As another piece of old Aspen counts down the days until it is but a bit of local lore - the stuff of memories and mementos - the faithful are flocking to its doors. Nightly dinner reservations at the Skiers Chalet Steak House these days aren't just about a melt-in-your-mouth steak in a warm, familiar setting. It's the last supper. Diners are toasting the end of an era. Many ate their first meal at the establishment with their parents or grandparents. Some are eating their last Skiers Chalet dinner with their children and grandchildren.
The venerable restaurant will close for good on an undetermined date in early April - when the food runs out, said Stephen Wright, who has run the business for three decades. The response from loyal customers in its waning days has been nothing short of unbelievable, he said.Diners have nearly exhausted Wright's supply of commemorative steakhouse wine glasses. Others want the photos off the walls or offer to buy one of the dining room's lacquered tables with the hinged drop leafs on each end. The signature hurricane lamps affixed to the walls, each whimsically placed within a picture frame, are also objects of desire for those anxious to take home a piece of the place. The furnishings, however, aren't Wright's to sell."I've always known the place was special for a lot of people," he said. "I knew the restaurant was important that way, but I never knew the depth of affection people had for the place."Locals and visitors alike have been making reservations to reminisce this ski season. There have even been a few tears."I've kept my composure ... well, I lost it at Christmas," Wright admitted, recalling the final Christmas dinner for one extended family that has traditionally gathered at the steakhouse for the holiday meal.
"Every night, there's somebody or a couple of tables telling me it's their last night, so we say our goodbyes," he said.Early this month, Aspenites Guy and Nancy Alciatore booked the entire place for 80 friends to mark the passing of the beloved restaurant. Guests wore vintage après-ski togs and shared steakhouse stories."People talked about how they would order a hamburger before they got on the lift and then come back to get it after a run," Nancy said."That was the place to eat," recalled Guy, who arrived in Aspen in the mid-1960s.
Like the ski resort itself, the Skiers Chalet was born of humble beginnings more than a half-century ago. Founder Howard Awrey bought an old miner's shack near the base of the original Lift One. It was already functioning as a lunch spot, immortalized in a photograph in the steakhouse dining room, serving food to skiers in an outdoor chow line (a burger was 25 cents). It burned down in early 1953, according to Wright.Awrey and his wife, Jean, bounced back with a new restaurant, the Skiers Cafe, in the same location, serving breakfast and lunch, and later, dinners. That original restaurant, with windows to order and pickup food facing the slope, and an impossibly small kitchen, remains part of the steakhouse today. The dining room was expanded, including a second floor that is no longer used on a nightly basis. The lodging was expanded as well, eventually including a second, separate building constructed in the 1960s on the opposite side of the lift line.Wright began working in the Awreys' restaurant at Thanksgiving 1973 and eventually took over its operation. By then, Jean was ill with cancer; she died in 1976, and Howard closed the lodge for a couple of years before a nephew helped get things running again, Howard told The Aspen Times in a 2001 interview.In 1975, Wright and Awrey settled on an arrangement that allowed Wright to run the restaurant for 30 years.
The steakhouse building now belongs to developer Greg Hills and his partners, who have plans to renovate the historic building as a condominium lodge. Wright was offered a chance to stay - he says the deal was attractive in some respects but not so much in others. After three decades, he's ready to step away."If the opportunity comes along, I may do another restaurant, I don't know," Wright said. "It just takes gumption and money."Hills also has an option to purchase the second Skiers Chalet building, but for now, Awrey still owns it and resides there. At age 86, he still strolls into town regularly, but lets others run the lodging operation, which continues to welcome guests.
Breakfast and lunch had long been abandoned by the time Wright took the restaurant's reins, but he reintroduced a lunch menu and offered both lunch and dinner until Ruthie's restaurant opened on the mountain in the winter of 1983-84. Then he concentrated on dinner, which allowed him to ski during the day.In its heyday, the Skiers Chalet occupied a prime spot at the base of the mountain. Lift One, long before the gondola was built on The Little Nell side of the ski area, was the hub of activity. But when the original lift was replaced by Lift 1A in 1971-72, the crowds no longer skied past the chalet. The bottom terminus of the new lift was farther up the hill."We started our long slide when they closed Chair One in '71," Wright said. "Business isn't nearly what it used to be."Old-timers remember when the restaurant was mobbed each night. A crowd lined up outside the door, waiting for a table."There was always a line that went out to the street," recalled Guy Alciatore. "They'd always have hot wine available for the poor slobs like me out in the street."
Today, no one just happens by the steakhouse. Located up steep and often icy South Aspen Street, it is off the beaten path to all but the loyal legions who tromp up the hill for a seat at their favorite table. If they're lucky, the table is in front of one of the dining room's twin fireplaces.With servers who've been working at the steakhouse longer than most Aspen restaurants have been in existence, regulars know they'll find a congenial atmosphere along with a distinctly unpretentious menu, matched by unpretentious prices. The $22 Skier's Special - a filet, hefty baked potato, salad and vegetables - is the kind of entree that has gained the steakhouse a following."It's the same steak that goes for $58.50 at ----," waiter Tony Petrocco confides to a table of diners, finishing the sentence with the name of one of Aspen's far pricier establishments.
In his 21st season at the steakhouse, Petrocco has done everything except cook."I recognize just about everybody who walks in the door," he said. " A stranger walks in there and you go 'how did you find the place?'"Our clientele is kind of strange. Ninety percent of the people who walk in the door have been there before - with their parents," Petrocco continued."On any given night, it's rare to have a customer who hasn't been here before," Wright agreed. "That's a double-edged sword because you have to have new customers."Mary Marston, now a server at the steakhouse, has worked a variety of jobs at the restaurant since she joined the staff in 1984. It's the only restaurant she'd drive all the way from Basalt for, she said.
"I love the Chalet. I'm going to miss it," added Marston, echoing the sentiments she's hearing from a lot of her customers these days.As for the work environment there: "You find something like the Chalet - that happens once in a lifetime," she said."It's old Aspen," said Petrocco, who plans to leave the valley after the restaurant closes."It's a shame," Alciatore sighed. "I think it's a loss for Aspen. I get very nostalgic when I go there. I'll miss it a lot."Janet Urquhart's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org