This excerpt is from an article originally published November 8, 2017 by the Westword Staff.

Denver’s culinary culture can be traced from Colorado’s frontier days, when wild game hunters put food on the table and herds of cattle passed through on the Goodnight-Loving Trail; through the oil boom that brought big money — and big appetites — to the state; and on into the current boom fueled by people from all over the United States coming here for sunshine, outdoor recreation (maybe a little indoor recreation, too), friendly neighbors and, yes, good food.

Thanks to Mexican settlers who were cooking here long before state boundaries were drawn, the flavors of the Southwest also permeate Colorado cuisine (you can thank their descendants for our unique Den-Mex green chile and wonton rellenos), and more recent immigrants brought their own regional Mexican styles and traditions. Italians, too, played a part in building Denver as we know it today, especially on the “Northside,” where red-sauce joints were once more common than fast-food outlets are now.

And while we’re far from the “sea-washed, sunset gates” of the East and West coasts, where new arrivals from other continents have typically landed, Denver has seen its own waves of newcomers yearning to breathe free, many of them refugees from Vietnam, Ethiopia, Syria and other points on the globe; they’ve all added their own seasoning to the city’s surprisingly diverse dining scene.

The result is a cornucopia of old-school steakhouses; divey neighborhood joints that serve big menus of Italian, Greek, Mexican and American fare (sometimes all in the same place); staid and storied destination dining rooms; and pockets of ethnic eateries that keep suburban strip malls vibrant with the aromas of unfamiliar spices. The city is also full of the fast-casual counters that Denver has spawned in larger numbers and with more success than any other town, as well as the head-spinning array of new and hip spots bringing in the national trends — and often creating trends of their own that have rippled out to the rest of the country. With so much going on — from Golden to Aurora, from Boulder to Parker, and from quiet neighborhood enclaves to booming, cleverly named new zones clogged with traffic and construction dust — there’s more than any single hungry person can sort through in a day to determine what’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

And so we’re setting the table with Eat Here, our compilation of the 100 restaurants that we can’t live without, places that define Denver’s dining scene. Price and privilege weren’t considerations in coming up with our list; we’ve included some of the city’s cheapest eats alongside some of its poshest. We focused on homegrown restaurants, rather than chains that opened Denver outlets. What mattered most was good food, though an eatery’s historical significance and intangible appeal also factored in — because sometimes we simply love reminders of where we came from as well as where we’re going.

We’ve only included places that opened before this year and can provide a full-on meal (so ice cream parlors and sweet shops, for example, weren’t considered). We also held off on including watering holes; we’ll pour out our list of bars we can’t live without in Drink Here, coming in early 2018. But otherwise, we just went with our hearts and bellies, thinking about what we’d miss if it disappeared, wondering what Denver would be like if a certain restaurant had never existed and, above all, remembering what wakes us up in the middle of the night with undeniable cravings.

So read up and then eat up: Here are 100 restaurants for you to discover — or to return to again and again.

Masterpiece Delicatessen

Before chef Justin Brunson opened his own fine-dining restaurant, Old Major, he was learning the ropes at places like Zengo, Luca and Fruition. But he had an idea about sandwiches, and so began peddling deli-style offerings out of the Lancer Lounge just around the corner from Luca; that endeavor eventually led to him opening Masterpiece Delicatessen in LoHi with partner Steve Allee. The fine-dining magic still sparkles through the bread, in truffled egg salad, in a twelve-hour braised brisket with red-wine gastrique and Taleggio fondue, and in a breakfast sandwich loaded with wild mushrooms. Masterpiece Deli has evolved over the years, adding a liquor license, a little more space and a wider range of hot and cold options. But the basics that Brunson and Allee started with are still there, making lunch-goers happy for the past nine years.

1575 Central Street
(303) 561-3354

Old Major

Pork was trendy and bacon sizzled everywhere when chef Justin Brunson opened Old Major in the up-and-coming LoHi neighborhood in 2013. But Brunson went beyond bacon, instituting a cured-meats program that followed difficult and time-consuming old-world methods. And while meat still stars on the plates — especially the continuously evolving Nose to Tail entree — served in the rough-hewn dining room that reflects the chef’s personality, respect is also given to seasonal produce and foraged ingredients. Old Major is named for a famous swine from the American literary canon, but the menu transcends pork with enough variety to make the restaurant a Denver classic.

3316 Tejon Street
(720) 420-0622
oldmajordenver.com