Caroline Glover doesn’t necessarily consider Annette a fine-dining restaurant because of its bare wooden tables and laid-back atmosphere, but “I do think our style of hospitality is very geared towards fine dining whether or not you realize it while you’re sitting there,” she said.
Her customers and fellow restaurant industry folks — not to mention accolades, like the 2022 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mountain Region — definitely realize it.
“I absolutely consider Annette fine dining,” said Denise Mickelsen, a former food writer who now works for the Colorado Restaurant Association. “Colorado is known for being rather casual. Even our fine dining restaurants don’t need linens on the table to define themselves as fine dining.”
Ten or 15 years ago, fine dining in Denver was defined by white tablecloths, waiters in suits, a tableside Caesar salad. Steakhouses were top of mind when it came to special-occasion meals while long menus catered to every diner’s needs. These days, servers at Michelin-star restaurants, like Bruto, dress in T-shirts and aprons while they meticulously walk customers through the story of the ingredients on their plates – everything from the name of the boat captain who caught their fish to the pig who sniffed out a fresh-shaved truffle.
So, while there have been rumblings in the past few years that fine dining is dead, plenty of people are willing to spend $500 on a fancy dinner, even if the staff aren’t wearing suits.
“Fine dining is not a dying breed; it’s just evolving,” Glover said.
That evolution means customers don’t have to dress up. But it has changed the experience in other ways as well. For instance, all three of Denver’s new Michelin star winners — Bruto, the Wolf’s Tailor and Beckon — have tasting menus, meaning diners are served set courses that the chefs have chosen, often based on the season. The lure of fine dining also has become more approachable than luxurious, and elevated fare from other cultures and cuisines has entered the steakhouse-dominated scene.
“You don’t need a suit to impress,” said Bruto executive chef Michael Diaz de Leon. “White tablecloths aren’t necessary for you to have a really great experience at a restaurant. … If you think white tablecloths have value, you can find them at the French Laundrys of the world.”
What is fine dining?
Fine dining usually falls into a higher price bracket because the cost reflects the experience that a restaurant provides its customers, something that is a step above average.
“All your needs are met during the fine dining experience in a remarkable way, from the way you’re greeted at the door to the way you’re taken care of at your table,” Diaz de Leon said. “The servers are making sure you’re not missing anything and anticipating your needs before you even know them, on top of the spectacular cuisine and atmosphere.”
Ashley Farris, a local foodie and teacher, went out of her way earlier this year to visit the restaurants she anticipated would receive a Michelin star — even before they were announced in September. That included Bruto, where Farris and her husband sat at the 15-seat chef’s counter and indulged in the Mexican-inspired, seven-course tasting menu for $125 each.
“I cried eating my pasta dish,” Farris said. “I was completely overwhelmed by the experience of it. You sit there and watch them grilling and making everything in front of you at Bruto. They talk about every aspect from the grain they use to make the tortilla and where they source the lamb.”
The relationships restaurateurs and chefs foster with Colorado ranchers and farmers are clearly emphasized on seasonal, fine-dining menus. Many times, the restaurant will also emphasize the length it goes to reduce its environmental impact. In fact, that’s why Michelin has a sustainability category with its awards, which Bruto and The Wolf’s Tailor both won.
But chefs are also extending their reach, sourcing some ingredients — like fresh fish flown in daily or specialized herbs and spices — from the waters or countries of origin.
“In the last 10 years, the accessibility of interesting ingredients has dramatically increased,” said John Imbergamo, a veteran Denver restaurant consultant. “We can get anything from anywhere in the world in a couple of days, and that changes things. Chefs are more inspired by exotic ingredients, and Denver’s fine dining scene has improved because of that.”
Then there’s the service, which goes far beyond keeping a water glass full. Servers are expected to know every inch of the menu – from cooking techniques to ingredients to wine pairings — and some restaurants customize the experience to individual meals. For instance, Beckon, an 18-seat chef’s counter restaurant that opened in 2018 — sometimes researches customers beforehand.
“We’re interested in our guests’ expectations, so we want to know things, like if you’re in the restaurant industry,” said Allison Anderson, who has the title of Beckon’s director of experience. “If it’s your night off, and you’re coming to our restaurant, that’s a big deal for us and that person, so we want to make sure they’re recognized and have a great time.”
As for decor, there’s more of an emphasis on modern mood lighting, raw materials and sleek wooden tables to create a more approachable feel.
At least for most. Michelin-starred Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder still drapes its tables in those white tablecloths of old, but the cost to maintain the pristine linens is substantial, said Bobby Stuckey, co-founder of Frasca Hospitality Group.
“We literally have a team that comes in every day to iron all the linen before each turn of service,” Stuckey said about Frasca’s luxurious linens from Frette, a 160-year-old Italian textile company. “It feels good when you’re dressed up touching a nice, Frette linen, but it’s a commitment for sure. There are multiple costs before someone even sits down.”
Labor is more costly as well, as the staff, most of whom are restaurant professionals, needs to be trained in every aspect of the meal, from how to handle high-end glassware and silverware to the ingredients in the dishes. Fine dining is “the highest level of difficulty,” Stuckey said.
Michelin puts Denver on the map
Attention to Denver’s fine dining scene grew quickly under the heat of the Michelin spotlight and after the prestigious guide made its Colorado debut this year.
Michelin Stars – one, two or three – are awarded based on five criteria: the quality of the ingredients, the harmony of flavors, the mastery of techniques, the personality of the chef as expressed through the cuisine and consistency both across the entire menu and over time, according to Michelin.
“Michelin coming to town has made every chef want to up their game, whether they were recognized or not, and I think that’s the whole point of the Michelin effect,” Mickelsen said. “It charges everyone’s ambition, making even the best chefs want to be even better.”
Five Colorado restaurants earned single Michelin stars in 2023: The Wolf’s Tailor and Bruto – both owned by chef Kelly Whitaker’s Id Est Hospitality Group – Beckon, Frasca and Bosq in Aspen.
Outside of those five restaurants, though, metro Denver boasts a long list of varied fine-dining spots, according to Mickelsen, Imbergamo and other industry experts and chefs.
These include Tavernetta, Rioja, Annette and Barolo Grill (which still stands behind the white tablecloths), as well as Molotov Kitschen + Cocktails, Sap Sua, Fruition, Noisette and Restaurant Olivia. While French and Italian food stand tall on that list, adventurous eaters will also find other cuisines they might not have associated with fine dining in the past, like the Vietnamese food at Sap Sua and Ukrainian-inspired fare at Molotov.
Then there’s geography. In the past, these restaurants would have been mostly concentrated in certain epicenters of the city, like downtown or Cherry Creek. Now, they’re dispersed throughout town in neighborhoods like Whittier, Capitol Hill and Lower Highland, as well as the River North North Art District.
“It would have been a huge risk to put a fine dining restaurant anywhere other than where those concentrations were 10 years ago, but now people are taking those risks,” Imbergamo said. “That’s because there’s an increased interest in dining, so people like to seek out new spots, wherever they are. And rents are expensive in the urban core.”
A multi-course niche
One of the newest and most popular niches in modern fine dining are tasting menus and omakase-style meals (omakase means “leave it up to you” in Japanese). Michelin awarded three of its stars to tasting-only restaurants in Denver, and more chefs are beginning to show off their creativity by adding tasting options to their restaurants alongside typical a la carte menus.
“Denver’s growing up a little bit, and it seems like more people are curious and interested in trying experiences that might be outside of the norm for them,” said Beckon’s Anderson. “Or maybe they moved to Denver from somewhere where they’re more accustomed to higher-end dining experiences.”
Beckon was the first to open a modern tasting-only restaurant in Denver in November 2018. Chef Duncan Holmes runs the intimate, $175 experience, during which diners sample ever-changing seasonal dishes at a U-shaped walnut counter.
“The tasting menu model is so courageous and really an undertaking because it requires such dedication from a chef,” Anderson said. “What it takes to operate a fine dining restaurant is exhausting. It’s the creme de la creme of restaurants, and tasting menus are at the top of that because of what’s asked out of the chef.”
The Wolf’s Tailor opened in Sunnyside in September 2018 with a blend of Japanese, Chinese, and Italian fare before transitioning to a $160-per-person tasting menu with a rotating theme. Bruto followed closely behind, opening in downtown Denver’s Dairy Block in 2019.
Other upscale spots are experimenting with the idea as well. For instance, The Regular, a new downtown Denver restaurant, opened a private room for its tasting-only dining series, The Guest, this fall. The menus at Restaurant Olivia, Mizuna, Rioja and Frasca now offer multi-course tasting options in addition to their regular menus as well.
And of course, there are upscale sushi restaurants offering omakase-style meals, including Uchi, Kumoya, and Sushi Den. Other examples include Koko Ni’, from Paul Qui, which offers guests a 10-course, ticketed omakase dinner, and Hana Matsuri’s new Glendale location, where longtime Denver chef Duy Pham started his own omakase program in August.
Mike Benge, a 40-year-old foodie who has lived in Denver for 10 years, said he’s a fan of tasting menus, which he considers fine dining. “I enjoy going into somewhere knowing what the cuisine is but saying, ‘Cook the food you cook best for me,’” Benge said. “I don’t want to have to make a decision of this or that. I’ll eat whatever, so when I step into those restaurants I expect to learn more about the chef and the food itself.”
Long live fine dining
When Copenhagen’s Noma, which had held the title of the best restaurant in the world for several years, announced in January that it would close, fine dining’s current model was called into question internationally. After all, if a three-Michelin-star restaurant led by famed chef René Redzepi couldn’t make it with $800 tasting menus, who could?
Closer to home, experienced Denver restaurateur Jared Leonard told BusinessDen in March that he was closing his Washington Park French bistro, Au Feu Brasserie, because its fine-dining format wasn’t working. “The amount of time and food costs in fine dining, it’s just a format that’s kind of dying out,” he said. “It’s hard to do in the current economy.”
But the difficulty of getting a reservation at places like Bruto, Wolf’s Tailor, Restaurant Olivia and others, would seem to indicate that that is not the case.
“There’s still a whole segment of people who are looking for the innovation and the craftsmanship that’s evident in fine dining restaurants, and I think that will continue,” Imbergamo said.
Benge is proud to be one of those people. “I’ve really been impressed with Denver’s food scene. I think it’s really opening up here. The industry is supporting itself. There are a lot of opportunities for newer chefs, like pop-up events, to start their following, and it’s been tremendous in helping us, over the last 10 years, to go from two dozen to 50-plus good options.
“Michelin coming is going to grow it even more.”