The first thing I do before visiting any city is look for great places to eat. The internet makes this easy-ish. There’s no shortage of online reviews in the world, but I’m more particular than the average diner, so I look for resources less democratic than sites like Yelp. Eater is one of the first I check, but since I started spending time in Denver, Amanda Faison’s 25 Best Restaurants list for 5280 magazine has been a favorite.
This year, the 5280 Best Restaurants list contains a fun mix of long-standing favorites, neighborhood gems, and of-the-moment surprises. I’ve eaten at 17 of them, most of those multiple times, and am eager to try the other eight. And I’ve been thinking lately about what my own list of best Denver restaurants might look like. I’ve never really tried to write about food, but I love a challenge and an adventure, and that’s what inspired me to come up with this plan: eat at all 25 restaurants on this year’s 5280 list, in order from 25 to 1, and document the whole undertaking here. There are no other rules, really, except to finish that 25th meal before the 2017 list is released.
I’m certainly no food critic, but I am pretty good at marketing—which is what this website is all about, anyway—so I’m going to focus at least a little of each post on how these restaurants share their stories with the world. (This will help allay my fear of running out of adjectives to describe food before I’m done with a fourth paragraph.)
One of my favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou: “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it.” So here goes.
25. Bistro Barbés
I love a show-stopping restaurant as much as any foodie, but if I had to name a favorite kind of restaurant, I’d pick the neighborhood bistro, a local spot geared toward folks within walking distance with outstanding food and service presented impeccably but humbly. Bistro Barbés fits this bill. I ate there first in 2014 with my sister, shortly after the spot debuted on the 5280 list at #13. (It was #19 in 2015.)
Bistro Barbés is on the end of an unassuming strip of businesses in a pink building in North Park Hill, on East 28th Avenue; there's a place called House of Hair next door and Fairfax Liquors on the corner. I’m guessing the restaurant gets relatively little foot traffic, and that many of their customers are from fairly nearby. The dining room is narrow and small, and the only reason the boyfriend and I got a table this past Friday night is because we showed up at 5:30 p.m. (We would’ve needed a reservation if we’d arrive much later.)
We had a delicious meal that began with escargot served atop squash bread pudding with a huckleberry vinaigrette. I don’t have much experience with escargot, but these were small and woodsy—a flavor the boyfriend described as green—and delightful compliments to the squash. Next we shared smoked salmon rillettes, a dish I’ve had many more times and one I lean toward when I see it on a menu. After two bites I declared us lucky, to be eating thoughtfully prepared and scrumptious food in a seat by the window of this small and lovely place. We could’ve been in Paris; that feeling is worth something.
Our next course was a brie and pear salad that heightened my appreciation of celery root, which we followed with a delicious beef bavette featuring small bites of a fig spaetzle I’d order all by itself right now if I could. By the time we were ordering dessert, the place was full, with people who’d come there on purpose, with a reservation, and I considered asking one of our servers what 7 p.m. on, say, a Wednesday, usually looks like. There are plenty of people in Denver interested in eating at a sophisticated French bistro with international influences, but there’s also a surfeit of good restaurants in this town right now, relative to its size, and I think often about how small places like this one find and maintain their audience. There’s another neighborhood gem in Park Hill called Tables, which opened in 2005, appeared on the inaugural 5280 list in 2010 at #9, dropped to #20 in 2011, and appeared just once since then, at #25, in 2014, the same year that restaurant underwent a notable expansion. I’d love to know how many people will visit Bistro Barbes this year because of its place on the 5280 list, and how many people will miss out on a wonderful meal at Tables because it is not.
Perhaps its small size and neighborhood feel are the reasons Bistro Barbes hasn’t done much apparent digital marketing. I couldn’t find a way to sign up for their mailing list, if they have one, and their Instagram and Twitter accounts have been dormant since 2014. Their Facebook page is quaint: it’s got 815 Likes and 39 reviews, nearly all of them glowing, but the posts are sporadic and much of the shared photos don’t do justice to the restaurant’s beautiful, and beautifully presented, food. This is not a criticism. I think there are several strong reasons to maintain an engaging presence online even if you’re not struggling to get people in the door, but there are plenty of small businesses that get by just fine without doing so.
Jon Robbins, the owner and executive chef of Bistro Barbes, just opened a high-end chocolate shop called Temper in RiNo’s brand new Central Market. And this Wednesday, Bistro Barbes is hosting a Nebbiolo wine dinner, $150 per person. This is entirely unscientific, but those two facts make me feel like Bistro Barbes has a shot at being around for a long time, regardless of whether it appears on next year’s 5280 Best Restaurants list, or whether they Instagram again any time soon.
Facebook: 816 Likes, 6 posts in the past 60 days
Insta: 16 posts, 250 followers, 167 following, no posts since June 2014
Twitter: 62 followers, no tweets since December 2014
Summary: Wonderful neighborhood restaurant, impeccable service, great spot for date night, not much online presence