Chef Frank Bonanno has worked in restaurants in Denver since he interned at Rattlesnake Grill in 1995. That's where he met his wife, Jacqueline, who was the head server at Rattlesnake at the time. Now, Bonanno has eleven restaurants in the Mile High City.
"What I love about the food scene in Denver is how it has evolved," Bonanno says. "When I opened my first restaurant [Mizuna, in 2001] I don't think the food scene was nearly as great as it is now. I think that we pushed the envelope a little bit and showed that a young entrepreneur chef can open his own restaurant."
Bonanno is proud of chefs who have worked with him that have gone on to open their own restaurants across the country. "There's probably seven chefs that have worked for me in Mizuna that have now opened restaurants in Vail, Telluride, New York. That could be my legacy. I have mentored all these kids that have gone on to be successful business owners."
Although Bonanno has an empire in Denver, no two of his restaurants are the same. "I'm an idiot," he says. "I should have just been rolling out Osterias or opening another Bones, but that didn't appeal to me because it seems really boring to do the same concept twice. I love the challenge of opening a restaurant. I love standing at a slicer and slicing meat and making sandwiches. Figuring out the systems and how the kitchen should flow, that's what's been awesome for me." Salt & Grinder, a casual sandwich spot, is his latest.
Even in the midst of running in and out of his restaurants, Bonanno still makes time to dine out. Here are his favorite restaurants around Denver.
Burger: Bar none, Park Burger. Their burgers are awesome and their milkshakes are ridiculously good. I like the New Yorker, which has sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing. And I'll wash it down with a strawberry milkshake.
Italian: Barolo Grill has some of the best Italian food and one of the best wine lists in the city. They make homemade pasta, they have an unbelievable duck dish and their service is spot on. The duck is their signature dish, half a duck braised in balsamic and red wine. It's spectacular.
Take out: It's usually pizza, and we go to a local pizza place called Pizza Alley. It's a New York style pizzeria and reminds me of home. Big pies, the crust is a little thick and it's cheesy and greasy and their sauce is spot on. I like my sauces a little sweeter. I don't like a spicy tomato sauce on a pizza.
Mexican: We love El Taco De Mexico. Their chile relleno burrito smothered is the best thing on the planet. My kids love it even though it's a little spicy. I'll pick it up and bring it to the office and people are drooling. It's really great hearty Mexican food done really well. It's nothing fancy, no liquor license. They do lengua (beef tongue) and brain tacos, and their tacos are little tiny ones with two corn tortillas. The tacos are only like three bites. So I'll get a chile relleno burrito smothered with lengua and carne asada tacos on the side.
Sandwich: I like Curtis Park Deli. He worked with us for years and then opened up his own deli. Masterpiece Deli is good too. I'm a simple man. I just get roasted turkey, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, salt and pepper. Occasionally I'll indulge in a Reuben, but as you get older, your cardiologist tells you not to eat those. So that's a real indulgence. A Reuben at Masterpiece.
Specialty grocery: I like St. Kilian's Cheese Shop. It's three blocks from my house and they have a great cheese selection and dry imported Italian pastas. I can get a good jarred sauce, some produce and make a simple pasta at home.
New Restaurants: One of the best meals I've had in Denver in years was at Acorn. This was four months ago and I still remember everything we tried. We had shrimp and grits, black tagliatelle pasta...we were with two other people and we ate, like, the whole menu. It was so simple, well-executed and the servers were spectacular. I love that it wasn't tweezered food or over-thought. I have been back since and it always lives up to my expectations.
Late night: Taste of Philly on Broadway is on my way home at night. I will often stop and get a cheesesteak after I finish work at the restaurants. Then I go home and open a bottle of white Burgundy and eat a cheesesteak.
Japanese: Sushi Den. It's the best fish I've ever had. I've eaten sushi at Nobu and around the country and I think his sushi is on par with anything. Okay, I've eaten at Masa and that was a different level. But at this price point, it's the best in the country. He FedExes all his fish over from Japan. He gets all different kind of fatty tuna, belly. Any piece of fish I've ever had there has been great. I ask the chef what's great and order the specials.
Vietnamese: New Saigon. They do a stir-fried Dungeness crab that's out of this world. They have a whole fried fish that's awesome. And they serve tapioca drinks and my kids love those. I have been going there since 1999. I don't think they take reservations, so we usually go on Sundays at 5 p.m. and never have to wait.
Dessert: D Bar. It's really elegant, the desserts are somewhat whimsical and really well executed. It's somewhere my wife and I go after dinner. It's not fancy, but the desserts are composed and plated. [Note: D Bar is moving, check Twitter for updates.]