Best Denver restaurants in the suburbs: Forget downtown, start driving to the suburbs for new food

When brothers Jason and Kris Wallenta opened their first restaurant, Dos Santos, in 2015, they knew exactly what they were looking for in a location: high-ceilings, exposed brick and metal, communal tables and a packed-in, bustling atmosphere.

They were looking for something urban.

Fast-forward seven years — two during the pandemic — and the brothers’ business model is starting to look a bit different. You’ll still find their taco shop, as well as their pizza parlor, White Pie, along 17th Avenue near downtown Denver. But you’ll also find both restaurants in Colorado Springs. And as of last month, you’ll find one restaurant opened and another on the way near the growing taco and pizza empire’s halfway point in Castle Rock.

“We’ve always had our eyes on underserved markets,” Kris Wallenta said. “Everyone’s always like, ‘Denver, Highlands, RiNo!’” But the city’s neighborhoods have become prohibitively expensive to operate in, he explained. They come with higher minimum wages and more competition for workers, real estate and customers.

Like other owners who have started their restaurants in Denver proper, the Wallentas see the suburbs as the next evolution in running a sustainable business. In the last few months, prolific Denver restaurateurs such as Jeff Osaka, Alex Seidel and Juan Padro have brought online or announced new locations of popular concepts from Lakewood to Broomfield and Westminster.

Sometimes it’s about knowing what a community wants and already supports, as is the case with Seidel continuing a long-standing pizza-making tradition at the Lakewood institution Front Room. Other times, it’s the hope that if you build it… Well, you know the rest.

“There’s definitely a little bit of risk involved,” Wallenta said of bringing Dos Santos to downtown Castle Rock. “We’re going away from what we feel like has been our core market of 20- to 35-year-olds to where there’s no 20-year-olds and everyone, for the most part, (is older).

Now, as he sees the generation above his usual clientele walking into the Castle Rock restaurant, Wallenta can’t help but wonder: “Are we their restaurant? Are we their vibe? They’re questions that we’re still defining,” he said. “I think there’s a challenge there that we have to be aware of.”

If you build it

Customers can pleasantly surprise you, though. For pastry chef Julien Renaut, a retail bakeshop was never in the cards for his wholesale La Belle French Bakery. But then the pandemic temporarily shuttered 80% of Renaut’s wholesale clients — primarily coffee shops — leaving the baker to sell directly to the public from a Thornton warehouse, and to hope that new customers would find him.

In March 2020, Renaut posted a video to Facebook explaining his business’ pivot, which included selling frozen French croissants, baguettes and cakes from a folding table set up at the entrance to his industrial kitchen.

“And people started showing up here to the warehouse,” he said, still in disbelief. “Months later, we were still selling, and I thought it was just going to be temporary. … We see the profit margin here. And if we duplicate that into a shop where it’s made to be retail, we thought, OK, then it’s going to work.”

Now, seeing the success of his ad-hoc bakery storefront in the northern suburb, Renaut is planning the opening of La Belle’s first full-service cafe and bakeshop on the other side of Denver, in Greenwood Village. Set to open by early summer in a former Starbucks at 8547 E. Arapahoe Rd., La Belle 2.0 will offer laminated pastries, sandwiches and salads along with a full coffee bar.

“Our criteria (for store locations) is that there’s a market where people expect and want to see us,” Renaut explained of the location. “Yes, downtown you find the best restaurants, guaranteed. There are very great bakeries as well. However in my opinion, downtown is dead. Who wants to go downtown?”

As office employees continue to work from home, Renaut thinks his current and future customers are getting more and more used to staying away from the city’s center, seeking comfort food plus quality service in their own neighborhoods and paying a reasonable price for it.

Convenience is king

Unlike Renaut, restaurateur Lydie Lovett started her fried chicken sandwich shop, Chicken Rebel, in bustling downtown-area breweries and food halls. She graduated to a brick-and-mortar store in Denver’s Highland a few months before the start of the pandemic. And just this month, Lovett opened her second restaurant in a Westminster shopping center, complete with a drive-thru window.

“People can eat anywhere, there’s so many options, but people come to local places because they want to support them and they want something different,” Lovett said of bringing her brand to a historically chain-focused retail district.

At around $10 each, Chicken Rebel’s towering sandwiches are premium price (and quality), and Lovett knows she’s competing with cheaper fast-food options. But she hopes customers will choose hers for its “human component” — customer service, attention to detail and a family-friendly dining experience, that also includes a bar for the parents.

“The way that our food is packaged and served, it really is quick-service,” Lovett said. “I’m also trying to create a dine-in vibe, but I realize that in the future, (Chicken Rebels) are going to be smaller spaces, maybe not in downtowns or hotspots, but I feel like we’d do better in neighboring communities where they have a need for what we offer.”

It’s a need that not only depends on Chicken Rebel’s customers. According to chefs and restaurateurs like Lovett, it has to start with land owners who recognize the value of small businesses, even if they might be more of a financial risk than their established chain counterparts.

“Our saving grace is that they are so hungry for something different,” Lovett said, “both the landlords and the customers.”

Try for yourself: Chicken Rebel Westminster is now open at 10448 Town Center Dr., Westminster, more at chickenhellyeah.com; La Belle is open in Thornton at 12189 Pennsylvania St. (ignore Google’s directions and turn on Pennsylvania), more at labellefrenchbakery.com; and Dos Santos is at 20 Wilcox St. in Castle Rock, more at dossantostacos.com.

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