restaurant people is just amazing."

Guard's pick for a rising food star is Matt Vawter of Mercantile Dining & Provision. On his own team, Guard sees Tim Dotson, chef de cuisine at TAG, as someone to watch.

Though his six -- and counting -- restaurants keep Guard plenty busy, when he goes out to dinner, he enjoys Rioja, Acorn and Root Down. And if he's indulging a craving for a guilty pleasure, you can find Guard at Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza, Uncle or Da-Lat on Federal Boulevard.

When it comes to 2015 openings, Guard is another local culinary notable who's looking forward to Osaka Ramen, as well as Cho77 -- chef Lon Symensma's new restaurant with a menu inspired by Asian street food.

Guard is also anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get a drink at one of barkeep extraordinaire Sean Kenyon's new places, The Occidental in the Highlands and American Bonded in RiNo. "He's got great experience and he's fun," says Guard of Kenyon, the mind behind Williams & Graham. "I think he'll put together something really awesome."

And what does the man behind that much-anticipated ramen joint have to say about the Denver food scene in 2015? Jeff Osaka, formerly of twelve, will open Osaka Ramen in the North Larimer area in early April (a second Osaka Ramen will open in Cherry Creek in May) and Sushi-Rama, also in North Larimer, later this summer.Jeff Osaka, formerly of twelve, will open Osaka Ramen in the Ballpark area in early April.

Osaka also has Matt Vawter of Mercantile pegged as a rising star in the Denver culinary scene. It's no surprise that the 2015 restaurant opening Osaka is most psyched about himself is Cho77.

When he goes out in Denver, Osaka likes to hit up Mercantile, Beast + Bottle, ChoLon and Vesta Dipping Grill. "Vesta sometimes gets ignored a little because they've been around for such a long time, but I think they get better and better," he says.

For a guilty pleasure, Osaka heads out with his family for dim sum at Star Kitchen on Federal and, just a few doors away, the Vietnamese sandwiches at Ba Le.

Read more articles by Sarah Harvey.

Sarah Harvey is a Denver-based writer and editor. She is currently editor of the Denver VOICE.
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