Looking back on the Sopris Restaurant
January 4, 2016
Looking at it now, it's hard to believe the Sopris Restaurant was once a local cultural and culinary icon.
In an area with sky high property values, the broken down establishment stands out.
Clinging to the side of Highway 82 between Glenwood and Carbondale, the cracked and weedy parking lot belies a time when it would be full to bursting every weekend and holiday.
The building itself is gutted, boarded up and broken from numerous break ins, cursed with a final fading coat of ugly orange paint.
To newcomers, it's an eyesore. To many longtime locals, it's a sad reminder.
"I drive by it every day and almost never look at it without thinking of the great meals and people I met there," said Mark Gray, who played there every Tuesday with Walt Smith and friends.
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"It was a destination because of the food and the atmosphere," he added. "People today would probably think it tacky, but it was an elegant room. It reminded me of some of the best places in Chicago. Chef [Kurt] Wigger could turn basic food into something exquisite."
Kurt Wigger grew up in Lucerne, Switzerland, and learned to cook there. In 1961, the owner of the hotel where he worked offered to buy him a ticket to Aspen, where a friend was in charge of the famous Red Onion. He jumped at the opportunity.
"There wasn't a gourmet restaurant before that," Wigger said. "Today, American chefs can compete with any European chefs, but back then, in a small town like Aspen, we were it."
Wigger, now 74 and retired, keeps an autograph book full of movie stars, from Lucille Ball to John Wayne, and photos with a host of other dignitaries.
Elsbeth Wigger, now 79, arrived a couple years later. Hailing from Bern, Switzerland, she arrived in Glenwood Springs on the train and managed to hitch a ride to Aspen in the middle of the night. The next day, she met Kurt, who convinced her to accompany him to dinner.
After they married, they spent a year running a restaurant on Molokai before returning to Colorado.
In 1974, the Red Onion in Aspen decided to expand and purchased the almost brand new building along Highway 82 which briefly housed "Joe's Other Place". Kurt, now a partner with the help of Werner Kuster and Jim Perry, was put in charge. When the upvalley Red Onion sold four years later, he bought downvalley location and changed the name.
"In Switzerland, every restaurant is named after a mountain, so for me it was just normal to call it Sopris," he said.
The change gave him a chance to give things a more personal touch.
"I had more time to improve the menu," he said. "We greeted people. We took care of the locals, and that's what kept us going. People came to the Sopris not even needing a menu. They knew exactly when they left home what they were going to eat."
Elsbeth was right at the center of the action as the hostess.
"On a Friday night, when the door opened, you knew exactly who was going to walk in," she said.
With minimal competition for fine, romantic dining in the lower Roaring Fork Valley, folks came from several towns away.
"There was no other place with the atmosphere, food, and service we gave at the Sopris," Wigger said. "It was the best restaurant because we worked so hard at it. We were professionals. One guy cannot do it. You have to have a team."
Even as the towns on either side began to grow their own fine dining, the Sopris continued to see success.
"We never saw it drop off," Wigger recalled. "We needed more restaurants. Then people had a choice."
You would be hard pressed to get a reservation on prom night, much less New Year's Eve, when the place stayed open late for a champagne toast. Big companies booked their Christmas parties a year in advance. When they decided to bring in music, it became hard to find a table on Tuesday nights as well.
"It was marvelous. People loved it. It just seemed like we were full every time," Walt Smith said.
He credited Freddie "Schnikelfritz" Fisher setting up the gig, as well as convincing him to stick with music and stay in the area.
"I played there forever, I think," he said. "It was just a blast."
Mark Gray echoed the sentiment.
"Everything about the place left a huge impact on my life. It's one of the places that got me back into music," he said. "It's kind of a bygone era. There's places that have entertainment and good food. You can't replace the Sopris. People who didn't know it wouldn't know what they're missing."
After preparing millions of meals and witnessing several proposals and even one murder, Wigger began to think about hanging up his chef's hat.
In 2005, he sold the Sopris and concentrated on Buffalo Valley, before selling that in 2007. Neither replacement venture lasted long.
"We sold the Red Onion, they went broke. I sold the Sopris, it went broke. Buffalo Valley, too," Wigger observed. "Don't buy nothing from me."
The lot was later sold to Garfield County Commercial Investments LLC, and the building is slated to be removed. According to owner Ted Skokos, it will be offered to the local fire departments for practice.
The Wiggers, meanwhile, are enjoying their retirement. The couple of 51 years has two children and three grandchildren. Kurt makes a habit of cooking for Elsbeth a few times a week, and occasionally lends a hand at a special event.
"I came to this country with nothing, and it gave me the opportunity to have what I have today. It wasn't easy. It was hard work. But it was a good ride," he said. "It was a shock to quit. I don't miss the work, but I miss the people."